One-Size-Fits-All Eating Plans Don't Work—Learn to Personalize Your Plate

A variety of food options

 Nattaya Chanvithee/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • March is National Nutrition Month, and this year’s theme is about choosing the right eating plan to match your individual needs, since there’s no one-size-fits-all plan that works for everyone.
  • Dietitians help clients’ build healthy eating plans that fit their personal needs and preferences.
  • Access to dietitians is available at every budget.

It's common to see a new diet book or social media post that claims to have all the answers to cure your medical concerns, no matter what they are.

Fad diets and their celebrity endorsers make sweeping claims about helping you cure diseases, lose weight, or reverse the signs of aging. And of course, their plan is right for everyone.

The truth is that there is no singular eating plan that works for every person. We are all different, and the food and drinks we choose must match our personal needs.

March is National Nutrition Month, and for this year’s celebration, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics encourages everyone to embrace their individuality and create healthful eating patterns with the foods they love.

This year’s theme is Personalize Your Plate, and it inspires Americans to create nutritious meals to meet their cultural and personal food preferences.

“Personalize Your Plate is so important for Americans to understand because when it comes to food and nutrition, it is not one-size-fits-all,” says Caroline Passerrello, a dietitian in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

She explains to Verywell Fit that there are many factors that impact the foods we can access and eat, which makes it important for everyone to understand our plates will look different from one another—and that doesn’t mean one is better than another.

Lauren T. Bath, RDN, CPT

Working with clients to personalize their plates not only encompasses what foods they enjoy and are willing to eat, but also includes what can comfortably fit in their budget and realistically within their lifestyle.

— Lauren T. Bath, RDN, CPT

How Do Dietitians Help?

“Dietary advice needs to be individualized, and a registered dietitian nutritionist can help you create a plan just for you and your needs,” says Passerrello.

A dietitian’s goal is to help you feel your best. Some dietitians work with particular ages and stages, such as in pediatrics, pregnancy, or with older adults, to promote wellness and help prevent illness.

Dietitians can work in hospitals, home care, grocery stores or rehab settings and help people with cancer, stroke, digestive health issues, eating disorders, Type 2 diabetes, and many other conditions.

As you can imagine, the specific needs of each client will vary greatly—and that’s the point of personalizing each eating plan to meet specific needs.

Verywell Fit reached out to dietitians across the country to find out how they help clients create personalized plans based on listening to their clients’ individual needs. We spoke to:

  • Lauren T. Bath, a grocery store dietitian in Sandyston, New Jersey
  • Leslie Bonci, a private practice dietitian at Active Eating Advice, and dietitian to the Kansas City Chiefs in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Katie Dodd, a home care dietitian for seniors and blogger at The Geriatric Dietitian in Medford, Oregon
  • Tejal Pathak, a clinical dietitian practitioner and diabetes educator in Houston, Texas
  • Vandana Sheth, a dietitian specializing in diabetes and plant-based eating in Torrance, California, and author of My Indian Table: Quick & Tasty Vegetarian Recipes

Caroline Passarrello, MS, RDN, LDN

Dietary advice needs to be individualized and a registered dietitian nutritionist can help you create a plan just for you and your needs.

— Caroline Passarrello, MS, RDN, LDN

Every Plate Is Unique

USDA introduced MyPlate to help with basic meal building. The plan includes filling half the plate with vegetables and fruit, a quarter with protein and a quarter with grains. Dairy is recommend as the beverage of choice.

This very general MyPlate concept is meant for all Americans—but doesn't meet everyone's individual needs. Dietitians help customize this design, even if your plate looks different (perhaps you can’t tolerate dairy or don’t love grains).

We asked the dietitians what they focus on when they help clients personalize their plate. There’s a lot to take into account, including:

  • Medical needs
  • Food likes and dislikes
  • Food culture
  • Religious requirements
  • Food traditions
  • Access to food
  • Food budget
  • Culinary skills
  • Family history and genetics
  • Physical activity needs
  • Age and life stage
  • Support systems

Bath says that working with different clients of varying ages and lifestyles always reminds her of the importance of making individual recommendations instead of providing cookie-cutter advice.

“Working with clients to personalize their plates not only encompasses what foods they enjoy and are willing to eat, but also includes what can comfortably fit in their budget and realistically within their lifestyle,” says Bath.

Dodd has worked with seniors for over 12 years in home care. She focuses on stopping unintended weight loss and malnutrition through high calorie diets, and explains that a lot of her focus in geriatrics revolves around liberalizing diets and emphasizing quality of life.

The plate that Dodd helps plan for a vibrant senior may look different than what one of Bonci’s athletes eats, or what's on the plate for Pathak’s client with Type 2 diabetes.

Pathak says she presents science to help her clients understand that what works for their neighbor, friend, or on social media groups will not necessarily work for them.

Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDCES, FAND

I love helping my clients savor food without fear, get off the roller coaster of on-and-off 'diets,' and feel confident in their food decisions and their body.

— Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDCES, FAND

Reduce Fear and Increase Joy

Sheth says her goal with clients is to help them build a healthy relationship with food. She also focuses on food traditions, culture, and lifestyle.

“I love helping my clients savor food without fear, get off the roller coaster of on-and-off 'diets,' and feel confident in their food decisions and their body,” says Sheth. “Personalizing a plate means incorporating my clients food preferences/culture to their plates for health promotion and optimal nutrition.”

She says her Indian American clients are thrilled when she is able to show them how they can enjoy their traditional meals such as roti and chana masala while still managing their blood sugar balance for Type 2 diabetes.

Making Dietetics Accessible

For some, paying a dietitian out of pocket is not an option. If you don’t have health insurance, there are many free services available to help you learn more about your nutritional needs and plan your plate.

“Many grocery store chains have complimentary in-store retail dietitians or regional dietitians that are available for nutrition consultations,” says Bath.

Many food pantries have nutrition professionals on staff and provide services free of charge, adds Passarrello.

Bonci says that she sees clients on a sliding pay scale if necessary. “Not everyone comes from a point of have, and that does not mean they should be denied service,” says Bonci. “I do not turn people away.”

Others may see a dietitian via community health settings or through USDA Food Assistance Programs

“If you qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Program or WIC, you can meet routinely with a nutrition professional and receive supplemental foods for you and your children,” says Passarrello.

If You Have Health Insurance

For those with health insurance, many dietitians are set up for that method of payment.

Passarrello says you can call your insurance provider and inquire about your coverage for medical nutrition therapy or preventive wellness options. They can tell you which dietitians in the area are in-network and what fees you may expect.

You can also contact a dietitian in your area and inquire about their fees, ask if they have a sliding scale payment policy, and check to see if they accept your insurance.

Pathak says that you may not get reimbursement for nutrition services if the provider is not credentialed, so make sure you check to ensure they are registered as a dietitian.

What to Expect

When you work with a dietitian, they are your partner in wellness. They will listen to your needs and help you find the right eating plan so you:

  • Include a wide variety of foods to get a range of nutrients each day.
  • Learn to hydrate healthfully.
  • Are comfortable and confident in your food choices.
  • Learn to enjoy your food and eat according to hunger cues.
  • Meet the needs for health conditions while enjoying your food.
  • Choose foods that you enjoy to eat.
  • Enjoy new flavors and experiment.

What This Means For You

Whether you have a medical condition to focus on or just want to learn more about nutrition for overall wellness, there’s a personalized plate that’s right for you. Skip the one-size-fits-all advice and figure out what works best for you. Dietitians can help, no matter your budget.  

By Cara Rosenbloom, RD
 Cara Rosenbloom RD is a dietitian, journalist, book author, and the founder of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company in Toronto, ON.