I’m not here to tell you the obvious. Any article that you read about healthy eating is going to tell you not to keep junk food in the house and to look at a restaurant’s menu online before you go.
I’m here to tell you what I’ve learned from my own journey to consistently make healthier food choices—things that aren’t obvious to just anyone.
Now, I’m not some paragon of perfect clean eating. I’m a real person who lives a real life. Sometimes I eat Taco Bell. Sometimes I plunk myself down in front of the TV and eat ice cream out of the carton. But most of the time, I eat meals high in protein and vegetables and low in refined sugars and deep fried crap.
What I eat has steadily improved over the last several years to the point where I can now say without hesitation that I confidently and consistently make healthy food choices.
1. Reframe your mindset
There’s a reason that I haven’t used the word “diet” in this post.
You are not going on a diet.
You are adopting a new lifestyle.
This choice is not made in a mindset of restriction and disappointment. It isn’t temporary. If you want to consistently make healthy food choices, you have to be willing to be in the right mindset.
The mindset that allows you to make healthy food choices consistently is one of love for yourself and your body. Rather than thinking of it as giving up bad foods, think of it as enjoying and exploring all of the good foods that nourish you and give you energy because you want to feel good every day.
You are adopting a new lifestyle, and it’s not one of deprivation and sad salads, it’s one of energy, vibrance, and feeling amazing.
Shift the way that you think about healthy foods. Maybe you don’t like them yet, but I’m sure that there are some out there that you will like, you just have to find them and the right recipes. Plus, once you find out how great you feel when you eat clean, you’ll want to keep eating that way. Healthy food doesn’t have to be sad. (If you need proof, check out my Instagram.)
To consistently make healthy choices, you have to stay in the driver’s seat. You’re not avoiding junk foods because you’re “not allowed” to have them, you’re doing it because you value your body, health, and energy. You’re always allowed to eat junk, you’re just choosing not to. You are in control.
You have to be willing to make a lifestyle change, because that’s what this is. If your current lifestyle has you making unhealthy food choices, then you can’t continue to live that lifestyle. Making healthy food choices involves changing more than just what you eat.
This isn’t temporary, either. If you’re thinking of healthy eating as a “diet” that you’re going to go on until X thing happens and then you’re going to revert to your old lifestyle, you’re not ready to consistently make healthy choices.
You have to be willing to accept that this is something that sticks with you for the rest of your life. It will become a part of who you are. If you’re not willing to accept—or at least work on accepting—that, then you’re not ready to change your lifestyle and consistently make healthy food choices.
Repeat after me: I am not going on a diet.
2. Figure out if you’re a moderator or an abstainer
I learned about this concept recently in the book Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin.* (Which is a great book, btw. It helped me understand my habits better so I could intentionally improve them.)
Basically, people more or less fall into one of two categories: moderators or abstainers.
Moderators do better when they indulge just a little bit. They’re the people who can have just a few bites of something yummy but unhealthy and stop there.
Abstainers find they have an easier time if they just don’t have any at all. Rather than occasionally taking a few bites of ice cream, they’re better off not having any because they’re likely to end up eating the whole pint.
Figuring out which type of person you are makes it easier to know how to act around that plate of holiday cookies that someone brought to the office.
Personally, I’m a moderator. I know that if I swear off of junk food completely, I’ll eventually give in and end up binging on it. On the other hand, I can eat just a square or two of chocolate or a small handful of chips and be satisfied with that.
Because I know this about myself, I know that I’m better off in the long run if I make room in my life for occasional indulgences.
On the other hand, if “once you pop, you can’t stop” resonates with you, you’re probably an abstainer and would likely be better off not eating any of those holiday cookies or office donuts because you’ll probably end up eating 6. This isn’t to say that you can never have a cookie again, just that it should be saved for the occasions where you’re willing to splurge a little.
If you want help figuring out which category that you belong to (or to read about quite a few other helpful categorizations so that you can better understand and improve your actions), check out Better than Before.*
3. Learn to cook healthy foods
I don’t think I need to tell you that the food at most restaurants isn’t very good for you. It’s loaded with way more cheese, butter, sugar, and salt than you need. Lots of it is deep fried and covered in unhealthy sauces. Sure, it tastes good, but when you learn to cook well, you can easily make food that is both healthy and delicious (and cheaper than restaurant food!)
Being able to cook is one of my most valued skills. There’s no way that I’d eat the variety and quantity of vegetables that I do if I couldn’t cook. When you learn how to make vegetables delicious, it’s way easier to eat them.
I know that a lot of people are intimidated by cooking, but it’s not nearly as difficult as it might look. Don’t touch anything hot, never try to catch a falling knife, and until you get the hang of it, don’t cook too many things at once, and you’ll be completely fine.
You learn to cook in the same way that you learn any other skill: with practice. Start with the basics, don’t be afraid to mess up, and practice, practice, practice.
Learn from people who are better than you. I learn new things in the kitchen all the time because my boyfriend is a better cook than I am and because I watch a lot of cooking videos on YouTube.
If you’re new to cooking, check out Mind Over Munch, The Domestic Geek, and Pick Up Limes. If you’re a little more comfortable in the kitchen, look into Sarah’s Vegan Kitchen, Chef John, and Hot for Food. If you own things like a microplane and an immersion blender, you’d like (and probably already know about) Bon Appetit.
When you’re learning to cook, start with things that you already like. If you hate broccoli, rather than trying six different recipes searching for one that makes you like broccoli, stick to cooking a vegetable that you do like.
If you’re not much of a vegetable person, explore pasta and rice dishes. There are plenty of foods that are carb or protein based, healthy and contain a vegetable or two.
4. Grocery shop online or order meal kits
These two suggestions serve similar, but still distinct, purposes.
You already know that if you’re trying to avoid junk food, it’s best not to keep junk food in the house. But what if you often give in to the temptation presented by the chips on the end cap or those chocolate bars by the checkout? After all, that’s why they put them there.
Try using a grocery delivery services, like Peapod,* instead. With a service like this, not only do you save time, but you no longer have to physically avoid the siren song of the ice cream aisle while you shop. Search for only the things that you need to buy, and then hit “checkout.” It’s much easier to avoid impulse buys when you’re sitting in front of your laptop and feeling super motivated to eat clean.
If you’re still a little hesitant about this cooking for yourself thing and aren’t really sure how to cook your own healthy meals, trying out a meal kit delivery service such as Home Chef* can make it easier to both eat healthier and to get comfortable in the kitchen.
If you decide to try a delivery service, make a note of what you did and didn’t like so that you have some ideas for the future when you start creating your own foods. A lot of my inspiration for foods that I make comes from meals that I’ve previously eaten.
5. Learn to read nutrition labels
Food manufacturers lie to you all the time. That’s practically their job. Sugar free, fat free, non-gmo, organic, vegan—not a single one of these things means healthy! Oreos are vegan! Fries are usually vegan! Fat free usually means full of sugar, and sugar free usually means full of fat!
When you don’t know how to read a nutrition label and what kinds of things that you should be avoiding, you can easily make countless unhealthy choices without even realizing it. To make good choices, you have to be informed.
I recommend spending some time learning about both how to read a nutrition label, and how much of which nutrients you need. Focus primarily on macronutrients (aka macros: protein, fat, and carbs). Different people require different amounts of each depending on their goals, body size and body composition.
Learning the basics of how to read a nutrition label and what you should be eating doesn’t take more than a few minutes, though it is an easy rabbit hole to get lost in for hours. Here are some resources to get you started:
6. Get a handle on your habits
I’m currently flying through Atomic Habits by James Clear,* which does a phenomenal job explaining how and why we build the habits we have and what you need to do if you want to make changes to your habits without a ton of effort. It’s easily one of the best self-improvement books that I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot of self-improvement books.
What I’m getting at here is that if you like the things I write, and you want a full explanation of how habits work so that you can get yours under control, check out Atomic Habits. (The Power of Habit* and Better than Before* are also great, but I think Atomic Habits is my favorite of the three.)
To make a long story short though, your habits play a huge role in what you eat and when. By analyzing your current habits, you can start to make intentional improvements so that it’s easier to eat healthy out of habit, rather than having to consciously choose it every time.
Think about when you often eat unhealthy foods. Are you with a certain group of people? In a certain mood? In a specific place? Is it just because you saw the bag of chips sitting on the counter?
Look for patterns in your actions so that you can determine the cues that kick off your unhealthy choices. Then find ways to avoid those cues. Modify your routines so that you never have to face that craving for unhealthy food.
For example, if you hang out with a specific group of people on the weekends, and they love to drink beer and eat fried foods, chances are, you participate in the caloriefest, and it would be incredibly difficult to flat out say no in the face of all that food. See if your friends would instead be interested in trying out rock climbing and cooking a meal together.
If it turns out that those friends are only interested in beer and fried food and they do it on a consistent basis (because you can still have beer and onion rings, you just can’t do it every weekend!), you might want to consider finding new friends. We adopt the habits of the people around us.
And if you’re recoiling at the idea of skipping the weekly indulgence, you might want to read Six Life Lessons About Happiness That Were Difficult for Me to Accept.
Ultimately, think about the person that you want to be. If that person doesn’t hang out with people like this, why are you doing it now?
Also, please for the love of God, don’t eat canned vegetables. They’re gross.