Breaking Down the MEAL Plan: Beginning with the Main Idea -->

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Breaking Down the MEAL Plan: Beginning with the Main Idea

The MEAL plan* of paragraph development and organization is a popular acronym at Walden. Whenever I ask students if they’ve heard of it, at least half already have and the other half immediately start taking notes as I explain it. The reason it’s popular is clear. It’s easy to remember and helps to demystify a topic that can seem quite murky: paragraphs.

Breaking Down the MEAL Plan with the Walden Writing Center: Part 1: The Main Idea

However, to use the MEAL plan effectively to develop and revise paragraphs, it needs a little bit of explanation. In this first of a series of blog posts about the MEAL plan, I’m going to tackle the first letter: M, standing for “main idea.”

The main idea of a paragraph is often called a topic sentence. 

There are a few requirements of a topic sentence that you should always check off:
 You should always have one! Each paragraph should start with a topic sentence—that’s right, each and every paragraph. This type of sentence is that important.
 The topic sentence needs to introduce the main idea you’ll be exploring or explaining in the rest of the paragraph. It’s sort of like the thesis statement of the paragraph in this way: it helps tell the reader what topic all the sentences in the paragraph will have in common.
 It probably shouldn’t have a citation. While this isn’t a hard and fast rule, it’s a good guideline. A topic sentence may include research (with a citation), but it usually doesn’t because it should be an overall statement of the paragraph’s focus (rather than a specific idea or fact that needs a citation).

Here’s a sample paragraph with a topic sentence: 

          Many infant and mother deaths can be prevented, especially in the third world. Worldwide, around 11,000,000 children under 5 years old die primarily from preventable diseases, and over 500,000 mothers die from pregnancy- or delivery-related complications annually; almost 99% of these occur in developing countries (Hill et al., 2007). This high number is devastating because while infants in these countries have a high risk of dying, their risk does not stop once they are adults. For women, the lifetime risk of dying from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes is about 100 times higher in Bangladesh than in developed countries (WHO, 2004). The continued failures in implementing straightforward interventions targeting the root causes of mortalities have been responsible for these deaths (McCoy, 2006). The medical community has not been able to come up with simple, cost-effective, and life-saving methods that would help save lives in developing countries. This lack of innovation in the medical field has resulted in the continued unnecessary deaths of thousands of mothers and children.

In analyzing this paragraph, we can check off all of our requirements for a topic sentence:

 First, it exists! I know this sounds simple, but students often forget to include topic sentences in their hurry to include evidence from sources.
 Second, it tells us what this paragraph’s focus will be about. After reading the rest of the paragraph, we can see that all the other sentences reflect this focus—they develop and support this idea that (a) infants and mothers are dying, (b) these deaths are preventable, and (c) this is happening in the third world.
√ Third, the statement is general enough that it doesn’t need a citation. Instead, it’s an overall statement that summarizes the focus of the entire paragraph, not just one idea or fact that would need a citation.
 Lastly, take another look at the paragraph and imagine if that topic sentence wasn’t there. While each sentence on its own would make sense, we wouldn’t know the main point or idea of the paragraph until the very last sentence. Waiting until the end of the paragraph to understand the paragraph’s main idea impedes the reader’s ability to understand how these sentences fit together. 
I hope you’re getting a sense of what a topic sentence looks like and why it is important. However, most writers don’t naturally include topic sentences in their paragraphs, and that’s okay! What’s important is that you are able to revise for topic sentences. To do so, I always suggest that students review each paragraph of a first draft: look for paragraphs that don’t have a topic sentence that fulfills the requirements I outlined above, and add or adjust as needed.

* The MEAL plan is adapted from the Duke University Writing Studio.

For an explanation of evidence in a paragraph, see our next post in the series

Breaking Down the MEAL Plan with the Walden Writing Center: Part 1: The Main Idea Breaking Down the MEAL Plan with the Walden Writing Center: Part 2: Evidence Breaking Down the MEAL Plan with the Walden Writing Center: Part 3: Evidence Breaking Down the MEAL Plan with the Walden Writing Center: Part 4: The Lead Out Sentence Image Map


Beth Oyler is a writing instructor and the webinar coordinator for the Writing Center. Living in perpetually snowy Minnesota, she is fervently hoping for spring.

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  1. Hi Beth -
    Thanks for the tips. I understand what you said about the topic sentence and that was they way I was taught to write many years ago. When I have submitted my work to my chair using the MEAL plan, they have told me to cite the topic sentence. How frustrating! Anyway, I will be reviewing my most recent draft and making sure there is a topic sentence.

  2. Good luck reviewing your draft! It is wonderful to hear that these tips are helpful, and that you are making progress.

  3. Thanks for the tips.
    very useful.

  4. You're welcome, KT! We're glad you found these tips helpful.