Many of my nutrition clients looking to let go of diets ask … “Should I have a meal plan if I am trying to become an Intuitive Eater?”
When I meet a client, either recovering from an eating disorder or trying to let go of diets, they are usually weary of strict rules and guidelines but fearful of NO structure whatsoever.
A meal plan, meal guidelines, or even a few suggestions for satisfying meals, are all good tactics to use while a person is figuring out what and how much they like to eat! It all comes down to one main thing…Meal Planning.
Read on to learn about the different types of meal planning options and if meal planning is right for you.
What is a meal plan and is it right for me?
The meal plan acts like a safety net or cast for a broken “hunger and fullness meter.” The meal plan is like training wheels for the not-yet intuitive eater. A dieter will eventually discover their own internal measures of hunger, fullness, and satisfaction, but often need some guidance around this. A meal plan can be helpful to the person who has lost touch with the basic tenets of a balanced plate. Through years of chronic dieting, restricting, bingeing or any behavior that disconnects the body from the brain, a meal plan can serve as a bridge from disordered – to “ordered” eating.
Are there different kinds of meal plans?
Yes, yes and yes!!! Every person struggling to make peace with food has a different set of experiences which affect the type of support needed to ultimately pursue intuitive eating. Try NOT to get bogged down with terminology here, as the idea is to help someone develop structure if their eating has been chaotic.
If you are not exactly sure what Intuitive Eating is, read this article, What is Intuitive Eating, to understand it better.
Eating Disorder Recovery Meal Plan
Here are some different scenarios where different types and levels of support can be helpful.
A highly structured and individualized meal plan is usually a bedrock of eating disorder recovery. Specific amounts of foods and food groups or exchanges will be “prescribed” if destructive eating patterns have made nutritional and weight restoration a priority. An eating disorder dietitian will usually design and monitor this plan and help you, eventually, feel safe around foods previously avoided and incorporate them back into your daily intake.
A balanced meal plan usually has combinations of food groups, including proteins, grains, fruits, dairy, vegetables, and some fat for staying power. It is important to incorporate all these food groups at meals and snacks. Some examples of recovery meal plans can be found in my free ebook, Eating For Recovery Plan With Meal And Recipe Guide.
Just a little structure, please!
A meal “pattern” can be as simple as the suggestion to consume three meals a day with 2-3 snacks in between those meals. This might be helpful for someone who have had very chaotic eating patterns and needs to be reminded that consuming meals at regular intervals will help entice hunger cues.
These meals can be varied according to a person’s changing food preferences. The goal of any meal plan, meal guide or meal pattern is to help a person return to “normal” eating. To make peace with food, remember that all foods are morally equivalent. A person is not “bad” for eating bread, chocolate, butter, or whatever food of the month is currently being “demonized” in mainstream media.
Food is not “good or bad.” Food is food. Foods have different nutritional contributions to the diet, but are no different in terms of moral currency.
Unstructured “Meal Ideas”
When a person has kicked diets to the curb and is fully embracing their intuitive eating journey, there is tremendous freedom, joy (and some fear) in re-discovering foods you have not “allowed” yourself. In fact, I often find people at this stage feel quite rebellious at the thought of ANY structure at all! This is normal and must be respected.
At this point, I will usually ask a person to think of a few “go to” meals and snacks for those moments when it is hard to think of WHAT to eat. For example, I know that I love oatmeal and it’s usually in my cabinet for a quick breakfast or snack.
I always have peanut butter in my house and, if all else fails, I can have a PB and J sandwich and feel quite satisfied. For dinner? Cue turkey or salmon burgers! I even have a guide with some of these “meal” suggestions in this ebook, 3 Steps to get OFF the Diet Roller Coaster for Good.
What About Actual, Literal Menu Planning?
Okay, I will admit this in public – I might be a dietitian but I am NOT a natural meal planner. Yet Meal Planning Works!
I still balk at the idea of sitting down to think of foods I might want to eat the following week, or even the next few days! But for people on tight budgets, people working long hours and/or families with too much going on, planning various meals in advance can help provide order and a sense of calm when hunger strikes.
Intuitive eating principles teach you to learn to listen to your body’s internal cues of hunger and fullness, and to find satisfaction with meals. This is much easier to do when specific foods are already in the pantry or refrigerator. This is, in my opinion, a reason to consider planning certain meals or even fun foods to try, in advance.
Here is a video I recorded which talks about recovery from chronic dieting and/or disordered eating and describes some additional strategies you might enjoy.
If you want to explore more on gentle nutrition and intuitive eating and learn more about meal planning, the best way is to join my free online course, “Dip your Toes into Intuitive Eating.”
This is a free program and in it you will learn:
- Why diets don’t work (Hint: it’s not YOUR fault, but the fault of diets and diet culture).
- How using mindfulness can help you become more aware of your body’s innate sensations of hunger and fullness.
- How satisfaction is the missing key to discovering authentic nutrition.
- Start to recognize that you’re so much more than the shape and size of your body!
- See that you have many wonderful qualities on the inside, as we focus on becoming whole from the inside out.
Erica Leon is a Registered Dietitian and practices from a Health at Every Size (HAES®) lens. She and her team of eating disorder specialists and Anti-Diet Dietitians provide insurance-based care for eating disorders, disordered eating, chronic dieting, or other health conditions in a safe and non-judgmental space for healing.
We work virtually with our clients from our offices in Westchester County in New York as well as the tri-state areas of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, along with Florida, California, Wisconsin, Iowa, Texas, and Vermont. We are in-network with the following insurance companies: Aetna, Cigna, and United Healthcare; including Oxford, UMR, and The Empire Plan (NYSHIP).
We take the time to learn where you or your family are in the pursuit of health. Respectful of your individual needs and lifestyle, Erica will provide an honest assessment of whether or not you are a good fit to work together. Click here to schedule a 15-minute Discovery Call with Erica to let us know about your needs, and to see which of our Dietitians is the best fit for you!