Day 1 Habit Refresh: Meal Structure

Steph Wagner MS, RDN

January 7, 2024

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10-Day Habit Refresh


Day One: Meal Structure


Updated January 2024

day one ten day habit refresh blog series on bariatric food coach meal structure



Click below to listen to the audio recording of this blog or continue reading!


Three questions we’ll answer about each habit in this series

In this series I will answer three questions about each of the habits:

What benefit does this habit bring a bariatric patient?

How might the lack of this habit effect a post-op patient?

How can you best build up this habit in the post-op daily life?



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What benefit does meal structure bring a post-op patient?

A look into the dictionary will remind us the word structure is defined by these words:  to construct or arrange according to a plan; give a pattern or organization to.

Other phrases for meal structure include ‘meal plan’ or ‘meal pattern.’

Why does having a pattern or structure to your meals make a difference? (Feel free to tell me your own answer in the comment section!)


The benefit of meal structure is multi-faceted. We will focus on two main areas: mental and physical.



Our minds thrive on consistency and routine.

It is true, some personalities really love routine while others feel constricted! Nevertheless, habits and patterns come naturally to us all and building up the ones that benefit our health overflow into feeling mentally balanced and at peace.

Play out how you feel mentally when you have meal structure.

You wake up and know the pattern of your morning to include breakfast. Lunch is roughly the same time each day and you have either packed it or know where you will go for your meal. Dinner too is around the same time and the family is used to the plan.

Your mind is clear from wondering what time are we eating dinner tonight? or gosh I can’t remember if I even ate breakfast.  Having a meal structure allows food to be threaded into your daily routine and takes less mental thought in the moment.

Structure in your meals is not the only thing that benefits your mental health. A quick Google search about daily routines will yield pages of results about how helpful they are to mental health.

I am personally reminded of the pattern of daily routines when I have my kids follow along with a checklist for their morning and evening routines! It is amazing the difference in how our daily goes when we use the checklist and when we stray away from it.


The mental benefits of having structure and routine are reason enough to build the habit but it certainly doesn’t stop there.

Physically our bodies crave consistent routines and structure. When the body can expect to get fuel is very much included in this.

I often refer to babies when I talk about the importance of meal structure. When I became a Mom, nearly one of the first orders of business was feeding. The most basic needs of an infant include nourishment and sleep! Let that be a good reminder to us that our bodies still have those basic needs.

The benefits physically of a good meal structure include

metabolism benefits

blood sugar control benefits

hunger control benefits

easier to stay hydrated

Metabolism benefits

When you eat consistent meal times, your body comes to trust it will be fed at its routined intervals. This allows it to burn energy efficiently because it does not have to worry about conserving the fuel, it believes that it will get fuel again soon.

On the flip side, when someone is skipping meals or eating at different times each day, the body does not trust when it will get fed next. It will become more of a storer of calories instead.

Metabolism is a fancy word but it means the bodys process to turn food into energy for the body to operate. There are a handful of practical things we can do to make the body do this process more efficiently. Consistent meal structure is one of them (along with exercise and consistent sleep).

Blood Sugar Control Benefits

Whether someone has a diagnosis of diabetes or not, blood sugar swings impact us all (even more so and more dangerously in diabetes, which is why those patients have to work so hard to monitor their blood sugars swings).

A good meal structure will allow the body to maintain a blood sugar level in the desired window.

Going too long without eating will cause blood sugar to go lower which triggers your body to have you eat, often too quickly (ravenously), too fast, too much and/or high carbohydrate containing foods.

When that happens, the blood sugar will come up but often swing up too high. The ups and downs of blood sugar mean you do not feel your best (and again, more dangerous with diabetes).

Consistent meal structure helps your body do its job more to keep blood sugars stable and regulated.

Hunger Control Benefits

Similar to blood sugar benefits (they are related) are the hunger control benefits of meal structure.

Building the habit of a consistent meal structure allows you to stay on top of your hunger.

Not unlike ‘pain control’ it’s best to stay on top of it. If you’ve ever had a surgery (wink, wink) you likely had a nurse come into your room right on time for you next pain medication dose to stay on top of pain. If you’ve ever gotten behind on the pain, it’s miserable and so hard to get back in control.

Hunger may not be as intense of an experience as extreme pain but it does impact our minds, moods and bodies. Having a meal structure that has you eat right on time instead of a few hours too late, makes a big difference in how you will control your hunger later in the day.

Easier to stay hydrated

When you have structure to your meals, you then have a clear window of when you need to be drinking your fluids!

When you cannot drink during and after meals, it is really helpful to know when is an ON time for drinking. Having a meal structure means you can know when your job is to be drinking water!

How might the lack of this habit effect a post-op patient?

If you made it through the last sections, you likely know where this answer is heading!

Let’s play out what not having a meal structure might look like for a post-op patient.

Let me say this, as a dietitian, when a patient has no structure to their day or their meals it is really hard to give them instruction. In fact, the first order of business would be to get them on a structure!

This is not unlike a financial planner telling someone the first thing you need to do is follow a budget. It is hard to know what is going on when there is no visual.

If a patient has breakfast sometimes, eats lunch sometimes but it might be later in the afternoon it might also mean they are grazing by 4pm. They may be struggling with snacking at night because they cannot control their hunger (they got behind) and their blood sugars have been telling them when to eat more than their schedule.

They may find they hit weight loss stalls sooner or more frequently because metabolically their body is not as efficient with the lack of structure.

How can you best build this habit in the post-op life?

The first step is to find some clarity on what times really and truly make the most sense for you to feasibly eat your meals during the day.

When I was working with patients in clinics, I would hand them a pen and paper and have them write at the top of the paper what time they woke up in the morning. Even if it was a range of time, I had them write it down.

Ideally breakfast is within the first 60-90 minutes of waking (breaking the fast – this is a good thing for metabolism). Breakfast often brings up many questions and that’s okay! Feel free to comment with your questions and I will respond! 

From there we would write in lunch based on what their day looked like. Same with dinner. This is about when I ask them how the schedule feels so far. If dinner was feasible very late at night, we would schedule in a snack between lunch and dinner.

We would notice how many hours are in between each meal and note how many hours they had for drinking water.

This is easier for some and harder for others. If someone works night shift, it’s a similar process. What time do you wake up before work? When do you take a break in the night for a meal (aka ‘lunch break’)? Do you typically eat when you get off or go straight to bed?

Some will need to write out the meal schedule and put reminders in their phone that meal time is coming up. The benefits of working hard for structure are worth it!


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20 thoughts on “Day 1 Habit Refresh: Meal Structure”

  1. I’m taking a Thyroid medicine that must be taken on an empty stomach and I can’t eat anything for 30-45 minutes after taking the pill. I’ve worked that schedule into my Strength training, so every morning I get up, take the pill, then do my strength training routine for 45 minutes. The rest of my morning routine is breakfast and an hour of cardio (either on an eliptical, rowing machine, or walk outside depending on the day of the week and the weather). My confusion is which is better, to eat and then do the cardio (and not drink anything for the first half hour) or to do the cardio before breakfast (then breakfast is about 2 hours after waking up)? I’m 18 months post-op (sleeve) and my weight is 2 lbs lower than at my 1 year checkup (which was 3 lb lower than my goal weight).

  2. Hi Steph – loving this new format and information. Very helpful and timely prior to next Challenge coming up. I have a quick question. I am 9 years post-op sleeve pt. – I have found that I feel better if I eat a small snack around 2 hours before going to sleep. I usually eat string cheese and 4 whole wheat crackers. I never snacked after dinner prior to surgery. I eat my 3 meals on regular basis and drink my water throughout the day. I have gradually had an increase in weight over the 9 years. I am exercising daily/cardio/strength/stretch. Any suggestions on that nite snack that I might consider to change or other food choices? I would like to decrease my weight more. I believe I may be consuming too many carbs throughout the day (70-80 gm). I feel like I am “stalled” on wt. loss. I am 67 now and post-menopausal. Thanks so much for all you do for us bariatric patients. Have a good week!

  3. Great question!
    I would say if your current schedule is working for you and you aren’t experiencing hunger control issues, don’t change it. 
    If you were getting hungry in between meals at any point it could be re-visited. My feeling is eating 2 hours after waking but feeling well and hunger controlled, no need to disrupt your current routine. 

  4. I love that I can listen AND read these. I really appreciate this series. THANK YOU! For some reason I have become too comfortable and this is a great way to begin the year.

  5. I think the string cheese is fine in the evening if you need it! The question would be what can we swap the crackers for. This time of year I see Quest Chips on sale everywhere, you might try a bag and see if a few of those would be an easy swap.

    And since you’re a member with me, I can also take a look at a food record and see if we have other areas we can swap to help you manage the carbs a bit better!

  6. Hi Steph
    I’m coming up 4 years post op
    Since then I’ve been diagnosed with type 1
    diabetes. Had internal hernia surgery. Just had
    Thyroid removed due to thyroid cancer
    And had radiation
    I’m having a really hard time with weight gain
    (30 pounds) since bariatric surgery
    I find I am wanting the sweets
    They are still trying to regulate my thyroid pill
    I’d really like to get back on track
    I’ve done well up to this point. ( taking vitamins etc)
    I could really use your help
    Thank you

  7. How can we share our food log with you and how can I go about that process? I have regained about 50 pounds back from a 137 pound weight loss and I know some things I am doing wrong but others I am unsure of.

  8. Members can send me an email to to request food journal feedback! If they are connected with me on Baritastic I can pull the reports on my side. If they use another journal they can send me images, screenshots, etc.

  9. Hi Daisy! Are you workings with a dietitian on these things? I think in your case it would be good to have someone who can dig into your medical chart and your nutrition needs. If you need help finding someone licensed in your state, email me at and I will look into my network of bariatric dietitians. You’d want someone who can guide you with managing blood sugars, weight, bariatric nutrition and review your cancer history and treatments.

  10. Great question!! I would advocate for still having a couple bites of protein at the routined meal time to keep the consistency. Especially if early out of surgery, this helps establish the pattern. Hunger will come back with time and it’s better to be ready with your routine than reacting to uncontrolled hunger and trying to add in a schedule. It is also better for metabolism to have something consistently. If someone is early post-op and they skip meals because they aren’t hungry, their metabolism may drop more/faster and make it harder to lose more down the road even if they’re losing a lot initially.

  11. Stephanie,
    My problem is I work 6pm-6am (3-4 nights a week). I literally sleep from 7am (when I get home)-3:30pm (I have to get ready to leave at 4pm for work). I don’t get a break per se but I can eat whenever I want. I don’t eat when I get home. Walk the dog, relax for 30 mins, and crawl into bed next to my hubby. First day off, I sleep literally 15-20 hours for catching up. I try and get on night sleep with my family so eating is really messed up. I try and prep and cook for the week but that is so hard because I am trying to spend valuable time with family, friends, and schooling. My habit I am trying to create a regular eating meal structure and meal plan. I really could get some support. Thanks.

  12. Love the audio option, makes it easy to listen on the go! I had VSG 3/10/2020 got down to 179 then had a baby 5/5/22. Mornings are a challenge to get out the door and it’s been hard lately to get water in. I’ve been focusing on drinking 30 oz while getting her ready, out the door to daycare and me to work. At work I have a premier protein shake (instead of coffee creamer) with my coffee. Then usually a small snack (Greek yogurt when I plan ahead) around 10. Feels like mornings are full of rushing to get fluids and “breakfast” in before lunch. You mentioned in your blog that breakfast should be the first hour, how important is that? This schedule has been working but I don’t want to sabotage myself by not “eating” until 8am (awake at 6).

  13. Okay Mom to Mom…I GET IT! In many ways I would say don’t change something that is working!! My follow up would be how is your hunger controlled? Having a protein shake early and then a Greek yogurt is pretty light textured. If you find yourself getting too hungry heading into lunch time I would consider easy breakfast options that are more dense like boiled eggs and turkey sausage. Having a protein shake in your coffee is ‘breaking the fast’ so that’s fine in terms of metabolic benefit.

  14. I have the same problem as Gail. Could you send me the night shift email as well? Thanks!

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