If you’ve been struggling to cut down on your calorie intake, there’s a simple strategy that could help. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, ordering meals in advance could help people consume fewer calories and make healthier meal choices. That’s because most of us are more inclined to choose calorie-rich foods when we’re already hungry—choosing our meals at least an hour before hunger hits may help us make more clear-headed decisions about what we eat.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon conducted three field studies: Two focused on 690 insurance company employees as they chose lunch at a corporate cafeteria and one looked at the catered lunch options favored by 195 Carnegie Mellon students. In the first study, employees could place a lunch order any time after 7 a.m. and pick up their lunches between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Researchers found that for every hour of delay between the placing of an order and pick-up, the meal's calorie count decreased by approximately 38 calories.
In the second study, participants were split into two groups: The first placed lunch orders before 10 a.m. while the second ordered lunch after 11 a.m. Again, researchers found that those who ordered earlier chose foods with fewer calories. On average, the pre-10 a.m. group reduced its caloric intake by 30 calories.
Finally, in the third study, 195 university students were asked to order lunch before or after class, with lunch provided right after class ended. Students who ordered before class chose meals that had 109 fewer calories than those ordered by their after-class counterparts (890 vs. 999 calories).
Researchers believe choosing meals before hunger hits makes it easier for us to make healthy choices and helps reduce the likelihood of impulse purchases.
“One nice thing about these studies is that we were able to separate timing from other things that happen when mealtime gets closer, like seeing or smelling the food,” researcher Julie Down explains in the study's press release. “So we know that the effects are due to how imminent the meal is, and as a meal gets closer we see that people seem to give in a lot more to the temptation of high-calorie foods. But making a decision in advance can help people choose something that might be a bit more healthful.”
While that conclusion is unlikely to surprise anyone who’s hungrily reached for an extra cookie or candy at the end of a lunch check-out line, it shows just how effective making food choices in advance can be. After all, the participants in the Carnegie Mellon lunch studies weren’t even aware they were consuming fewer calories when they ordered earlier—they just did it naturally. That finding implies ordering meals in advance isn’t just an easy way to cut calories—it’s effortless.