Meal Planning

How Planning, Not Choosing, Makes Better Eating

Self help literature is full of advice for living in the moment. But when it comes to shaping better dietary patterns, planning ahead, not choosing in the moment, makes for better eating. If you want to understand why, look to the marketers who devote their careers to understanding how to prompt the impulse to consume.

In the Journal of Marketing Research, Eric VanEpps and colleagues describe how delayed gratification leads to better dietary choices. They conducted a series of studies. The first was a secondary analysis showing that placing an order well ahead of picking up a meal predicted fewer calories being ordered.

The second study was an experiment to test whether such delayed gratification was the cause for ordering fewer calories. The study documented a 5% reduction in calories.

In the third study, VanEpps compared lunch orders for truly immediate consumption with advance orders. They found 10% fewer calories ordered when people were ordering in advance.

Take a look at the food clustered around checkout aisles if you doubt these observations. Candy and snacks are there for immediate consumption, because those are purchases that people make in the moment that they would not otherwise make. Faced with too many immediate choices, people make bad choices.

Advance planning is not everyone’s strength. But it is a skill worth cultivating. Instant gratification is often unsatisfying.

For more perspective from the New York Times, click here. The paper by VanEpps et al is here. More on pre-meal planing is here. Finally, you can find perspective here on advance planning for grocery purchases.

Meal Planning, photograph © Emily Carlin / flickr

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August 17, 2016

2 Responses to “How Planning, Not Choosing, Makes Better Eating”

  1. August 17, 2016 at 7:59 am, Pam Schu said:

    Very good advice, planning is thoughtful, mindful in fact. It seems here by “living in the moment” you mean – just do it, follow your passion, you deserve it, etc.. When it comes to self-help or learning to move toward healthier behaviors, living in the moment means the opposite. When helping clients with health behaviors we talk about paying attention to feelings, emotions, environment, and other triggers. It is taking the time to step back and decide what to do. Moment to moment awareness helps us to make choices that are value driven and goal directed. So, in the case of planning, I would argue that mindfulness is the foundation for better choices. But, in the end – I thank you for pointing out the importance of planning.

  2. August 18, 2016 at 6:24 pm, Todd said:

    I think Pam’s comment raises an important point. In many contemporary environments we tend to make decisions regarding immediate intake that are in conflict with other goals such as health goals. We find ourselves with conflicting desires and the immediate ones are consistently more compelling. So we often use tactics that help us commit to the longer term goals, like Ulysses having himself tied to the mast to help him resist the Sirens’ song.

    But one snag is that immediate desires are not entirely stable either. What seems to happen with “mindfulness” approaches is that people alter their perception of their own immediate desires.

    It would be easy to see those as competing or even conflicting approaches since one is about awareness and the other is about avoidance, but I think they are complementary and can be effectively used in conjunction.