Meal Planning: The Science

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Meal planning is one of those chores that many people often dread. With busy schedules and multiple responsibilities, it seems daunting to think about what you’re eating for dinner some nights, let alone planning out an entire week. People cite lack of time, knowledge, skill and creativity as barriers to regular meal prep (1), yet studies show that food consumed outside the home tends to be higher in calories, fat, and sodium and lower in fiber, vitamins, and minerals (2). A recent cross-sectional study indicates that meal planning may increase home meal prep, which is associated with improved diet quality, food variety, compliance with dietary guidelines and weight status (3).

In the Nutrinet-Sante study, which involved over 40,500 participants, the researchers evaluated meal planning, which they defined as preparing food to be eaten over the next few days. Included in the study were energy and nutrient intake assessments, along with discussions of food groups and an evaluation of adherence to French nutritional guidelines (through repeated 24-hour recall records). A Food Frequency Score was used to estimate a food variety score. Participants self-reported height and weight. The connection between meal planning and dietary intakes was evaluated using analysis of covariance (ANCOVAs) and logistic regression models were utilized to compare links with quartiles of modified French Programme National Nutrition Santé-Guideline Score (mPNNS-GS) scores, quartiles of food variety score and weight status classes (overweight, obesity) (3).

57% of subjects stated that they planned meals on occasion. Those that meal planned were more likely to have a higher mPNNS-GS (OR quartile 4 vs. 1=1.13, 95% CI: [1.07–1.20]) and more overall food variety (OR quartile 4 vs. 1=1.25, 95% CI: [1.18–1.32]). Meal planning was associated with lower body weight in the female subjects and reduced likelihood of being overweight (OR=0.92 [0.87–0.98]) and obese (OR=0.79 [0.73–0.86]).

The authors concluded that planning meals was associated with healthier diets and reduced rates of obesity. While causality cannot be inferred from the associations reported, these data suggest that meal planning could likely be helpful in preventing obesity (3).

For my own clients, I suggest buying a rotisserie chicken and using it in multiple dishes such as tacos, soup, or salad. I also encourage them to cut up a variety of vegetables when time allows and put them in containers to pack in their lunch with hummus or Greek yogurt dip. Keeping black beans, salsa, and brown rice on hand is great for a quick meal. Freezing batches of chili, spaghetti sauce, or soup also helps reduce meal prep time.

Dietitians can further help their clients with meal planning in the following ways:

  • Offer grocery tours to assist with label reading and food purchases.
  • Encourage the use of frozen fruits and vegetables, which may reduce prep and cooking time.
  • Provide cooking classes or demos to showcase simple recipes.
  • Suggest simple tips for cooking, seasoning, and serving a variety of foods.
  • Provide recipes for easy-to-make dishes.
  • Recommend meal planning sites or apps to simplify meal prep.

By Lisa Andrews, MED, RD, LD


  1. Mancino L, Newman C. Who has time to cook? How family resources influence food preparation? Econ Research Report No. (ERR-40) 25 pp. USDA. 2007.
  2. Todd JE, Mancino L, Lin BH. The impact of food away from home on adult diet quality. Econ Research Report No. (ERR-90) 24 pp. USDA. 2010. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  3. Ducrot, P., Mejean, C., Aroumougame V., Ibanez, G., Alles, B., Kesse-Guyot, E., Hercberg, S., Peanau, S., Meal planning is associated with food variety, diet quality and body weight status in a large sample of French adults. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2017; 14: 12.
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