Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Whole Foods Market. I was compensated for my time and ingredients were purchased using a WFM gift card. All opinions are my own.
At first glance, it may seem like a regimented, structured outline of exactly what and when to eat is the polar opposite of intuitive eating. And if you use that definition of a meal plan, it’s true. But as a non-diet dietitian who practice intuitive eating both personally and with clients, I’ve discovered that meal planning (notice, not a “meal plan”) can actually be extremely helpful in supporting practices of self-care and trusting your body. Let’s break it down and discover why!
Meal Planning Vs. A Meal Plan
A meal plan is passive and inflexible – you print something off the Internet, someone hands you a two week outline, or you piece together your idea of a perfect week of meals and off you go to do your best to stick to it. Inevitably, life gets busy or a recipe downright sucks or you get bored with the routine…whatever it is, the meal plan becomes something you resent and want to rebel against.
Meal planning, on the other hand, is a dynamic process that is led by your experiences and preferences. It’s completely flexible so you can adapt it to any day or week or situation without feeling confined to sticking to it (perceived success!) or blowing it off (perceived failure *sad face*).
It’s like the old familiar saying about giving a man a fish vs. teaching a man to fish. So think of it this way: give someone a meal plan, and you perpetuate diet culture and support dieting behaviors. Teach someone to meal plan, and you empower them to make informed, rationale decisions about what they need to nourish their body.
What’s Your Intention?
Another good thing to consider when it comes to meal planning and intuitive eating is, what is your intention behind meal planning? If the goal is to take mindfulness out of the process or let you avoid making food decisions, it’s probably not advisable. That will only continue the cycle of relying on external sources, rather than your internal wisdom, as a cue for what and when to eat. In that sense, relying on a meal plan is no different than relying on a calorie tracker or macro pie chart to validate your food choices.
But…if meal planning opens room for mental energy and focus for other important things, or it eliminates stress or distractions than it can be a helpful tool. Often when we begin intuitive eating, we’re really out of touch with our hunger and fullness signals. Meal planning can add some temporary structure so we have the opportunity to connect with those body signals and learn from them. What that could look like is this:
WITHOUT MEAL PLANNING: You may be coming home from a stressful day at work. The kids are hungry, your spouse is dashing back out the door for XYZ, and you’re at a complete loss for what to make. You throw together something just to get the kids fed, wrap up for the night and put them to bed, then realize you’re still hungry and turn to the pantry to rummage for something to eat. Next thing you know, four episodes of your Netflix show have passed and you’re looking at the crumbs at the bottom of a bag of chips/cookies/chocolate/whatever. You never realized whether you felt full or satisfied but you feel guilty for mindlessly eating until it was gone.
WITH MEAL PLANNING: You knew this week was going to be nuts, so when cooking dinner the night before you chopped some extra veggies and thawed some pasta sauce. Maybe you set up your crock pot before you leave, or just have ingredients staged and ready when you get home. Give your spouse a smooch and say, “Don’t worry, I got this” as you cook up a simple meal for yourself and the kids. Because you know you usually like something sweet at the end of the day, you picked up one of your favorite chocolate bars (remembered to add it to the shopping list) and know you can always reach for it if you notice yourself feeling hungry or unsatisfied after dinner.
How do those two scenarios sound to you?
What Intuitive Eating and Meal Planning Could Look Like:
If you said the second version, it’s likely that meal planning would help eliminate unnecessary stress around food decisions. Here are just a few examples of practices that support intuitive eating while also creating more efficiency/less waste when preparing meals during busy weeks:
1. A plan is never based in calories but instead focuses on variety and choice
Making a decision about whether or not to eat something because of its caloric or nutrient content is a dieting behavior. That mindset leads to restriction or avoidance of certain foods, while ignoring aspects of eating like pleasure and enjoyment. However, building in variety in your grocery cart or planned recipes ensures you can still creating balanced, nourishing meals (calories aside). Here’s a few categories you might start with:
- Proteins (plant based or otherwise)
- Dairy (if you include dairy products)
- Grains or breads or starches
- Snack or Convenience options
You can also think in terms of categories for organizing your kitchen and setting up an environment that supports efficiency. You can brainstorm options for your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry so you have a variety of shelf-stable options that can be used later and more perishable, fresh items that should be used sooner. Meal planning and prepping also helps reduce food waste (and wasted $$!) in many cases.
2. The plan can identify opportunities to shop and cook that fit into a chaotic schedule, eliminating stress or last minute dashes to the grocery store
There’s nothing more irritating (or wasteful) to me than driving back and forth across town looking for a specific ingredient or specialty item. That adds stress to my day, wastes my time, and leaves me feeling frustrated that I couldn’t make do with what I had at home or find a simpler solution. That’s part of why I like heading to my local Whole Foods Market – it’s enough of a one-stop shop for me that I can plan one trip to stock up on any and everything I need to make meals at home. I know exactly how long it takes me to get there and back and I can factor that into the total time commitment I need to prep things for the week.
Without a plan? Yep…wasted gas, wasted time, wasted energy…not fun.
3. Leftovers are an option for convenience, but are designed to be refreshed in taste appealing ways
If you had to describe your relationship with leftovers, what comes to mind? Growing up, I tolerated them but they were never the most exciting thing. Now Mr. Street Smart and I have regular duels over who gets to snag the last container from the fridge because we love them THAT much. That may sound weird, but it’s really not – that’s because I make sure there’s always a tasty way to refresh leftovers into something we actually WANT to eat.
Shredded cheese? Cool. Toasted almonds? Yes, please. Simple pesto sauce to mix in and create a whole new flavor? SIGN ME UP, I’m there.
The convenience factor is there too, which is one of the most appealing parts of meal prepping or planning in the first place. Give yourself the chance to explore what would make leftovers appealing to you and don’t be afraid to experiment!
4. There are always alternatives to keep options open
The main takeaway: just cook some food!
It’s OK to stumble or feel unsure about whether you’re doing everything “right”. The fact is that there’s no such thing as a perfect diet or perfect meal, so intuitive eating supports the process of continuously learning and adapting to what you need. A lot of intuitive eating is about removing judgement from food choices, so it’s OK if you try a new plan that turns out to not work as well as you’d hoped. It also removes judgement from saying, hey, I know I have a plan but in this moment I’m going to make a different choice about what/when/where to eat.
Have more questions? Check out the Facebook group I hosted about intuitive eating or the recent Facebook Live I hosted with Whole Foods on this topic.
I’d love to hear how you strategize for meal planning – how has it helped you? Or if you don’t find it to be helpful, I’d love to hear why. Drop a comment below!