Do Meal Plans Work? Dietitians and Nutritionists Weigh In
By: Julie Mancuso, founder & owner of JM Nutrition, registered dietitians and nutritionists at JM Nutrition
In this post:
What is a meal plan? What is meal planning?
Meal plan benefits
Drawbacks associated with meal plans
Do meal plans work? The verdict
Do meal plans work?
That depends on whom you ask.
On the whole, there appear to be two types of people when it comes to meal planning.
One, those who believe wholeheartedly in meal plans and feel it’s an effective way of meeting specific health and nutrition-related goals.
And two, those who feel that meal planning is too rigid and ineffectual to be sustainable in the long-term.
As registered dietitians and nutritionists, however, we feel the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Things are not so black-and-white. There is a time and a place for everything.
Let’s take a closer look at the question “Does meal planning work?”
What is the difference between meal plans and meal planning?
What is a meal plan?
A meal plan is a type of plan prescribed by dietitians, nutritionists and nutrition coaches that lays out guidelines and specific meals typically to be consumed over a certain period of time and for a specific purpose.
For example, 7-, 14- and 30-day meal plans are commonplace. As are meal plans for weight loss, muscle growth, the management of specific diseases (diabetes, liver health, the lowering of cholesterol) and dietary conditions.
What is meal planning?
Meal planning, on the other hand, is the act of planning meals for you or your family that helps to make organizing, grocery shopping and preparing meals more simple, efficient and productive.
Meal planning is also instrumental in helping you avoid unplanned and impulsive decisions that can lead to the consumption of less nutritious meals. This is no doubt a good thing.
What are the benefits of meal plans?
Meal plan benefits are many and varied. Let’s take a closer look.
Meal Plan Benefits
1. Help reach specific goals
Prescribed meal plans can certainly help meet specific health and dietary goals. This is one of the more prominent meal plan benefits.
Why is that?
Personalized meal plans comprise foods, portions and guidelines that are geared towards your specific goal. In such a meal plan certain foods may be reduced, while others eliminated altogether.
A meal plan can also outline suitable substitutions.
In addition, it can provide practical tips and strategies to help avoid various pitfalls. Doing so gives you the best chance possible of reaching your specific goal(s).
2. Helpful in establishing various special diets
Developed by qualified professionals, meal plans can help you transition to various special diets.
With the help of a registered dietitian, for example, you can develop a nutritionally-balanced meal plan for plant-based diet. This is just one example. There are many more.
A plan or guide of this nature may be necessary to avoid nutrient-deficiency that can occur when people try to adopt these diets on their own. As such, it is a chief benefit of meal plans.
3. Save money
Meal plans, or meal guides can help save money as well. Because meal plans are tailored to specific client needs, they are developed as per the individual budget.
It is certainly possible to buy, cook and eat healthy food without having to spend a fortune–contrary to what some may claim. And meal plans do exactly that. They provide nutritious meal options based on your goals, needs and budget.
Do meal plans work on a minimal budget?
All you have to do is give the dietitian or nutritionist you’re working with an idea of what your budget is, and he or she will work within those parameters.
What’s more, meal planning can help save money by providing a structured guide of what foods to buy, effectively reducing impulsive decision-making. Without a plan, you can easily find yourself in the situation of contemplating what to make for dinner, and choosing to purchase take-out food, often the more costly option.
You can drastically reduce scenarios like this with a meal guide in hand.
4. Reduce indecision and stress
As alluded to in the previous point, decision-making is critical in life in general as it is in meal planning.
The challenge of what to make for lunch or dinner can prove stressful. Even when you finally decide, you may encounter further obstacles.
You may be unprepared for making the meal by not having certain ingredients on hand.
In addition, you may not have the time to make the meal you decided on on that particular day.
These barriers can cause more stress, leading to the abandonment of the idea to make a nutritious meal.
Meal plans can and do help with decision-making, effectively reducing stress. This is a very important benefit of meal plans.
Learn more about how to reduce stress via nutrition.
5. Avoid making less nutritious food selections
Having a meal guide that provides a variety of nutrient-dense choices for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, reduces the chances of reaching for those less nutritious ones.
Instead of resorting to the convenience of some highly palatable but nutrient-devoid food, or ordering take-out, you can simply refer to the meal plan.
Take a look at the options, make the selection and you’re set.
6. Save time
If you plan out meal ideas in advance, you can certainly save a great deal of time over the course of the week. Instead, you can devote this saved time to other things such as spending time with family, exercise or just plain old relaxation. And who couldn’t use more of that?
If you really stop and think about it, this is a crucial component. Every week you can spend hours thinking about what meals you’re going to make, looking for recipes, running to the grocery store to pick up a few items for a specific dish, prepping and then cooking.
One of the primary benefits of meal plans is that they can simplify this process, making it more efficient. If you have a guide or a plan that outlines all the options, you can prepare in advance, and say goodbye to last minute scrambling.
7. Control what ingredients go into your food
If you follow a meal plan or a meal guide, you retain greater control of the ingredients that go into making your food.
It’s also easier to omit certain ingredients, while finding more nutritious substitutions for others.
In addition, most prepared meals (think: restaurants, grocery stores et al.) contain too much sodium, at times too many calories, trans fats and/or sugar.
The cumulative effect of many of these ingredients can quickly undermine many health and wellness goals, and undo your resolve.
8. Provide variety of food choices
Having a variety of meals to choose from can prevent boredom associated with eating the same meals and snacks over and over again.
Boredom can quickly lead to frustration, increasing the chances of impulsive decision-making. It can also lead to less nutritious food selections.
A well-designed and thorough meal guide offers plenty of choices for each meal, helping you to avoid such a situation.
9. Supply a variety of nutrients
A nutritionally-balanced meal plan developed by a qualified professional can ensure your body receives the required nutrients it needs. This is no doubt a significant benefit of meal plans.
Deficiencies in some nutrients may lead to diseases. For example, calcium deficiency may result in osteoporosis.
When followed over the long-term, a meal guide can hence help reduce such risk.
10. Reduce the risk of disease and other conditions
While meal planning, per se, does not directly reduce the risk of various chronic diseases and conditions, a nutritious, balanced diet does.
Meal planning no doubt plays a crucial role in facilitating such a diet.
According to Cooking Light, “overall diet quality increases as the number of weekly meals prepared at home goes up. This is why individuals who regularly prepare meals at home are more likely to have less body fat, a lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, and even a longer life span.”
Do meal plans work in preventing and managing chronic disease?
Yes. They can certainly do both. Whether you’re being proactive or reactive, a meal plan can list foods you should avoid and those that you should eat to help prevent or improve the given disease or condition.
11. Provide food portion guidance
A practical and thorough meal plan includes guidelines for food portions.
This, coupled with outlined serving sizes and the understanding of the nutrition facts label, can go a long way in instilling portion control and help prevent overeating.
12. Prevent hunger and avoid caving in to cravings
Plans that contain wholesome and nutritious meals can help you stay satiated.
A registered dietitian and nutritionist who develops the meal plan can include meals and snacks that contain protein and fibre–both of which can help make you feel full for longer. Doing so can prevent you from feeling hungry soon after a meal.
For example, if you eat a filling, nutritionally-balanced breakfast, you may be able to avert mid-morning hunger, experienced by so many.
Such a meal plan can also help curb cravings through a two-pronged approach.
One, the meal plan is designed to include meals and snacks that are made from whole, nutrient-dense foods.
Two, the meal plan includes nutritious replacements for some of your favourite comfort foods. For example, having a couple of dates with almond butter can help stave off cravings for sugary snacks.
Undoubtedly, these are significant benefits of meal plans.
Related: 15 Foods That Are Incredibly Filling
13. Buy and consume only the food you need
A meal plan or meal guide can help you with grocery shopping as well. The list of foods included on the meal plan allows you to know exactly what groceries you should buy on the trip to the supermarket.
A list of this nature has a few benefits.
One, it prevents buying more food than you actually need.
Two, because you’re only buying what you’re going to eat, household food waste is likely to go down.
And three, it allows you to avoid impulse purchases that may occur as you’re making your way through the aisles without a list or guide in hand.
14. Create awareness
Meal plans can also help bring awareness of your eating habits.
Our team of nutritional practitioners feels that this is one of the more fundamental meal plan benefits as it has a tremendous impact on our food choices.
At the onset of implementation, meal plans can serve as a useful guide to help gauge behaviour around eating, identify various triggers that lead to certain food choices and shine the light on eating habits.
For example, when you compare the type and amount of food that you’re eating to what is prescribed by a registered dietitian, it can lead to self-reflection and a desire to make positive changes. As this awareness increases, you’re likely to become a more intuitive eater who listens to the body rather than external cues.
15. Teach healthy eating
When first implemented, a meal plan can be a very useful educational tool. For many of our clients this is the key meal plan benefit.
A thorough meal plan can teach about portion and serving sizes, how to read a nutrition facts label, how to put together nutritionally-balanced meals, can help enhance understanding of macronutrients, provide meal ideas and recipes, and much more.
The educational component is critical.
16. Assist athletes reach their goals
These days nutrition plans form an integral part of the development of athletes at all levels: youth, recreational, competitive, elite and professional.
Do meal pans work for athletes?
According to our sport nutrition experts, meal plans that are designed with specific goals in mind are instrumental in helping athletes build muscle, improve fitness, increase stamina, boost energy and enhance overall athletic performance.
Meal Plan Drawbacks
1. Too generic
One of the most prominent problems with meal plans is their generic, one-size-fits-all nature.
Such meal plans are mass produced, reproduced and ubiquitous on the internet.
So do such meal plans work?
Not very well.
Reason being, they are simply not personalized.
Because we are all different, we cannot apply a universal method to accomplish a certain goal.
There are many factors that need to be taken into consideration when creating a specific and individualized nutrition plan.
Some examples: health history, medications, dietary conditions, allergies, intolerances and sensitivities, food preferences, cultural and religious restrictions, budget, accessibility and so on.
Related: Factors That Influence Food Choices
A generic meal plan circulated online rarely fully applies to your specific, individual situation. As a result, the fewer of the criteria it meets, the less effective it is in helping you accomplish your goal. It’s just that simple.
2. Too short-term
You must’ve come across 7-, 14- or month-long meal plans either online or produced by some nutrition coaches. We have certainly seen such meal plans a thousand times. Perhaps more.
While short-term meal plans provide some structure, they are not very useful in the grand scheme of things.
After all, what do you do when you have gone through the 7-day meal plan?
Do you repeat the same meals for another week, and then another, and then another?
Do you run back to the dietitian, nutritionist or nutrition coach for yet another week-long meal plan?
No matter which avenue you pursue, problems arise. The former can lead to boredom, which can lead to frustration and abandonment. The latter, on the other hand, can prove inconvenient having to run back for help every 7, 14 or 30 days.
What if the nutrition professional isn’t available for an appointment? What do you do then? It’s just not very practical.
3. Too rigid
Related to the previous point, many meal plans are too rigid to fit into the reality of your daily lives. This is a major drawback of a 7 or -14-day meal plan, for example.
What happens when the meal plan calls for a specific meal on a certain day and the circumstances don’t allow for it?
And what if you wake up late and don’t have time to prepare a smoothie before rushing to work?
What happens if you forget to buy certain ingredients for the specific meal you are instructed to have on that given day?
And what if you’re just run down and tired, and don’t feel like cooking what’s indicated by the meal plan?
What if you’re simply not in the mood to eat that specific meal?
There are many more instances where rigid meal plans don’t work. After all, life gets in the way and we don’t always do things according to plan. That’s just reality.
Instead, meal plans should allow for these contingencies. They should provide options that you can take based on what’s going on in your life on that particular day. Only then they become sustainable.
4. Lack guidelines and actionable tips
Guidelines, tips and actionable strategies are vital, when making changes to your eating habits. Many meal plans we come across are devoid of these critical components.
To effectively change firmly embedded habits, you need practical tips for dealing with vulnerable situations, how to avoid common pitfalls and so on.
Sometimes you also need in-depth explanations or illustrations, so the connection between action and goal is clear. These can be accompanied by ways that help you break old habits and develop new ones.
It’s not just about what food you put into your body. It’s much more nuanced than that. Putting all these elements together contributes greatly to success.
5. Too set in stone
What’s more, meal plans are often too set in stone. Rather, they should be works in progress.
Tweaking of the meal plan is not only common but expected. You cannot try to uproot your whole way of life, tossing all your eating habits and foods you’re accustomed to eating out the window when the 7-day meal plan arrives.
Changes are gradual. Or at least they should be.
Start with a few and try to master them. When that’s accomplished, introduce other changes. And then a few more. Throughout this process the meal plan is adjusted to reflect your progress.
The ultimate goal is to embed new habits and do away with the meal plan altogether.
6. Do not include substitutions
Typically, meal plans outline specific foods and meals, supported by specific recipes.
While there’s nothing wrong with suggesting nutritious meals, per se, there is an important element that often goes amiss.
Frequently, many meal plans omit substitutions or similar replacements for certain ingredients or foods. Doing so can cause some people to decide not to make a meal simply because they don’t have one ingredient that can be easily substituted for something similar.
For example, you can use monk fruit instead of stevia, or replace chicken in a certain dish with chickpeas.
Being aware of interchangeable ingredients is incredibly important because it allows for flexibility and personalization.
It also encourages experimentation, when making meals that add to the enjoyment of making positive changes to eating habits.
7. May lead to waste
Meal plans that lack clear directions, detail and flexibility can swiftly lead to food waste.
Let’s consider a 7-day meal plan.
For example, a meal plan may call for a romaine and arugula salad with carrots, onions and tomatoes for one meal.
This is fine, as long as these ingredients are used in other meals again during the week. It is unlikely, however, that you will consume one head of romaine lettuce and a whole red onion in one meal. This could lead to spoiling due to lack of use.
Doing so is simply a waste of food, and consequently, money.
8. Prevent intuition
Do meal plans work to help you develop intuition, when it comes to eating?
Typically, not very well.
To nourish your body properly your are required to listen to the signals it sends. This is very important.
When you feel depleted, low on energy or simply hungry, you should replenish and refuel right then and there. You should not be confined to a schedule that indicates when to eat, at least whenever possible.
At times, and depending on the circumstances, you can go hours between meals. On other occasions, you may need to eat more frequently. This is entirely normal and meal plans should take this into consideration.
9. May be difficult to sustain
Do meal plans work in the long-term?
Generic and rigid meal plans can make it hard to stick to in the long-run. Frequently, this is due to having to eat the same thing for 7 days, as an example, and then having to repeat it.
This can especially occur when no room is left for tweaking or substitutions. When you introduce choice and variety, you can swiftly solve this problem.
10. May lead to disordered eating
Compulsive adherence to rigid meal plans that do not allow for choice can lead to the cultivation or exacerbation of an unhealthy relationship with food. Our registered dietitians who provide disordered eating support certainly concur with this statement.
The belief that only eating strictly what is indicated on the meal plan over the long-term will help reach specific goals can be dangerous. Doing so can lead to the labeling of and negative feelings towards certain foods, self-deprivation, excessive restriction, anxiety and much, much more.
In such cases, the effect on overall health can be disastrous.
11. May not address the root of the problem
Some people require only a little education and guidance, aided by a meal guide, and they are well on their way to reaching their goals in a sustainable way.
So do meal plans work for these people?
More often than not, yes.
For others, however, things are more complicated.
Some, for example, tend to eat emotionally, when faced with life’s stresses. And let’s face it, there are many life stresses.
In these cases, people consume highly palatable foods as a coping mechanism. Foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat can simply provide temporary emotional relief.
Although a meal plan can outline more nutritious substitutions for certain ‘comfort foods’, the heart of the matter is stress. And you deal with stress with first, before you shift focus towards food and meal planning. We cannot underscore this point enough.
12. Take discipline to implement
Meal plans and meal planning take discipline. Scheduling, grocery shopping, prepping, cooking and so on, require dedicated time, organization and discipline.
At times the desire is there, but the follow through may be lacking. This is another matter altogether. These days we have life coaches who can help build good habits and install the required discipline.
So do meal plans work?
When they are generic, rigid, and lack detail and direction, meal plans may not be very effective at helping instil healthy eating habits that are sustainable in the long-term.
Of course, exceptions exist. When designed with a specific goal in mind, they can assist you in reaching certain goals in the short-term. For example, they may be effective in helping you build muscle or lose weight.
We feel meal plans should be designed more like meal guides. They should:
- be personalized: based on your food preferences, lifestyle, dietary conditions, budget, culture, religion et al.
- offer structure, but with choice and flexibility
- include a variety off foods to avoid boredom
- be thorough and detailed, providing an educational component
- provide guidelines, practical tips and strategies, aided by visuals when possible
- allow for adjustments
- be designed to teach positive eating habits that are sustainable, eventually requiring no need for the meal plan
Following these guidelines can ensure that the meal plan is an effective tool to help you reach your goal(s), while setting the stage for lifelong healthy eating habits.
It was our intention to provide an in-depth analysis of the degree of effectiveness of various meal plans, and answer the question do meal plans work?
Hopefully, the information presented here will help you make the decision on whether a meal plan is right for your specific situation, and if so, what type.
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