Meal Planning for 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, I encourage clients in recovery to 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 any eating disorder 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 be usually done on one’s own. In CBT-E, one of the most successful evidence-based treatments for eating disorders, the general advice is for clients to eat every three to four hours. Dr. Christopher Fairburn in the manual for CBT-E wrote:

Patients should plan ahead. They should always know when they are going to have their next meal or snack, and what it will be. To emphasize this point we sometimes say, “If I were to call you out of the blue, you should be able to tell me when and what you will next be eating.”

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. 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.

Some strategies for adults who are in recovery:

  • Once a week, take 10 minutes to plan out at least 5 lunches and 5 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 (Trader Joe’s has a lot of great affordable items).
  • 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.

Some meal-planning strategies for parents or other caregivers supporting a child, adolescent, or young adult in recovery:

  • On a weekly basis, sit down and make a plan for the family’s meals for the week.
  • Plan at least 4 to 5 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, a meat, and a vegetable)
  • Plan out 5 of your child’s lunches to get you through each week day.
  • 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

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

In my practice working with both adults and adolescents with eating disorders, I notice that individuals and parents who 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.


Fairburn, Christopher (2008).  Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Eating Disorders

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