Can Meal Plans Help With Eating Disorders?

By Ayanna DeVance. Reviewed by Lauren Ranley, MS, RD, LDN

Eating disorder sufferers typically follow a meal plan created with their dietitian’s guidance and support. This strategy offers structure and encourages a person to consume the types and quantities of food their body requires, spread out throughout regularly spaced meals and snacks. 

A meal plan’s level of organization can range from a particular exchange-based strategy, a general entrée-sides plan, or a more intuitive eating-based approach. One meal plan style is not better than another, as long as the level of assistance for that person at that particular time is offered. A person’s meal plan frequently varies, as does their capacity to control food intake. Let’s examine some of the various types of meal plans.

Exchange-Based Meal Plans

In this meal planning method, the individual collaborates with their dietitian to develop a “meal pattern,” which specifies the type and quantity of each food group to be consumed throughout the day. The meal plan is set up utilizing an exchange list mechanism. These lists include foods that have been nutritionally classed together: grains, protein, fruits, vegetables, milk, fats, and desserts.

To create and assist with implementing an individual meal plan, close collaboration with an experienced dietitian with expertise in eating disorders is required. Even though this meal plan can be successful, a dietitian may occasionally decide against using it for other reasons. For instance, people with a history of dieting for weight loss frequently discover that such a strategy resembles the restrictive diets they previously followed, rendering their use unproductive.

Entrée-Sides Meal Plans

A different strategy is the entrée-sides meal plan, which contains elements of the exchange-based meal plan but with broader food categories and fewer precise serving sizes. 

This type of meal plan still emphasizes eating regularly spaced meals and snacks. However, there are only two categories, entrées and sides, instead of categorizing meals by multiple exchanges.

The benefit of this strategy is that it streamlines food options and employs terminology we regularly hear while considering meals. Snacks are similar; lists of snack alternatives typically include foods that people already eat but in varying amounts and combinations to meet the required nutritional level. This plan is family-friendly and easily adapted to family meals. 

Intuitive Eating

The goal of intuitive eating is to re-establish a connection with the body’s physical hunger and fullness signals, which may then be used to choose when and how much food to eat.

Developing, or reclaiming, a sense of what the person is hungry for and what they know their body needs to balance out their intake for the day goes hand in hand with becoming aware of internal cues for hunger and fullness. Although slight variations exist, “mindful eating” and “intuitive eating” are frequently used interchangeably. In other words, be attuned to our bodies’ demands while simultaneously conscious that different environmental factors influence our decisions about what to eat and how much to consume.

Even though intuitive eating may appear attractive, much work must be done before one can learn to use body cues to guide food and eating decisions. Physical signs of hunger and fullness are frequently inaccessible to those actively engaging in eating disorders or overtaken by abnormal ideas, judgments, or associations. When it comes to employing techniques like intuitive eating to explain overeating, undereating, or avoiding certain foods out of “preference,” eating disorders are masters at doing so. In truth, these techniques only serve to legitimize disordered eating patterns. Working closely with dietitians to examine how to shift to this approach while managing an eating disorder is essential for those experiencing one or having a history of one.

Portion Sizes

While portion size is crucial, weighing and measuring meals can be difficult and time-consuming. Knowing how much to weigh and measure food will help you determine the precise portion size. Then, begin picturing your portions using the instructions below. You’ll instantly recognize the proper portion sizes for your meals once you realize how accurate “eye-balling” it can be. Learning to visualize your meal quantities is a valuable talent to have, and you can do so by following the following rules:

Calculating Meal Portion Sizes:

Using your hand:

Your fist= 1 cup

Your palm= 3 ounce serving of meat

Your thumb= one teaspoon

3 thumb size portions= 1 tablespoon

1 or 2 handfuls= 1 ounce snack

Using Everyday Items:


1 cup cereal, rice, or pasta = a baseball

1 pancake = a CD (compact disk)

1/2 cup cooked rice = a cupcake wrapper

One medium potato = is the size of regular computer mouse


1/2 cup vegetables (chopped) = a light bulb


One medium fruit = a tennis ball

1 cup of fruit = a baseball

1/2 cup chopped fruit = 15 marbles

1/4 cup of dried fruit = 1 large egg


1 oz of cheese = 4 dice stacked or two saltine crackers

1.5 oz of cheese = 6 dice or three dominoes


3 oz serving of meat, fish, or poultry = 1 deck of cards or an audio cassette tape

1 oz meat = a matchbox

3 oz grilled fish = a checkbook

Fats, Oils & Sweets

1 oz nuts or seeds or 2 Tablespoons peanut butter, butter, salad dressing, or mayonnaise = a ping pong ball

One teaspoon of butter, salad dressing, or mayonnaise = a dice

1 oz of small candies = one handful

Desserts such as cakes, cookies, and brownies = 2-inch x 2-inch square = about the size of half of a business card

Why Dieting Can Cause Eating Disorders

Food is not essentially good or bad, and following such a mindset leads to a restrict-binge cycle. Paying attention to your body’s demands is essential for a balanced diet and weight management. Most diets include extreme calorie reductions and increased exercise – the opposite of listening to your body’s needs. Reduced caloric intake slows down your metabolism, leads to binge-eating episodes, and, if prolonged, malnutrition.

Consult a dietitian first if you struggle with obesity but not with an eating disorder. Dietitians look over your growth records and medical history to estimate a healthy body weight for you. Realistic eating plans shouldn’t make you feel hungry or deprived or cut out entire food groups. Additionally, healthy eating patterns should be supplemented with activity or movement that brings you joy. Stay away from numbers and focus on leading a generally healthy lifestyle. Plan for small, attainable objectives and cultivate a healthy sense of self.

Can A Recovery Meal Plan Help You Succeed?

Recovery from an eating disorder is not an easy task, and nobody should attempt it alone. 

During the implementation of a meal plan, your support network can offer crucial meal assistance. Even if a recovery meal plan appears to have all the directions in place, it can be challenging for an eating disorder sufferer to follow the suggestions. 

Without the proper guidance and support from an eating disorder treatment team, no one should start reintroducing food after a period of restriction. 

Each person will have a different meal plan for recovering from an eating disorder because the individual’s needs vary. Recovery meal plans provide suggestions for meal frequency and a variety and balance of meals.