I tend to be an “all-or-nothing” kind of Mama. The kind that hears a good idea about how to start eating healthy, and immediately goes to the grocery store to buy All. The. Healthy. Things.
By the end of the week, I’ve seriously overspent my grocery budget. And all I’ve got to show for it is a refrigerator full of rotting produce…that I feel too guilty to throw out.
Also, my family has still eaten the same exact meals that I routinely cooked every week before my new “healthy eating” idea.
Please tell me that I’m not the only Mama who has done this before…
The Root Problem with “All-Or-Nothing” healthy eating
Obviously, the problem is that if you change too much all at once, you’ll never stick to it. Or be able to afford it.
(At least, I won’t, and I’m still assuming I’m not alone here…)
Instead, you’ve got to break it down into easier, more manageable chunks that will fit into your current cooking/eating routine. And won’t make your family completely rebel against you.
But even knowing that, I find that I still get overwhelmed trying to break a new nutritious eating plan down into smaller steps. I suspect it has to do with my “all-or-nothing” (aka perfectionistic/OCD) characteristics.
And if you’re still reading this, then I bet you struggle with the same thing, too.
Luckily, I’ve finally figured out a way to conquer the perfectionistic overwhelm and take the first step toward healthy eating…without wasting a bunch of produce in the process.
It works for me, it works for my friends, family, and even clients that I’ve “health coached”. It doesn’t cost a penny, you won’t have to buy any weird ingredients, and none of your children (or your hubby) will complain a single bit.
The Best Hack to eating healthier is…
Keep a food diary!! I know it sounds too simple, but stay with me and I’ll explain.
I am notoriously bad at estimating how many unhealthy (actually, I prefer to say “less nutritious”) foods I eat each day. And I’ve got to be honest with you…
…you’re bad at it, too.
That’s why writing down our food choices each day is soooo important. It forces us to be honest with ourselves about how nutritiously we’re eating, where our weak spots are (aka chocolate and/or ice cream), and even where we’re doing well!
Don’t worry, you won’t have to do this forever. Just a week or two to collect some data about your current habits, and then you can use that info to make some easy changes for your family.
Oh, and while you’re working on your Food Diary…
What IS healthy eating, anyway?
First, you’ve got to decide what eating “healthy” looks like for your family. In my family, we’ve decided that it primarily consists of two things:
- Eating less added sugar
- Eating more veggies
If my family is doing these two things during this very busy season of life, then I feel like we’re doing pretty okay.
Your family might be different. Your definition of nutritions eating might look more like all eating organic, gluten-free, or everything from scratch. That’s okay, we’re all different! Different backgrounds, different information, different genetics, and different budgets. Our meal plans are not all going to look the same.
And that works, because I genuinely believe that there’s more than one way to “eat healthy.” But it’s going to take a bit of trial and error to figure out what that looks like for your family, and which eating decisions make you feel optimal.
But the best way to start is still to keep a food diary.
So let’s get started!
What should you write down?
Basically, everything that passes your lips should be written down.
But since we’ve all admitted that we’re in Perfectionists Anonymous here, let me expand on that a bit more before you freak out and try to apply your OCD tendencies to your food diary…thereby quickly getting overwhelmed and quitting.
(I know it because I live it…just sayin’)
Here’s a list of things not to write down:
- Don’t track your kids food
- Don’t track your hubby’s food
- Don’t track your water intake
- Don’t write down exact amounts or serving sizes
Were some things on that “Don’t” list surprising? It’s because we’re focusing on YOU! See, the way you eat, Mama, will have the first and biggest impact on the way that your family eats. Plus we’re not counting calories, we’re simply looking for general patterns…so don’t make this too complicated.
Now here’s a list of thing TO write down for each Food Diary entry:
- The date
- An approximate time (morning, afternoon, evening is fine…I know meals tend to get interrupted by kiddos…)
- The name of the food/recipe (i.e. if it’s homemade tacos, just write down “homemade tacos”…you made it so you’ll remember what’s in it!)
- If it’s a processed food, write down what kind and the brand name
- Any non-water beverage (even if it’s zero calorie)
I’m serious. Don’t go thinking you’re going to make this food diary even better by adding more details to it, because I’m telling you right now that you’re gonna get overwhelmed and quit. And then you’re gonna tell all your friends that food diaries don’t work…when they actually do.
While there may be a time in the future when you’ll want to do a different kind of Food Diary to track specific things (hello dairy sensitivity while you’re breastfeeding!!), this is not the time for that.
So be a good friend, and stick to the Food Diary rules.
How to analyze your food diary
Once you’ve imperfectly completed 1-2 weeks of your Food Diary (because I know you wouldn’t quit just because you forgot to record lunch on Day 3, right??), you’re ready to start looking at your current eating patterns.
Now here’s some real life cautions:
- Don’t get sucked into thinking your Food Diary isn’t valid because you wrote it over the holidays…
- …or went to a birthday party
- …or a potluck
- …or ate something else that you don’t “usually” eat.
This is real life, and there’s always going to be something that you don’t “usually” eat.
And when it’s in front of you, you know that you’re gonna eat it.
You’re just finally being honest about it.
Side Story: I kept my first Food Diary at the insistence of a health coach who was trying to help me reduce my cholesterol. We literally had three family birthdays in the 2-weeks I kept the diary, and everybody’s special birthday meals involved heavy whipping cream, plenty of cheese, and birthday cake…plus days worth of leftovers. My dairy intake was through the roof, which I thought was abnormal for me…but when my health coach insisted that I experiment with a dairy-free diet, my cholesterol dropped to normal levels for the First. Time. In. My. Life.
Moral of the story? If you track your food for 2 weeks, you’re going to get an accurate sample of your regular diet…even with the holidays/birthdays/potlucks, whatever. End Side Story
Compare your Food Diary to your definition of “healthy eating”
You should have some ideas for what “healthy” eating means to your family by now.
And chances are, unless you’re better than me, your Food Diary doesn’t quite live up to that standard.
Honestly, that’s to be expected! So don’t beat yourself up. We all live in the real world.
But now is the time that we look in the mirror and see exactly where we can make improvements. I’ll show you an example based on my family’s definition of eating nutritiously (aka less added sugar, and more veggies, in case you forgot) so you can see how this process works. Feel free to substitute in your own guidelines for your family!
Eat less added sugar
This was a no brainer for me. I (very sadly) remember the day that I calculated that my husband’s “World Famous” chocolate chip cookies contained 2.5 tsp of sugar per cookie.
A rough estimate for the ideal amount of added sugar we should eat per day is 6-tsp. And you know that I was not limiting myself to only two “World Famous” cookies per day…
Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.
But even after I cut out a lot of dessert-type foods, I realized that it was still super easy to go over that added sugar limit. That’s why label reading became a must.
I could go on and on, but if you’re interested, I’ll save more sugar tips for another blog post.
(P.S. Please note that this recommendation is only for added sugars…in most cases, there’s no need to place dietary limits on fruit. That is, so long as your also making an effort to eat plenty of veggies. Which leads me to…)
Eat more veggies
A Food Diary can be a painful mirror. Many people I’ve health coached have discovered that they only average 0-1 cups of vegetables per day.
The USDA recommends that, on average, adult women should eat approximately 2-cups of veggies per day.
My opinion is that adult women should eat at least 2-cups of veggies per day. Because you can never eat too many vegetables.
But it can be hard to make that leap from 0 veggies up to 2-cups of veggies, especially when you have a family of picky eaters.
Over the years, I have come up with numerous kitchen hacks that make it easier to slip veggies into every meal of the day…breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner. And since I need to feed a large family (preferably without being stuck in the kitchen all day), I usually find ways to increase veggies without cooking an extra side dish or trying to force feed my kids raw veggies.
Bonus? It’s harder for the kids to eat around their veggies that way, too!
(I know my kids aren’t the only ones who try that sometimes…)
If anybody’s interested, I’d love to go into more detail about my family-friendly veggie hacks in a future blog post!
Notice other interesting patterns from your Food Diary
Do you drink a lot of soda? Coffee? Are your meal times completely different everyday? Do you regularly skip random meals? Is ice cream after the kids go to bed the norm rather than the exception?
These are things you might see in your Food Diary that you didn’t notice before, but might be less than ideal when starting a new healthy eating plan. Identify the patterns you think might be a problem, then keep them in mind as you decide which baby step to take next.
Pick a baby step, then make a change!
You’ve already used your Food Diary to break the BIG goal of “eating healthy” into smaller steps. Now you simply need to pick the easiest, most achievable step…and do it.
And I’m serious: pick one. Don’t try to be a superhero.
For our family, I first picked eating less added sugar. In order to do that, I looked at where the sugar in my Food Diary was mostly coming from:
- Sneak eating the secret “Mama Chocolate” (Yes, that’s a thing. #NoJudgment)
- Hidden sugar in various convenience foods I used
- Breakfast cereal
- Sweet treats for the family…whether homemade, store-bought, or given by well-meaning friends and relatives to the kids
Once I saw where I had the biggest room for improvement, it was a lot easier to brainstorm some easy switches that would fit into my current grocery shopping and cooking routine. Things like no more bulk buying Mama Chocolate.
And it gave me ideas for other simple changes, too: like label reading, eating fruit-sweetened oatmeal for breakfast, and teaching my kids to graciously accept treats…but not eat them immediately.
You’d be shocked at how those few, small decisions made a huge impact on the added sugar our family ate.
And once we felt pretty comfortable with our new sugar routine, we moved on to our goal of adding more veggies.
5.1: Confession of a recovering “All-Or-Nothing” Mama
You know what I especially love about this way of changing our family’s eating habits?
I actually do it.
I’m not wasting money, I’m not spending half the day in the kitchen cooking from scratch, and I’m not getting lost on the internet looking for brand new recipes that my kids will probably not eat anyway.
I simply look at what I’m already doing, then take one step (imperfectly) forward.
And honestly, I’ve been able to make waaay more improvements for my family in the years since I’ve been doing it this way, as compared to the years that I’ve been stuck in the Perfectionist/OCD cycle.
Soooo….Leave me a comment! What’s been your biggest challenge with improving your family’s eating habits?