Humans are creatures of habit. We are very, very good at doing what we’ve always done. The other thing we’re really good at is taking the easy way out. Imagine you’ve just finished an eight hour work day, traffic home was hell, you haven’t eaten since lunchtime and it’s now 6 p.m. and you’re cranky and tired. Does this sound familiar? Now imagine you’re walking into your kitchen and trying to decide what to eat for dinner – your fridge and pantry are full of healthy options but all of them require preparation. The veggies need to be rinsed of their dirt and chopped into cookable pieces, the meat in the freezer hasn’t been thawed so you’ll have to microwave it and wait for it to be defrosted so you can actually do something with it, there’s plenty there but it all wants effort from you and you’re kind of at the end of your tether. So what do you do? You say bugger this, and you go and get takeaways. Or you eat something instant like tinned food packed with sodium and containing no fresh ingredients. This is the main complaint I get from my clients when it comes to their diets: at the end of the day, making healthy choices is a lot harder than reaching for something pre-made.
The other complaint that I get is that people genuinely believe that they do not know what is healthy and what isn’t. I’m not a nutritionist, I’m a personal trainer, so I’m not going to write you out a list and say “this is good” and “this is bad”. However I can tell you without a doubt that you probably already have a pretty good idea that hmm… fruit and vegetables and grains and meat? Yeah, they’re probably gonna be alright. Takeaways and chocolate? Uh, probably not. See? You already knew that. It’s the application of that knowledge that we struggle with. I mean, we already know McDonald’s isn’t good for us but it’s after work and there’s nothing readily available at home and we’ve been stuck in traffic outside of a McDonald’s for the last 5 minutes so ummm… I’m gonna stop right there. Here are a few tips that I give to my clients to help them make better choices.
- Make the healthy option the easy option. Have you heard of meal prep? Now it’s your BFF. Go along to Kmart (like you needed an excuse) and buy yourself a nice big stack of plastic containers. Preparing your food in advance means that when you come home after work, tired and grumpy, you don’t have to wait too long to be fed something nutritious. There are a couple ways to do this; you can fully prepare a meal and then just pop it into the microwave and away you go, or you can do what I do which is to just chop up the ingredients ready to be cooked so you are still having freshly cooked meals but without all the fuss and hassle of preparation and extra dishes. If your ingredients are chopped up and ready, literally all you have to do is heat your pan up and upend your container over the pan and just like that your meal is halfway done.
- Buy market fresh. For one thing, buying from local farmers markets is one of the best things you can do for your community. But also you know it’s going to be fresh. I like to buy my fruit and vegetables from the Christchurch Farmers Market because you can buy broccoli twice as big as what you get at the supermarket, for the same price. The carrots and kumara still have dirt on ’em, they’re that fresh. When you buy supermarket fruit and veg in the states and the UK, it’s usually a couple of weeks and sometimes up to a few months old. I don’t know if this is the case in New Zealand but I do know that when I buy courgettes from the supermarket, they’re soft and wrinkly within a couple of days. However, a few weeks ago I bought a bag of them from the farmers market and forgot about them and a week later they were still as firm and fresh as the day I bought them. I think that one of the reasons people stop buying so much fresh produce and fall into the habit of eating entirely packet food is because they can’t eat what they’ve bought in time. It goes off in the fridge and they don’t want to waste food or money so they just stop buying it altogether. In French Women Don’t Get Fat, Mireille Guiliano says that the French buy their food fresh almost every day from the street markets and only buy what they need for the day and perhaps the next… this unfortunately doesn’t fit with our culture and lifestyle in New Zealand but the idea still stands: fresh is best.
- Do your meal prep straight away, before putting your groceries away. Instead of unloading all the groceries into the fridge and then forgetting and not doing meal prep and ending up where we started, just unload everything onto the bench. Then you can work out what needs to happen to each item before it can go away in its rightful storage spot. This is another reason why doing your shop on a Saturday at the markets is great, because generally you’ll have the afternoon to yourself to do your prep. And if you’re too busy on the Saturday you have the following day to get it all done. If I find myself in a squeeze for time I put the entire grocery bag into the fridge to remind myself that it’s not put away just yet. The more you do now, the less you have to do later on and the aim of the game is to make the healthy option the easiest option.
- Do your grocery shopping after a work out. This is kind of a cheap trick but a lot of the time my clients find that if they go straight from the gym to the supermarket they make healthier choices because they feel like they’ve just done so much good for their bodies and they don’t want to spoil it by buying Nutella and cheese flavoured crackers.
- The green face diet. I didn’t come up with this idea but it’s pretty simple. If it’s green (so in other words, it came from a plant or is a plant), you can eat it. If it had a face or came from a face (I’m talking meat, milk, eggs), you can eat it (unless you’re a vegetarian, then maybe you could just draw faces on your food). If it came from neither of these sources, don’t eat it. This is a really simplified way to break your food into good/bad categories. Of course it’s never that simple in real life and so I tend to just mostly eat things that don’t come in packets like broccoli, and rice and meat which do come in packets but you and I both know they’re a far cry from muesli bars and tinned soup. You absolutely can not go wrong if you are eating real, whole foods, and it tends to be the things that come in packets that sabotage our health. It may claim “99% fat free!” but look at the sugar content. And if it’s a savoury item, just check out how much sodium it packs. And for the cheeky client that tries to argue “well, potatoes come from a plant and so does vegetable oil” then all I can say is if you think that deep fried potato chips can be argued as healthy then you are beyond my skills.
- Ditch the word diet. Seriously, I cannot stress this enough. You can’t “go on a diet” and lose weight and then go back to the way you were eating before and expect to not gain your weight back. Instead, forget about your weight and forget about your goals and just try to make healthier choices for a healthier life without picturing an end point where you can go back to the way things were. This is why treats are important – in moderation. Never try to restrict yourself and never try to punish yourself for not “sticking to your diet”.
There are heaps of other ways to make healthier choices easy and what works for me may not work for you, but if you do not prepare yourself for success you are setting yourself up for failure. Try to make life easier for future you. And if you have any tips of your own, leave me a comment and let me know!