What to Know About a 2,000-Calorie Meal Plan

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on February 25, 2024
3 min read

If you look at a nutrition label on the back of any packaged food, you'll notice that all of the recommended daily values are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. While a 2,000-calorie diet can meet the needs of a wide variety of people, the number of calories you need depends on things like your weight, age, activity level, and goals.   

Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 to give people more information about the nutrients in the foods they eat. The law also set up guidelines about what claims could be made by food manufacturers. To put that information into perspective and show how the nutrients fit into an overall diet, a standard reference was needed.

The 2,000-calorie diet is based on surveys done by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on how many calories people ate. Men said they ate an average of 2,000 to 3,000 calories a day, and women said they ate an average of 1,600 to 2,200 calories daily. Based on those numbers, a 2,000-calorie diet was settled on as a standard reference. 

Focus on eating nutrient-dense foods that give you vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other healthy compounds. Cut back on added sugar, saturated fats, and sodium. Here are examples of nutritious foods to fill up on:

Vegetables. Eat a wide variety of vegetables of all colors. In general, women should eat 2 to 3 cups of vegetables daily, and men should eat 3 to 4 cups daily. Choose veggies like:

  • Dark greens, such as swiss chard and turnip greens
  • Red and orange vegetables, such as squash and beets
  • Beans, peas, and lentils
  • Starchy vegetables, such as corn and peas

Fruits. Any fruit or 100% fruit juice counts. But aim to eat whole fruit, which is high in vitamins, nutrients, and fiber. Women need around 1 1/2 to 2 cups of fruit daily, while men need around 2 to 2 1/2 cups daily.

Grains. Include foods made from grains such as wheat, rice, oatmeal, and barley. At least half of your grains should come from whole grains, which have more fiber, iron, and B vitamins. Adults should eat about 3 to 3 1/2 ounces of whole grains and no more than 3 ounces of refined grains daily.

Dairy or alternatives. Focus on fat-free or low-fat versions of dairy products to get the calcium and nutrients you need. Women and men need about 3 cups of dairy or dairy alternatives daily, like:

  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Calcium-fortified plant-based milks, such as almond and soy
  • Tofu made with calcium sulfate

Protein foods. Women need 5 to 6 ounces of protein daily, while men need 6 to 7 ounces. Choose protein foods that are lean or low in fat. Many Americans eat enough meat, poultry, and eggs, but you should include more:

  • Seafood
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Soy

Oils. This group includes vegetable oils and the oils naturally found in foods, such as nuts and seafood.

If you focus on eating enough nutrient-dense foods, it won't leave much room in your diet for snacks or meals that only offer empty calories or saturated fat. While you can eat those goodies in small amounts, you should generally cut back on foods with lots of:

One way to plan a 2,000-calorie diet is to spread the calories throughout your meals and snacks. It might look like this:

  • 500 calories for breakfast
  • 500 calories for lunch
  • 600 calories for dinner
  • 400 calories for snacks

Another way is to plan your meals with an exchange system. A day's menu might look like this:

Breakfast: 2 grains, 2 fruits, 1 dairy, 1 fat

Lunch: 2 grains, 1 fruit, 1 vegetable, 3 proteins, 2 fats, 1 dairy

Dinner: 4 grains, 1 fruit, 5 vegetables, 4 proteins, 3 fats

Snacks: 1 grain, 1 dairy

Your doctor can help you come up with a meal plan that works for you based on your overall health, activity level, and weight goals.