Three women discovered they shared the same goal: to lose 20 pounds and keep it off. Here’s how they developed their own weight-loss program to slim down—and how you can too.

Three women discovered they shared the same goal: to lose 20 pounds and keep it off. Here's how they developed their own weight-loss program to slim down-and how you can too. How to lose weight with a diet meal plan

One afternoon, just as Judy Lester was headed out of town with her family, her neighbor Nancy Roscigno called to say that her dinner was ready. "At the end of the driveway, Nancy handed me a delectable chicken dish through the car window," says Judy. "It was hot, beautifully prepared and such a treat to be able to eat that instead of fast food on the road." Was this some sort of Southern hospitality taken to the extreme? Not exactly. While Judy, Nancy and Julie Slocum know a thing or two about being thoughtful neighbors, this particular meal exchange happened for entirely different reasons.

The three women, all mothers-of-two who live in a wooded neighborhood in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, have been cooking for each other since 2010 as part of their self-designed "diet dinner club." Together, over six months, they met their weight-loss goals-and have since continued working together to keep the weight off.

An Idea Is Hatched.

It all started one morning back in 2001 at the school bus stop, where Nancy, now 47, ran into her next-door neighbor Judy, now 56. "We were outside anyway and we thought why don't we start walking together after the kids go to school?" says Judy. They began walking a three-mile route around the neighborhood, and often saw their neighbor Julie, now 45, out walking her dog, so she joined them.

In 2010, nine years into their walking routine, they started talking about weight, and each confessed that she wasn't happy with her numbers on the scale. "I felt like I'd been gaining and losing the same 15 pounds for years," says Julie. Like many moms, she struggled to make food that was family-friendly but would also help her reach the goal weight that had eluded her since having kids. "I found myself snacking on the Goldfish crackers or treats that I gave my kids." Judy, a lifelong athlete, had recently returned to work as a hospital dietitian and no longer had time to keep up her workout routine. Her weight started to creep up for the first time in her life. And Nancy wanted to set a good example for her family: "I felt a huge responsibility to provide good choices and be the healthy role model that I wanted to be for my kids," she says.

To help her shed that unwanted weight, Julie started researching meal-delivery programs: "The idea of ready-to-go, pre­portioned meals appealed to me," she says. But the cost and the potential that delivery dinners could be loaded with processed ingredients or not very tasty was a concern. And then-lightbulb moment-the women had an idea: what if, instead of paying for ready-made food from a company, they prepared healthy dinners for each other?

All three women love to cook. Judy's work as a dietitian for the University of North Carolina hospital system included developing recipes for heart patients. Julie volunteered at the cooking school at Southern Season, a local gourmet-foods store. Nancy grew up in a large Italian-American family, had been cooking since she was a kid and loved trying new recipes.

Over the next few days, the idea took shape. It wasn't long before they'd established a meal plan for Monday through Friday dinners for the next two weeks. They also set a goal: for six months, they'd plan and prepare healthy dinners for each other, and in the process, aim to each lose 20 pounds. Here's how they did it.

The Diet Club Plan.

Judy was a longtime subscriber to EatingWell and had almost every issue going back to 2002. She hauled out her stacks of back issues and the three women began flipping through the magazines and compiling lists of recipes that sounded appealing. "I realized that this could be an opportunity to finally try all of the recipes I'd been marking over the years," Judy says. In addition to a weekly dinner plan, the group devised a plan to move forward. These guidelines, they say, helped them stay on track.

All three women are about the same (petite) size, so to lose weight healthfully they needed to eat about 1,200 calories a day: 300 calories at breakfast and lunch, two 100-calorie snacks (one morning, one afternoon) and a 400-calorie dinner. For breakfast, lunch and snacks, they made their own individual choices, though they often cooked big batches of soup to share for lunch and traded meal ideas, like crock pot oatmeal, which became a breakfast favorite. "We were so committed to sticking to our 400-calorie dinner rule that when we made something like a casserole, we'd actually line a ruler up against the baking dish to make sure that we cut the correct portions," says Judy.

They carefully planned each dinner together and one of them emailed out the schedule after their biweekly meeting. Dinners had to be delivered in portioned packages by 6:00 each evening. Each week, two women cooked twice and one cooked once, which meant that over the course of three weeks, each woman cooked for the group just five times. The cook was only responsible for feeding their group of three-not each other's families-but, says Nancy, "if it was my night to cook and it was something that I thought my family would like, I'd make it for them plus two other portions for Judy and Julie."

Every other Sunday afternoon, the group met for an hour to compile the next two-week meal plan. "We really tried to keep it to an hour because we were all so busy and we wanted the experience to be as simple as possible," says Julie. They brought photocopies of the recipes that had been previous hits, which they each added to notebooks they compiled, along with ideas for the next two-week calendar. "If I was craving something in particular I looked it up online and brought the recipe," says Nancy. Over the course of the 10 months that they cooked for each other, only one recipe was vetoed-a Greek salad with sardines suggested by Nancy. "I still think that they'd like it if they tried it!" she laughs.

Each vowed to exercise at least five days a week. The women were already walking together daily-either in the morning or evening, depending on their schedules, and often twice a day. The evening walks quickly became an occasion to recap the dinners that they'd just eaten. When a new gym opened nearby, all three joined. "When it rained, instead of walking, we had elliptical dates," says Julie, who also traded workout DVDs with Nancy.

More Than Just Losing Weight.

Today, three and a half years later, they still rely on each other to help keep the weight off-and they've learned a thing or two about themselves.

"When I looked in my closet and realized that everything in it fit, that was my ‘aha' moment," says Nancy. "And I was motivated to keep up with my new good habits." For Julie, it was discovering that she could routinely be in the kitchen with her kids after school and not be tempted by their after­school treats: "I stopped grazing, something I'd done for years. I realized how often I used to eat mindlessly. Now I enjoy afternoon snacks with intention and have actually found that eating carefully means I enjoy food more." Judy realized after she reached her goal that she finally felt like herself again: "When I stopped exercising as much after I went back to work, I lost a part of who I was. Reaching my weight goal was really about rediscovering myself, and a big part of that for me is the daily exercise regime I now maintain."

They also gained lifelong friends. "We became very close through this experience. There's nothing I wouldn't do for them," says Judy. And that built-in support system was what really drove their success.

The walks were "their therapy," they say, where they talked about their husbands and kids, goals and dreams, along with reviewing how their weight loss was going. "If I had an upcoming event like a cocktail party, our walk would become a strategy session," says Nancy. "We'd discuss what food was likely to be served, how I'd stay on track without calling attention to myself as the ‘dieter,' whether it was better to eat beforehand, what would be hard to resist. By the time the walk was over, I'd have a plan because my girlfriends had talked me through it."

The accountability they felt toward each other also kept them in check. Judy and Julie-who tended to snack later at night-made a pact not to eat past 7:00 or 8:00 in the evening and rarely did, not wanting to let each other down. The commitment was especially effective when it came to exercise. "Even when I really didn't want to walk, I went anyway. I couldn't disappoint them," says Judy. And they weren't afraid to keep tabs on each other either: "Early one Sunday morning when Julie was away on vacation, she called me at what would have been our usual post-exercise time and asked how my workout went," says Nancy. "I was so busted. I had to admit to her that when my alarm went off, I smiled at the thought that she was away, hit snooze, and rolled over and went back to sleep. You'd better believe I stayed on track during the rest of her trip."

These days even though the three friends don't regularly cook for each other anymore, you can still find them walking through their neighborhood nearly every evening. "We rely on each other not just for our health, but for our daily lives," says Julie. "They've become the sisters I never had."

Kristyn Kusek Lewis is a veteran magazine writer and the author of the novel How Lucky You Are. Visit her website at

January/February 2014