How many calories per meal should I eat to lose weight?

When it comes to losing weight, the number of calories you eat per meal is an important factor. To create a calorie deficit that results in weight loss, you need to eat fewer calories than your body burns each day. However, drastically cutting calories can backfire and cause your metabolism to slow down. So what is the optimal number of calories per meal for weight loss?

How many calories does the average person need per day?

The number of calories needed per day varies from person to person based on factors like age, weight, height, and activity level. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, the estimated average calorie needs per day by age and sex are:

Age and Sex Calorie Needs
Women ages 19-30 2,000-2,400
Women ages 31-50 1,800-2,200
Women ages 51+ 1,600-2,400
Men ages 19-30 2,400-3,000
Men ages 31-50 2,200-3,000
Men ages 51+ 2,000-2,800

These numbers are just averages and your specific needs may be higher or lower depending on your individual stats and lifestyle. Active individuals require more calories, while more sedentary people require less.

How big of a calorie deficit is needed to lose weight?

To lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn each day. This calorie deficit forces your body to break down stored fat for energy, resulting in weight loss. A common recommendation is to aim for a 500-1,000 calorie per day deficit to lose about 1-2 pounds per week. However, the bigger the deficit does not necessarily mean faster or more weight loss. Severely cutting calories can cause muscle loss and slow your metabolism.

A more sustainable approach is to aim for a modest calorie deficit of 10-20% below your maintenance level calories. For a person who needs 2,000 calories per day for weight maintenance, that would be a daily deficit of 200-400 calories. This can produce a weight loss of about 0.5-1 pound per week, which is often easier to sustain over time.

How many calories per meal?

When creating your calorie deficit for weight loss, focusing on calories per meal can help with portion control and hunger management throughout the day. Here are some general guidelines for calories per meal:

  • Women: 300-500 calories per meal
  • Men: 400-600 calories per meal

The high ends of those ranges provide around 600 calories for women and 800 calories for men to divide between snacks and other mini meals.

To determine your specific calorie needs, you can use an online TDEE calculator or talk to a dietitian. Your total daily calorie target divided evenly into 3 meals would provide a calorie goal per meal. However, you may want smaller meals and larger snacks or vice versa depending on your preferences.

Tips for creating satisfying, nutrient-dense meals within your calorie budget:

  • Focus on lean proteins like chicken, fish, beans, tofu, eggs
  • Fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables like spinach, broccoli, peppers
  • Include fiber-rich carbs like quinoa, brown rice, oats, whole grain bread
  • Cook with healthy fats like olive oil, avocado oil, nuts and seeds
  • Stay hydrated with water, unsweetened tea, black coffee
  • Season foods with herbs, spices, lemon/lime juice, vinegar for flavor
  • Watch portion sizes of high calorie foods like cheese, dressings, oils, nuts
  • Satisfy sweet cravings with fruit, small squares of dark chocolate
  • Meal prep on weekends for quick weekday lunches and dinners

Sample meal plan with 500 calorie meals

Here is an example 1,500 calorie weight loss meal plan with roughly 500 calories per meal:


  • 1 cup oatmeal cooked in water with 1 tbsp chia seeds (300 calories)
  • 1 cup skim or almond milk (90 calories)
  • 1/2 cup blueberries (40 calories)
  • 1 hardboiled egg (70 calories)
  • Total: 500 calories


  • Tuna salad made with 3 oz tuna, 2 tbsp light mayo, mustard, diced celery on bed of greens (300 calories)
  • 1 slice whole grain bread, toasted (100 calories)
  • 1 medium apple (95 calories)
  • Total: 495 calories


  • 4 oz chicken breast roasted with herbs, garlic (180 calories)
  • 1 cup roasted broccoli and cauliflower (60 calories)
  • 1/2 cup quinoa pilaf (170 calories)
  • Tossed salad with 2 tbsp light dressing (90 calories)
  • Total: 500 calories

This provides a balanced mix of protein, healthy fats, fiber and nutrients within the calorie budget. Adjust meal ingredients as needed to meet your calorie goals per meal.

Should you eat the same number of calories at each meal?

It’s not necessary to eat the exact same number of calories at every meal. Some people prefer to “save” more of their calories for a bigger dinner, for example. As long as you stay within your total daily calorie needs for weight loss, you can distribute those calories however works best for you. Just be sure to include a balance of protein, carbs, fat and veggies at each meal for optimal nutrition.

That said, eating meals with very uneven calorie distributions can make it harder to feel satisfied throughout the day. For instance, an 800 calorie meal paired with two 200 calorie meals leaves lots of time to get hungry before and after that big meal. Eating more consistent 400-500 calorie meals with 100-200 calorie snacks spaced between them can help control appetite and cravings.

Should you eat fewer calories at dinner for weight loss?

It’s a myth that you have to eat your smallest meal at dinner for weight loss. What matters most is staying within your overall daily calorie target. However, there are a couple potential benefits to eating a lighter dinner:

  • Keeps your metabolism active vs slowing down as you sleep
  • Avoids heartburn that can happen with laying down too soon after a big meal
  • May help improve sleep quality

That said, if a bigger dinner makes it easier for you to stay within your calories during the day, then that can be an effective approach too. Listen to your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues throughout the day.

Should you eat more calories earlier in the day?

Some dietitians recommend front-loading your calories, meaning eating more earlier in the day and lighter at night. Potential benefits of this approach include:

  • Sets you up with nutrients to feel energized for morning workouts
  • Keeps your appetite steady and prevents overeating later
  • Matches your body’s circadian rhythms which prefer food earlier

However, this doesn’t automatically mean faster weight loss. As long as total daily calories stay in check, meal timing plays a minimal role in weight loss results. Focus on spreading calories throughout the day in whatever way feels best and is sustainable.

Should you eat 6 small meals per day instead of 3 larger ones?

There is debate about whether eating smaller, more frequent meals boosts metabolism and aids weight loss compared to 3 square meals. Research to support 6 small meals per day for weight loss has been mixed. Potential benefits include:

  • Keeps metabolism revved up through consistent intake
  • Prevents big dips and spikes in blood sugar levels
  • Wards off intense hunger that leads to overeating

However, other studies have shown three meals to be just as effective for weight loss as long as portion sizes are controlled. Ultimately, meal frequency should be based on personal preference and what helps you control calories overall.

Tips for successful weight loss with 3 meals vs. 6 small meals:

3 Meals:

  • Aim for 400-600 calories per meal for women, 500-800 for men
  • Include filling fiber, protein and healthy fats
  • Stay hydrated between meals
  • Allow yourself 1-2 healthy snacks as needed

6 Small Meals:

  • Aim for 250-350 calories per mini-meal
  • Combine complex carbs, lean protein, veggies
  • Include snacks like fruits, veggies with hummus, yogurt
  • Drink water or unsweetened drinks between eating


To lose weight at a safe, sustainable rate of 1-2 pounds per week, aim to eat 500-1,000 calories less than your daily needs. How you distribute those calories into meals depends on your personal preferences and schedule. Eating between 300-600 calories per meal with snacks as needed can help control portions and hunger. Focus on eating a balanced mix of lean proteins, produce, whole grains and healthy fats at meals and snacks to lose weight while staying nourished.

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