It’s been more than two months since I hard reset my eating habits and started teaching myself to cook. Some friends have started asking me about my diet, and while I am not a nutritionist and this is not meant to be a plan for you to follow. I’m happy to share what’s working for me.
I started writing down everything I ate
Some people can’t stand this part, and I don’t blame them, but for me it was the only way to figure out what I needed to change. In the process of simply recording what I was eating I found I was less likely to eat junk food, because I didn’t want to have to log it. I focus mostly on staying withing my my macronutrient balance (carbs vs fat vs protein vs sugar) than counting calories.
I logged pretty religiously for about a month. Yes, it was tedious. I entered in recipes to calculate the nutritional information, pulled it up from restaurant websites when I ate out, and estimated when I had to. Now that I’ve developed better habits I don’t log as much, but I still track my eating 3-4 days per week.
What I’m not eating (and drinking)
In a lot of ways, this is more important than the stuff I am eating.
I cut way down on sugar, both added sugar and the stuff that occurs in fruits and veggies. After the first phase of “cut out junk food” I started tracking my sugar intake and even then I was still getting more than 100 grams of sugar each day. I don’t really want to think about how much I was getting before. Now I try to stay under 50g.
I eat out a lot less. Before I started this process, I was eating out or getting takeout 5+ times per week. Now I cook fresh meals for dinner and eat leftovers for lunch. I try to limit my meals out to one dinner and one lunch per week.
I don’t drink my calories. One can of coke has 33g of sugar (out of my daily 50). Not worth it. This goes double for most of the drinks at Starbucks. I’m trying to wean myself off of Diet Coke, because I don’t think the artificial sweeteners are doing me any favors either, but that one is going to be a longer battle.
I curbed my drinking. Aside from the large amounts of calories and sugar in many alcoholic drinks, there is some evidence that alcohol inhibits muscle growth. I now limit myself to 1-2 drinks per week, and drink mostly hard liquor on the rocks (which doesn’t come swimming in sugar and I tend to drink it more slowly than beer).
So what does that leave?
For breakfast, which I eat after my workout, I try to get in a good amount of protein and fiber. I keep a bowl full of hard boiled eggs in the fridge, and might pair that with half a cup of high fiber cereal for a quick breakfast. I also cook quinoa and keep it in the fridge, it can be mixed with fruit if I want something sweet, and is also delicious with a soft boiled egg. If we have egg whites handy I might make a big batch of egg white muffins and grab a few of those.
Lunch is almost exclusively leftovers from another night’s dinner, although occasionally I’ll make myself a salad if I happen to have spinach on hand. Every few weeks I’ll make a big batch of kale minestrone or sad vegetable soup and freeze it in individual portions for a lunch I can grab on the way out the door.
For dinner, I cook from scratch 3 days a week, eat leftovers two more days, and then on weekends we usually eat out on Saturday and have pizza at grandmom’s on Sunday. I plan my meals on the weekend and try to have a good balance of lean meats and vegetarian dishes. I look at the recipe nutrition information and look for meals that are well balanced rather than overloaded with any one macronutrient (e.g. fat, sugar, carbs). Some of my standby recipes include:
- Turkey Chili
- Creamy Chicken and Quinoa Casserole
- Balsamic Pork Tenderloin and Roasted Root Vegetables
- Grilled fish tacos
I try to keep at least 2 meals worth of ready-to-bake food in the freezer at all times. I follow the guidelines in the book Don’t Panic, Dinner’s In the Freezer, although I usually modify the recipes as they tend to be very heavy as written. These meals are prepared and then frozen (uncooked or partially cooked) and just need to be popped in the oven for a brain dead meal. This has rescued me from a night of “I’m tired, let’s just order in” on many occasions.
The turkey chili recipe is great because aside from the ground turkey, which can be frozen, all the ingredients are canned / nonperishable. I keep one recipe’s worth on hand for weeks when I don’t get to the grocery store. In general, my diet strategy involves a lot of planning ahead when I have time so that I don’t make unhealthy choices when I don’t.
I avoid snacking between meals unless I’m absolutely starving. Most of the time when I want a snack I’m really just bored, and I’ll make myself some tea if I just need an excuse to get up and move around. I know I’m really hungry when I feel my energy levels plummet, or when even a handful of raw cabbage sounds delicious. Favorite snacks include the low sugar flavors of KIND bars, greek yogurt (none of the high sugar fruit flavors though), raw veggies, or a hard boiled egg. Mostly though I try to eat enough at meals that I don’t feel the need to snack.
Junk Food and Dining Out
There is, and always will be, a special place in my heart for sugary carbs like cupcakes, brownies, ice cream, and candy bars. I have by no means completely eliminated these from my diet, but I do pay a lot more attention to how much I’m eating and when. On days when I know I’ll be indulging in some cake (say, every Sunday at grandmom’s because it is always someone’s birthday) I am careful to avoid junk food and sugar at other meals.
At restaurants I steer towards lighter fare, but don’t go too nuts with restrictions. Limiting the frequency of meals out goes a long way here. If I’m being good I’ll skip the appetizer, order a salad, and try to eat a reasonable amount of food regardless of the restaurant portion size. But sometimes it is just worth it to eat a burrito the size of my head, and that’s why I eat carefully the rest of the week.
When I plan in advance I don’t find it hard to stick within my daily allotment of calories, fat, and sugar while enjoying a slice of cake or a burrito the size of my head.
Room for Improvement
I’m still working to develop good habits, and probably always will be. I need to work to incorporate more fresh veggies, and learn to navigate appetizers and cocktail parties a little better. I will destroy a cheese plate if given half the chance. While I’m good about not drinking at home or when we go out, I am practically incapable of turning down a craft beer or nice glass of wine when offered. By eating healthy at home I can enjoy this stuff without completely blowing my plan, but I would like to feel a little more in control of these situations going forward.