Author: Dana Notte, MS, RD, CD
On the surface, it might seem like mindful eating and meal planning are not compatible practices. After all, mindfulness signifies present moment awareness; thus, mindful eating would imply tuning in and responding to present moments’ food preferences and needs. Meal planning on the other hand is not a present moment activity, but rather something that happens in advance of eating occasions. Moreover, mindful eating is a non-restrictive and flexible approach to eating that honors the body’s innate wisdom, while meal planning often triggers flashbacks of strict diet prescriptions wherein food decisions are based on rigid and external food rules. But these actually can be compatible practices that can help us in nourishing our bodies in a supportive and satisfying way. It’s simply a matter of how we approach it.
3 Tips for Bringing Mindfulness into Your Meal Planning
Keep Your Meal Plan Flexible
Many of us may have come to believe that there is only one way to make a meal plan – that is, precisely planning out 3 meals a day, 7 days a week. However, that’s not really the only option we have and it’s certainly not the most effective. As you likely well know, these meals plans are typically out the window by day 2 because we either don’t want to eat what we planned, our schedule changed, or we don’t have the time or energy to prepare what’s on the menu, and because we haven’t left any wiggle room, once one meal goes awry the rest of the plan quickly crumbles.
So, what’s the solution? Starting with a different approach to your planning and building in wiggle room so you can easily change course when life happens or your preferences change.
That might mean determining how many meals you really need to plan in a week, which depending on the size of your household, may not mean a new meal every single day. For example, in my household of 2, I find planning for 3-4 different dinners per week is usually sufficient, taking into account that there will be leftovers and we’ll likely eat out at least once. I also plan for a couple of different lunch options--for example making sure we have ingredients to toss together a sandwich or a salad--but keep this flexible to allow for leftovers to fit in here, too.
There is certainly some preplanning here, which allows us to ensure we have access to the ingredients we need to make nourishing meals. Being less prescriptive about exactly when each meal will be prepared allows us to tune in to our present moment needs and preferences to decide what will work best for us on any given day or at any given meal.
Keep It Simple, Too
Whenever I talk about meal planning I always remind folks that planned meals don’t need to be complicated meals. Planned meals don’t even need to be meals that we prepare ourselves. Think about using prepared foods from the grocery store, frozen foods, jarred sauces, and restaurant meals. These are all ways to add convenience to your meal planning process. Sometimes these foods are labeled as “less healthy” or somehow otherwise inferior. But I’d argue that’s a gross overgeneralization and that these foods can also help us in getting more balanced nutrition into our bodies.
For example, I keep frozen cheese pizza on hand basically always. To this, I will add toppings I might find in my refrigerator like bell pepper, onions, and some sliced-up ham. If I have the ingredients, I might serve them with a simple side salad or just some baby carrots and ranch dressing. It’s a quick meal that allows me to make use of ingredients that otherwise might go bad, and to which I can easily add balance and nutrition, too.
I also love keeping jarred curry sauces in my cabinet. I’ll dice up whatever protein and veggies I have on hand – peppers, onions, and chicken or tofu – sauté them in a pan, pour in the sauce, and serve with basic steamed rice.
I love these meals. Not just for their convenience, but because they taste good, they are warm and comforting, and they don’t contribute to the other stressors I might be experiencing in my week.
Mindfulness allows us to be realistic about how much time, energy, and desire we’ll actually have to devote to meal preparation. It helps us be gentler and more compassionate with ourselves and the real limitations our lives will present when it comes to planning and preparing meals. So, instead of idealistic expectations which constantly leave us feeling inadequate, we can create realistic expectations, while finding ways to actually meet our needs. All to say, it is A-OK for restaurant meals to be part of your meal plan, to serve store-bought roast chicken instead of preparing your own, and to take advantage of the many wonderful convenience options that exist when it comes to getting food onto the table and into your body.
Another reason meal planning may have failed us in the past is that we often approach the process with – what I “should” be eating. The result is a meal plan that looks perfect on paper (e.g., it’s got everything you think you “should” be eating and nothing you think you “shouldn’t” have) but is full of foods you don’t actually want to eat. When we are faced with a plan that looks like a whole lot of time, effort, and energy to prepare and we aren’t even excited about the outcome, chances are not good that we will follow through. If we do, we are bound to end up resenting the meal, not enjoying the food, and searching for something more satisfying afterward anyway.
This is why honoring your preferences and prioritizing pleasure are key ingredients to successful meal planning. That doesn’t mean you need to abandon nutrition, that you can’t make balanced meals or eat vegetables. In fact, it’s likely to help us find the middle ground between eating in a way that tastes good and feels good and eating in a way that is consistent with our body’s needs. All to say that, when you look at your meal plan you should find yourself looking forward to the meals you are going to create.
So yes, meal planning and mindful eating can go hand-in-hand. But we may have to adjust our approach to make meal planning something that is truly supportive of meeting our present moment needs and desires. Keys to this are keeping it simple, keeping it flexible, and not overemphasizing nutritional quality at the expense of the sensory experience or enjoyment of the food itself.
Want to learn more about mindful meal planning? Check out the Mindful Meal Planning webinar recording presented by blog author and TCME Advisory Council Member, Dana Notte. Members may access this title for free in the Member Library.
About the Author
Dana Notte is a non-diet dietitian and nutrition educator who aims to help people heal their relationship to food, body, and self through non-diet, weight-inclusive, and mindfulness-based approaches. She specializes in working with individuals seeking support to heal from chronic dieting, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Additionally, she actively presents at conferences and professional trainings on topics related to mindful eating and non-diet approaches to care.
Dana is the owner of ThrivInspired Nutrition, a Burlington, VT based nutrition counseling practice offering individual in-person and virtual nutrition counseling services, group workshops and retreats, and community, corporate, and professional speaking services. Dana is also part-time faculty at the University of Vermont where she teaches in the Nutrition and Food Sciences Department. Recognized as an expert in the field, Dana has been quoted in several major publications including TIME, Reader’s Digest, Health, and EatingWell.