“I’m hungry, but I don’t know what to eat!” Sound familiar? We all have this feeling from time to time, but if you’ve recently stopped dieting or are recovering from an eating disorder, you may ask yourself this question daily.
Having difficulty making food choices can happen if you’ve followed food rules in the past and you have a reliance on external cues for eating. Simple strategies like checking in with your hunger and planning your meals can help you decide what to eat when you don’t know what to eat.
The Non-Diet Approach
It can be hard to make food choices when you’re unsure what to eat. Diet culture can complicate this by making it seem normal to have rules about what you should eat and how much. The non-diet approach is an alternative to diet culture. It involves learning to trust your body’s internal cues to guide your eating while rejecting external cues like calorie goals, “off-limits foods,” and time restrictions.
Honoring your hunger is an important part of trusting your body to guide your eating.1 This can feel scary if we’re used to having someone or something tell us what we should and shouldn’t eat. When you stop restricting, you may feel lost and unsure how to decide what to eat.
Diet culture makes it seem like being hungry is “bad” and something to ignore as long as possible. If you’re new to the non-diet approach and intuitive eating, it’s normal and healthy to feel hunger cues throughout the day.
Here are a few examples of what it looks like to shift to a non-diet way of thinking:
“My last diet said I wasn’t allowed to eat after 7 pm, but I’m feeling hungry before bed. I’m going to listen to that hunger and eat a snack that feels satisfying.”
“I’m craving a bowl of fruit for a snack. I read online that I shouldn’t eat too much fruit because it has sugar, but I’m going to listen to my body when it tells me that it needs something cold, fresh, and sweet.”
It can take practice to reframe your thoughts around eating. Noticing your natural hunger and fullness cues can also feel challenging if you’ve been trained to ignore them. Working with a non-diet registered dietitian can be a great tool during this process.
Unsure What to Eat?
If you often find yourself hungry but don’t know what to eat, there are a few tools you can use to help you decide. But before that, consider whether external food rules are getting in the way. You may know exactly what you want to eat but feel like you shouldn’t eat it due to past restrictions.
For example, you’re craving a bowl of cereal for dinner because you don’t feel hungry for a full dinner meal. You know you want to eat it, but in the past, you were told that cold cereal doesn’t count as a meal, has too much sugar, or doesn’t have enough protein.
These are all examples of food rules. If you push them aside and listen to your body, you’ll find you had the answer all along; enjoy that bowl of cereal! Then, assess if you feel satisfied or need something more.
If you are truly unsure what you want to eat, follow these simple steps to check in with your body and make a satisfying decision. Noticing your hunger level and identifying any food cravings are great ways to be in touch with your body’s internal cues.
Rate Your Hunger
When you don’t know what you want to eat, start by checking in with your hunger level. It can be helpful to think about your hunger on a scale of one to ten, with one being ravenous and ten being overfull. Understanding how hungry you are can help you decide if you want a meal or a snack.
Hunger will feel different for everyone. Many people feel the classic grumbling or hunger pangs in their stomachs, while others might not have obvious hunger cues.2 They might feel fatigued, have difficulty focusing, feel lightheaded, or experience headaches, which are late signs of hunger.
Eating something every three to four hours throughout the day might prevent those late signs of hunger if you don't get regular hunger signals.
Check in With Your Cravings
Once you determine how hungry you are, it’s time to ask yourself what type of food sounds good. Think about texture, flavor, and temperature– do you want something crunchy or soft, sweet or salty, hot or cold?
Of course, this will be limited by the foods available to you at that moment, but thinking about what type of food sounds good can help you narrow down your choices.
Next, assess how much time you have and the amount of effort you want to put into preparing food. You might need something you can grab and go, or you might have time to cook something.
Balance Your Plate
Another strategy that can be helpful if you are hungry but don’t know what to eat is to select an option that includes a combination of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. This is not a rule by any means, but it can be a helpful formula to follow when unsure what to eat. Including all three macronutrients will also help with satiety after your meal or snack.3
Let’s say you’ve decided that toast sounds good. Peanut butter has fat and protein and can help get you closer to a balanced meal. If possible, add some veggie sticks or fresh fruit on the side for extra fiber, health-promoting antioxidants, and vitamins.
Make a Plan
If you find yourself regularly struggling to decide what to eat, it may be helpful to start planning ahead.
For many people, the thought of meal planning brings up images of past diets, spending hours in the kitchen on Sundays, and not being able to deviate from the plan. Meal planning can look very different depending on your needs and preferences.
The goal here is to create a loose plan, so you know what to expect and have fewer decisions to make throughout the week. You don’t need a rigid plan with every bite mapped out.
For example, you often feel hungry for dinner when you get off work but don’t know what to eat. Try focusing your meal plan around a few dinner options for the week and then build your grocery list. When the time comes to decide what to eat for dinner, you can choose what sounds best that day based on the recipes you’ve planned.
Make a List
Another way to simplify food decisions is to create a list of easy meals and snacks that always sound good to you. When you’re hungry but don’t know what to eat, you can refer to your list rather than trying to think of ideas on the spot.
It can help to stock your fridge and pantry with some of the ingredients from your list, so even if you’re late on grocery shopping, you always have some go-to options to fall back on.
You can start with a small list and add to it over time. Once you have a solid collection of ideas, it can be an invaluable tool for meal planning– you can simply cycle through the meals and snacks from week to week without reinventing the wheel.
Here is a sample list to help get you started:
- Cereal with milk.
- Popcorn with nuts.
- Peanut butter toast with banana.
- Cheese and crackers.
- Yogurt with granola.
- Apple with nut butter.
- Hummus with pita and veggies.
- Trail mix.
- Breakfast for dinner.
- Bean and cheese burrito.
- Baked potato.
- Egg salad sandwich.
- Spaghetti with meat sauce.
- Avocado toast with a fried egg.
- Chicken caesar salad.
- Slow cooker chili.
Keep it Interesting
Sometimes we struggle with what to eat because we’re stuck in a rut with food. When you’re bored with all your go-to options, it’s time to branch out and find new ideas. This can be as simple as finding a new recipe or purchasing a different snack at the grocery store.
Routinely adding interesting meals and snacks to your repertoire will help you feel excited when it comes time to decide what to eat.
A non-diet registered dietitian can be a great resource if you need more guidance with intuitive eating or help with personalized meal ideas. Your prior experience with dietitians may have been in the context of restriction and dieting. Nourish is different.
Our registered dietitians don’t prescribe diet plans or calorie goals. Instead, their goal is to help you create a healthy relationship with food while helping you pursue any health goals you may have.
With online sessions that are covered by insurance, it’s easy to get started. Click here to set up a consultation.
- Warren, J. M., Smith, N., & Ashwell, M. (2017). A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms. Nutrition research reviews, 30(2), 272–283.
- Poovey, K., Ahlich, E., Attaway, S., & Rancourt, D. (2022). General versus hunger/satiety-specific interoceptive sensibility in predicting disordered eating. Appetite, 171, 105930.
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