If you’re experiencing diet burnout, and are either taking a break while you consider your options, or actively doing the work of breaking up with dieting and diet culture through Intuitive Eating, the idea of meal planning may make your blood run cold.

Why? Because most diets involve meal plans, whether you get them from a book, a website, a program, or craft your own meticulously rigid plan to comply with a set of food rules. And as you know, eventually you crack — because you’re a human, not a robot — and ditch the plan, feeling some combination of relief and shame.

Maybe you found the food reasonably enjoyable, or maybe you didn’t. Maybe you felt better while following the plan, maybe you didn’t. But odds are the plan:

  • Was too difficult to follow
  • Required you to spend all your precious free time shopping and prepping and cooking
  • Didn’t allow for dining out
  • Made going on vacation a hassle
  • Just simply felt like TOO MUCH

And if the plan didn’t produce the promised results (weight loss, perfect health), then forget it!

But then you discover that the alternative – having no plan – doesn’t feel 100 percent great, either. You exhaust a lot of mental bandwidth deciding what to eat multiple times per day. Or you don’t and literally coast on a combination of impulse and what food is closest at hand. You get tired of thinking about food – or you just feel tired because you aren’t nourishing yourself well.

That can lead you flying right back into the waiting, open arms of diet culture.

Stop letting diet culture steal from you

But wait…doesn’t intuitive eating mean deciding what food sounds good to you in the moment? How can it be “intuitive” if you’re planning?

Diet culture has co-opted many aspects of food caretaking, especially meal planning. Many of my intuitive eating clients feel either A) guilty or B) afraid at the prospect of planning their meals. When they actually try to decide what’s for dinner (or lunch) days in advance, their inner rebel can really raise a ruckus.

That rebel can be our ally, because it can alert us when we are slipping back into diet mindset or dieting behaviors. But here’s the thing: food planning and shopping doesn’t have to have the aura of hypervigilance if often does when we’re trying to lose weight or eat “perfectly.”

You CAN take care of your food needs without succumbing to diet culture. All you have to do is have a general plan for feeding yourself so you don’t just grab random food when you get hungry.

The plan doesn’t have to be rigid and inflexible. It doesn’t have to be a “perfect” plan. You don’t have to plan two weeks at a time, or even a week at a time. It easily accommodates dining out and socializing. If you don’t make something on the plan, you haven’t “failed” (although if you try to avoid food waste, yes, you may feel a tinge of guilt).

Intuitive meal planning

When you get up in the morning, do you know how you will meet your food needs? Specifically, do you know how you will feed yourself, or do you just wing it throughout the day? The answers to these questions take on a bit more urgency if you’re away from home all day and don’t have many acceptable (to you) food options at your disposal, or if you’re on a budget.

To meal plan while practicing Intuitive Eating, first remember that you can always honor your hunger and tune into cues that you’ve eaten enough (fullness and satisfaction) regardless of whether you’ve planned or not. Having a plan may make it even easier to honor your hunger before that hunger becomes primal.

If you’re concerned about being able to choose foods that will “hit the spot” in the moment, when you’re planning that moment days ahead of time, consider these elements:

  • Are there any foods you’ve been generally craving lately? You’ll still want those foods a few days down the road. For example, if you’re craving Mexican food, put it in your plan!
  • What sensory elements are generally appealing to you right now? If the weather is supposed to be hot, you probably won’t want to plan to make soup or a hearty stew. If the weather is going to be cold and rainy, you may or may not want to stand outside grilling.
  • Are you going to have a tough week at work? You might want to plan very easy meals, or at least meals that provide leftovers so you have a few reheat-only nights. If certain textures appeal to you when you’re stressed (Creamy? Crunchy?), choose meals that incorporate them.
  • Just don’t have the energy to cook on Fridays? Make that a planned dining out or takeout night. Then you have something special to look forward to all week.
Tips from the trenches

Here are some things that have worked for various clients who are integrating meal planning with Intuitive Eating:

  • Plan and shop for 3-to-5 appealing and nourishing dinners, then decide each day which meal sounds best to make for dinner that night. (This is sort of like impulsivity with boundaries.)
  • Plan meals based on perishable foods for the early part of the week, then meals based on pantry/fridge/freezer staples for the end of the week. (This is ideal if you only want to go to the grocery store once per week.)
  • Plan for weekdays but leave weekends open.
  • Share planning responsibilities with your spouse/partner/roommate. This absolves each of you from planning/cooking duties for part of the week (although the person who’s not on point might help with prep or dishes).
  • Do a big brain dump of tried-and-true breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Every few days, make choices from the list. (This works best if you don’t mind going to the store more often, or you have a well-stocked pantry/fridge/freezer).

Remember: done is better than perfect, and good enough is good enough!

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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