How Many Meals Should You Eat per Day?
Some people say eating more meals throughout the day is better because it gets your metabolism working faster so you burn more calories.
Others say you should limit the number of hours during the day where you’re allowed to eat, even if that means eating fewer meals, because it’ll make your body burn more fat.
But what if both are wrong?
Even if they’re both right, do either one of those suggestions make sense if you want a lifestyle that isn’t centered around constantly obsessing over your diet?
I have specific answers to both questions.
This is My Life
I have a daily struggle. It’s called mornings. I don’t like them.
The real problem is that I also wake up hungry.
It’s not unusual for me to spend 15 minutes meandering around the kitchen just trying to get my brain to function enough where I can decide what to eat and move on with my day (my wife loves this about me).
This is why generic diet advice is often misguided.
I have trouble eating “fewer meals” because it means I spend the majority of my morning feeling hangry.
But I also have trouble eating “more meals” because I don’t get up super early, so the only way to fit in extra meals is if I’m still eating late into the evening. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t exactly ideal either — read more on “The Problem with Eating Before Bed.”)
With this blog, I’m going to help you decide how many meals YOU should eat per day — not just tell you what works for me and assume it’ll fit your life just as comfortably.
Eating 6-8 small meals throughout the day works for some people, but it’s not because it does some kind of science-y magic to your metabolism. It works because it forces you to be well prepared, have the right foods around, and plan out your day.
Anytime you pay careful attention to what you eat like that, you have a good shot at reaching your goals.
The problem is that the reason it can work is also the reason I wouldn’t recommend this particular strategy for most people, especially if you don’t want your life to revolve around planning out your meals.
8 meals per day, in all practicality, means you have to eat every 2 hours at the very least. You’ll have to plan your entire day (any meetings, get togethers, kids’ events, exercise, etc.) around those meals.
There’s also a good chance you’ll be a little bit hungry all day because no meal will have enough food to leave you feeling satisfied.
(On a personal note, this is what our kids do if we’re not on our game. They can’t be bothered with spending time eating an entire meal that will hold them over awhile, so about every 30 minutes we hear, “I’m huuuuungry.”)
Just to reiterate, this CAN work. Some people naturally eat like a bird and this strategy suits them. There’s just no reason to do it if you’re not that type of person.
Eating 1-3 meals each day, especially in a constricted timeframe (as with intermittent fasting) also works for some people. But again, it’s not because of some kind of science-y loophole. It’s because you have less time to eat, so you tend to eat less food.
Anytime you eat less food, chances are you’re gonna lose some weight (at least for a while).
Of course, just because you’re eating less doesn’t mean you’re eating healthy. And just because you’re losing weight doesn’t mean it won’t all come back later when you realize this wasn’t a good long-term strategy for you.
It’s also still possible to overeat even if you have fewer meals, which would undo all of the potential benefits anyway.
In fact, in my own experience with this strategy, I found that not only was I hangry all morning, but I tended to still be hungry at night and was MORE likely to binge and go overboard on calories than keeping a more normal schedule.
Again, this CAN work.
Some people naturally prefer to put off eating in the morning and don’t struggle with wanting to binge at night. There’s just no reason to do it if it doesn’t suit you.
How to Decide
If there’s no scientific advantage to having More Meals or Fewer Meals, how should you decide how many meals YOU should eat per day?
Step 1: Know how much to eat.
Healthy eating (for weight loss or otherwise) is about knowing how much to eat each day. I’m not just talking about calories either. You need to know how much protein, carbs, fats, and veggies to have, too.
Once you have a firm grasp on that, that’s when you can decide how to split it up throughout the day.
Step 2: Start with what’s natural.
How you split things up exactly doesn’t matter as much as some would lead you to believe. Finding a meal schedule that’s at least somewhat comfortable for you will give you the best long-term success.
You may wind up needing to make adjustments, but if your normal routine is 3 meals per day, cutting that down to just 1 meal or increasing it to 6 is adding unnecessary stress with no extra reward.
So start with what feels right without having to change things up too much.
Let’s look at how those 2 steps I described above play out in real life.
With our clients (and ourselves), to know how much to eat, we break things up into portions that are relative to the size of your hand. It’s easier, significantly less time-consuming than counting exact calories or grams, and just as effective.
Here’s a pic of what that looks like:
For Megan (my wife and the nutrition coach here), when she wants to drop a few pounds, she needs to eat approximately 5 servings of protein per day, 6 servings of veggies, 3 carbs, and 3 fats.
That’s a lot of food to eat in just 2 meals. Granted, she COULD stuff herself to the gills twice a day. But it wouldn’t be fun, and she’d likely still feel hungry between meals.
On the other hand, if she tried to force herself to eat 5+ meals per day, they’d start to get pretty small (and at least 1 or 2 of them would likely consist purely of protein and veggies).
In real life, she tends to fit all of her portions quite comfortably into 3-4 meals per day. No matter when or how much she does it exactly, it all fits within those portion goals at the end of the day.
What’s the Ideal?
Even though your portion needs won’t be the same as Megan’s, the total amount of food you’ll need to eat will FEEL similar since it’s all based on the size of your body (e.g. someone who’s bigger will need more food per day, but will likely want to eat more food per meal, too).
That’s why most people — once they’re actually eating an appropriate amount of food and getting all the nutrients their bodies need to be healthy — find that the ideal number of meals per day is 3-4.
You don’t need to divide your portions perfectly evenly every time you eat. So one or two of those “meals” could be smaller and almost resemble more of a snack if that’s how you’re used to eating. But that’s where finding a routine that fits your schedule and preferences comes into play.
When it’s all said and done, 3-4 meals is ideal not because it’s any more science-y than anything else.
It’s just practical.
It allows you to get all the nutrients your body needs for the day, yet you don’t have to be hyper-focused on food because you can stick to a more natural schedule. Plus you can feel good while you do it!
If you have a different approach that accomplishes those same things, stick with that.
If you have no idea how many portions you should eat each day, and if the idea of figuring it all out (not to mention figuring out how to stick with it) seems an impossible task, you’re in the right place.
In case you couldn’t tell, we’re all about finding ways to lose weight that aren’t simply “science-y,” but that are convenient and effective for more than just a couple weeks so that you can finally be consistent about eating healthy and losing weight.
Check out how our private, online coaching works and how we can help you!