Between swiping right for a date, having a driver that arrives at the press of a button, and placing a coffee order ahead of time so you can skip the line at Starbucks, let’s face it: We’ve become an on-demand culture and we want what we want when we want it.
That desire extends to our food habits too, leaving us all too ready to satiate last-minute cravings — whether that means raiding the fridge, or picking up the phone for delivery (via an app of course).
So when researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pennsylvania did a study on the health benefits of pre-planning meals, registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner tuned in.
“What the study is ultimately saying is that when we are pre-deciding, we’re going to naturally make much better choices than when we’re deciding in the moment — when we’re hungry and faced with decision fatigue,” she says. “And that’s what meal planning is all about — you’re making a conscientious choice to not pay attention to peer pressure, other people’s choices, or the demands of your schedule. You’re meal planning with your best self in mind.”
The payoff can be big, Jackson Blatner notes, and here are four reasons why.
Four Reasons Meal Planning Can Help You Lose Weight
1. When you’re not distracted, craft your plan.
If you have a plan in place before you begin the act of shopping, you’ll be faced with fewer distractions that could lead to impulsive choices. “It’s a lot easier to make better decisions when you don’t have a ton of distractions around,” says Jackson Blatner.
2. You’re in a position to make sound decisions (thank you, blood sugar).
“Planning your meals ahead of time slows you down, so you’re making choices in a very mindful and thoughtful way,” says Jackson Blatner. “Plus, when you physically have blood sugar in your brain, it helps you to make good, smart decisions as opposed to when you’re doing it in the heat of the moment, which is when people are usually too hungry. We [can] all make horrible decisions when we’re hungry.”
3. When healthy is convenient, we might actually consider it.
“Whether or not we want to believe it, we are all people who just want it easy,” says Jackson Blatner. “No matter how well-intentioned you are, when you’re in a rush or time-pressured, you’re going to grab whatever is easiest. But if you already have something healthy that’s packed up and ready to go, you can grab that. Rather than fight it, it’s important for us to lean into the fact that it’s human nature to want the easy way out, but to also ensure we’re making healthy options the easy ones.”
4. With repetition comes reward.
“There’s of course the physical aspect to meal planning, but it can pack emotional benefits, too,” notes Jackson Blatner. “The concept of doing something repeatedly, becoming good at it, and seeing results from it has the power to boost confidence and make you want to stick with it. When you are sticking to the plan and feeling good about it, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — it’s that momentum that can turn someone on to doing this long-term.”
Meal planning seems simple enough — so why the struggle? Jackson Blatner can attest to the question firsthand. “I am someone who used to freaking hate meal planning — I didn’t think it was fun, I didn’t like it, and for a long time, I very much wished it didn’t exist,” she says. Until, that is, she realized she was doing it wrong.
As such, Jackson Blatner notes we have to modernize meal planning in order to make it work for most of us — this leads her to employ a system with her clients that is as easy as one, two, three. Literally. “I call it the ‘1-2-3 system,'” she says of the approach, which encourages individuals to commit to making the same breakfast, two lunches, and three dinners all week long.
The plan is part of a larger philosophy that suggests if we repeat our food choices over and over, we are more likely to see results (as supported by this research). Monotonous? Yes. But Jackson Blatner may have a solution. “When I first read about this idea of monotony, I was like, ‘gosh, that sounds horrible.’ But then I was like, ‘what if I put the word delicious in front of it?'”
“Delicious monotony” may be every bit as repetitive as its original name indicates, but the difference, Jackson Blatner notes, is in the foods being incorporated. “I tell people to pick something they enjoy, both on a level that makes you feel healthy and on a taste level — it can’t just taste good and it can’t just be healthy, it has to be both,” she says. “When you do that and find something that works, repeat the heck out of it because the bottom line is you’re going to do better when you don’t have to think as much.”
If you’re still seeking variety, Jackson Blatner suggests getting creative with what you’ve already got: Bring leftovers from dinner for lunch, mix and match snack ingredients with breakfast ones, and heck, even order takeout — so long as it’s healthy and looks good on a bed of that spinach you just bought.
No matter how you do it, the most important aspect to keep in mind, as Jackson Blatner points out, is to have a good time with it: “Do whatever is the easiest and most fun for you, because that’s what you’re going to do naturally.”