Last Updated on August 20, 2023 by Katherine Dittmann, MA, MS, RD
Using a Recovery Meal Plan to Transition from Diet Plans
I know how you feel about trying a recovery meal plan. But they serve an important purpose.
They can ease the transition from restrictive or chaotic eating and make it safe to start listening to our bodies again.
It’s shockingly easy to forget how to eat intuitively, even after just a few months of a restrictive diet. And starting to trust your body again can be a little scary.
Diets don’t just deprive us of food, they also deny us choice and self-trust when making food decisions.
The diet tells you when to eat, making your hunger cues irrelevant.
It tells you how much to eat, making your fullness cues moot.
It tells you what to eat, and more sinisterly, what not to eat, snuffing out the final flame on your inner intuitive eater.
But how are you supposed to just drop all the rules and restrictions and start listening to your body again?
It’s confusing at first to just eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full because you may not remember the last time you paid attention to that.
Plus, it’s unlikely that your body is sending you reliable cues at all.
Not to mention confronting the uncomfortable feelings that surface around hunger and fullness.
Add in food fears and distrust and it’s no wonder people struggle to make the leap from rigid diets to attuned eating.
Enter the recovery meal plan.
We often think of a “meal plan” as some detailed top-down structure that includes everything we’re going to eat at every meal and snack every day.
It’s true that some people like that rigid structure, just like some people don’t mind wearing the exact same outfit every single day.
But for others, a recovery meal plan triggers memories of restriction and rebellion.
We worry that it won’t match our mood. We might not get what we want in the moment.
We’re tired of telling ourselves “No” all the time.
We don’t think about meal plans in terms of built-in flexibility.
A recovery meal plan has layers.
When we think of a meal plan as something with layers, we can approach it differently.
Layer one: Your foundations. This is the when and where of your eating.
• What time is breakfast?
• Where will you be at lunchtime?
• Do you have plans to go out to dinner?
• When is a strategic time to have a snack?
Layer two: Your balance. The nutrients on your plate.
• What combination of fat-, protein-, carbohydrate- and fiber-containing foods works best for you?
• Does it depend on the meal or time of day?
• Are there times when you know your meal needs robust staying power?
• Or are there times when you’re just hanging out at home so it doesn’t matter so much?
• How much attention do you want to pay to your appetite cues?
Layer three: Your choices. Where variety and preferences fit in.
• What foods actually sound appealing?
• Is there anything you’re always in the mood for?
• Do your choices depend on your mood and stress?
• What kinds of things will be available?
• Do you need to bring anything with you?
A meal plan is like getting dressed.
To bring this idea home to my (very) loose analogy of getting dressed, we typically start with our foundations: underwear, socks, camis etc.
Sometimes those choices change depending on the other layers, but they do provide the foundation for the outfit.
And when we are missing one, it can feel really weird.
The second layer of clothing takes some consideration of balance and coordination.
We generally want to combine things we think go together in some way.
Or make us comfortable.
Or even stand out.
The third layer is accessorizing.
No, it’s not necessary, but our accessories can make wearing the basics a lot more fun and show off a sense of style and variety.
This is not a perfect analogy and I don’t want to take it past its usefulness.
But I think you get the point.
Start with a strong foundation.
Eat meals and snacks at consistent times.
Create balance in your meals and snacks within that structure.
Experiment with a variety of foods that appeal to you or try new ones on top of that framework.
There is lots of room to express your own eating style.
You don’t have to be a foodie or adventuresome.
But it will give your body-mind good nutrition and more ease.
Four meal plan perks
The meal plan can serve a few different functions depending on your goals.
The meal plan as a placeholder:
While you are learning to listen to your body’s feedback and trust it again, the meal plan can serve as an objective tool on which to base your food choices. This creates safety.
You and your dietitian agree on the number of servings from different food groups per meal and you just make selections using a list of equivalencies.
As long as you follow the plan, you won’t get too little or too much of any food group. Enoughness and balance are taken care of. You just add variety.
As you begin to develop trust in yourself and become more attuned to your body’s signals, you can slowly transition away from the structure.
The meal plan as a tool for weight gain:
Weight restoration is no joke for people who have taken an eating disorder to that extreme. The process requires consistency and strategic planning to consume an adequate diet to gain at a steady rate.
Here, the meal plan is like a lighthouse, something to have trust in that will guide you in the right direction.
The meal plan for regulating the appetite:
Chaotic eating patterns, characterized by periods of fasting or restricting coupled with periods of normal or binge eating can disrupt natural hunger cues. By natural, I mean those cues that develop with fairly consistent eating.
When we eat about the same amount at the same time with the same frequency, the body syncs up to this pattern by sending regular hunger cues when it expects to be fed and fullness cues when it normally stops getting fed.
Once both body and behaviors are synchronized, eating intuitively can happen more naturally.
The meal plan for actual meal planning:
Some people have gone for lengthy periods skipping whole food groups or just not eating enough at meals. They may have forgotten what a normal meal looks like.
A meal plan can provide a framework to plug in new foods to create a balanced meal. All that is left to do is evaluate the plate: do I have enough protein? Fat? Carbohydrate? Do I need fruit or a vegetable or dairy? Are my portions enough? Too much?
Some final meal-planning tips
Consistency is key
Consistency is an integral part of attuned eating.
Just like a cat that wakes you up every morning to get fed or a dog that begs at its bowl at the same time every night, human bodies adapt to the availability of food.
They work best when they know what to expect.
Otherwise, we add a level of unnecessary stress that can have harmful effects on the body. Furthermore, hunger signals are so uncomfortable, in part, to strongly motivate us to eat.
Remember, your body’s main objective is to keep you alive.
Make lunch the fulcrum
Some people like to eat by the clock. Others choose to eat every 3-4 hours.
But in our busy lives, these guidelines can trip us up.
What if your schedule is different every day?
What if you sleep in or stay up late now and then?
As important as consistency is, some degree of flexibility is imperative.
Therefore, another way to plan the timing of meals is by making your midday meal (lunch) the fulcrum upon which all other meals and snacks are balanced.
For example, let’s say you usually have time for lunch between noon and 1 pm. If nothing else, keep this time consistent.
Then, if your other mealtimes change, you can decide whether you will need to bridge the meals with a snack (or two).
This practice is especially helpful when transitioning into intuitive eating. Knowing that the goal is to be reasonably hungry at meals, you plan your meals and snacks accordingly. It might sound like this:
“Hmmm. I usually have breakfast at 8:00, but I slept until 9:00. Well, lunch is at about 12:30, so I’d better eat a big enough meal now so that I’m not too hungry by the time lunch rolls around.”
Or it could sound like this:
“Our dinner reservations aren’t until 8:00 tonight, but I normally eat at around 6:30. Since lunch is at 12:30, it makes sense to have two snacks this afternoon so I’m not starving by dinner. Maybe I won’t have my evening snack in this case.”
See how easy that is?
No one in the world knows what you should eat better than you.
Maybe you relinquished all decision-making to a diet or an eating disorder or let your emotions drive your eating more than your body for a while.
It happens to most people at one time or another.
The good news is that your body will remember once you start to tune in, listen, and give it a chance to sync up again.
Who knows? Maybe a short-term meal plan is just the solution to bridging the gap between rules and freedom?
Want to learn more about how a meal plan might work for you? Contact me here and we can explore it further.