Baby Steps: Better Eating

I cleaned up my diet well ahead of TTC. What I figured out while doing so could be useful for anyone who’s sick of eating junk but doesn’t know how to start improving the quality of what they eat.

Since I had been old enough to choose my own food, I just couldn’t feel motivated to eat properly. I knew that at some point I would get my act together but I figured it wouldn’t be until I was pregnant and then probably only last through nursing.

Around 25 I got to feeling like maybe I didn’t have the digestive system of a college student anymore. I also realized that to overhaul my diet I was going to need time to adjust. For one thing, you don’t want to go straight to my diet from frozen french fries and pizza or your digestive system will hate you even more, but I would also need to work my schedule so that I had time to do all the necessary food prep.

So, a little bit at a time, I started introducing good things while phasing out bad things. Presented to you for inspiration: the approximate progression I made, one baby step at a time.

This “guide” assumes a bunch of things I outline after the bullets. I have basically distilled all the wisdom I could find that was plausible to me and doable around my schedule and budget. As bullet-points are easier to scan, I’ve kept it brief above and expanded almost every point below.

Tackle one idea at a time. When it feels like you’re settled in a new groove, incorporate another. The three levels of difficulty and the order of ideas aren’t necessarily well-ordered, just what I thought was easy and harder.

Preparation

  • Alter your daily travel routine to include a grocery store and/or produce market.
    Be ready to go to the store more often since stocking produce only works a few days into the future.
  • Stock up on microwaveable, dishwasher-safe Tupperware.
  • Learn how your dishes match up to serving sizes. Are your coffee mugs really 6 oz? Your drinking glasses could easily be 16. A large cereal bowl probably holds two cups of soup or salad.

Stage One

  • Have a piece of fruit each day.
  • If you have a daily habit of any sweet drinks that aren’t 100% fruit juice (x) then make the switch. The more pulp the better.
  • Find a vegetable juice you like and have a glass every day.
  • Switch to whole grain bread. It doesn’t have to have literally whole, intact grains in the loaf to be healthy; shop around for a brand without chunky grains if you don’t like them.
  • Spot really easy swaps to make for healthier options, like making homemade baked french fries with olive oil (or other suitably healthy oil) or homemade tortilla chips.

After Stage One:

See how easy that was? Great start!

Stage Two

  • Make one of your snacks a serving or two of cut veggies.
  • Criticize your regular meals for healthy-sounding food that’s not or just food that’s lacking in recognizable food.
  • Breakfast can pack a healthy punch but can fall into the trap of only-healthy-sounding, so beware.
  • Don’t try to eat enough at breakfast to get you through to lunch – instead, have your veggies part-way through the morning. My mornings are so active I have three snacks between breakfast and lunch.
  • Switch to brown rice from white rice and/or skinless potatoes. Make sure you are cooking it properly as it’s more temperamental than white rice and can take a lot longer.
  • If you eat out very frequently, like lunch or dinner on a shift at work, reevaluate your choices so the meals are as healthy as what you can make for yourself. If you can’t manage that, brown-bag it.

After Stage Two:

As you work in healthy foods, you will be eating a lot more food unless you cut other things out. You should be able to swap out either snacks or parts of meals… no more mid-afternoon chocolate bar or bag of chips. If you are a snacker for hunger reasons, these new foods should replace them; if it’s for taste refer to inspirations like Eat This, Not That for ideas how to keep your taste buds happy.

Stage Three

  • Phase out some of your new fruit juice habit, replacing with water.
  • Have a salad every day with a dressing that’s low in saturated fats (picking the right dressing is better than eating dry salad if you buy into the “healthy oils are key” school of nutrition).
  • If you eat pasta a lot like I do, switch to whole-grain.
  • Replace your convenience meals with homemade versions.
  • If you are not preconception planning or TTC, reduce the fat content of your milk (1% to skim is the hardest transition in theory but I didn’t have any trouble). Low fertility rates are somehow correlated to milk fat content and causation is suspected (and it’s Harvard who says so) so if you are TTC, whole milk or ice cream for you!

After Stage Three:

As far as I can tell this makes a pretty good or even great diet (diet to mean choice of foods, not restrictive in calories). Personally I could use more variety in the choices I make for my daily fruits and veggies, but at least I’m getting them. Considering how picky an eater I am and how far I’ve come, this is a small miracle.

When it comes to quantity, if you’re still hungry, I think the best way to fill up is to try increasing the amount of veggies and meat (when you’ve chosen lean meats), or whole grains. But that’s where I feel too far out of my element to give advice. There’s absolutely no way I should say anything about quantities if you think you’re eating too much. Those are questions better left to a professional.

Assumptions

  • You are ready to start making changes by baby steps
  • You have time to adjust your lifestyle, e.g. you have not been handed life-threatening manifestos about lifestyle from a health care provider
  • You consult with experts before making any drastic changes to diet and/or if your body gives you signs it is not adjusting to a new routine well
  • 100% real fruit juice is healthier than sugar-added drinks, but fruit is healthier than fruit juice
  • Starches are benign when they carry fiber with them. I have no problem with gluten being gluten, but white rice strikes me as a bit guilty. Potatoes are my one big vice on this topic but if I prepare them in reasonable serving sizes with skin on and count them in the grains column, not vegetable, they will be less guilty.
  • Canada’s Food Guide’s servings sizes are used to determine what “a vegetable”, “a grain”, etc are, but, the number of recommended servings are probably flawed for the average person, among its many flaws (too much food for a day, skewed towards dairy, not enough emphasis on hidden foods like condiments, etc). Personally I like this pyramid for the breakdown of servings (parent page here), but it doesn’t discuss sizes.
  • Serving sizes are a sticky topic. I know I obsess over them, but that’s because I don’t want to be eating comically too few vegetables or way too much cheese. I’m so bad at judging by eye that I use a scale for almost everything, making my quest for precision look very OCD. I’m likely to be off by upwards of 40% if I don’t have a perfectly-sized container to measure into, and I assume I won’t always have one so I go by weight.
    It doesn’t help that sizes sound arbitrary (1/2 cup meat, 1 cup salad) (criticism here) although I think the guide is clear, if unintuitive. And volumes are tricky to measure for things like carrots and celery. I’m honestly no longer sure how many veggies I eat in a day – it depends on whether a serving of carrots is 50g or 90, and if you are supposed to pack the leaves in tight when measuring one cup of salad.

Examples and elaborations:

On grocery shopping more frequently: Check your commute for options that allow you to stop on the way home, or other options that will let you “grab a couple things” without going out of your way. (If price is an issue, don’t let convenience trump affordable. I could have decided to use the very handy name-brand store down the street, but it might doubled what I spend at the store I found by taking the train home instead of the bus.

Try walking to the store whenever possible: This can work well with the first idea for an exercise baby step, which I am planning to talk about in an upcoming post.

A fruit a day: One (not too gigantic) apple, orange, pear, peach, banana, cup of berries (a 1/2 cup of thawed frozen berries kicks a fruit cup’s ass in my opinion – fresh are great if you can get them but for me that’s a small window when they are actually as nice fresh as frozen).

About beverages: Obviously pop is bad (i.e. soda or soft drinks for those of you from different dialects), but also watch out for lemonade, iced tea, punch, or anything else with added sugar. Juice can be much pricier than many of these… look for store-brand 1L or 2 quart tetra packs, or mix up from frozen concentrate.

Be aware if diet pop or other calorie-free drinks might be bad habits for other reasons, especially caffeine and phosphoric acid (more than one Coke a day, for example, has been linked to decreased bone density (believed to be causative when calcium is leached out to balance the acid)).

And don’t forget that alcoholic drinks are often empty-calorie fiends (usually sugar and/or carbs).

Veggie juice: The ones mixed with fruit juice might be the only choice if you really hate tomato juice. V8 is not the only choice at my stores and I found a thicker, less-spicy juice I like that’s all vegetables. It counts as two servings. Be careful of sodium content if you already consume a lot.

Inspiration from “Eat this, not that”-type substitutions: There are tonnes of suggestions online and a series of books about making healthier substitutions that fill your cravings but aren’t so atrociously bad for you.

Cut veggies every day: Carrot sticks (baby carrots are even easier), celery, snow peas, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, etc… pick two. Avoid dips; yogurt is OK. These will be much easier if you prepare a few days ahead and portion them into separate Tupperware so you can grab a portion ready-to-go (if they tend to dry out, top up the container with water for storage and drain off before taking with you).

Look at what you eat with a harsh eye: My breakfasts were healthy-sounding but not (see the breakfast point) and frozen pierogis were my non-food food (they didn’t even have real cheese in them so were really just salted mashed potatoes in bleached white dough).

The breakfast trap: My instant oatmeal packets weren’t nearly a full grain or dairy and had lots of sugar. Now I’m a fan of buying extremely plain cereal and then adding fruit, cinnamon, or even sugar – you’ll probably end up with less sugar in the long run.

If you measure out an entire serving of fruit and milk to have with your healthy cereal you’ve got one whole-grain, dairy, and fruit before you even start the day. Frozen berries are great for this; I have a Tupperware container the right size I fill after each breakfast and they thaw for the next morning in the fridge.

Eating out is not evil, but…: Part of why I don’t eat out very often is I gravitate to much cheaper restaurants or even the cheaper choices at nice restaurants, which are more likely to be junk. If it’s healthy food, there’s nothing different about eating it in a restaurant vs. home. It’s just that I never do choose healthfully while out.

Brown-bag it: Make twice as much dinner and store in ready-to-grab containers as a meal (don’t put everything away separately or it will be extra effort to pack the next morning).

Side-salad every day: Boxed, washed greens are a must if time is your priority. Vinaigrettes are usually pretty healthy but beware the low-fat versions of these that simply have the good fats removed. Don’t pack your salad with the dressing applied if you are taking it somewhere to eat later; keep a bottle of dressing at work if you can or get liquid-tight 1oz containers for single servings. Spruce it up with thawed berries and crushed nuts or keep it simple; I just do spinach with a raspberry vinaigrette and it’s delicious.

Whole-grain pasta does exist: There is at least one palatable brand in Canada: President’s Choice Blue Menu.

Healthy convenience meals can exist: I have a stir fry over rice and a baked pasta that are low sodium, low fat, brown rice / whole grain pasta respectively, and are the right portion sizes for me. I make a few up ahead of time. Now I don’t have to buy frozen rice bowls and single-serve lasagnas as back-up meals. I even stash one in the freezer at work as a back-up lunch or emergency dinner should I need to stay late.

More Caveats

Weight

If you usually eat cookies, chips, fatty meals, “white” grains, and drink a lot of added sugar, then I would guess you will lose weight with this plan, but I feel irresponsible even speculating. You should consult a professional about weight loss, but maybe certain points from this will inspire how you can implement changes they recommend.

The only weight I wanted to lose was some I had put on as an experiment. I had been teased or mothered about being too thin all my life so I put on 10 pounds to see how I liked it. I didn’t… except maybe in retrospect, I miss the tiny extra bit of insulation. But I didn’t need to actually do serious weight loss and in fact the first few tips could easily add many calories if you don’t balance them by reducing your intake of other foods.

Prices

One of my important priorities is money. I needed to switch from a fancier boutique grocery store to a no-frills chain to keep my bills around the same because the things I replaced were really inexpensive unhealthy meals.

But I don’t think bills generally have to rise. Healthy food might cost more, but cooking for yourself compared to buying prepared food or eating in restaurants shouldn’t. Healthy snacks are supposed to be replacing unhealthy ones, so your bill should drop for chips, cookies, soda, etc.

Time

The first couple of steps shouldn’t be too bad, but this is going to be very time consuming by the time you reach Stage 3. If you place more value on your time than I do, buy ready-to-eat salads and cut veggies, and look for healthy convenience meals (watch your sodium!). You can also make giant batches of things like rice ahead of time, or do breakfast for the week in 5 minutes.

I’m extremely lucky to have a job where I can eat all day long at my desk. A workflow with set mid-morning and -afternoon breaks are also going to have an easier time of it than someone who can’t stop what they are doing except for a meal break. But you could simply group the snacks in with your smaller meals… it might just take an un-picky palate or good planning to have all the foods “go together”.


Please let me know if you think I’m off my rocker about anything stated here (which is a standing open invitation on any post). My credentials on the topic are “I have my very own digestive system, and Google” so I do not mean to claim any original research or insight – just distilled information that could be misunderstood, misinterpreted, or misapplied.

3 Responses to Baby Steps: Better Eating

  1. T says:

    I think that keeping smaller wrapped amounts of chocolate near my desk at work, but not on it would be helpful, as would be just keeping some fruit on it. I like the idea of baby carrots or carrot sticks since they require no preparation at work.

    • Kaitlyn says:

      Good-quality chocolates are awesome because one or two are so much more satisfying than an entire Hershey bar. But out of sight is likely better since even if you still indulge whenever you actively think of it, I bet you’ll eat fewer than them being right there.

      Prewashed mixed greens and baby spinach are almost no work – just put some in a bowl and top however you like. Not as easy as baby carrots or an apple but not as tricky as washing and cutting greens ahead of time like I used to insist upon because of price.

      • T says:

        SO TRUE! I’ve been buying good quality chocolate bars and I don’t think it’s actually costing me that much more since it takes me up to 3 days to eat one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *