When your schedule is already jam-packed, meal planning might seem like just one more task to add to your to-do list. But there’s a reason so many people swear by meal planning for staying on track. It takes the guesswork out of healthy eating, which makes it easier to reach your weight-loss goals.
“Meal planning is like a blueprint for your day,” says Scott Shreiber, D.C., L.D.N., C.N.S., a chiropractic physician and licensed dietitian/nutritionist in Delaware. “You know when and what you’ll eat, and you’ll be less apt to grab whatever [else] looks good.”
5 Ways Meal Planning Can Help with Weight Loss
If you like to play things by ear, planning every meal and snack a week in advance might be way outside your comfort zone — how are you supposed to know right now if you’ll be in the mood for veggie chili in four days?!
OK, first of all, it’s always a good day for veggie chili. But, more importantly, nutrition plays a huge role in weight loss — and meal planning can make it much easier to eat healthy. Here’s how meal planning can help you lose weight.
1. Meal planning conserves willpower.
It’s kind of a catch-22: Research shows we love having a ton of choices, yet those choices can stress us out and lead to decision fatigue.
All the food decisions you make throughout the day can slowly chip away at your willpower — but planning your meals in advance can keep you from having to rely on willpower in the first place. “Having the foods ready to go is half the battle,” says Lisa Hayim, M.S., R.D., at The Well Necessities. “The majority of less-than-healthy choices happen when we’re not prepared.”
Planning your meals may take a little extra effort at the beginning of the week, but it means you’ll know exactly what to reach for the next time you’re hungry. And you can save all that leftover willpower for when you really need it, like when your alarm goes off for a 5:30 a.m. workout.
2. You’ll make better food choices.
The idea of having infinite options sounds great in theory — but when you’re exhausted and hungry and you don’t have a game plan, you’ll probably just end up making the same old fallback meal (frozen chicken wings, anyone?) or ordering the usual takeout grub.
“‘Throwing something together’ will usually lead to unbalanced meals,” Schreiber says.
After all, it’s hard to make healthy choices when you’re hungry. Meal planning helps you get all those decisions out of the way at once — at the beginning of the week, while you’re still feeling relaxed and recharged and motivated.
And meal planning doesn’t have to be boring — research has shown that people who plan their meals not only choose more nutritious foods, but also eat a better variety. It may be a more structured way of eating than you’re used to, but think of it as an opportunity to finally try some of those healthy recipes you’ve had bookmarked for ages.
3. You’ll cut back on mindless eating.
You’re hungry for a snack, so you grab a handful of almonds… then another… then another. Before you know it, you’re halfway through the tin, and suddenly your “healthy” snack has tacked on a few hundred extra calories.
When you’re hungry or stressed or tired, it’s easy to eat mindlessly and give in to cravings. Researchers have found that we make more than 200 food decisions a day — and most of them are made while our brains are on autopilot, which means we’re more likely to eat out of habit or let visual cues (like oversized plates) influence our portion sizes.
In fact, some experts say fullness plays a secondary role in determining how much we eat — we tend to eat whatever’s on our plate, so our calorie consumption can be decided before we even sit down at the table.
That’s why meal planning can help you lose weight by eating more mindfully — you’re taking the time to think through your meals and choose nutritious food rather than just grabbing whatever’s available when hunger strikes. To help you avoid unintentionally piling too much on your plate, measuring your portions before you plate or pack it up can help you keep your calories and macros in check.
“Planning a weekly menu increases mindfulness for what you’re eating, which results in healthier food choices and less room for junk food,” says Cate Ritter, a certified nutritionist and owner of Cate’s Nutrition Kitchen.
And meal planning isn’t just for meals — you can (and should!) put healthy snacks on the schedule each day. Snack choices can make or break your diet, Schreiber says, so it’s important to have a game plan for those, too.
4. You’ll carve out extra time in your schedule.
Yes, there’s a time commitment — at the beginning of the week, you’ll invest a few hours planning out your schedule, shopping for healthy ingredients, and batch-prepping your meals. But you won’t waste time before every… single… meal rummaging through the kitchen, trying to figure out what to cook. You can just heat and eat the meals you already planned and prepared.
And if you feel like there are never enough hours in the day, meal prepping once a week can free up a few extra minutes each day to squeeze in a workout or even just get to bed a little earlier.
5. You don’t have to be a seasoned chef to be successful at meal planning.
If your stash of healthy recipes is still pretty limited, don’t worry — you don’t have to come up with 90 different meals in a month. You can eat the same breakfast for a week, or come up with several days’ worth of dinners and put them on repeat. Or you can serve the same food a few different ways — chicken tacos on Monday, chicken lettuce wraps on Tuesday, chicken stir-fry on Wednesday, and so on.
How to Meal Plan for Weight Loss (Even if You Don’t Like Cooking)
Even if you’ve never prepared anything more complicated than a cheese quesadilla, have no fear — there are plenty of recipes and resources that can help you with the meal planning process.
Keep it simple.
Just because you’re planning in advance, it doesn’t mean you’re required to come up with something elaborate. All you need is a list of healthy snacks and easy go-to meals you can mix and match throughout the week.
Here are a couple to get you started:
Start with a ready-made meal plan.
No points are awarded for meal-planning originality, so go ahead and borrow your favorite ideas from other people’s meal plans.
Here are some of our favorites:
- Buffet Style Meal Prep with Chicken
- Tempting Meal Prep Lunches
- Simple Summer Meal Prep
- Meal Prep Ideas from the Pros
Brush up on your cooking skills.
The more confident you become in the kitchen, the more adventurous and appetizing your meal plans can be. If you want them to, that is — it’s totally fine to stick with simple recipes and one-pot dishes forever if that’s what keeps you on track.
But if you’re looking to take your culinary skills up a notch — or at least figure out how to cook a chicken without drying it out — these resources that can help.