When you’re trying to eat healthier and stick to a good diet there can be many obstacles that hinder your progress. There are snacks sitting in the pantry. You’re tired after a busy day and don’t feel like cooking. You get ready to make something and suddenly realize you don’t have all the ingredients. You finally decide to eat that healthy item in the fridge only to learn that it has gone bad. That tasty-looking new recipe turned out to be not-so-tasty. There’s nothing decent to pack for you lunch so you eat out instead. The key to overcoming these obstacles is preparation.
Get your head in the game!
The first step to changing your life with a healthy diet is to want it. You can’t think to yourself, “I know I need to do better, so I might as well.” You will fail. I promise. That candy bar from a month ago that is sitting in your desk at work will draw attention to itself one afternoon and you won’t have the will to resist. I think we’ve all been there. If you doctor tells you you need to make dietary changes, you may do it because you have to, but I submit that you need to want to. But I’m not a motivational speaker. I leave it to you to find your muse. You need to find your own determination. I’m just going to help you develop a system to make it hard NOT to succeed once you’ve made that decision.
Clear out the junk!
The first thing you need to do is to remove a huge obstacle. Get the bad stuff out of your house, your car, and your office. Again, it’s up to you to decide what’s bad. Candy bars? Chips? Any processed foods? Take an entire day and CLEAN! I would guess that you probably have a lot of expired items in your fridge and pantry anyway. Are there things that other people in the house can have but you can’t? Maybe you’re diabetic. Maybe you’re the only overweight one in the house. Maybe you have an active and healthy teenage boy that will eat everything and begs you for junk. You decide what healthy means to you and your family. But here’s what I did:
- The Snack Cabinet – There are some things that need to stay but don’t need to be in your face when you open the pantry. I have a cabinet down to the side where the snacks go. Fruit roll-ups, animal crackers, and lunch snacks for the kids go down there.
- Frozen Treats – I kept a few of these such as fruit bars, ice cream, and smoothie mix. These items have been relegated to the bottom of the big freezer in the garage. Out of sight, out of mind. When I plan and choose to have one of those treats I know where they are, but when I’m looking for veggies, they aren’t going to taunting me.
- Refrigerator Treats – I do tend to keep sugar-free jello, pudding cups, and yogurt in there. Once again, make sure these things are not the first thing you see when you open the door.
- Pantry Snacks – I got rid of my processed side items like mac & cheese and minute rice, but kept my oatmeal. Once again, I moved things like dried cranberries away from the front so I can get to them for my salads, but not as a snack.
When you’re cleaning out your refrigerator, freezer and cabinets make sure you’re checking the expiration dates on your food. If things are expired, throw them out! If not, find someone that can use them or donate unopened items to your local food pantry. I used to work at a restaurant and am still friendly with the staff. There are people on tight budgets there that are often quite happy to snag the stuff.
You don’t have to get rid of all the junk unless it’s a serious problem for you. If you have a horrible sugar problem, you might be better off getting everything out of the house (even cake and brownie mix) for a couple of weeks until you can break the habit. After that, it’s okay to snack and splurge occasionally. The key word is OCCASIONALLY. Maybe once a week. Or less. But not every day. If you’re hungry, grab some protein and veggies. If you want a sweet snack (and don’t have a horrible sugar problem) grab some fruit – preferably with some protein like an apple with a small amount of peanut butter. The key here is to have a PLAN!
Plan ALL your meals in advance!
Now you’re ready to kick it in gear! You’re strong, determined, and ready to do this for all the right reasons. You got problem foods out of your house and you have an organized pantry. What now? Sit down and start planning!
It helps to have some great tools. I’m a huge fan of Spark People. It’s a free website that has millions of users. I recommend it for two big things: the food and exercise tracking programs. Here I’m going to discuss the food tracker. Feel free to use another service that offers the same features.
Spark People Food Tracking
Gather up some of your favorite recipes. I don’t recommend trying a lot of new recipes at first. Stick with the food you like. Log into the website and head to the food tracker. If you grocery shop on Saturdays, do your planning on Friday night or Saturday morning. It doesn’t really matter. Just make sure you plan for it to take about an hour and do NOT do it while you are hungry or completely stuffed. The great thing about the planner is that it will show you the calories, carbs, fat, and protein in your items, your meals, and for the day. You can also track other things like cholesterol and fiber at the bottom of the page. It’s important to have balanced meals and this helps you quickly see the balance. Here’s a sample day in the Spark People Tracker:
This is not intended to be a tutorial for the Spark People tracker, but take notice of a few things. For each meal or snack, you can “Create Group” or “Copy Foods”. If there’s something you eat often like a small apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter, you can create a group for that. Or a more complicated example is a salad. You don’t need a recipe for that item, you just don’t want to have to enter 5 items every day. You can also copy a meal to the next day or even a week ahead. This is particularly handy when you eat the same thing for breakfast every day. Another thing I would like to point out is the red “view recipe” next to a couple of items. Spark People has a HUGE database of foods. You can do a basic search and see if something is there. If it’s not, you can view user-entered foods and see if someone else has already entered the item. (If you do this, make sure to look at the nutritional information. Occasionally people only enter the calories and not other nutritional values if all they care about is calories.) If an item is still not there, you can enter it yourself. The same applies to recipes. There are some “official” recipes, a huge number of recipes entered by users, or you can enter your own. And you can choose whether or not to share a recipe. Additionally, you can save foods and recipes as favorites to make them easier to find later. That said, when you first start using the database it could take a little time to get your favorite foods and recipes entered into the system or find appropriate entries.
Be a Slick Meal Planner
Some people recommend making a huge batch of something and eating it as reheats all week. I don’t like spending an entire day in the kitchen and I do NOT like to eat the same thing every day for a week. No thanks! Here’s a sample of a meal plan for the week the way I suggest it.
My goal is to have a variety of foods throughout the week without too much time spent on any one day. Here’s how the example works:
- Saturday – eat the planned breakfast and go grocery shopping before lunch
- Saturday dinner – Cook the main dish for dinner. This item needs to be something that reheats well for lunches at work. Make simple sides.
- Sunday Breakfast – I’m trying to considerably reduce my processed carb intake and eat a lot of eggs for breakfast. This can get boring, but I recommend buying a great Microwave Omelet Pan and just change the omelet fillings each day.
- Sunday lunch – reheated from Saturday night and a quick salad.
- Sunday dinner – Sometimes one day of the week it will be necessary to cook a little more. I suggest that this is a weekend day but that you still aren’t cooking for hours. Make a moderately difficult dish with a moderately difficult side dish. Both items will be reheated throughout the week so plan accordingly.
- Monday lunch – reheated from Thursday dinner and quick salad.
- Monday dinner – Is pizza one of your must-have-can’t-live-withouts? But if you’re on a reduced carb diet, your favorite deep dish pizza is out. Try making pizza on a flatbread. It’s easy and takes about 10 minutes. It’s so large that you might not even need a salad with it.
- Tuesday lunch – reheated from Saturday.
- Tuesday dinner – reheated from Sunday and make a new side that can be reheated later in the week. Easy veggie side.
- Wednesday lunch – come home for lunch and make a treat – a grilled cheese or something you can’t just reheat at work.
- Wednesday dinner – make a new main dish and reheat a side.
- Thursday lunch – reheated from Wednesday.
- Thursday dinner – If you’re making the dish for the first time, the crock-pot is very easy. Or, if you made a big crock-pot item and froze the food nicely you can just reheat that for dinner and make some rice for a side
- Friday lunch – Go out to eat with your coworkers. It’s good inter-office relations and it’s nice to eat out occasionally.
- Friday dinner – reheats from Thursday
It’s important that you take away a few important points from this example. It’s not necessary to copy that plan. Those points are:
- Make foods you like and will eat. Especially foods you will reheat.
- Plan foods for the reheats. If you have to cook something on Tuesday so that you can reheat it the next day, you are less likely to come home tired and eat something quick and unplanned. You’ve essentially committed yourself.
- Make a variety of foods. In a week’s span have chicken, seafood, and beef. If you like omelets, you can have them every day if you change them up. The same goes for salads.
- Spread out the workload. If you cook a little each day but never have to cook a full meal, the workload is more tolerable.
- Don’t deny yourself the comfort foods. Yes we should eat to live and not live to eat, but let’s face it. Sometimes you need comfort food. If your comfort food is chocolate, keep some pieces hidden in the back of the pantry in the cracker box. If you can’t live without pizza, make your own rather than eating at your favorite pizza restaurant. Or even eat there if you like – get takeout and have one or two slices with a salad.
Make the Grocery List
Now we get to the little gem in Spark People trackers: the automatic grocery list.
Yes, that is an ad. You do have to deal with the ads with the free service. There is no paid service. But have a look at the settings on the top. You can choose what date to start your grocery list, how many days, and how many people you’re feeding. The great part is that a lot of the items are shown by department which makes it easier to shop.
Print out this list and grab the list off the refrigerator where you or other members of the household have put items you may need like toilet paper or a specific food item. Go over everything on the list and see if there are items you don’t need like olive oil, spices, meats, or other things you already have. Cross those off the list. Sit down and make a new list by picturing your grocery store layout and putting things in the order you’ll get them in the store.
Coupons – there’s a big trend in extreme couponing right now. If you have the time and energy to do this, go for it. BUT – don’t buy things you won’t use because they’re super cheap. Or worse, most of the items you get coupons for are prepackaged foods high in carbohydrates, sodium, and are pretty much bad for you. Save money on your toothpaste and deodorant but don’t buy a bunch of frozen dinners and a can of cinnamon rolls. If you have a grocery card that gets you discounts and coupons on the stuff you use (like save $1 off $10 in the produce department!) then by all means, use it.
Go to the store
When you go to the grocery store, go down your list marking things off as you get them. If it’s not on the list – DON’T BUY IT!!
Tip – Often schools, and kids programs partner with grocery stores on a gift card program. You buy a card from them pre-loaded with money. Every time you load more money on the card, the school or program gets 3% of the amount. If you’re buying groceries and prescriptions anyway – it’s great to help out a good cause with a little extra of your time and trouble. It doesn’t cost you anything. Here’s what you do: As you’re going through the grocery store, keep a little tally on your list of everything you put in the cart.
3, 6, 9, 15, 17, 21… When you walk up to the register, you can see that you have approximately $121 worth of food in your cart. Have the cashier load $125 on the gift card (the school or program will get $3.75 for your purchase!) and pay with your credit/debit card, check, or cash as usual. Then, once your order is rung up you pay with the gift card. You still get your rewards points for your purchase and the only change to your routine was the extra step when the money is loaded on your card. If you aren’t keeping track of your spending as you go, it’s a good habit to be in so that you are forced to look at the price of things and maintain a better budget.
You’ll find that it is necessary to shop once a week to keep fresh produce, bread, and milk. Also, shopping once a week will keep your inventory down and stop you from buying things that you won’t use.
Put away the groceries
When you get home, clear out old leftovers and glance at expiration dates of things. For example, yogurt needs to be checked periodically and occasionally you will buy things with an earlier expiration date than the things you already have. Make sure that the things that expire first are in the front. Do the same with your produce.
The most important thing to remember is that by being organized and taking an hour once a week to plan your meals will help you to reach your goals and force you to stick to the plan.