Cooking Ahead: How US households go about meal planning

Jun 3, 2024

AI interview
AI interview
AI interview


We all have to eat everyday, but how often do we actually plan ahead for our meals? We learned that meal prep can actually help us save time, eat better food, and even live healthier lives. Even though we all know that meal prep is good for us, very few have a robust system that makes meal prep easy (even those who do it routinely!).

Below, we outline some key findings. For the complete write-up, download the full report at the end of this page!


In today's fast-paced world, where people often prioritize convenience over health, the importance of meal prep is more important than ever. As our lifestyles become increasingly busy, the shift towards consuming food prepared away from home has become more prevalent than previous decades. NIH research done in France underscores the profound impact this shift has had on our health and well-being. The benefits of opting for home-prepared meals extend far beyond mere convenience; they are deeply intertwined with our overall health outcomes such as a lower rates of obesity and a lower BMI. Home food preparation has been associated with a more diverse diet and higher intakes of fruits and vegetables which has been shown to correlate with lower levels of mortality.

It is clear that what you eat is critical for your short and long term health. While the allure of quick, ready-made meals may seem enticing, the academic research reveals a stark contrast between the nutritional quality of home-prepared food and that of meals eaten out. Though it may be healthier, planning and cooking meals at home each week takes time and dedication.

We wanted to run a study to learn more about how people go about meal prep, what works for them, and what presents a challenge. With so many positive health and lifestyle outcomes correlated with meal prep, we wanted to learn how people felt about the process and what prevented them from more effectively planning their meals.

Here's what we did


  • 120 US based participants recruited from the general population using Outset Recruit


  • Participants took Outset AI interviews with Video Response (where AI offers a question in text and participants respond with a video response, which is then transcribed).

  • Outset’s AI dynamically probes deeper with follow up questions to participant answers depending on the thoroughness of the question either 0, 1, or 2 times per answer.

  • Outset also served a handful of multiple choice questions as well

Interview structure

  • We explored the participant’s household makeup and the extent to which they did any meal prep

  • If they did any sort of meal prep, we asked them to walk through that experience end to end including when they planned, how they picked recipes, how they got ingredients, when they cooked, and any other tools or services they used in the process

  • Finally, we asked participants to reflect on their meal prep process: what worked, what was still challenging, and any advice they’d have for someone looking to start a meal prep routine

Here's what we found

1. Overall, meal planning is seen as a way to simplify daily life, make healthier choices, and save money.

Even though the academic research focuses on the health benefits of meal prep, our participants cited convenience and saving time as the leading motivation and health benefits as the second most common benefit. Many also indicated that meal prep helped them stick to a budget and save money. 

Q: What is the participant's primary motivation for meal planning? (screenshot from Outset analysis)

The time saving component is surprising as it may see that cooking can take more time than getting already made meals. But it turns out that meal prep is even more efficient! One participant noted.

  • “The primary motivation for us doing meal planning is mostly to save time during the week because we both work full-time. So we want to save time during the week and make sure that we all have our bulk meals planned so we don't have to think too much about what to cook during the week."

Surprisingly, meal prep has an added bonus of freeing up mental energy that would otherwise be used on deciding what to eat and how to get it. Having planned out the week’s meals, participants don’t have to spend time thinking about what they will have for dinner every single day.

  • "I don't have to really think about it in the moment, and it frees up space in my brain for other things."

And it turns out that it is that foresight and advanced planning that helps people avoid junk food, thus having added health benefits as well.

  • "I meal plan so that I can be more efficient grocery shopping and save money and also not be scrambling and eating junk at the last second"

2) Those who do plan, they plan and execute it all the way. 

The vast majority of meal prep is focused on planning what to have for dinner. Most often, respondents indicated that they plan on a weekly basis. They primarily plan dinners and secondarily plan lunches and breakfasts as those two meals tend to be more consistent or “set” whereas dinners have more variance and thus require more planning.

Q: Which meals does the participant plan for? (screenshot from Outset analysis)

70% of respondents indicated that they actually stuck to their meal plan. But, it takes dedication, knowing your schedule, and sticking to the plan even if there might be a more convenient meal option.

  • “No, [the meal plan] didn't change because we had all the ingredients for the recipes that we made. There wasn't any change in our schedule that made it where we couldn't cook the food that we had decided to make when we created a schedule for the meals."

Last minute schedule changes were the most commonly cited reason for not sticking to the meal plan, but often they switch up the plan to still make all of the planned meals just on different days to reduce food waste and save money.

  • “Sometimes we put things on specific days, but that doesn't always work out. If we run out of time or didn't have all the ingredients, we switch around the days of the week, but we try to keep the same meals planned, just moving when we have them."

3) Surprisingly, most respondents didn’t use any tools or services specifically for meal prep, aside from grocery lists and the occasional delivery service.

It was surprising to learn that most people do not use any tools or services dedicated to meal prep. Aside from a grocery list on a phone via a notes app, there were no other tools or services that helped them in the often somewhat complex or time consuming process of meal prep. Though some used grocery delivery services like Instacart or meal kits, fewer used more specialized services such as an app as a library of recipes. 

  • “I sit down, decide what we want to eat, look up the recipes, build the shopping list myself, go to the grocery store, pick everything up. Sometimes if I think something might be hard to find, before I go to the grocery store I'll have an alternative written down for those options as well."

Most would search online for recipes or recycle family favorites and make a list of ingredients manually. Then the majority of respondents grocery shopped in person and then cooked the meals themselves as well. 

  • "We usually have like a set of recipes that I know my family will eat so I tend to kind of rotate through those. A lot of times I find recipes on Pinterest or or my mom gives me ideas or friends sometimes will you know give me recipes that their families have enjoyed and then I go to the grocery store and pick everything up or I do an Instacart order."

This could represent an interesting opportunity for meal planning apps or services! Given that this process has many steps, it was surprising that most do this process manually without many specific tools to help them.

Wrap up

Despite an overwhelming belief and strong research support for the time and health savings benefits of meal planning, most households still do not have a comprehensive system or set of tools or services that make meal planning easy. While those who do meal prep cobble together some tools to make it slightly easier, there is no one predominant way households go about it. This could represent a large opportunity for a product or service that helps us plan our meals more efficiently!

In the meantime, if you want to start your own meal prep routine, respondents in our study had some clear advice for you: start simple with just one week of dinners, pick out the recipes you want to have, and make a grocery list for everything you need. It starts small, but the routine can grow from there. The most important part is to find what meal plan approach works for you and your family and then be consistent with it. 

Whether it is time savings or healthier meals, meal prep can help you achieve your lifestyle goals regardless of how you approach it in your household!