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July 1, 2024

What Are Therapeutic Meals?

What Are Therapeutic Meals?

At The Emily Program, meals are more than just fuel for the body — they’re opportunities for healing. Therapeutic meals and snacks address fear and anxiety surrounding food and eating, both hallmarks of eating disorders. These supportive meals are a major aspect of our treatment programs, including inpatient, residential, partial hospitalization (PHP), and intensive outpatient (IOP) care.

We foster a “Can Eat Culture” that embraces the philosophy that “all foods fit.” This approach rejects the restrictive “eat this, not that” mentality of diet culture, calling instead for variety and flexibility with eating. Therapeutic meals and snacks are key aspects of our “Can Eat Culture.” 

Read on to learn what therapeutic meals entail and how they can help pave the way to a more balanced and peaceful relationship with food.

What Are Therapeutic Meals? 

Therapeutic meals and snacks take place in supportive group settings—either virtually or in person—with trained staff and fellow clients. These meals are designed to meet the dietary needs outlined in each client’s meal plan, while also addressing the emotional aspects of their relationship with food. Unlike rigid diets, meal plans are flexible and adaptable. As clients learn to honor their body’s needs, restore trust in themselves, and establish balanced eating patterns, their meal plan evolves with them. 

The success of therapeutic meals relies on a safe, supportive environment. Our trained staff provide guidance and encouragement and act as role models by demonstrating healthy eating behaviors. The group setting offers the opportunity for peer support as well. Eating in the company of others with similar struggles provides collective strength, helping clients feel less alone and more hopeful as they witness each other’s progress. 

In addition to providing social support, therapeutic meals and snacks help clients address underlying emotions connected to their disordered thoughts and behaviors. These meals act as a form of exposure to triggers (e.g., fear foods, being surrounded by food, eating in front of others), allowing clients to gradually confront their fears and anxieties at the table. With time, they learn to take back power from disordered thoughts and behaviors and build coping skills to manage similar challenges as they progress through recovery.

The therapeutic meal and snack experience provides:

  • The opportunity to talk about challenges in “real time”
  • A shift in viewing meals as social, instead of something to merely “get through”
  • An encouraging presence at the table
  • Help to decipher genuine food preferences from eating disorder rules

Goals of Therapeutic Meals 

During therapeutic meals and snacks, clients work toward a variety of treatment goals that will benefit them on their recovery journey. Some of these goals include:

  • Facilitate nutritional rehabilitation (i.e., restoring a client’s weight and/or nutritional status)
  • Reduce fear of food through exposure
  • Decrease disordered eating behaviors 
  • Practice therapeutic skills (e.g., emotional processing, mindfulness.)
  • Increase the capacity to remain present while eating 
  • Build comfort and trust in appropriate food intake
  • Reintroduce eating as a social experience

Types of Therapeutic Meals 

Therapeutic meals and snacks can differ when it comes to the setting and the method of preparation. Here are four types offered at The Emily Program:

  • Standard: The client’s dietitian sets the menu for their therapeutic meals/snacks. Trained staff model appropriate food portions and pairings at mealtimes, ensuring clients receive the nutrition necessary for healing. 
  • Choice: The client chooses their meal/snack items, an important step in repairing their relationship with food. This exercise exposes clients to a wider variety of food options, fostering a flexible approach that goes beyond the constraints of their eating disorder.
  • Restaurant: Clients dine at a restaurant or eat food delivered to our treatment center. When dining out or eating a restaurant meal on-site, clients gradually overcome fears of eating in public and gain skills in managing food choices and portions that may differ from their typical meals.
  • Bring Your Own (BYO): Clients provide their own meals and snacks, aligning their choices with their specific nutritional needs. Staff continue to provide support and guidance as clients gain independence and confidence in meal planning and preparation. 

The types of meals offered change as clients move through different levels of care. This progressive approach aims to help clients develop confidence, flexibility, and independence in their relationship with food.

A Healthy Relationship with Food Is Possible

At The Emily Program, we combine food-related experiences, education, counsel, and skills to assist in a client’s journey to a more mindful, flexible, autonomous, and sustainable relationship with food. 

Some therapeutic meals and snacks are more challenging than others. Emotions can run high, but trained staff provide the compassion and guidance needed to help clients process and navigate these complex feelings. With this expert support, clients develop valuable coping skills, restore their nutritional status, and gradually reduce their fears around food, allowing them to reintroduce the joy of eating as a shared social experience.

We hold each client’s healing at the core of our treatment approach. Our hope is for every one of our clients to find a peaceful, balanced relationship with food, one liberated from the grips of fear and shame. 

Finding peace with food is possible. The Emily Program is here to help. Give us a call at 888-364-5977 if you, your loved one, or your client are ready to start repairing their relationship with food today.

Get help. Find hope.