There are a lot of obstacles to successfully sticking to a diet, and time and organization are two big ones. If you don't like meal planning and preparation, and you can afford it, prepackaged meal plans are a viable alternative. These programs deliver three meals a day -- plus snacks -- right to your door. All you have to do is heat and eat. The drawbacks are the price -- which can be quite high -- and the restrictions to eating only what is delivered. If you're dieting and other family members aren't, it may be hard to resist sneaking a bit of what they're eating. It's also difficult to eat out since you're restricted to your prepackaged meals, at least for the first few months.
Jenny Craig (Est. $20 and up per month, plus food) is probably the most ubiquitous of these meal delivery programs, but experts say that's because it works. It consistently comes out on top in "best diet" roundups for weight loss, convenience, ease of following, support, and as an overall healthy diet. With Jenny Craig, you have meals delivered to your door on a weekly basis; some are frozen and just need to be heated, others are shelf-stable and only need to be opened. You can supplement the meals with fruit or yogurt, in the proper proportions to stay within your caloric range. Your specific diet plan is based upon an interview with a counselor, and takes into account emotional eating issues, as well as any dietary preferences or sensitivities.
Where Jenny Craig doesn't do so well, users say, is in the area of long-term weight loss, partly because not many people can afford it for the long term. While the base subscription seems low at about $20 per month (and that does not include the registration fee, which is often waived) other programs run as high as $40 per month and to you may need to add the registration fee. The cost of food and shipping is an ongoing expense as well: We saw estimates that weekly food costs average around $90 to $170 per person.
Experts and consumers say Jenny Craig's food is tasty, but the portions are small and we saw many complaints of hunger on the program -- as well as hunger's accompanying side effects of fatigue and crankiness. However, there is ample support provided from nutritional counselors and fellow dieters, which experts say is crucial to sticking with any eating plan, and will help you as you transition to eating real food. Jenny Craig gets lower scores for integrating fitness into its program than other diets.
Nutrisystem (Est. $300 and up per month) is another popular prepackaged food plan that is very similar to Jenny Craig. It has many of the same benefits and limitations, but gets lower scores overall for taste from users. It is less expensive than Jenny Craig when taking into account that plan's food costs, but it is still more expensive than just buying groceries and preparing your own meals, experts note.
Another prepackaged diet, Bistro MD (Est. $180 per week and up), also ranks behind Jenny Craig in taste tests and it's one of the pricier prepackaged diet options. However, it can easily be customized to your specific needs, whether you're gluten intolerant, diabetic, or have other special dietary needs. Like most prepackaged diet programs, Bistro MD lacks a fitness component.
One Bistro MD offering, the 17 Day Diet Delivery (Est. $200 per week and up) is a collaboration between Dr. Mike Moreno, author of the 17 Day Diet, and Bistro MD. The menu offerings are more limited, but it gets top marks in independent taste tests. It is more expensive that Bistro MD's basic diet, and lacks fitness support, but reviewers say it's a great tool to pair with the 17 Day Diet book (Est. $16).
EDiets.com (Est. $10 per month, plus food) tries to provide something for everybody, offering meal delivery for several types of diets based upon a free diet questionnaire. However, we found a lot of user complaints about a lack of transparency regarding costs, and quite a few received food that wasn't what they ordered, a serious problem for those with food allergies or sensitivities. A number of users also say EDiets is almost impossible to cancel if you decide you no longer want to participate. We would urge caution to anyone who decides to try this plan to save money -- you probably won't.
If you can't afford a dedicated meal delivery service, it's possible to reap the convenience factor of pre-prepared foods without the expense of microwave meals. One plan that's been around for a long time is SlimFast (Est. $10 for 8 shakes; $1 per snack bar), which makes meal replacement as easy as opening a package or can. You merely replace breakfast and lunch with a SlimFast shake, smoothie or bar - there are SlimFast snacks as well, chips, crisps and snack bites -- and then make a balanced, 500 calorie dinner.
While SlimFast is proven to work, the restrictive nature of the diet makes it unrealistic for the long term -- most experts say 8- to 10-weeks is the outside limit for most people and recommend it for those who have no more than 20 pounds to lose. Other health experts frown on its super-low, 1,200 calorie-per-day allowance -- that may feel like starvation to some. However, SlimFast is very popular and plenty of people just love the convenience of grab-and-go food during the day because it requires no thought or effort at all. Many SlimFast fans say that even when they're not on the diet, they use the meal replacement bars or shakes for breakfast or a quick lunch. SlimFast is also very affordable compared to meal delivery services, and having a shake or bar for your meal will probably cost less than buying groceries to cook one from scratch. The products are also widely available at virtually every store that carries groceries and at online retailers such as Amazon.com.
One last caveat, though: virtually all of SlimFast's products lean toward dessert-style flavors -- dark chocolate, vanilla cream, strawberries and cream, caramel latte -- and those who lack a sweet tooth say they simply can't stomach them.
Elsewhere in this report: