Intuitive Eating Meets Reality: “The Three Weeks” Meal Plan

by | Jun 28, 2024

In the mainstream, diety sense, meal planning usually means spending all day Sunday chopping, baking sheet trays of cruciferous vegetables, baking plain chicken, and doing other monotonous things with food. Maybe it’s a taco bowl. Either way, food rules, portion control, and a general sense of restriction are baked in, if you will. 

As a dietitian who believes strongly that healthy eating does not have to feel horrible, I love to help people think about meal planning differently. I’d like to introduce you to a concept I call “The Three Weeks”. I’ll explain my method for meal planning and then walk you through what I do with my clients to help them come up with a plan for themselves. A meal plan based on intuitive eating, pleasure, satisfaction, and yes – health! 

How I Think About Meal Planning As A Non-Diet Dietitian

Last week, I found myself in a bit of a pinch. My usual grocery shopping day got derailed (and then the backup plan also got derailed, sigh) by some family plans and suddenly it was Wednesday and my fridge was empty and making me sad. Wilting lettuce, onions, old stuff. Meh.

Takeout? Didn’t want to spend the money.

Then I remembered I had ingredients for a pantry meal that I love.

These are often the moments I feel like a freaking genius. I made a riff off a pantry pasta with canned tomatoes, chickpeas, and that lonely zucchini that was starting to shrivel in the back of my veggie drawer. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was satisfying as hell, super nutritious – and really hit the spot. Plus, it was easy to make enough for the next day.

I like to teach a type of meal planning that is more about you and less about “them”.

It’s about setting yourself up to have satisfying food every day, no matter what your week is like. It’s not about perfection, micromanaging yourself, or keeping yourself on a tight-rope with food.

It’s about having good, healthy food handy, easy, and most importantly: NOT BORING.

A bowl of pinto beans with tomatoes, avocado, radishes, and grated cheese. A leftover pantry meal repurposed to show meal planning with intuitive eating.
Pinto beans that I made on Sunday for stuffed poblanos repurposed for lunch and topped with tomato, avocado, radishes, cheese, and hot sauce. So delicious.

Meal Planning And Intuitive Eating

Meal planning can be an important part of healing your relationship with food. It provides a structure that ensures you’re nourishing yourself consistently so you can avoid being overly hungry and at risk of binging. No magical thinking allowed. 

As you progress in your intuitive eating journey, you can adjust your meal planning to incorporate more gentle nutrition. Maybe you’ll find ways to include more vegetables that you enjoy or discover new protein sources that make you feel really satisfied after eating. The beauty of this approach is its flexibility – it grows and changes with you.

Understanding these different scenarios allows you to plan flexibly, accommodating the ebbs and flows of real life.

What Makes Intuitive Meal Planning Different

Intuitive eating is often misunderstood as nutrition anarchy and a disregard for health. In reality, it’s about cultivating a peaceful relationship with food while honoring your body’s needs and your personal health goals. The key lies in practicing the balance between structure and flexibility and keeping satisfaction front and center.

The mindset work is just as important. You gotta also unlearn the toxicity and systems of oppression underneath diet culture that have caused you to feel dysfunctional with food in the first place. 

But I digress.

The traditional approach to meal planning is often just simply too boring, too much work, and usually based in calorie restriction. As I talk about frequently, calorie counting disconnects us from our bodies, confuses our hunger signals , and often leads to binging, emotional eating, and “overeating”.  

If you’re adhering to a calorie limit or are meal planning to lose weight, you’ll most likely end up with feelings of deprivation, food guilt, and ultimately, a cycle of giving up and feeling bad about it. Maybe you’re familiar with this frustrating cycle. 

An intuitive eating meal plan, on the other hand, provides a framework that supports your physical health, mental wellbeing, and overall quality of life without shoving you into a box with rules and limits. It allows for spontaneity while ensuring you have the resources to nourish yourself consistently and in ways that you actually like. 

Sounds good right?

The Three Weeks: A Flexible Approach To Planning Meals

I decided to take the meal planning module in my Intuitive Eating program, The Love Food Again Program, and turn it into this blog post! (or most of it anyway). And as a bonus, I created a free download of this “The Three Weeks” guide to making yourself an intuitive eating meal plan. Get that below! And then come back and finish reading this post. 

This flexible approach to meal planning is just one piece of the intuitive eating puzzle. 

The “The Three Weeks” approach is kind of like reverse engineering meal planning. Instead of starting with an idea in your head of what you “should” be eating, we’re going to start with you.

You want to take inventory of your time, energy, cooking skills, preferences, schedule, and demands.

You are going to build three different plans according to three different kinds of weeks that typically happen for you. 

Your ideal week

A slightly busy week 

A busy as hell week 

By considering all three scenarios, you’re asking yourself, “How much time do I realistically have to grocery shop, cook, and prepare food in each situation?” “What is going to sound good to me in during these different times?”

Why you need to factor in convenience

This method forces you to plan for those hectic times when you might need to order grocery delivery, eat a freezer meal, or yes – order takeout. It’s about building in flexibility and acknowledging that takeout and restaurant meals are a normal (and often necessary) part of life.

Too often, traditional meal planning ignores these busy-as-hell weeks, setting us up for failure and guilt by telling you you’re bad if you order takeout. But that’s why meal plans fail. We’re making it okay to use these convenient options when we need them. We’re recognizing them in our brains as valuable tools we can lean on when life gets chaotic, without derailing our overall health goals or beating ourselves up about it. 

If we accept that we need take-out once in a while, not just because it means we don’t have to cook, but because we actually enjoy it, we’re likely to eat it in a much more balanced, calm way. We may just order what we need, what will make us feel good, instead of putting off allowing it because we’re “not supposed to” and then order three times as much as we need, eating it in a rush followed by a rush of guilt.

If we accept that mac ‘n’ cheese with frozen broccoli and a frozen chicken breast is JUST FINE sometimes, we can eat that instead of ordering and eating an entire pizza when we think we don’t have any food in the house. 

Here’s what I want you to do: 

Creating Your Intuitive Eating Meal Plan

Assess Your Reality 

The first step in crafting an effective meal plan is to honestly evaluate your life. Consider three different types of weeks that ACTUALLY HAPPEN for you on a regular basis. 

Your ideal week: 

This is a week when things are the most chill for you. This feels like “normal life”. Make sure this week is a reality for you at least 50% of the time. If your ideal week only happens once a year, then sorry my friend but that’s not useful.

This will look different for different people, depending on your job, family, and other interests and responsibilities. 

Here are some questions to ask yourself for week A: 

  • When things are running smoothly, what does your schedule look like? 
  • How much time do you realistically have for meal preparation? 
  • When do you like to go to the grocery store? To cook? 
  • How many nights a week will you realistically be able to cook on a week when things are “most chill”? 3? 4? 5?
  • How many nights do you like to eat out, if any? 

To do: Answer these questions on the brainstorming page for Week A. 

A little busy week: 

This is a week when time is a little tight and you have some stuff going on. Maybe you’re on a day trip Sunday and don’t have time to shop when you usually do, or you have evening plans a couple of nights out of the week. Or the kids have a bunch of parties or swimming lessons or  what not. 

  • What’s your energy like throughout the week? 
  • When are you going to shop on these weeks? 
  • Do you have time to cook on swimming lesson nights?
  • What about nights when you work until 7 and then go to a yoga class?
  • What kind of dinners work on these nights? 

To do: Brainstorm when you have time to cook and shop during these weeks. 

Busy as hell week: 

Your “everything’s gone awry” week. In times of high stress, lots of travel, or unexpected events, what are your food-related needs? Maybe you’re away all weekend and get home late Sunday night to zero groceries and a busy work week ahead. You have events every single night except one and just literally can’t catch a break.

  • What are some takeout options that don’t make me feel like shit afterwards? 
  • What meals can I throw together in less than 15 minutes? 
  • What do I have in the freezer? 
  • Do I have energy to cook from scratch on these weeks?
  • Do I have breakfast and lunch stuff? Let’s order grocery delivery. Keep it simple. 

To do: Enter this on the brainstorming page for Week C. 

Fresh Meals & Pantry Meals

Diet culture preaches that you must eat all whole foods and nothing processed or partially prepared. But, as we know, this is too strict and borders on orthorexia. Luckily, we are not doing that. We are building a small amount of this into your plan so you can lean back on these wonderfully convenient foods. 

I’m not saying you HAVE to use these foods, but I do find that most people really benefit from being a little less strict about the freshness of every meal.

Here’s an example of what this might look like. You’ll need to tweak this based on your life, preferences, and what’s happening week to week. 

Week A: 2 fresh meals with leftovers for the next day, 2 pantry meals, one fresh lunch bowl, sandwiches, 1 dinner out. 

Week B: 1 fresh meal with leftovers for the next day, 2 pantry meals, one frozen meal, 1 dinner out, 1 takeout. 

Week C: 1 fresh or pantry meal, 1 pantry meal. 2 frozen meals, 1-2 take out, 1-2 dinners out. 

Fresh meal ideas: Sheet pan tofu and vegetables, White fish with tomato and chile (my #1 summer fave), Miso salmon with peas and radishes (shockingly delicious)

Pantry meal ideas: Pasta with chickpeas and lemon, Weeknight curry

Frozen zhuzh up: Frozen pizza with arugula side salad, dressed with lemon & olive oil dressing

I just want to remind you of one thing to keep in mind.

Prioritize Satisfaction With Your Meal Planning 

A cornerstone of intuitive eating is the concept of satisfaction. If you’re not enjoying your food, you’re missing a crucial element of nourishment. When planning your meals, consider not just nutrition, but also taste, texture, and overall deliciousness. Include foods that you genuinely look forward to eating.

Modifying Meal Planning for ADHD or Other Neurodivergence

For those with ADHD or other neurodivergent traits, traditional meal planning can feel overwhelming. And since disordered eating is super common in folks with ADHD, it can be extremely important to find ways to think about food, planning, and your body that really work with you, not against you:

  • Utilize visual planning tools: A whiteboard or a colorful app can make meal planning more engaging and easier to remember.
  • Set reminders: Use your phone to remind you about grocery shopping, meal prep, or even when it’s time to eat. I often tell my clients to set a timer for every meal and snack window.
  • Embrace repetition: It’s okay to repeat easy, satisfying meals. Consistency is more important than variety when you’re building habits.
  • Batch cook when you feel motivated: Take advantage of high-energy days to prepare meals in advance.

Remember, the goal is progress, not perfection. Any step towards more consistent nourishment is a win. Once things are stable, you can keep tweaking your plan to make it align with your health goals.

What If You Want To “Eat Healthier”?

It’s a common misconception that intuitive eating means abandoning all health considerations. In reality, intuitive eating can coexist with – and even support – your wellness goals. The key is to approach these goals from a place of self-care rather than self-control and to really work on getting away from black-or-white thinking when it comes to food, exercise, and health in general. 

For example, if you have a goal to incorporate more vegetables into your diet, you might explore new recipes that make vegetables appealing and satisfying. If you’re aiming to support heart health, you might include more fatty fish or plant-based omega-3 sources (walnuts, flax) in ways that you genuinely enjoy. Add, don’t take away.

This approach to meal planning is just one idea for developing a healthy, intuitive relationship with food. In fact, it’s an entire module in my Love Food Again program, where I teach you the whole Intuitive Eating method with an intersectional feminist lens. This program is designed to help you break free from diet culture, heal your relationship with food, and discover the joy of eating intuitively.

If you’re sick of dieting and stressing about food and it’s time to get this figured out once and for all, I invite you join me inside the Love Food Again Program! Enrollment is open now and you can start right away!

About Emily

Emily Van Eck, MS, RDN specializes in Intuitive Eating, eating disorders, body image, women’s reproductive health, and healing from years of weight-bias and disordered eating. She helps people find balance, consistency, and peace with their eating habits so they can feel confident to get outta their heads and into their bodies. Emily is a registered dietitian and certified Intuitive Eating counselor with a master’s degree in nutrition science. Read more about her practice, values, and experience here.

Emily Van Eck on couch with cereal bowl

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Emily Van Eck sitting on the couch smiling

Hey there, I´m Emily

A non-diet and weight-inclusive dietitian, intuitive eating coach, and body image healer. Here on the blog, I focuses on exploring intuitive eating, gentle nutrition, the complex arena of body image and feminism, anti-oppression, and all the ways these things intersect. I want us all to be free to own our appetites, and our desires, and eat really, really well. 

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