Developed by nutrition experts Casey Crosbie, RD, CEDRD-S, and Wendy Sterling, MS, RD, CSSD, CEDS-S in 2018, the Plate-by-Plate Approach is an eating plan often used by people in early treatment for an eating disorder. But it also works well for people who are years into their recovery.
Plate-by-Plate is a simple, balanced, normal way to eat that doesn’t require measuring food or counting calories. Rather, it’s a method that guides you to include the key categories of foods during mealtimes, in portions you can customize to your needs.
It’s easy to learn, and works just as well in informal settings as it does in formal settings like treatment.
The approach is simple and visual. For each meal, you start with a 10-inch plate, or sometimes a little larger. That plate is divided into three roughly equal sections that include (1) grains/starches, (2) vegetables/fruits, and (3) protein. Along with your main plate you’ll want to include both fats and dairy. (Note: For non-dairy eaters, a calcium food works well.)
Rather than thinking in terms of sections on a plate, some people estimate portion size by using their fist. This helps in visualizing a 3-D portion size, and it also works for different ages. That is, a young person with a smaller hand will naturally eat a smaller portion.
To see visual examples of the Plate-by-Plate Approach, go here.
What to know (and enjoy) about Plate-by-Plate
It’s a completely normal way to eat.
This is one of the most powerful aspects of Plate-by-Plate. People can practice it at home or out at a restaurant—it works anywhere. It also makes sense socially as there’s no weighing or food substitution list to look up on the phone.
It’s also easy to grocery shop for Plate-by-Plate. All that is necessary is to buy a variety of tasty foods in the three main categories (protein, grains/starches, fruits/vegetables) along with two other essential components (fats, dairy/calcium).
It emphasizes food over nutrition.
To say this is not to denigrate the science of nutrition. Eating nutritional foods is always important. The point is, the Plate-by-Plate Approach gets you there naturally based on the food categories you choose from, the portion sizes, the variety, and so on.
A shortcut example for understanding the food-over-nutrition emphasis: With Plate-by-Plate, you eat a serving of oatmeal, not a serving that includes X total calories and X grams of carbs.
It’s not a rules-based approach.
People with eating disorders tend to have a lot of rules around their eating. This is the eating disorder talking to them. It says to eat this but don’t eat that. It says this food is bad but this food is good. And so on. There are lots of rules.
The Plate-by-Plate Approach is not like that. There are no value judgments or moralizing, no numbers or portions to measure, and very few rules. It’s flexible. You simply need to be intentional about choosing foods from certain categories, you plate them in reasonable portions, then you enjoy your meal.
It can be used like a prescription.
Again, eating disorders come with lots of do’s and don’ts. They’re bossy. They’re always telling you what to do about your food, your weight, and your life.
Plate-by-Plate acts as a powerful prescription against that. It helps people ignore the chatter in their head when mealtime approaches and when they sit down for their meal. The Plate-by-Plate Approach is scientific, it’s protective, and it helps people get better, just like a medical prescription.
It’s easy for friends or loved ones to help you.
Sometimes, especially early in a person’s recovery from an eating disorder when they’re still getting the hang of Plate-by-Plate, it makes sense to designate a trusted accountability partner to help.
And because Plate-by-Plate is so intuitive and visual, that person doesn’t have to be an eating disorder expert to be helpful. They also don’t need to stand over their loved one or be overbearing about it. The idea is for them to notice, to nudge, and maybe to gently remind their loved one about the agreed-upon plating strategy.
It works for snacks as well as meals.
Some people in recovery from an eating disorder have more trouble with snacks than with mealtimes. Not to worry, the Plate-by-Plate Approach can help with snacks as well, in at least two ways.
First, with snacks, a good strategy is to aim for two to four components per snack. Then you plate those two components using the Plate-by-Plate Approach. So, if a person likes an apple with peanut butter or cheddar cheese, think of that as a piece of fruit along with a protein or dairy food.
A second way to manage snacks is to integrate them with the meal that comes before or after a snack. For example, if you decide to have two vegetable sides with your lunch and no calcium food, try to include a calcium snack like cheese or yogurt that afternoon after lunch. This helps you maintain the healthy variety that is the essence of Plate-by-Plate.
The Plate-by-Plate Approach works well for our residents here at Koru Spring. It’s straightforward to teach, a relatively simple concept to learn, and a powerful meal-planning skill they take with them when they leave.
For those struggling with eating disorders or disordered eating, this approach can help stabilize and make sense of eating in a non-diet, recovery-friendly way. It also fits nicely within the Intuitive Eating framework, and can be a practical way to approach it.