How to make healthy eating a part of your routine

How to make healthy eating a part of your routine

The other day I got a craving for a Potbelly sandwich at lunch time. I was driving back to the office after a meeting, and it would have been so easy to stop at Potbelly along the way.

I did a quick Google search to find all the Potbelly locations nearby, did some quick mental calculations about which restaurant had the easiest parking, and had all but made the decision to go when I remembered I had packed a pretty good lunch that day and it was waiting for me back at the office. My mind lingered for another minute on the sandwich I was craving, the bag of salty chips and can of refreshing soda I would get to accompany it. And then I let it go.

This decision actually felt pretty good – even better, I suspect, than it would have felt to give in to the craving and head to Potbelly. Back at the office I ate the packed lunch: leftover stuffed acorn squash from the previous night’s dinner, a cup of Greek yogurt, and a small piece of dark chocolate. This seemingly simple choice brought two kinds of satisfaction: 1) the lunch tasted good, and 2) I had stuck to a routine!

I think of myself as a pretty healthy eater. I eat a lot of organic fruits, vegetables and grains, very little meat, and few processed foods. I use coconut or olive oil for all my cooking. And at home, I’m pretty good at limiting my intake of bread, sweets, juices, and other refined sugars. But things can get dicey when I’m out and about during the day, which is almost every day of the week. With coffee shops full of breakfast pastries on every corner and the convenience of Chipotle, Potbelly, and so many other “fast casual” options where I may or may not make healthy choices, it really takes some discipline to keep the new year’s resolution I set for 2015: to pack a healthy breakfast and lunch for myself five days a week.

All of this brings me to the importance of two key factors when you want to maintain good eating habits: routine and reward. Let’s look at the value of routines first. Leo Babauta of the blog Zen Habits points out that routines create a structure that will give…

your day and your week a more ordered and calm feeling… Most importantly, [routine] puts you in control of your day, instead of putting you at the mercy of the ebb and flow of all incoming requests. Without a routine, we have no good way of saying “no” to requests as they come in, and we are at the beck and call of every person who wants our time and every website that wants our attention.

In the context I’ve been discussing I would replace “requests,” “people” and “websites” with “cravings” or “temptations.” If I don’t have a routine for packing and eating a healthy breakfast and lunch each day, then I will be at the “beck and call” or the mercy of whatever cravings my mind can create and whatever convenient foods are available.

Instead I have to grocery shop regularly, cook regularly, and wake up early regularly. Notice the keyword here. If I can make those things routines, packing my lunch will become a no-brainer and healthy eating will be more likely to happen.

I imagine some of you don’t like to cook. Or you have such busy lives that mornings are hectic even when you do wake up early. Or you are a teen reader and aren’t in charge of the grocery shopping. For all of you, I’d like to offer some tips for making healthy eating a routine in spite of those obstacles. I’m going to focus on breakfast since that’s the meal so many of us are likely to skip, and the one that is so important to our health and energy throughout the day. These tips are particularly good if you don’t feel hungry first thing in the morning and want to eat your breakfast a little later in the morning or on the go.

STEP ONE: Make a shopping list. If you’re a teen, make sure your parent knows what healthy items you’d like for breakfast each week. Consider putting these items on your shopping list:

  • Apples, bananas, oranges – easy to grab and go
  • String cheese – rBGH- & rBST-free if possible
  • Yogurt – Fage, Oikos, and Wallaby get high marks for health
  • Eggs – see prep suggestions below
  • Oatmeal – plain rolled or steel cut to avoid added sugars
  • Granola bars
  • Nuts
  • Chocolate chips
  • Raisins or other dried fruit
  • Protein powder – avoid soy-based products if possible

STEP TWO: Prepare any items that aren’t already “grab-and-go.” Consider these ideas:

  • Make some hardboiled eggs on Sunday night. Peel them and keep them covered in the fridge. Grab one or two on your way out the door and eat them when you get to work or school.
  • Make a big pot of oatmeal at the beginning of the week and keep it in the fridge. There’s even an “overnight version” for steel cut oats you can make with only a few minutes of actual cooking time. Microwave a portion in the morning and put it in a thermos to take with you to work or school. Throw in some raisins or sliced apples to sweeten it up.
  • Make your own trail mix. Put all the items you want (nuts, dried fruit, chocolate chips, etc.) into a big bowl and mix them up. Then distribute into small plastic bags so you can grab one to eat with a carton of yogurt or a piece of fruit while you’re on the go.
  • If you have time in the morning, a shake is a great way to start the day. In a blender I mix half a banana, a scoop of protein powder, a tablespoon of peanut butter and a half cup of water or almond milk (experiment with the liquid to get a consistency you like).

STEP THREE: For this whole system to work, you have to designate certain items as your breakfast food items. Label them or put them in a special spot in the fridge. Otherwise, if you’re anything like me, you (or your family members) will gobble up these items as snacks in the evening and you’ll run out of breakfast food by Wednesday.

STEP FOUR: Wake up early enough to pack the items.

The same basic steps apply to lunch and snacks; it all boils down to planning ahead and staying committed.

If you can get yourself into some healthy routines like these, the rewards will come as a natural result. For one thing, eating well feels good. There are the physical rewards like the pleasure of consuming tasty meals and the energy you feel when you are well-nourished. Then there’s the mental reward—the satisfaction I mentioned earlier when I chose to keep on driving past the Potbelly. There’s actually a calm that comes over me when I resolve to do the thing I said I was going to do. I just feel good about myself and am more likely to make other good choices in the future.

Finally, since this is the Learner Blog we can’t overlook rewards in the academic arena. Numerous studies have shown that both cognitive processes and behavior are improved amongst children who eat a healthy breakfast. Alissa Fleck summarizes the findings of many of these studies:

Breakfast is a crucial part of every child’s day. It affects everything from memory to creativity in the classroom. Children who go hungry are more inclined to become distracted from learning at school, or give up more easily when faced with challenges. Healthy, well-rounded breakfasts are best for a child’s maximum performance level.

Whether you’re a child or an adult, a student or a parent, make routines a part of your life for 2015. And please comment below to share what healthy snacks and meals you’re cooking up to reward yourself!