Eating Disorder Treatment: How To Know the Right Level of Care for Your Child

Mar 22, 2024

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If your child has been diagnosed with an eating disorder or you’ve noticed behaviors, you may be wondering, “How do you know which level of care is right?”

Each child’s case is different. At times, they may need more support and structure. As they progress, they’ll be ready for more autonomy in their eating habits. It’s totally normal if your child moves through different levels of care in their recovery journey.

You’ll hear professionals say it time and time again as your child walks their own path: Recovery is not linear.

However, there are general guides for how to determine the level of care your child needs. Each step of the way, it’s important to have a team of professionals who are all on the same page and can help you guide your child to recovery.

The Different Eating Disorders Levels of Care

There are five basic levels of care your child may move through in their recovery. This includes outpatient, intensive outpatient (IOP), partial hospitalization (PHP), residential treatment center (RTC), and inpatient medical hospitalization. Some treatment centers may have more specialized levels of care for individuals.

Generally, higher level of care programs, including IOP, PHP, and residential treatment, require children to be medically stable so they can provide the best care. Especially in cases where a child’s eating disorder significantly impacts their health and behaviors, a higher level of care gives them the support they need to rehabilitate and restore their health.

Here’s a deeper look at each level of care. ¹


This includes regular appointments with a therapist, dietician, and healthcare provider as a child lives at home and keeps as much of their regular routine as possible. Many people will see a dietician and therapist once or twice a week. The patient practices integrating recovery skills at home. As recovery progresses, appointments may become less frequent.

Intensive Outpatient (IOP)

The child lives at home but attends a program for a few hours a day, multiple days a week. This helps give more structure to the recovery journey but allows the child to practice skills in their regular routine outside of program. They will likely have a meal and/or snack while they’re at program. Programming generally includes individual therapy and dietician sessions, educational information, and possibly group sessions.

Some programs meet during the day, but other programs may be available during the evening to accommodate other activities on a daytime schedule.

Partial Hospitalization (PHP)

In this level of care, a child sleeps at home, but attends program for the majority of the day, typically five to six days a week. Patients attend group sessions throughout the day, and meet individually with a dietician, psychiatrist, and therapist. Most meals and snacks are eaten at the treatment center, but the child will have a few at home — outside of program hours or on days when they are not in program.

Like IOP, this allows the patient to integrate some of those recovery skills into their regular routine while keeping structure for most meals throughout the week.

Residential Treatment Center (RTC)

Patients are given 24-hour care, seven days a week — meaning they stay and have all meals and snacks wherever they attend program. Program sessions are similar to PHP, but the constant care allows the treatment team to provide more structure to patients who need it. This can help disrupt disordered eating behaviors and ensure nutritional rehabilitation.

Medical Hospitalization

Patients who are medically unstable and require constant monitoring may be cared for 24 hours a day in a hospital. This allows professionals to give IV fluids, tube feeds, and any necessary medicines and keep a close eye on a child’s condition. This may be necessary and life-saving for children whose health is severely impacted by their eating disorders until they are stable enough for other treatment.

How To Identify the Level of Care Your Child Needs

The different levels of care may seem scary, especially for a child. However, they are designed to provide more structure, interrupt disordered behaviors, and aid in the patient’s recovery. The level of care your child needs depends on a number of different factors — including their medical condition, the severity of behaviors, their eating habits, and more.

You may have a general guess of what level of care your child needs. Or maybe you have no idea. Either way, a professional will help determine the kind of eating disorder treatment that’s best for your child.

Some parents choose a family-based treatment approach, which puts much of the treatment responsibility on the parents as they oversee all meals in an outpatient setting. However, for other families, the child may be best supported in a higher level of care.

Eating Disorder Level of Care Guidelines

Some families begin by having their child see an outpatient team. A therapist can diagnose an eating disorder or identify disordered behaviors. Through communication with a dietician and/or medical provider, they may recommend your child needs a higher level of care. 

If that recommendation for a higher level of care is made — or if you want to begin by working with a treatment center — a professional from a treatment center will do an assessment to determine the appropriate level of care for your child.

Treatment centers are very familiar with eating disorder level of care criteria and will be able to recommend what they think is the best kind of treatment for your child. You and/or your child may meet with an intake professional, who will ask lots of questions about your child’s eating behaviors, health, and related factors.

They will discuss the assessment with their team and, based on the level of care criteria, make a recommendation for the level of care. Your child will also likely need to meet with a doctor — especially if they have not yet — to assess their health condition. They may recommend your child be admitted to a higher level of care, or they may have your child do outpatient care.

Building a Treatment Team

As your child moves through their recovery journey, it’s critical to have a team of informed professionals to help guide them (and you) on the way.

If your child attends a higher level of care — like IOP, PHP, or RTC — they will see the professionals that are part of the program staff. However, if your child is doing outpatient treatment — or when they move from a higher level of care to outpatient treatment — they need to have a whole team who’s on the same page in helping them recover.

Ideally, all professionals are eating disorder certified, trained, or, at a minimum, informed. If you don’t know where to begin building an outpatient team, reaching out to a treatment center in your area can be a great resource. They’ll typically have a list of preferred providers they recommend patients work with.

Whether in a higher level of care or an outpatient setting, your child’s treatment team will include:

Registered Dietitian

A registered dietician will help guide your child’s nutrition rehabilitation journey. They’ll help guide your child to more regular eating habits and get back to enjoying food as nourishment.

It’s important to note: While a nutritionist may seem similar to a dietician, they don’t require the same education, training, or certification, so they can’t provide the same level of care that a registered dietician can.³ Someone who is only a nutritionist and not a registered dietician cannot provide the same informed care your child needs in recovery. Dietitians like those at Life Cycle Nutrition are recognized medical professionals who can prescribe a meal plan and give the best possible nutritional care.

Medical Provider

A medical provider will closely monitor things like your child’s bloodwork, electrolytes, other lab work, weight, and vital signs. They’ll help assess your child’s physical health and can provide guidance as they communicate with other professionals on the treatment team.


Your child will meet with a therapist individually to work through recovery and other challenges. In a higher level of care, they will likely also attend group sessions. Especially if you’re taking a family-based treatment approach, you may also meet with the therapist as a family.


A psychiatrist can help assess if your child needs any medications.

Keeping Your Treatment Team on the Same Page

It’s important to ensure you’ve signed all the necessary paperwork to allow treatment professionals to communicate with one another. This ensures everyone can remain on the same page to help your child in their recovery journey. After all, you don’t want to send mixed messages to your child.

Helping Your Child Navigate Levels of Care

Navigating levels of care can be overwhelming, especially for a child. However, having a parent like you who is on their side can make the recovery journey much less scary.

Trust that the treatment you build is there for your child and will help you learn to guide them as they progress.

Life Cycle Nutrition is a team of registered dietician nutritionists who can help individuals with eating disorders through the recovery journey. If you’re ready to help your child walk the journey to food freedom, schedule an appointment with one of our registered dietitians today.


Noticing Changes: Signs Your Child Has an Eating Disorder

How To Help a Child With an Eating Disorder: Your Role in Your Child’s Recovery


  1. Muhlheim, Lauren PsyD. 2018. When Your Teen Has an Eating Disorder: Practical Strategies to Help Your Teen Recover From Anorexia, Bulimia & Binge Eating. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 29.
  2. Crosbie, Casey, and Wendy Sterling. Essay. In How to Nourish Your Child through an Eating Disorder: A Simple, Plate-by-Plate Approach to Rebuilding a Healthy Relationship with Food, 51-52. New York: The Experiment, 2018.
  3. Cleveland Clinic. 2023. “Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: The Difference.” Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials.


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