Beginner meal planning- Steps to getting started

Six beginning steps to help you navigate meal planning while you start off your nutritional therapy plan for IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis)

Notebook on a cuttingboard surrounded by fruits and vegetables.
Implementation in Daily Life
Food / Kitchen

Everybody has a different experience with their IBD and will require a diet plan tailored for their specific needs.  Working through this process can be a confusing and often emotional experience as you look to replace some of your old favorite foods with different new ones.  It is important to work with a registered dietitian who specializes in IBD to ensure the foods you are consuming are nutritionally complete and to ensure a healthy relationship with food.

Starting a new diet for your health comes with some changes to your usual way of eating. By taking on a lifestyle of valuing your health through proper nutrition, you will find that making your own food at home is truly important to be able to control the ingredients and know exactly what you are eating. It will take a bit more planning and meal prep to be successful, especially when the pressure rises in a social setting.  In time, this new way of home-cooked eating will become a habit and will fit into your daily lifestyle seamlessly. Below are six beginning steps to help you navigate meal planning while you start off your nutritional therapy plan.

1. Print a list of compliant foods

Once you and your dietitian and physician have agreed on the nutritional option you would like to start, print off a comprehensive list of compliant foods to hang on your fridge. 

  • Focusing on the foods that you are able to eat, instead of ones that need to be avoided, can give you a better mindset and make you aware of all the variety you are able to have.  
  • Keep a copy in your purse or wallet as a quick reference when out grocery shopping.  
  • When dining out, it is helpful to keep a quick reference sheet in your wallet of foods you need to avoid so you can present it to the server or chef so they can more easily accommodate your dietary needs. 

2.  Reorganize Your Pantry

Woman checking  jars in her pantry

While following a therapeutic diet, you will be focusing on whole, nourishing fresh foods. Some of the foods in your pantry may contain non-compliant and processed ingredients. Begin to eliminate foods that are not compliant with your diet so you may be less tempted to eat them. If there are other household members who are not following your diet, consider setting aside an area of your pantry that is dedicated specifically for your compliant foods.  You could consider donating to a local food pantry or see if a friend can take them to reduce food waste. Instead, fill your pantry space with dry goods that are a staple of your new diet.  Transparent jars are great for storage of dry goods and allows you to easily see what you have or if you are running low. 

3. Write out a weekly meal plan  

Start with simple recipes that have similar ingredients that you can use throughout the week in different meals. Planning will help ease the burden of cooking everyday and give you some healthy pre-made foods in your fridge that you can put together quickly or grab-on-the-go.  For example, if you are cooking chicken for dinner, make extra to use later in the week. It can be easily shredded for a chicken salad, or added to a vegetable soup for dinner.  

  • When managing IBD, you may need to make texture modifications to your meal to help with digestion. For example, stewing apples into applesauce instead of eating them raw makes them easier to digest. 
  • Build these modifications into your meal plan to save time.  If you are cooking or roasting any fruit or veggies for a meal, it can be helpful to look ahead to what you will need for the rest of the week and cook them all at once.  
  • Smoothies are easy to customize to your individual nutrition needs and are easily digestible since the food is already broken down for you by the blender. They are a great way to get calories, protein, and nutrients into your diet, especially when you aren’t feeling well.  Smoothies can be great for breakfast, lunch or snacks and are easy to build into your meal plan as they will keep for up to two days in the fridge. 

4. Navigating the grocery store & budgeting

man with list in groecery store

 Having a list when you visit the grocery shop can help you stay focused on what is needed for your meal plan.  While following a therapeutic diet, you will more often be shopping in the fresh produce section for colorful fruits and vegetables.  When possible, shop for in-season produce which is typically at its nutritional peak, tastes the best, and is the most affordable.  However, don’t shy away from frozen produce if the fruit and veggies you want aren’t in season. Frozen food will often retain most of its nutritional value and can be a great economical way to shop healthy.  

While many nutritious foods will be found in the produce section, there are some great finds within the aisles too.  To help you determine the health value of the product, pay closer attention to the ingredient list instead of the outside advertising on a food box. A certain product may make claims to make the food seem healthier than it really is.  Just because it says “organic” or “gluten-free” does not mean it's healthy for you.  A label with recognizable foods on the ingredient list will be a better choice to avoid unwanted food additives or added sugars.

5.  Keep a food log

Since everyone with IBD has a different experience when it comes to food and symptoms, it is important to keep a food log to help figure out what foods may be problematic for you.  By keeping a record of what foods you ate and how they made you feel, over the course of a month, you may be able to identify a pattern of foods or food groups that may be problematic for you.  Important details to track about food include portion size, time of day, how the food was prepared (baked vs. grilled), where you ate it (dined out vs. at home), and beverages consumed. 

Pay attention to and record symptoms such as bloating, excess gas, cramping, bowel changes in both look and frequency, fatigue, headaches, and your general feeling of wellness for that day. There are many online templates or apps available to help make food journaling easy. Always consult with your dietitian and medical team if you’re concerned about any symptoms.

6. Take advantage of your good days

With the unpredictable nature of IBD, there will be times when you don’t have the energy or are not feeling well enough to cook.  This is when having a freezer stash of easily digestible, nourishing meals comes in handy.  Once you’ve established a meal prepping routine, you might try doubling or tripling a recipe and freezing the leftovers in individual portions, giving you access to several weeks’ worth of meals at once. This is known as batch cooking, and it works best with recipes that freeze and reheat well, such as soups and stews.

Chicken Turmeric Soup

These types of meals are great to have on hand in case of a flare or if you are unwell and need some quick nourishment. This chicken turmeric soup is a great example of a simple meal you can freeze for future use. Label the frozen meals with name and date to ensure you rotate and put the most recent frozen food in the back.  If you have a particularly large freezer or a deep chest freezer, it's helpful to write a list of what foods are in there on a dry-eras board or piece of paper taped to the outside to keep track of the food you have saved. 

The above steps are intended to help you navigate meal planning as part of your everyday habit. When starting your nutritional therapy journey, please keep in mind that it is okay to go slow and to implement changes over the course of time that suit your individual needs.  It will not be an overnight process as there is a lot to learn when navigating new ingredients, new recipes, and learning to listen to your body about how this way of eating makes you feel.  During all stages of implementing nutritional therapy, it is important to work closely with a dietitian to ensure that this treatment is appropriate for your individual needs.  

Somebody in the kitch - view from the back while preparing healthy foods. Cutting board with various healthy foodsPink Milkshake and fruits on a white table and pink backgroundWoman stirring in a pot with vegetables.on the stove

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