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 people are used to eating on the go rather than stocking their kitchens and planning meals. Ordering take-out or grabbing fast food from the drive-thru is simply a matter of convenience for many people, but for someone who is recovering from an eating disorder, a more focused and structured approach to meals is necessary.

Meal planning is a crucial skill for people recovering from eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED). It's also necessary for the loved ones, parents, and caregivers who are helping someone recover from an eating disorder to learn about meal planning.

Recovery from all eating disorders requires the normalization of regular eating patterns. Research has shown that this goal is best accomplished through planned and structured eating.

In residential and inpatient settings, meals are planned and provided for patients. In an outpatient setting, a person in recovery needs to implement a structured eating plan on their own. Although, every person who is receiving inpatient treatment will eventually need to transition to an outpatient level of care where they will take on the responsibility of meal planning.

Some people with eating disorders avoid grocery shopping because it makes them anxious. If someone with an eating disorder is afraid of binge eating, they might not keep their kitchen stocked. In either case, a person could end up not eating enough and might even be more likely to binge eat.

Mealtimes can be stressful for the families of someone recovering from an eating disorder. Constant meal preparation and serving can be overwhelming. The caregivers of someone in recovery might also need to provide supervision during and after meals to ensure the person is not overexercising or engaging in other eating disorder behaviors.

Many healthy foods to be incorporated into the diet of someone in recovery from an eating disorder are perishable, which makes planning ahead and stocking fresh fruits and vegetables all the more important. That said, it's not always easy to find the time to shop for, plan, and prepare meals.

Meal Planning Benefits

Making an effort to learn about and implement meal planning can ultimately pay off, as the strategy has many benefits, such as:

  • Having a list and a plan for a shopping trip helps ensure a person only buys what they intend to buy and doesn't become overwhelmed by choices.
  • Meal planning is often more cost-effective compared to leaving decisions about food to the last minute.
  • Planning ahead can reduce the number of grocery trips someone with an eating disorder needs to make in a given week, which can help reduce anxiety.

Strategies for Adults in Recovery

Whether you are planning and preparing meals for yourself or someone else, it will help to understand the basics of meal planning for eating disorder recovery. Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Plan a set number of meals each week. Once a week, take 10 minutes to plan at least five lunches and five dinners for the week. It doesn't have to be set in stone, however. If you end up wanting to move them around and, for example, have your Wednesday dinner on Tuesday instead, you'll have all the ingredients on hand.
  • Itemize ingredients. Make a list of the ingredients you need to buy to make the meals you plan. You can include items from recipes that you will cook or prepared items you will assemble for each meal.
  • Decide when you will go shopping. Plan at least one large shopping trip per week to get you through the bulk of your planned meals. You might also want to plan for one additional "fill-in" trip.
  • Don't forget about premade options. If you can't or don't want to cook, you can plan healthy, delicious, and balanced meals from the prepared sections of almost any supermarket.
  • Consider dining out. If you are going to have some of your meals out, add where you will go and what you think you will have to eat to your weekly plan.
  • Give yourself choices. Have at least two different breakfast options that you can alternate to ensure you have a bit of variety.
  • Include snacks. The bites to eat you have between meals are also important and should be part of your weekly plan.
  • Make a list. You'll have fewer decisions to make if you are following a meal plan but you should still sit down once per week and make a shopping list that is based on your plan.
  • Let yourself change your mind. It's OK to include room for a spontaneous event or outing in your weekly plan. Your meal plan does not need to be set-in-stone.

A meal plan is meant to help you avoid becoming too overwhelmed to decide what to eat and when to eat it. For example, if you come home from work exhausted, trying to figure out what to eat (let alone cooking it) might be so overwhelming that you simply decide not to eat.

However, if you have a meal planned—and perhaps even mostly prepared— it reduces the number of decisions that you need to make and work that you need to do to ensure you are consistently nourishing your body in recovery.

Meal-Planning Strategies for Caregivers

Here are some tips to help you plan meals for a loved one who is recovering from an eating disorder.

  • Plan for the week ahead. On a weekly basis, sit down and plan your family's meals for the week.
  • Assemble meals. Plan at least four to five dinners for the entire family weekly. Try planning meals with simple and cost-effective components that can be adjusted to each person's needs and preferences (for example, tacos, pasta dishes with sauce and meat, salads, etc.)
  • Plan school lunches. Aim to plan at least five of your child’s lunches for each weekday.
  • Have options. When you're planning breakfasts, try to have two meals that can be alternated.
  • Don't forget snacks. In addition to planning for snacks as part of a weekly meal plan, don't forget to add the ingredients you'll need to your shopping list.
  • Keep weight goals in mind. If your child needs to gain weight, they may need to consume a very high-calorie diet. You might need to buy more food, or more of certain types of nutrient-dense, high-calorie foods, during your shopping trips.

You'll want to talk to your child's eating disorder treatment team first, but it might be helpful to include them in some of the meal planning and preparation. Depending on your child's needs, involving them in the process can be part of their recovery.

Prioritizing and making the time for regular meal planning and shopping helps a person recovering from an eating disorder make progress. If your family is supporting someone in recovery, you might also want to work with a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) on your meal plans. If your loved one is having a hard time with meal planning on their own, you can also find additional meal support. 

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Article Sources
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  2. Hage TW, Rø Ø, Moen A. "Time's up" - staff's management of mealtimes on inpatient eating disorder units. J Eat Disord. 2015;3:13. doi:10.1186/s40337-015-0052-4

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

  4. National Eating Disorders Association. Recovery & relapse.

  5. 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.

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