Do meal plans really work? Here's what the science and dietitians say.

Meal plans can be a controversial topic amongst dietitians. We wanted to get to the bottom of the debate once and for all.

Written by
Evita Basilio, RD Evita Basilio, RD
Published on

Meal plans can be a controversial topic amongst dietitians.

While some dietitians love meal plans and offer them in all their services and programs, others strongly dislike meal plans whether they believe they are too prescriptive, not sustainable, take too much time or don’t improve health outcomes.

So do meal plans really work? We wanted to get to the bottom of the debate once and for all. Here’s what the science says about meal planning.

Meal planning helps people choose, purchase and prepare healthy foods on a regular basis.

Canada’s Dietary Guidelines state that meal planning is one of the most important food skills to help people consistently select, buy and prepare healthy snacks and foods for both themselves and their families. Research has shown that individuals who plan their meals are more likely to have better dietary quality, adherence to nutritional guidelines, and increased food variety.

Meal planning saves time, reduces stress and decreases food waste.

One of the biggest barriers to eating healthy is a lack of time, and meal planning can help with this. It can also help reduce the stress associated with mealtimes and increase the likelihood of family meals. Another added benefit of meal planning is that it decreases household food waste.

Meal planning can help clients manage chronic diseases.

When providing care for clients with certain medical conditions like diabetes, studies show that meal plans can help teach clients about portion sizes of carbohydrate foods in a practical way, which can improve diabetes self-management skills and clinical outcomes. Learning how to meal plan can also help to build self-efficacy, which plays a major role in dietary adherence.

Clients want personalized care.

Research shows that clients who seek professional help with their nutrition are looking for an individualized approach that takes into consideration their unique individual needs. The study concluded, “In order to change patients’ eating patterns, dietitians must adopt a more therapeutic approach and relate to patients’ cultural needs and desires to achieve sustainable results.” Meal planning can help provide a more personalized level of care.

Implementing Meal Planning into Your Practice as a Dietitian

As a dietitian, there are numerous benefits to offering meal planning as a part of your services. Here's how dietitians are using meal planning to successfully improve client outcomes and grow their businesses.

Meal planning for one-on-one clients.

Certified Nutrition Specialist and Dietitian, Jessica Mantell, uses meal planning as a teaching and empowerment tool to help clients succeed with their nutrition goals:

“It is important to teach people how to eat and what to eat or what not to eat, but you also need to give them options and ideas of what that will look like. Some people don’t know how to prepare and cook their own healthy meals and meal planning gives them the power to be in control of how they’re eating and enjoy their meals.”

Empowering clients to do their own meal planning.

A meal plan does not need to be a calendar with scheduled meals. Meal planning can be simply providing your clients with a collection of recipes that they can pick and choose from in a more relaxed and unstructured way. You can even add a blank meal planning template with the recipe collection and teach your clients the skill of meal planning.

Dietitian, Kayley George, and her team provide interactive custom meal plans where clients can make edits and self-manage their food choices with their dietitian’s help. The team gives each client professional guidance while allowing them to choose recipes that are desirable and meet their health goals. They check in on whether clients are viewing and using their meal plans which adds a level of accountability:

"90% of people want meal plans. Eventually, you want to get those training wheels off and teach them how to meal plan independently, but when someone is getting started, meal planning is a really important tool."

Using meal plans in group nutrition programs.

Registered Dietitian Megan Kober created her 30-Day Metabolism Makeover group program which combines nutrition education, support, and meal plans to remove the guesswork for clients. She provides two 30-day meal plans with recipes and shopping lists and provides a swap list that encourages program participants to mix and match foods according to their needs. Megan has found that providing meal plans and recipes helps keep clients engaged with the program.

Using meal plans to support clients with complex conditions.

Meal plans can be an incredibly powerful tool to help clients cope with complex medical conditions. For example, Bariatric Dietitian Kristin Willard simplifies her clients’ lives by creating personalized bariatric meal plans.

“People really want to see what it looks like, examples of what to eat, but unfortunately a lot of dietitians don’t have time to do meal planning. I include recipes and meal plans from That Clean Life with all my package options.”

We’ve also seen dietitians integrate meal planning into grocery store tours, support clients based on results from clinical testing, offer subscription services, corporate wellness programs, online courses and more. We’ve even seen dietitians offer meal plans as free downloads to attract high-quality leads to their business!

Meal Planning is a Powerful Tool

The evidence is clear: meal plans work.

Meal plans have been scientifically proven to help clients eat healthier, improve health outcomes and enhance their lifestyle. It is a great service for dietitians to offer and can fit into your business in a variety of ways.

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