If you’re struggling with an eating disorder and don’t know where to start, you may be thinking about whether or not you need an eating disorder meal plan for recovery.
As a group of eating disorder dietitians, we work with clients in recovery to create eating disorder meal plans that are personalized and medically sound.
Do you need an eating disorder meal plan?
When it comes to whether or not you need an eating disorder meal plan for recovery, the honest answer is: It depends! Everyone is different, and every eating disorder is different. Generally, meal plans are great for providing structure in eating disorder recovery. A good meal plan — that your eating disorder dietitian creates specifically for you, and tweaks regularly based on your needs — will be flexible enough to follow, while also ensuring that you eat enough food at regular intervals.
Some meal plans — especially in early recovery, or if you’re a child or teenager — might have lots of structure and guidelines in order to meet nutrition goals. Other meal plans might be really flexible with looser guidelines about what, when, and how much to eat.
At Ruby Oak Nutrition, we believe in creating meal plans with you, not for you. We’re here to help you push back against your eating disorder, and we know how important your buy-in is for that. In session, we’ll work together to create flexible, realistic meal plan for the week(s). As our work together continues, we’ll troubleshoot your meal plan and adjust it over time.
Understanding the basics of an eating disorder meal plan
Before diving into the specifics of creating a meal plan, it’s important to understand the unique challenges individuals with eating disorders face. Eating disorders often involve complex relationships with food, body image, and self-esteem. Therefore, a thoughtful and individualized approach is crucial when developing a meal plan.
- Personalized Assessment: Your meal plan will take into account your unique nutritional needs, as well as your daily schedule. Your dietitian will help you create a meal plan that has you eating at times that work for you — for example, eating breakfast AND a snack before school if you’re not able to eat in class, or eating lunch while you have a break in meetings. They’ll also be sure not to overwhelm you with “fear foods” early on, so that you can ease slowly into your meal plan.
- Balance: In the early stages of recovery, the most important thing about your meal plan is to make sure you’re eating ENOUGH. Beyond this, it’s also helpful to get a balance of different foods and nutrients. Your dietitian will build a meal plan that includes all food groups. No food is “good” or “bad,” so a good meal plan views all foods as equal and encourages you to eat some of everything.
- Gradual Progression: We can’t say it enough: Recovery is A PROCESS! Your dietitian will introduce changes to your meal plan gradually, allowing you to adjust to new foods or amounts at a pace that feels doable (even if it’s a little uncomfortable at times). This approach helps build a positive relationship with food and reduces anxiety associated with sudden eating changes.
Addressing challenges in meal planning
Creating an eating disorder meal plan comes with some challenges, even when you and your dietitian are working together. Understanding and addressing these challenges is crucial for making sure you’re able to stay on track.
- Food Flexibility: If you have an eating disorder, you may struggle with rigid food rules or fear certain food groups. Your meal plan WILL push back against these rules. Your dietitian will help you challenge your eating disorder in a way that feels tough but not impossible.
- Eating ENOUGH: Giving yourself enough food at each meal might be a challenge, especially if you have a history of restrictive eating. Your dietitian might ask you to take photos of your meals and upload them to Recovery Record. This way, your dietitian can review your meals in the next session and make sure you’re eating enough
- Meal Timing: Regular and consistent meal timing is so, so important for stabilizing your energy levels and supporting overall health. That said, it can also be really tough to eat regularly when you’re used to restricting your food intake. Early in your recovery, it’s possible that when it’s time to eat, you’ll still feel full from your last meal or snack. Your dietitian can help you get over this hurdle.
Practical tips for implementing an eating disorder meal plan (with the help of your dietitian!)
Now that we’ve explored the foundational aspects of an eating disorder meal plan, let’s delve into practical tips to ensure its success.
- Include Foods You Like: When you’re in the depths of an eating disorder, the idea of “favorite foods” might be inconceivable. You may be scared of many of the foods you used to love, particularly those that are higher-calorie or considered “bad” in diet culture. But when you work with your eating disorder dietitian to create a meal plan, try thinking of foods you loved BEFORE your eating disorder. Try and include those foods in your meal plan.
- Include Some Fear Foods, Too: If your eating disorder has you scared of certain foods (like the formerly-favorite foods mentioned above), it’s important to reintroduce those foods into your diet at some point. Your dietitian will work with you to slowly reintroduce “fear foods” in your meal plan. You might start by eating a fear food once per week, then twice, then three or four times — until you feel less stress about it.
- Collaborate With Your Treatment Team: It’s not just your dietitian that can help you with your meal plan — your other providers can help you as well! Your therapist can be especially helpful here. If there are certain aspects of the meal plan you’re struggling with — like eating a certain food, or feeling certain emotions after meals — bring them up with your therapist! They may be able to help you work through these struggles.
- Remember That Your Meal Plan WILL Change: Eating disorder meal plans aren’t set in stone. It’s likely that your meal plan might increase over time in recovery. Your meal plan might also decrease once you reach certain goals. Your recovery goals will change as you move forward, so don’t be surprised if your meal plan does, too.
As eating disorder dietitians, we’re committed to supporting our clients in recovery by creating flexible, personalized meal plans.
More often than not, we’ll create your meal plan with you, instead of just handing you a piece of paper telling you exactly what to eat. We’ll take into account your schedule, your cooking skills, your budget, and more. And, we’ll be there for you every week to talk about what worked and what didn’t.
Remember, the path to recovery is a personal and gradual process, and with the right support, you can work towards a positive relationship with food.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, we can help! We’re a group of dietitians who takes an anti-diet, body-positive, identity-affirming approach to recovery and healing your relationship with food. Learn more about nutrition counseling for kids, teenagers, and adults, in-network with Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance plans and offered virtually to clients in North Carolina and over a dozen other states.
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