Weight Monitoring     Losing Weight

Planning Meals

Dry dog food is far better than canned! It is more economical, takes up less space, and is generally better tasting. With reconstituted dried milk (and sugar if you like) most dry food tastes not too different from dry breakfast cereal. A hundred pound sack of dry dog food contains as many calories as a ton of fresh potatoes. The dog food also contains protein, vitamins, etc., that the potatoes do not.

—Robert B. DePugh, in Can You Survive?

Our understanding of the rubber bag has led us to an effective tool that accurately indicates whether too much, too little, or just the right amount of food is going in. In the last chapter you've learned how to work that tool, integrating it into your daily and monthly routine so the information it yields can guide your eating.

All the information in the world, however, doesn't change a thing until somebody takes action based upon it. In losing weight, “somebody” is your body. Now we'll turn to planning meals to control the calories that go in. Analysis of the trend based on daily weight measurements is the key engineering trick to weight control. Meal planning for predictable calorie intake is the central management tool which closes the circle and achieves control over weight.

Why plan meals?

The goal of meal planning is a predictable and reliable daily calorie intake. We can't really wear an eat watch to tell us when to stop eating, but we can accomplish the same objective with a little paperwork in advance. By planning meals then sticking to the plan, you're not only guaranteed to achieve your goal, you eliminate the uncertainty about meals and the need for on-the-fly judgements about what, when, and how much to eat that are a prime contributor to weight gain in people living stressful, chaotic lives.

Planning meals in advance may seem foreign; an act that stamps out some of the precious spontaneity that makes life enjoyable. I think you'll see the reality isn't that bad, but first consider why planning meals is worth discussing at all. Eating is important; it's one of very few things in life that isn't optional. If you don't eat, you die. If you eat too much for too long, you die. You wouldn't consider for a moment investing in a company that had no budgets, where everybody said, “We just spend whatever we feel like from day to day, and hope it will all work out in the long run.” Not only would such a business be prone to bankruptcy, its managers would have no way of knowing where the money was going; there'd be no way to measure actual performance against goals to discover where problems lay. No, only a fool would risk his money on such a venture.

Yet by trying to “wing it” with regard to what you eat, to balance your long term calorie intake meal by meal, making every decision on the spur of the moment, you're placing something even more precious than your money, your own health, in the hands of a process you know inevitably leads to serious trouble.

You encounter, in business, the rare exceptions: managers who can run a small to medium sized business without a budget or a plan. They are “naturals,” endowed either with a talent for assimilating vast quantities of detail and extracting the meaning within, or else with a sixth sense for emerging problems and an instinct for solving them. These rare individuals, born with a “sense for business,” are the managerial equivalent of people with a built-in eat watch like Skinny Sam. They can get along without the help of the numbers and calculations the rest of us need to steer a steady course.

So it is with weight control. Just because some people manage without planning their meals doesn't mean it'll work for you or me. We must, like most managers in business, supplement our unreliable instincts with numbers that chart our goal and guide us there.

Calorie targets

In business, a budget collapses a huge amount of detail, the individual transactions, into a small collection of numbers: how much money is allocated to various general purposes. In planning meals, all the multitude of foods and the infinite variety of meals are similarly reduced to a single number: calories per day. To plan meals, it's essential to know how many calories per day you're trying to eat. Where does that number come from?

As you gain more and more experience monitoring and controlling your weight, you'll collect enough information to know precisely how many calories your own body needs per day. Until then, you can start with guidelines for people about like you. Based on your height, frame size, and sex look up the calories burned per day in the appropriate table. Pick a number in the middle of the range given. For example, Dietin' Doris, five foot four in her bare feet with an average build, would start with a calorie target of 1770. (The range in the table runs from 1574 to 1967, and the average of these numbers is (1574 + 1967) / 2 = 1770.)

This target assumes Doris' goal is maintaining her present weight. If she wants to lose or gain weight, it must be adjusted based on the daily calorie shortfall or excess she intends. To lose weight at the rate of one pound per week, Doris should eat 500 fewer calories per day than she burns. (Thus, over a week she'll end up 3500 calories shy and hence burn off 3500 calories of fat: one pound.)

Subtracting the calorie cutback, 500, from the number she burns gives the number she can eat per day. Her calorie target is thus 1770 − 500 = 1270 calories per day.

How many meals, and when?

Only total calories per day count. For the most part it doesn't matter when you eat them or how you spread them around the day, so long as your schedule stays pretty much the same, day in and day out. If, over the years, you've settled into a regular schedule of meals, there's no reason to change it; just adjust what you eat at those meals so the total calories comes out right. For most people, this means the regular three meals a day, and eating the same kinds of food at those meals you're accustomed to.

If you have an unusual eating schedule you're happy with, by all means keep it. Just divide the calories you need over the meals you eat in a reasonable manner. For various reasons dating back to the lifestyle of programmers in the bronze age of computing, I have long preferred one of the weirdest meal schedules of all. I eat basically one meal a day, about 7 or 8 hours after I awake. I supplement this, on occasion, with a light snack a few hours later. Virtually every diet book ever written considers this a prescription for disaster; most counsel eating more frequently than normal with less per meal. Indeed, for years I was a walking (or waddling) testament to this conventional wisdom. And yet, merely by adjusting calories per day, I lost 70 pounds and subsequently stabilised my weight while retaining the one meal per day schedule I prefer.

Meal schedule can affect how hungry you feel, how much energy you have at various times in the day, how well you sleep, and a host of other things. But, as long as it's regular, it doesn't have a whole lot to do with whether you gain or lose weight. So, stay with what works for you.

(One exception is worth noting. If you eat a large meal and then immediately go to sleep, all those calories are going to be lazily paddling around in your bloodstream for hours while your metabolism is at its very lowest level. Fat cells will start banking the extra calories and you'll end up packing on weight yet wake up ravenously hungry the next day [since all the calories were turned into fat]. There's an easy solution: don't do it. Eat meals early enough before retiring so your body has a chance to burn the calories.)

A regular schedule

Whatever meal schedule you choose, it should be regular: pretty much the same from day to day. Eating at different times on the weekend compared to weekdays is no problem, but no prescription for calamitous weight gain is so reliable as a chaotic, unpredictable meal schedule.

If you literally don't know when and where your next meal is coming from; if you're always “planning to catch something when I get a chance,” you have no way to know how much you should eat at any given meal. If you know you're going to have a large dinner at 7 P.M., it's easy to compensate by going light on lunch. But if you go out to lunch having no idea whether dinner is going to be a thick steak with mashed potatoes or a bag of corn chips, how can you decide what kind of lunch is appropriate?

Animals who evolved over millions of years in a world where cold and hunger were the normal conditions of existence survive by playing it safe. If dinner might be whatever the vending machine can be coaxed to produce for whatever change you can find in your pocket (the modern, high tech equivalent of the paleolithic kids' plaintive “Awwww, Mom, not grubs again?”), you're not likely to settle for the cottage cheese slender special at high noon.

When lunchtime comes and goes unnoticed in the press of events, when dinner is deferred hour after hour until “just this last thing is finished,” when you finally do get around to eating you're likely to address the contents of the refrigerator with all the moderation of a Great White in a swimming pool crowded with splashing pinks. Then the next day, unlike the shark, you'll regret it.

It is possible to maintain a constant calorie intake in the face of an unpredictable meal schedule, but just barely. You have to constantly compensate from meal to meal, count calories incessantly, and often end up skipping meals and going hungry. This is the last thing you need when you're already short on calories trying to lose weight.

If it's at all possible, try to force your meals into a regular schedule, at least for the duration of your diet. You may find, in the process, you have more power over your schedule than you thought. For example, if you don't ever know whether, when, or where the gang will go out to lunch, consider brown bagging it instead. You'll miss some of the gossip and comradely banter, but every day you'll be able to count on a predictable number of calories at a known time.

Choose the chow

The next step is to plan, in advance, meals that add up to your calorie target, each day. Rigid planning of meals, in advance, and strict adherence to the plan is the most important management trick in losing weight. You will sacrifice some spontaneity for the duration of your diet, but you will be amply rewarded by rapid weight loss with the minimum hunger.

What to eat? Remember, you're an omnivore! It doesn't make much difference in terms of the weight you'll lose, but it has a lot to do with how you feel as the weight comes off. The best plan is to start with the meal schedule you're comfortable with now, and plan meals around that schedule composed of the kinds of foods you like to eat.

Meals through the day

Most people don't spread their nutrition evenly through the day. Some prefer a large breakfast, a very light lunch, and a moderate dinner, while others skip breakfast entirely, eat a substantial meal in the middle of the day, and have a light supper in the evening. If you're happy with your present pattern of meals, stick with it. You may discover, once you start to cut back on food, that you consistently feel hungry at a specific time of day, in the late afternoon, for example. If that occurs, try shifting the balance among meals—moving, perhaps, some calories from dinner to lunch to spread your calories more evenly.

Doris plans a day

Let's consider a specific example of meal planning. Dietin' Doris, as we saw above, wants to eat about 1270 calories a day to lose a pound a week. She's used to a fairly substantial breakfast, a light lunch, and eats the largest meal of the day at dinnertime. She frequently enjoys a light snack in the middle of the evening. Doris decides to stay with this schedule, and apportions her 1270 calories like this.

Meal Calories
Breakfast 375
Lunch 250
Dinner 600
Snack 45
Total 1270

The calories are divided among the meals as follows:

Having decided how many calories each meal should contain, Doris can work out specific menus for each meal, turning to the table of calories in various foods, or with the assistance of the Excel meal planning worksheet described below.

Starting with breakfast, Doris lists the kind of food she usually eats and comes up with:

Food Calories
2 Scrambled eggs 190
Orange juice (8 oz.) 112
Bacon (2 slices) 72
Total 374

Right on the button! It looks like the slice of toast with butter and jelly will have to be foregone, but this is still a pretty hearty start to the day, if not one that's good for your heart.

Turning next to lunch, Doris tots up the components of her usual brown bag sandwich:

Food Calories
Whole wheat bread (2 slices) 134
Turkey bologna (2 slices) 114
Brown mustard (2 tbsp.) 10
Iceberg lettuce 7
Total 265

Doris usually has a cup of tea with artificial sweetener or a diet cola with lunch and since neither beverage contains any calories to speak of, they needn't be included in the list. Lunch is slightly over the target of 250, but she'll compensate by adjusting another meal.

For dinner, Doris opts for a real treat:

Food Calories
Porterhouse steak, broiled (4 oz.) 247
Baked potato with… 150
    Sour cream (1 tbsp.) 26
Salad, consisting of:
    Iceberg lettuce (2 cups) 14
    Chopped onion (1 cup) 65
    Diced tomato (1 tomato) 26
    Blue cheese dressing (1 tbsp.) 77
Total 605

Close enough! Adding up the three meals so far, Doris finds she's used up 1244 of her 1270 calories. That leaves 26 calories for the snack instead of the intended 45 but there are still lots of options available that won't push Doris over 1270.

Snack option Calories
1 tomato, sliced, with salt 26
Air-popped popcorn, 1 cup 25
Dill pickles, 6 (six!) 24
Olives, 5 25

I'm not recommending you choose the kinds of food Doris did, y'understand! If there's any truth in all the claims about cholesterol, Doris is eating as if she'd won a triple bypass on Wheel Of Fortune and wanted to use it before the offer expired. I deliberately loaded Doris' diet plan with the kinds of food you seldom think of in conjunction with dieting to drive home the point that losing weight needn't involve eating tiny quantities of foods with odd names that taste like sawdust. Assuming her calorie burn rate is 1770, as given by the table, Doris can eat like this, day after day, month after month, and lose weight at the rate of fifty pounds per year.

If Doris substitutes what the current consensus deems “healthier foods” for those she picked above (unsweetened cereal with skim milk at breakfast instead of bacon and eggs, poached fish instead of steak for dinner), she'll find she can almost always increase portion sizes or add additional foods to her meals, since most contain fewer calories per serving. Why? Foods that pack cholesterol do so because they're rich in fat and, as we've learned, nothing delivers lots of calories in a small package like fat: 3500 calories a pound. So when you choose foods that are lighter in fat, you're reducing cholesterol and calories at the same time.

Meal planning with Excel

Rather than do lots of arithmetic and flipping through calorie tables, you can use the MEALPLAN.XLS worksheet and Excel to expedite the selection of foods. When you load the worksheet, you'll see a screen like this:

Note that a new MEAL menu has appeared at the right of the menu bar, after the standard Excel menus. To clear any previous meal, select MEAL CLEAR MEAL. The “Meal total” in the upper right of the screen will be blank, indicating no foods are selected for the current meal. You include foods in a meal simply by scrolling the display to the desired food (they are organised by food groups such as “Fish,” “Dairy,” and “Vegetable” in alphabetical order, then alphabetically within a group by the name of the food), then entering the quantity of food you intend to eat, in terms of the given “Serving” size, in the “Quantity” cell. The “Calories” column gives the number of calories per serving of each food so you can easily see the consequences of including a given food in your meal.

Here we're in the Vegetable aisle, entering the ingredients for the green salad Doris had for dinner. We've entered 2 in the Quantity cell for iceberg lettuce, since two cups will be included. The Total column shows the lettuce contributes a mighty 14 calories toward the daily goal. Next, we enter 1 in the Quantity field for onions, throwing a cup of chopped onions into the salad bowl (that may be a bit much, but perhaps Doris is taking a plane trip tomorrow and wants to deter her seatmate from striking up idle conversation). These are the first two items included so far in the meal and their total calories, 79, appears as the Meal total at the upper right.

Scrolling back and forth through a huge list of foods isn't much of an improvement over a printed table. Excel's DATA FORM facility, however, lets you retrieve foods from the database based on a wide variety of selection criteria.

Doris is shopping for steak. After pressing the “Criteria” button to specify constraints on the foods selected, she's entered “meat” as the food group (to avoid seeing frozen entrees such as “Stuffer's Iguana Steak with Amanita Gravy,” or “Cruft Pasteurised Processed Steak-like Substance” in the dairy case), and “*steak” as the Food category to choose all items containing the word “steak.” Finally, in the interest of hitting the calorie target, Doris has specified “<250” in the Calorie field so only items with that number of calories or fewer need apply. Pressing the “Form” button returns Doris to the data form, allowing her to find foods that meet these criteria. Each time she presses “Find Next,” the next qualifying food appears. After a few presses, Doris is tempted by a Sirloin steak.

When she settles on a porterhouse steak, she simply enters 1 in the Quantity field of the data form to add that item to the menu, with the standard serving size. If she planned on eating 6 ounces of steak, she'd enter 1.5 for the Quantity to indicate one and a half times the standard serving.

As each item is selected, the Meal total increases. If the meal exceeds the allowed calories, items can be removed by scrolling through the database or by using the DATA FORM to select items with a Quantity >0 and present them for review.

When a meal has been composed to your satisfaction, choose MEAL EXTRACT MEAL to create a new worksheet containing a summary of the food included in the meal. When the meal summary worksheet appears, the cell containing its title is highlighted; enter an appropriate description (for example, “Sunday Dinner”) if you wish.

You can print a copy of the menu to use as you prepare the meal, or save it on disc for future reference, as you like.

When you're trying to adjust a meal to a given number of calories, it's useful to see which components of the meal account for most of the calories. Choosing MEAL CHART CALORIES generates a pie chart showing the relative calorie contribution of each item comprising the current meal.

The pie chart often points out aspects of a menu that don't jump out as obviously from a table of numbers. Doris might be startled to discover just how many of the calories in her dinner came from that single one tablespoon dollop of blue cheese salad dressing. The pie chart fingers it as the third largest calorie item, accounting for more than 12% of the entire calories in the meal. Given this information Doris might, for example, switch to a low-fat dressing that contains only 3 calories per tablespoon. It might not taste as lush and creamy, but the calories saved would allow her to add, for example, an ear of corn on the cob and still wind up with fewer calories.

If you frequently eat foods not included in the MEALPLAN database, you can easily add them. Use EDIT INSERT to open a blank row for the new item, enter its description in the same format as the other entries, then select the Total cell of the line above and the Total cell of the new line and use EDIT FILL DOWN to copy the formula that computes the total calories onto the new line. Test the new item by entering 1 in its Quantity cell and make sure the Total for the item and the Meal total at the upper right reflect the calories in the new food. You can use the DATA SORT command to re-sort the food database any way you like: by food name, by number of calories, or by a combination of criteria. Refer to the Excel manual for details.

Eat watch in action

The eat watch is finally complete. First we discovered how to monitor the balance between calories in and calories out and now, by planning menus with specific calorie content, we've provided the second aspect of the eat watch, the signal that tells you when to stop eating. With menu planning, the signal is obvious. Prepare the food for each meal in the proper quantity, eat it all, then shut yo' mouth. What could be easier?

Before we apply this new-found tool to weight loss, we need to discuss some problems with meal planning in the real world and what can be done about them.

Serving size: helpings don't help

Meal planning requires total control over not just what you eat, but also how much. This is more difficult in practice than it might seem at first glance, particularly when you're sharing home cooking with the rest of your family. Assume that Doris managed to lose the weight she set out to, and now she's back eating the 1770 calories a day that keeps her weight stable. After a few months of stable weight, Doris decides to put the annoyance of planning meals and charting weight behind her and rely on her judgement.

One night, there's a little left-over mashed potatoes. Both Doris and her husband Larry hate leftovers, and the kids…forget it! Larry scans the table, “Who's gonna make these mashed potatoes go away?” After two small faces disappear beneath the tabletop and the earnest supplications of Slobbers the Dawg go unheeded, Larry and Doris agree to split it. Doris ends up with an extra cup of the lumpy white and, to make it palatable, plops a pat of butter on the top. Hardly yummy, but at least it won't be staring out from the refrigerator tomorrow morning. Instead, it will be working its way to Doris' waistline. The extra helping of mashed potatoes and butter adds up to 173 calories and represents, all by itself, a 10% increase over the number of calories Doris needs to eat for steady weight.

If this isn't an isolated incident, but instead the next day Doris “has to have” another drumstick, or treats herself to a glass of milk before bedtime, a slight shift has occurred in the balance between calories in and calories burned. If Doris had continued to plan her meals, it would never have happened. If Doris were still charting her weight and plotting the trend, it wouldn't go unnoticed. But she is doing neither, having concluded from her success in losing weight that she's developed a natural sense of weight control.

If the balance slips by as little as 150 calories a day—a glass of whole milk, an ounce of Fritos, a cup of plain yogurt, a bagel: Doris may start slipping from her stable weight. And the change will be so subtle, initially, that she won't even notice. The weight gain will be less than a third of a pound a week. This would show up quickly as a rising trend line, but it disappears in the several pound day to day variations in weight. Even after a month, Doris has only gained a pound and a quarter and doesn't notice it, either on the scale, in how her clothes fit, or how she looks and feels.

And since the change is so gradual, she continues not to notice as her weight creeps upward for a couple more months: tasting the gravy while making Thanksgiving dinner, polishing off the Chinese food in the restaurant to avoid asking for a doggie bag, “you can't go the ball game and not have a hot dog,” and so on. Finally, Doris does notice. By that time, she's tacked on five or ten pounds, and now she really feels awful: not just fat, but persecuted and powerless. “I didn't change anything,” she laments. “I haven't gone back to my old chocolate sundae pig-outs or pizza binges, and here I go gaining weight again!”

And all from one extra helping of mashed potatoes a day. Doris was overweight most of her life because she wasn't born with a built-in eat watch. She lost weight when she remedied that shortcoming by planning her meals around the number of calories she burned, guided by the trend of her weight. After becoming slender for the first time since grade school, she made the mistake of removing the eat watch. She fell back on her body's feedback mechanism to tell her how much to eat, and it continued to deceive her. To maintain her weight, Doris needs the continuing guidance of the eat watch. There's no need for meal planning to be obtrusive or interfere with Doris' enjoyment of meals. Indeed, in time, guided by the trend line and her experience with different meals, she'll probably be able to adjust up and down without ever adding up another calorie. But that skill takes time to acquire, and it works only in conjunction with the safety net of the trend chart to warn you of problems before they get too big and depressing to remedy.

Sneaky serving sizes

If calorie tables are to be of any use, you have to count the serving size you really eat, not the nominal size in the table. With food that comes in clearly-defined units, such as eggs, slices of bread, onions, or bottles of beer, it's easy to count how many you eat. But food that's made in a pot and ladled onto a plate or items you use without ever measuring, for example peanut butter and jelly on a slice of bread, can be very misleading.

Consider mayonnaise. An item in a calorie table that tells you the stuff runs 100 calories a tablespoon is only useful if you know how many tablespoons you're actually spreading on your turkey sandwich. It's tempting to just run down the table, find the entry for mayonnaise, and use the number given. But if you're actually using something more like five tablespoons instead of one (it can be done, trust me), that little miscalculation alone is enough to make you gain forty pounds a year. When you start planning meals, figure on actually measuring out those things you currently dispense with the “glop and slop” technique.

You may feel silly, for a while, carefully filling a measuring spoon with catsup, using a measuring cup on peas, or weighing ground beef with a kitchen scale. But feeling silly sure beats feeling fat, and before long you'll get used to what various quantities of food look like and be able to largely eyeball it, as long as you're honest with yourself.

Processed food manufacturers are another source of confusion with regard to serving size. They all want to convince you their food is low in calories (and sodium and cholesterol and all the other hot buttons), so they frequently print numbers on the package based on an unrealistically small serving. Get used to looking carefully at the “Servings per container” line along with the calories. For example, I have in my hand a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup. For time immemorial, or at least since can openers were discovered by the Assyrians, people have been popping the tops off these little red and white food modules and dumping them into a saucepan along with a can of water. Warm and tasty, but hardly low-cal, you think. But a glance at the can reveals the startling claim:

Calories 100

Only a hundred calories? Oh, well, they probably assume you're splitting the soup with somebody else, right? But looking at the whole label reveals:

Serving size 4 oz.-condensed
(8 oz. as prepared - 226 g)
Servings per container 2 3/4
Calories 100

Two and three quarters servings per can? Now, that's convenient, isn't it? A little voice in the back of my head keeps whispering it's 2 3/4 servings a can to make the calories per serving come out 100, not in the interest of feeding an average family of 2.75 people. If you just glanced at the can, you might assume the whole can of soup was 100 calories. If you made the reasonable assumption that a serving was half a can, you'd conclude the total was 200 calories. But by reading the fine print the truth is revealed; each can of soup actually adds up to 275 calories—a far cry from that innocent little 100 on the label.

Or, how about snack food? Your favourite potato, corn, or tortilla chips probably come in at about 150 calories a serving, according to the bag. Well, that's no more than a glass of milk! But what's a serving? Hmmmm…one ounce. One ounce, now there's a laugh; when's the last time you or anybody you know sat down and polished off one ounce of potato chips? Got a postal scale? Go get it, and stack up potato chips until it reads one ounce. You may feel like an idiot, but I won't tell. Not a heck of a lot of potato chips in that “serving,” are there? If you're anything like me, a “serving” of potato chips is a lot closer to an 8 ounce bag than a one ounce handful. Now we're talking major league calories: 1200 to be precise, between half and three quarters the total calories burned by most people in a day. And that's before the bean dip.

Meal planning won't control your calories unless you eat the quantity of food you plan. Be extra careful with “serving sizes” to make sure they reflect the quantity you really eat, and not some marketeer's idea of what makes a product “lite.”

Eating out

Restaurants pose their own special problems. On the one hand, portion sizes are generally reasonable (at least here in health-conscious California), and you aren't tempted to take extra helpings as at home. Fast food joints, despite their reputation, actually work fine with meal planning. Since the individual items of food are completely standardised and the calorie contents are published in any number of books, you can just choose what you order to total up to the allotment for the meal you're having. As long as you don't order more than that, you're home free.

You can't get calorie counts at tonier restaurants, but you can guess pretty closely based on the main ingredients of a dish. As long as you don't eat out all the time, and you eat about the same amount of the same kinds of things you've worked out for home meals, you probably won't have any problem. The real difficulties arise at those eateries which delimit the hacker's universe: the pizza place and the Chinese restaurant. There's nothing inherently wrong with either kind of food (well, at least not with Chinese food), it's the way you tend to eat it.

If, like most people, you order a variety of Chinese dishes and take some of each, and if the people at the table have widely differing appetites, there's almost no way you can know how much you've had. Chinese food, gobbled from a mound in the middle of the table, exhibits the “pizza/popcorn phenomenon,” the culinary equivalent of the tragedy of the commons. The essential difference between this kind of dining and normal meals is:

The faster you eat, the more you get.

This truth is burned deeply into the brain of anybody whose impecunious college days were fueled, in large part, by midnight pizza feeding frenzies. In other restaurants, or at the dinner table with cultured companions, poaching food from adjacent plates is frowned upon and may result in fork wounds. But when there's just a huge pile of eats, you have to be especially on your guard. The best way to deal with the problem, in my experience, is to take a reasonable amount at the beginning, filling up your plate to the degree it would be at home, then eat that much and stop. If there's food left over, so be it; surely somebody has a dog or will enjoy it for breakfast tomorrow (congealed pizza…nothin' like it!). Far better even to let something go to waste, shameful as we've all been raised to think of it, than have it go to your waist and spend weeks dieting it off.

Menu mix-and-match

Rather than planning a whole day's diet from scratch, it's generally more convenient to divide your calorie goal into meals, as Doris did, then prepare a variety of menus for each meal. You can decide which breakfast or what dinner far in advance, based on what you found at the supermarket, or on the spur of the moment; it's up to you. As long as all the alternatives for each meal add up to roughly the same number of calories, you can pick any menu from the list, make it up, and dig in.

As you gain experience with planning meals, you'll undoubtedly amass a larger and larger collection of different meals, all of which are interchangeable in terms of calories. Also, you'll come to learn which restaurant foods are roughly equivalent in calories to your normal allocation for each meal. As this happens, you'll probably conclude that meal planning, which originally seemed likely to endow something you once derived great joy from, eating, into an exercise with all the romance and excitement of double-entry bookkeeping, is actually liberating. No longer do you have to worry whether you're eating too much or too little. No more do you have to forego something you like because you gulped too much at lunchtime. Now you'll be able to know, in advance, how much food to make or order, eat everything you make, and enjoy it all without feeling guilty.

Weight control seems almost an extra added benefit.

Taking the easy way out

Does the detail and complexity of planning meals seem out of place in our age of modern conveniences? Does adding up tables of numbers, even with the help of a computer, strike you as the last thing you want to do in connection with food? Do you look at all of this meal planning and calorie calculation and say, “Can't I just push a button and make it all happen automatically?”

Well, do I have a deal for you.

If you're not overly fussy about everything you eat being lovingly prepared on the stove; if cooking is something you do in order to eat, not because you enjoy it; and if “plenty and now” eclipses “gourmet epiphany” among your culinary desiderata, your meal planning and preparation can be simplified by about a factor of fifty.

What I'm talking about is frozen entrees and dinners, ready to microwave. When we prattle on about technological revolutions, we tend to get stuck on computers and cellular phones and satellite dishes, but for my money microwavable frozen food is right up there with the biggies. On a moment's notice, you can walk into the local feed store and choose among hundreds of well-balanced, generally nutritious meals, selected from the cuisine of a dozen different cultures. At a price amazingly close to the cost of the raw ingredients purchased at retail, you can pick what piques your palate, pop it in a poke, and pack it home. Don't want to eat it tonight? No problem, stick in the freezer and it'll be just as good six months from now! Hungry? Well, pop that sucker in the nuke, set the scrooch gun for six minutes, and it's feedin' time, late twentieth century style!

What's more, there's no pots and pans to wash, no stems and peelings to rot in the garbage for a week, and…no leftovers—the portions are precalculated for one person and one meal. No more “runaway spaghetti inflation” (oops, too much water…, add some spaghetti…, too much spaghetti…, add some water, etc.: just like making a bathtub of nitroglycerine when you were a kid). Plus, they print the number of calories right on the box: no more arithmetic! If you've budgeted 600 calories for dinner, just cruise the cache of cryogenic comestibles: here a Beef Stroganoff, there a zucchini side dish, everywhere a taste treat, until you hit the magic number. Further, given the number of different entrees and side dishes, the potential combinations are such that, even if you only ate frozen food from the local supermarket for the rest of your life, you'd never be forced to repeat the same meal.

(Some manufacturers don't deign to tell you the calorie content of their products on the box. Some provide a toll-free number you can call to obtain the information they consider you unworthy to know before purchase, but I choose to look at it this way: if they can't be bothered to tell me how much food is inside the box, how much do you think they care about how it tastes? Some frozen foods don't tell you how many calories they contain [or provide any other nutritional information], and others attempt to confuse you with deceptive serving sizes: for example claiming a package that a normal person would eat for a meal actually contains two servings. But companies that don't respect their customers enough to tell them the basic truth about what they're selling are rarely inclined to spend time on the finer and subtler points: if there's no calorie count on the box, or a package purports to contain 12 “servings” of 20 calories apiece, the odds are what's inside tastes like Kal Kan. Pass it by, and patronise honest companies that respect your intelligence.)

Now, I'm not saying that you don't give up something by eschewing fresh food and chewing exclusively on frozen. But, speaking as one who eats frozen food five days a week, you don't give up much, especially if you value the time and effort home cooking requires. Frozen food may not compete with the finest work of a great cook, but it's a lot better than my cooking, as the survivors of my culinary experiments will attest. One thing you don't get in frozen food is crisp vegetables and other crunchy roughage; it's as incompatible with the medium as luscious, liquid massed violin sound is with digital audio. But there's an easy fix. While Chef Magnetron is toiling away à la cuisine congelée, don't sit around looking at your watch, muttering “When's dinner?” Spend the time doing something useful, like making up a fresh green salad to begin or end your meal, depending on which side of the Atlantic you prefer. By the time of the blessed beep, you'll have prepared the perfect complement to your meal: crunchy, fresh, filling, and full of fibre.

If frozen entrees are a convenience to the person in a hurry and a help to those trying to plan their meals whose good intentions can't overcome an aversion to accounting, they're salvation in a box for the serious dieter. As we'll see in the next chapter, serious weight loss is a serious business. It involves mood swings from elation to despair, the struggle between short term gratification and long term goals at the most visceral of levels: this meal right now against a longer life span. How can frozen dinners help? By guaranteeing you that, precisely on schedule, you'll get exactly the food you need: no more, no less. When the diet willies take hold, there's real comfort in knowing that in precisely four hours, ten minutes, and twenty-six seconds you will have a meal you know is tasty, nutritious, and filling—one that will banish your hunger, however bad it seems at the moment.

Once you've stabilised your weight and expanded your diet to encompass a wider variety of food, there is comfort in knowing that, whatever happens, you can regain control of your weight simply by going back to the frozen food that awaits in your freezer or the grocer's. Having taken weight off once that way, you know it isn't intolerable. Knowing you can always resolve an emerging weight problem, before anybody notices but you, will give you the freedom and confidence to explore variations in diet and style of life after you achieve your weight goal.


You've turned many pages, and turned over many difficult concepts in your mind since we embarked on our quest for an eat watch. Finally, our quest has come to an end.

The original dream was of a device that monitored, moment by moment, the calories we ate and burned, that told us when to eat and when to stop. On our many side-trips into apparently unrelated areas of engineering, mathematics, and management, we've found a way, starting from nothing more than daily weight, to accurately calculate the balance of calories eaten against calories burned. We've discovered the simple link between this calorie balance and weight gain or loss. Finally, we've developed a way, meal planning, to accurately control the number of calories we eat without disrupting our meal schedule or forswearing the kinds of food we enjoy. Taken together, these techniques constitute an eat watch: they monitor calories in and calories burned (actually their balance, which is all that matters), and they tell us how much to eat, and when.

The long-sought tool of weight loss and permanent control is now ours. In the next chapter we'll turn to the practical steps to put it to work.

Weight Monitoring     Losing Weight