The simple power of meal planning ahead

Plan ahead and prepare your lunch at breakfast time to help control calorie intake and avoid those extra kilograms.

How often do you get to lunchtime and find that your stomach is rumbling and your mind is telling you that you’re starving? So, you head to the local takeaway or food court, or even to the fridge, and end up eating more than intended. You supersize a sandwich and add a chocolate bar or muffin.

The key to avoiding this scenario could be as simple as meal planning ahead.

US research has found if you plan lunch just after you’ve eaten breakfast, you could eat about 460kJ less each lunchtime. During a working week, that’s a saving of about 2300kJ – equivalent to a two-hour moderate pace walk.

Eric VanEpps, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, says their results show that ordering meals when you’re already hungry and ready to eat leads to an overall increase in the number of calories ordered.

“By ordering meals in advance, the likelihood of making indulgent purchases is drastically reduced,” he says.

High-calorie temptation lurks, as meal times get closer

Fellow researcher Julie Downs, Associate Professor of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University in the US, agrees that as meal times get closer, we make worse choices for our waistline.

“As a meal gets closer we see that people seem to give in a lot more to the temptation of high-calorie foods. Making a decision in advance can help people choose something that might be a bit more healthy,” she says.

The research looked at the lunchtime meal orders of 690 employees at a workplace cafeteria and 195 university students who ordered lunch before or after morning class. For every hour of delay between when lunch was ordered and eaten, people ate almost 160kJ less.

Clare Collins, a dietitian and professor in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Newcastle, agrees that the further ahead we plan lunch, the healthier our food choices and portion sizes become.

“If you are calm when thinking about your health goals, such as what to eat for lunch, you make different decisions compared to when you are exposed to all the food cues and fast food advertising influences,” she says.

“When you aren’t hungry – just after you’ve eaten breakfast, for example – you think more logically about what food is good for your body and how much you realistically need to eat.”

Don’t rely solely on willpower to make healthy food choices

Professor Collins says people mistakenly think willpower will help them resist lunchtime temptations. She says we should harness “won’t power” instead.

“It’s a big mistake to think willpower will hold out against the triggers that make you order and eat things you don’t want to,” she explains.

“With willpower your head has to keep saying ‘no’ to advertising and food and environmental cues that encourage you to eat and drink. Instead use ‘won’t power’.

“Make a conscious decision to avoid situations that will test your willpower around food. Bypass the cues that trigger cravings and make food hard
to resist.”

A “won’t power” strategy is to plan your lunch at breakfast time or even the night before.

“Leave it until you’re hungry and you’ll order a pie, milkshake and sandwich because you can’t imagine being satisfied by anything less,” Professor Collins says.

“If you take your own lunch to work, think about it the night before. When I clear away dinner and find there are leftovers I put them in a container to put in the microwave for lunch the next day. If you don’t plan, you are attacked on the food-advertising front and your brain tells you that you must have a big lunch.

“You are at your weakest on all fronts and there is no resistance left.”

Healthy Lunch Ideas

  • Half cup cooked pasta or quinoa with chicken and vegetables.
  • Tuna or egg salad with two or three wholegrain crispbreads
  • Bowl of vegetable and bean soup with wholegrain crackers.

Need some more lunch ideas? Browse our list of quick meal ideas and you’ll never be stuck for inspiration again! 

Source: Dietitians Association of Australia