Can I Plan Meals if I am Trying to Eat More Intuitively?
As a dietitian working with people to develop positive relationships with food, many clients will ask me if meal planning and intuitive eating are mutually exclusive. This question is something I spend a lot of time exploring. Diet culture tells us we should be looking outward to determine what, when, and how much we should be eating. So it can be confusing for people new to intuitive eating to think about how to approach food and meals on a practical level. The nuance of listening to your body might feel a lot more difficult to navigate, especially in the beginning. Once you start tuning into what your body wants - what you truly like, what actually sounds good right now, how much you really need - it can be confusing to think about how to do things like grocery shop, cook, etc.
The term “meal plan” is a phrase that is used widely in diet culture and the culture at large. It makes sense that as you start to tune in to nourishing your body in a way that is aligned with its needs and reject diet mentality it can feel like you also should be rejecting the concept of planning what you are going to eat on any given day or week. Planning meals can remind you of your dieting days and can feel overly structured - especially the way most people meal plan on diets - but the truth is that meal planning can be one of the most important self-care things you can do. Just like you may feel best when you have a bedtime and some structure around sleep, you may feel best and be able to function in a busy life with some type of plan or structure in place with food and eating.
Let’s think about what it might look like to approach eating without having a plan at all. You might notice that you are starting to feel hungry, decide what sounds good, go to the grocery store for ingredients, and then take however many minutes or hours to prepare that food before you are ready to sit down and eat. Doing all of that before you get to extreme hunger is not very realistic or practical. Things are even more complicated if you live and eat meals with others who also have certain foods that might sound good to them. So is there a different approach that makes sense?
As with anything, there are so many ways you could think about this - none of which are better or worse than any others. It is really important to identify what works best for you in your unique situation and then fine-tune things to make it work well for you. Here are a few questions you might want to explore as you consider developing a strategy that works for your unique circumstance:
How often does it make sense for you to go to the grocery store?
Do you like to cook?
Do you feel comfortable cooking the types of food you enjoy?
Do you like eating out?
What does your food budget look like?
Are there others in your home whose preferences should also be considered?
Are there others in your home you could divide some of these responsibilities with?
Do you have time to cook your meals?
Are things going to look different for one meal than they do for another?
The answers to these questions are going to be different for everyone and are going to change for you as your life circumstances change. As with many things we talk about in this space, an approach that tends to work well for most people is to consider having structure plus flexibility. Most of us are going to need some sort of a plan to be able to get through the week and have enough food available to be able to nourish ourselves. It is also important to be flexible within your plan so you can eat based on your hunger, what sounds good, and when life doesn’t go exactly as you expected. This may look like having frozen or shelf-stable meals that you keep on hand all of the time in case what you planned doesn’t sound good or you end up with less time than you anticipated to prepare a meal. It could look like anticipating several meals throughout the week that you will eat in a restaurant or get take-out if you don’t have a lot of time for cooking. Some people may find that there is one meal that they prefer less variety than others. For example, many people who work or go to school in the morning find they have just a few quick options they like to eat for breakfast. If this is the case for you, you may just have a “staples” list that you make sure to check and re-stock each time you go shopping, and then you can decide what sounds good to you that day.
It is helpful to remember that this isn’t going to look the same for everyone and the most important thing is to make sure it works for you. If you get excited and plan out a week’s-worth of dinners and buy everything and then don’t make any of it and end up throwing things away that doesn’t mean you did anything wrong - it just may mean that isn’t the right approach for you. If you don’t love cooking and you find yourself leaning towards easy-to-prepare foods or purchased items, that is totally ok. What matters in this is that you can think about what allows you to eat in a way that feels nourishing to you and doesn’t leave you scrambling for a meal that doesn’t end up feeling satisfying.
As with most things we talk about on this blog, there is a lot of nuance in this. If you are feeling confused or this brings up a lot of emotion for you, that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. Navigating a life outside of diet culture is tricky. We can help! Click here to learn more about the Positive Nutrition approach or to schedule an appointment with one of the dietitians on our team.