Understanding meal patterns: definitions, methodology and impact on nutrient intake and diet quality

Nutr Res Rev. 2015 Jun;28(1):1-21. doi: 10.1017/S0954422414000262. Epub 2015 Mar 19.


Traditionally, nutrition research has focused on individual nutrients, and more recently dietary patterns. However, there has been relatively little focus on dietary intake at the level of a 'meal'. The purpose of the present paper was to review the literature on adults' meal patterns, including how meal patterns have previously been defined and their associations with nutrient intakes and diet quality. For this narrative literature review, a comprehensive search of electronic databases was undertaken to identify studies in adults aged ≥ 19 years that have investigated meal patterns and their association with nutrient intakes and/or diet quality. To date, different approaches have been used to define meals with little investigation of how these definitions influence the characterisation of meal patterns. This review identified thirty-four and fourteen studies that have examined associations between adults' meals patterns, nutrient intakes and diet quality, respectively. Most studies defined meals using a participant-identified approach, but varied in the additional criteria used to determine individual meals, snacks and/or eating occasions. Studies also varied in the types of meal patterns, nutrients and diet quality indicators examined. The most consistent finding was an inverse association between skipping breakfast and diet quality. No consistent association was found for other meal patterns, and little research has examined how meal timing is associated with diet quality. In conclusion, an understanding of the influence of different meal definitions on the characterisation of meal patterns will facilitate the interpretation of the existing literature, and may provide guidance on the most appropriate definitions to use.

Keywords: Diet quality; Diet quality indicators; Meal patterns; Nutrient intake.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Breakfast
  • Diet Records
  • Diet*
  • Energy Intake
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Food
  • Food Quality*
  • Humans
  • Meals*
  • Nutritive Value
  • Snacks
  • Time Factors