Why it always pays to plan your meals

by Jennifer Bowden / 09 May, 2017

Photo/Getty Images

New research suggests households that plan meals tend to eat more healthily and have fewer weight problems.

What’s for dinner tonight? If you’ve got no idea, you’re not alone. This age-old question perplexes many a hungry person. Creating a meal plan could solve the daily dinner conundrum and could improve our health, new research suggests.

Poor meal planning and a lack of cooking skills can lead to such habits as buying highly processed foods, prepackaged frozen meals and takeaways. Although relatively inexpensive, ready-to-eat food is typically high in overall energy content, sugar, sodium and saturated fat, none of which helps its nutrition value.

Eating home-cooked meals is the first step to improved diet quality and reduced likelihood of packing on weight. But when many families have two working parents or are led by a single working parent, there can be pressure to find time to cook an evening meal. Planning meals a few days ahead is the key.

Read: 14 kitchen hacks to save time and stay healthy

How many people actually do this is largely unknown. A Canadian study found about two-fifths of participants decided what to eat for dinner during the day, about a quarter the day before and a third at least two days before. Until recently, even less had been known about the effect of meal planning on diet quality and health.

French researchers set out to find some answers. They collected information from more than 40,000 participants in the online NutriNet-Santé study, getting them to complete a meal-planning questionnaire and record what they ate and drank. The findings, published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, showed meal planners were more likely to stick to nutritional guidelines and eat a greater food variety and less likely to be overweight (women) or obese (men and women).

Although the study doesn’t prove a healthier diet and body weight are down to meal planning, there’s reason to think they are. For starters, studies have found more frequent food preparation in the home is consistently linked to better diet quality, and the act of meal planning promotes more home-made meals.

A meal plan can vary with the seasons as different produce is available and household tastes change. What remains, though, is a more thoughtful approach to dining at home and relief from the daily stress of deciding what’s for dinner.

A plan might cover just a few days, or be on a set weekly or fortnightly rotating schedule. If you’re a vegetarian, your plan will be quite different from that of an omnivore, so create what fits your food preferences.

Meal-planning 101

  • Choose a variety of protein sources for the week, such as: 2-3 red-meat meals of beef, lamb or pork; 2-3 chicken; 1 seafood; 1 vegetarian.
  • Find out your household’s favourite meals and preferred foods. Use these suggestions to fill the various red meat, chicken, seafood and vegetarian slots. Record the plan in a spreadsheet or on a small whiteboard.
  • Consult recipe websites, cookbooks and social media for ideas.
  • Avoid repetition by alternating protein sources daily: for example, Monday, beef; Tuesday, chicken, etc.
  • Consider bulk-cooking meals – for example, cook a double batch of beef casserole in a crockpot on Monday, eat one batch that night and save the second for a pie on Wednesday.
  • Create a standard shopping list of the ingredients required for the weekly/fortnightly meal plan.

This article was first published in the April 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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