Meal Planning for Eating Disorder Recovery

Learn How to Plan Meals to Support Your Recovery

Meal Planning in Eating Disorder Recovery
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In our modern, faced-paced society, in which food is plentiful, many of us become accustomed to eating on the go, not stocking our kitchens, and ordering in or eating fast food. While for most people these choices are a matter of convenience, patients in recovery from an eating disorder must focus on being more structured and deliberate about their food choices.

Meal planning is a critical skill for recovery from all eating disorders including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED). It is important not only for adults who are working on their own recovery, but also for parents or caregivers who are helping a child, adolescent, or young adult with their recovery.

Recovery from all eating disorders requires the normalization of regular eating patterns. This is best accomplished through planned and structured eating. In residential and inpatient settings, meals are typically provided for patients. But for patients recovering in the outpatient setting, this must usually be done on one’s own. And of course, all patients must transition out of higher levels of care into the outpatient setting and take this on for themselves eventually. In CBT-E, one of the most successful evidence-based treatments for eating disorders, the general advice is for clients to eat every four hours and to plan ahead.

Some people with eating disorders avoid food shopping because it makes them anxious. They may end up not eating enough. Other people with eating disorders avoid keeping their kitchens stocked because they are afraid of binge eating. They may wind up letting themselves get too hungry and then bingeing on processed foods or ordering in food and overeating.

For parents with a child in recovery, meals can be stressful. Parents can feel overwhelmed with the constant meal preparation and serving. They may also need to supervise their child to make sure their child is not overexercising or engaging in other eating disorder behaviors. They may have limited time to shop and prepare meals. Planning ahead becomes even more critical.

Because many of the healthier foods are perishable, planning ahead and stocking fresh fruits and vegetables may improve health. Meal planning is often cost-effective as compared to leaving food decisions to the last minute. Most people in recovery find that they must go to the supermarket at least once per week. Planning appropriately can prevent the need for additional trips. Planning ahead also helps ensure that you buy what you intend to buy. Making a list ahead of time and planning the trip will make sure you buy the foods you want to have at home, and not buy the foods that may potentially be a trigger food.

Even if you will not be cooking, meal planning is still important. And if you are taking care of someone with an eating disorder, meal planning is essential for you.

Strategies for Adults Who Are in Recovery

  • Once a week, take 10 minutes to plan out at least five lunches and five dinners to get you through the week. If you ultimately want to move them around and have your Wednesday dinner on Tuesday instead – no problem, you will have the ingredients you will need on hand.
  • Make a list of the ingredients you need to buy to make those meals – this can be actual recipes you will cook or prepared items you will assemble for the meal.
  • Plan to do at least one large shopping per week to get you through the bulk of the week’s meals. You may have to do one additional “fill-in” shopping trip.
  • If you are shopping and meal planning for one and don’t want to cook, healthy, delicious, and balanced meals can easily be put together from the prepared sections of almost any market.
  • If you plan to have some meals out, include where and what in your plan.
  • Have at least two different breakfast options you can alternate.
  • Don’t forget to plan for your snacks.
  • If you are following a meal plan, you may have fewer decisions to make, but you will still want to sit down once per week and make a shopping list based on your meal plan.
  • Your meal plan does not need to be set-in-stone. You can always include room for a spontaneous event that arises, but you don't want to be in the position where you arrive home tired after work and have no idea what to make for dinner.

Meal-Planning Strategies for Caregivers Supporting a Child in Recovery

  • On a weekly basis, sit down and make a plan for the family’s meals for the week.
  • Plan at least four to five dinners for the entire family weekly; try meals with components, which can be adjusted to each eater’s needs and preferences simply and cost-effectively (examples include tacos; or pasta with sauce, meatballs, and a vegetable)
  • Plan out five of your child’s lunches to get you through each weekday.
  • Have at least two breakfast options you can alternate.
  • Buy enough ingredients for all of your child’s snacks.
  • If your child is needing to gain weight, they will commonly need a lot of food so plan accordingly

It is a good idea to have a child in recovery help make some of these decisions., so be sure to include your child in the planning and preparation of meals.

A helpful tool for meal planning (for both individuals and families) is available free online. Look under meal planning, and download Weekly Meal Planning/ Shopping List.

For both adults and adolescents with eating disorders, those families who prioritize and make the time for regular meal planning and shopping make better progress in treatment. Registered Dietitians (RDNs) can assist with meal planning for recovery. Patients and families may also want to consider additional meal support when the patient is having trouble completing meals on his or her own.

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Article Sources
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  1. Grilo CM, Mitchell JE, eds. The Treatment of Eating Disorders: A Clinical Handbook. New York: The Guilford Press; 2011.

  2. Noordenbos G. Normalizing Eating Habits. In: Recovery from Eating Disorders: A Guide for Clinicians and Their Clients. Wiley; 2013.

  3. Murphy R, Straebler S, Cooper Z, Fairburn CG. Cognitive behavioral therapy for eating disorders. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2010;33(3):611-627. doi:10.1016/j.psc.2010.04.004

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Planning meals. Updated March 28, 2019.

  5. National Eating Disorders Association. Recovery & Relapse.

  6. Crosby C, Sterling W. How to Nourish Your Child Through an Eating Disorder: A Simple, Plate-By-Plate Approach to Rebuilding a Healthy Relationship with Food. New York: Experiment Publishing; 2018.

Additional Reading
  • Fairburn, C.G. (2008). Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Eating Disorders. New York, NY: Guilford Press.