Food For Thought: Misunderstandings & Baby Steps

I think one of the hardest things about changing the way you eat is just knowing where to start. That's why I think a lot of people who are interested in making changes to eat healthier, end up on diets that make you go cold turkey - things like Whole 30 or another "cleanse diet." Because they tell you exactly what to eat, when to eat it and there are tons of websites out there with "Diet X Recipes!" making it pretty simple to follow.

But honestly, I don't know anyone who has done a diet like that and been able to say six months after the fact that they were able to sustain it - even remotely. For most people, I think a slow change is what will work for the long haul. Starting small, with something like "Meatless Mondays" or giving it a go at replacing store bought cereal with homemade granola is much less intimidating than saying, "We're only eating vegetables and beans for 30 days!" I mean, my college-self would have ran rabid, sneaking Bagel Bites and Pop Tarts at 2 a.m., downing entire bags of chips for breakfast when no one was looking, and justifying eating six cookies because I had "done so well all day." I tried things like this with friends at various points in my life, and always quit three days in because I just didn't have the self-control.

I was so hardwired to crave sodium and sweets (and yes, in a way, I think I was somewhat addicted to them like a lot of America is), that even if I did well with my eating choices for a few days, I'd "reward" myself with sugary cereals. I had to start small with my diet changes, to allow myself to become unaddicted. Going cold turkey might work for some people - and I've definitely read testimonies of people doing cleanse diets and swearing that sugar made them sick after the 30 days or so, but usually give them another 30 days and sugar is somehow not making them so sick anymore.

For someone like me, who's food habits and choices were so ingrained, I needed to do a slow change. Eating well is so much more than just the actual food you put on your plate. It takes learning to cook and bake, so that the new foods actually tastes good. It takes Googling and research to learn about a new ingredient, not only how to prepare it, but why you should eat it, what you should eat it with and where the heck to find it in the grocery store. It takes time to give yourself the opportunity to believe and know that you will feel full and satisfied when eating a salad or vegetarian meal.

Before I got where I am today, I had a lot of misconceptions and roadblocks that I used as excuses to not eat well. If you'd like to start making changes to your diet, here are a few things I'd encourage you in.

Don't skip a recipe just because you don't recognize one of the ingredients. Learning to expand your palate into healthy eating will probably require you to try new foods. View it as an experiment, a challenge, because once you try that ingredient once, you'll know how to use it going forward. Or, if it really terrifies you, find a substitute. I remember I would read Oh She Glows and drool over her photos and recipes, but she always had this weird ingredient, nutritional yeast, in her foods. Every single recipe that had it I would automatically skip. Eventually I finally Googled it, and found out that it's often used as a cheese substitute for vegans. While I could purchase it at a speciality food store, I could also use parmesan as a substitute. (Since I'm not vegan.) Done. Now one of my favorite meals, her Roasted Buddha Bowl, is on regular rotation at our house. I swap the nutritional yeast and cashews (if I don't have the time) for parmesan. Google will teach you many things. Stop being lazy about an ingredient and just look it up!

Just because it's labeled "vegan" or "detox" doesn't mean it tastes like dirt. I think one of my biggest hang ups was feeling like healthy food didn't taste as good as my old processed standbys. I'll never forget the time I was served this Spring Veggie Quinoa as the main course for lunch one day at a friend's house. I kept looking around, wondering if it was a side dish and trying to figure out where the closest pizza take out was. But as soon as I tried it, I loved it - and eventually I went back for seconds and thirds. (Still didn't have any sense of portion control at that time - and let's be honest, I still really struggle with that today.) I was shocked at how good it was and today this dish is on our menu pretty frequently. If you take time to learn to cook and bake well, I promise you'll find that healthy choices do in fact taste better than eating a half bag of Doritos.

You can and will feel satisfied with healthy food. Today, I can honestly say I am so much more satisfied when eating a healthy meal than I ever was five years ago - and I think that's because at the time, I was still on a diet of that for the most part, consisted of processed foods.  I might have thrown in a healthy meal or two here or there, but no matter what I ate, I was never truly satisfied because those types of foods are designed to make you always want more of them! I really struggled with having a meatless meal or even eating a salad with meat on it - I felt like if I didn't have a starch, meat, vegetable, and lots and lots of bread, I would obviously starve before my next meal. I had to learn that I could get protein from more than just meat, and just simply give myself the chance to see if I'd be hungry or not. Lots of times I would confuse a craving for sugar or sodium as "being hungry." And part of that went away from me loosing my addiction to processed foods and part of it went away when I truly took time to assess the way I was feeling.

Eating well doesn't have to take forever to prepare. With names like "Suddenly Salad" and "Easy Mac," processed foods are marketed as fast and simple dinners to throw on the table. Before I changed my ways, I didn't like spending any more time in the kitchen than I had to, so throwing a pot of water on the stove and adding a seasoning packet was about all I had in me. But it still took about 15 minutes, maybe 30 if I was throwing in some "add-ins." But making your dinner from scratch doesn't mean you'll be spending an hour in the kitchen. When I first started, Mike and I would grill a meat (Like chicken, seasoned with lemon pepper or something), and grill a vegetable as a side (Like asparagus with EVOO and salt and pepper). Super simple and really good. It took about 15 minutes. As I got more comfortable working with whole foods, I found I wanted to spend more time in the kitchen and took on more adventurous meals without batting an eye. But to be honest, most of our meals take about 30 minutes to prepare. I tend to make simple, "one dish wonders," and that's all we eat. No sides, no bread, no drinks - just water. If I make something like lasagna, I might throw in a simple side salad, but mostly, we just eat one main thing for dinner. It cuts down on a ton of time and planning and I've been surprised at how filled up and satisfied we are with these types of dinners. Your meals can be as intense or easy as you want them to be. Thrown on a TV show or listen to a TED Talk or sermon while you prepare it and I promise the time will go super fast.

You don't have to be perfect. Lots of the fad diets require you to completely give up certain foods for a set amount of time - no cheating or all your hard work will be undone. I think I felt like if I started changing my ways, I would have to go to 100 percent whole foods, and I couldn't imagine giving up my beloved Fritos or Ramen - let alone a crusty white flour baguette or a thick slice of bacon. I talked about it before, but Mike and I have an 80/20 rule. 80 percent healthy and 20 precent freedom for anything else. That 20 precent still allows us to eat processed foods, throwing in a frozen pizza on a busy night and you better believe I eat my weight in french fries when we go out to eat. And we have lots of sweets! But that 80 percent "healthy?" What that really means to us is 80 percent non-processed or homemade. As I've gotten more into bread baking, we eat white bread like it's our job. And I'm not about to change to a 100 percent whole wheat baguette! I tried making a 100 percent whole wheat baguette and honestly, it was gross. Too dense and chewy for me. Give me my fluffy as a cloud white flour baguette and I'm mopping up my soup with a half a loaf. The key for us is that it's homemade. No preservatives, no extra sugars, no weird ingredients. Just flour, yeast, water and salt. I honestly think this is where much of my weight loss came from. We still love our Chinese food, we still eat lots of bread, we still have dessert - it's not about calorie counting or depriving yourself of the stuff you really love - it's learning to make things at home and knowing what you're actually putting into your body! When you make it at home, it's a guarantee that it's better for you than the store-bought version. Don't feel like making the switch to eating well means you're eating all almond flour or only eating quinoa all day every day. You don't have to be extreme, give yourself grace and room for growth.

I think the biggest thing here is to just be brave. Don't worry about making mistakes. If you're just getting started just try to make something different - you'll always have your processed/quick foods as a dinner back up, right? A lot of people ask me how I learned to cook (especially if they knew me back in college) and I tell them, I don't really know how to cook, but I know how to read and follow a recipe. While yes, I've learned a lot about substitutes, measuring more with my eyes and hands than a cup or teaspoon, and even what flavor combinations go together, I still rely heavily on recipes. I'm not a perfect follower, but I do try to keep it fairly consistent and I think it makes a difference in the quality of the final product. It's like those Allrecipes reviews - people give a recipe two stars, then in their review they're like, "I changed this and this and this and this, and it wasn't that good." and it's like, "NO WONDER YOU DIDN'T LIKE IT, THAT'S NOT THE SAME RECIPE." Kills me, every time.

Remember, my transformation didn't happen in 30 days or even 30 weeks, it was a slow, slow change, making the transition actually fairly easy. Take baby steps, and conquer one fear at a time. I think you'll find a lot of the things holding you back from eating well were simply from a lack of knowledge or understanding of what it truly entails. 

6 comments:

  1. I LOVE this outlook and while I don't think we're QUITE at 80/20 (let's be real.. more like.. 60/40 or some weeks 70/30) I try to at least be good at home- salads, whole foods, etc. I don't buy anything from the frozen foods section anymore (even frozen veggies) and that's not because I'm sanctimonious, I just genuinely enjoy chopping veggies and I think they taste better-- and it's cheaper! When we go out? All bets are off. But even there, I find myself trending towards restaurants that have naturally sourced ingredients, are big on "farm to table" and are more "foodie" than they are sloppy greasy burgers (which I still enjoy on occasion)-- it's definitely something that comes with time and balance is so key. I especially love the part where you said making it at home is already better than eating out. The other day I made a breakfast for dinner hash with bacon, potatoes, kale, radishes and eggs over hard on top. I remember asked if cooking the potatoes in some of the bacon fat was "healthy" and while it wasn't organic quinoa with grass fed bacon.. it's a better fat than saturated fats and at least we did it at home with as many whole veggies as possible!

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  2. Hi Kelly - First off, ummm, your dinner hash sounds AMAZING - and it sounds healthy for sure! I cook foods in leftover bacon grease just like you, because like you mentioned, it's a "natural" fat. I'm all about eating the thick slice bacon without soaking out the grease - if you're going to enjoy that kind of food, make it worth it! You definitely sound a lot like me, and yep, so weeks are definitely better than others. I feel like these days eating "healthy" is so extreme! Other countries still enjoy their white flour without getting huge - why can't we? I really think it's all those "extra" ingredients in pre-made ingredients and by just taking a little more time our food is waaay better for us. Thanks for sharing where you're at!

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  3. Wonderful post, and I so appreciate a healthy perspective on food and healthy eating in this world full of poor eating advice and diets. Our philosophies sound very similar, but I still feel like I am working daily to make better decisions with my food. Maybe it's something we will always strive to improve.

    Having a toddler the same age as Eli, I now really struggle with getting dinner cooked as she is clinging to my leg (why are they most needy and clingy during this time?!). Have you found a good routine to getting healthy, homemade meals on the table while entertaining a toddler?

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  4. Ahh, the unanswerable question! It's so hard! I've tried a few things - different things on different days. Sometimes I try to prep as much as I can during the afternoon nap, so there's not too much left after he wakes. Other times I've put him in his high chair with a snack to occupy him - like pretzels or apple chips - they take him forever to eat! Now I totally understand why people turn to iPads and TV during this time. Which to be honest, I have no issues with in moderation if that makes dinnertime less stressful!

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