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Eating Disorder Meal Planning [Using Intuitive Eating]

So you finally took the huge step to pursue eating disorder recovery – congratulations! You’ve got a treatment team and your registered dietitian gave you a food plan, likely with a set amount of servings to eat daily. Now you’re asking yourself: but what do I eat?

I get it. Having a food plan and actually figuring out what to plate for meals or snacks can be difficult. That’s why I am teaching you the meal planning technique I teach to all of my patients!

This post will give you practical and actionable steps to start meal planning and help you meet your servings goals. You’ll also be able to download my meal planning template for free at the end!

Let’s go!

Picture is of a blank sample meal plan page

What is meal planning?

Meal planning is just like it sounds – you plan out your meals ahead of time. Some people also practice meal prepping as well to make cooking easier.

For example, you might find that chopping up vegetables for soup and pre-roasting a chicken on a less busy day, makes cooking a little faster on busier days.

Meal planning can offer many benefits, but also some drawbacks.

The Benefits

  • Knowing what you are going to have for your next meal/snack can reduce the stress of choosing what to eat
  • A meal plan helps you create a shopping list which may decrease distress when grocery shopping
  • You will be able to honor your future hunger. You won’t be stuck staring into the fridge thinking “what the heck am I going to make for dinner?” when you are ready to eat NOW!
  • Your meal plan will be flexible enough that you can choose foods that feel satisfying to eat in the moment

The Drawbacks

  • It takes some time to make your meal/snack idea list, go through the kitchen to see what you already have, and make a shopping list
  • It can be overwhelming to think about all the food you might eat in a week (if this is you, you may try planning for only a few days at a time)
  • If you used meal planning or prepping in your dieting days, stay aware of your feelings while trying this. Bring up negative feelings to your dietitian or therapist for discussion.

Using the intuitive eating principles

You are going to use the intuitive eating principles of: rejecting diet culture, honoring your hunger, making peace with food, challenging the food police, discovering satisfaction while eating, and gentle nutrition

As previously mentioned, meal planning/prepping often gets used in diets or weight loss attempts and becomes a way to restrict certain foods or amounts of food.

You need to switch to a recovery mindset now. Meal planning can help you meet your recovery goals so long as you are not secretly hoping you’ll lose weight or only eat “healthy” foods from now on.

Things to Consider When Meal Planning in Recovery

  1. Stay flexible! You are not writing your meal plan on a tablet of stone. Allow yourself to choose what to eat based on what sounds good.
  2. Use your food plan (if you have one) to ensure you are plating all prescribed servings. Have a copy nearby (or even written on your meal plan template).
  3. Ask your dietitian to carve out time in your appointments to do your meal planning together for additional support.
  4. Ask yourself the question: what do I want to eat? Feeling satisfied at the end of your meal is extremely important. You can refer to the Discover the Satisfaction Factor chapter of the Intuitive Eating book (4th edition) or the Intuitive Eating Workbook for more support in answering this question.
  5. Use social media, cookbooks/recipes, google images, or non-diet-y apps to help spark ideas (see below for a list of recovery-friendly recipe sites)
  6. Incorporate past exposure and response prevention (ERP) foods to continue the habituation process. Work with your dietitian to schedule new ERPs into the week. (If you’re not familiar with ERPs, you can find out more below.)

Create your Meal Plan

Starting with one meal or snack time, you’re first going to brain dump all the options that sound good to you this week. In the below example, I am going to show you what this would look like for dinners.

Picture is of a list of sample dinner ideas that includes items such as stir fry with chicken and rice, crockpot sausage and potato dish, tacos, chicken and pasta, spicy tuna salad wraps, and chili and cornbread

You don’t necessarily have to assign the days yet, but consider what you have time or energy for on certain days, or if you will have extra support for certain meals (such as ones that include ERPS).

After you’ve got your brain dump list, see if there are any holes you need to fill. If you only came up with 4 ideas for dinner, use the internet to help spark more ideas (if you are only doing a few days at a time, you can stop brainstorming here!)

Now, create a new list of meal/snack options you can keep on hand as backups. You will now have options for in case your plans fall through or what you had planned doesn’t sound good that day.

Picture is of a back up dinner list that includes items such as leftovers, a peanut butter sandwich, a frozen meal, or bagel and cream cheese

Next, take your two lists and create your grocery shopping list for the week. Consider what you already have at home or what needs to get used up.

Feel free to stay flexible while you’re shopping as well! If you see something at the store that elicits a that sounds good! reaction, you may want to purchase that too!

Picture is of a shopping list created from meal plan that includes items such as pasta, chicken, ground beef, sausage, frozen peas, frozen meal, bread, et cetera.

Other questions about meal planning

Can meal planning be used for anorexia nervosa?

Yes! This style of meal planning can be used for any eating disorder diagnosis, including anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED), atypical anorexia, Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (AFRID), and more!

How do I create balance in my meal plan?

If you’re worried about creating balance within your meals, go back to your prescribed food plan. Your dietitian created it with balance in mind!

Think of your food plan as training wheels to create balance and variety within your day. It likely includes all food groups or may take a “plate approach.”

Remember, that your body doesn’t need every single food group every time you eat! It can gather the nutrients it needs over many meals.

How long should I go between eating?

I recommend you avoid going longer than 3 hours between a meal or snack in your waking hours. Another tip – try to eat breakfast within an hour of waking up.

If you want more information on meal timing, check out the podcast Food Psych episode #302 “Is Meal Timing Really Important?”

What if I get full before my meal plan is complete?

If your dietitian has approved a “push away,” meaning you can leave a certain percentage of food behind (typically between 5-15%), then use it! 

If you are experiencing fullness early in the meal, it is likely a result of prolonged restriction due to your eating disorder. 

As uncomfortable as it is, try to eat more of your meal (ie. mechanical eating). This should get better in time. 

You can also work with your dietitian on a supplement exchange plan. If you can’t finish your meal because you are too full, ask if you can supplement it with a glass of milk or a dietary supplement like Ensure or Boost to meet your food plan.

What is an ERP?

ERP stands for exposure and response prevention. It is a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) technique that you can do with food.

Your dietitian can help you choose foods that feel distressing for you to eat. Sometimes they are called “fear foods” or “triggering foods.” 

The goal is to expose yourself to the same food over and over until it becomes habituated. 

For example, a client of mine ate donuts 2-3 times per week for her ERP. After the third week, she reported feeling “over” donuts. She had eaten them so often, she was not craving them at all, even though she used to feel out of control while eating them. 

After you have completed an ERP, you will want to keep plating them every once in a while to continue the habituation process. You can work them right into your meal plan.

What are some recovery-friendly recipe sites?

It can be hard to find recipe sites without the calorie or macronutrient numbers shoved in your face. Here are a few better options:

Final Thoughts

Meal planning is a great way to meet your recovery food plan goals. While it does take some time and effort, the payout is worth it!

Meal planning is an opportunity to hone your intuitive eating skills and continue to work on making peace with all foods.

Take baby steps; you don’t have to brainstorm every meal and snack all at once. Focus on what is giving you the most trouble this week and take action.

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