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A Systems Approach to Healthy Eating

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Preparing Healthy food

This is a guest blog by Fredrik Jonsson. He might be the only person who rates “Cougar Town” as a true sitcom master piece. He is a former freelance writer, a current sales and marketing consultant, and he loves nothing more than helping people live healthier and more active lives. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.


 

Most of us struggle with maintaining healthy eating habits over time. That isn’t a controversial statement. It’s an understatement.

If we were awesome at it, we wouldn’t have a $500+ billion global diet industry. Diet-related illnesses wouldn’t cause this. Why is this the case, when we enjoy easier-than-ever access to information on what to eat, how to exercise, or (slightly unrelated) how to tie a Windsor knot?

There are plenty of reasons and justifications. We don’t have time. It’s expensive. It’s hard to find healthy alternatives when dining out. Etc.

When I sat down and reviewed my own eating habits, it was appall…I mean, there was significant room for improvement. However, rather than exclaiming “South Beach Diet!” and going for another detox adventure that would be completely unsustainable, I took a step back and tried to figure out how I could approach this differently.

I realized that my biggest obstacle to healthy eating occurred when I had a lack of time and a loss of control. I think this holds true for most of us. As soon as I ran out of time—which happens to everyone, particularly when you throw commuting, kids, and a full-time job into the mix—my eating habits deteriorated. I noticed the same thing happened when I was not in control of the situation. Sometimes your friends want to go out for steak and, well, you do the math.

Now, even a productivity dork like myself understood that I could not exclude these two variables from life. I mean, it’s life. However, I could take ownership of designing a system that allowed me to maintain healthy eating habits the vast majority of times. It’s not about losing weight or adding muscle for optimal performance. It’s about playing the long game and implementing a system that makes it easier to sustain a healthier lifestyle.

This is what I came up with.

(By the way, here’s my post on designing a system for getting 25 minutes of exercise in every day. Please steal whatever you believe you can apply).

What’s in a System?

To me, a system includes the components that help you consistently do the little things right, which will eventually lead to accomplishing bigger things. It involves planning, habits, rituals, and automation.

Grocery shopping

First component: the big shop

One of my biggest downfalls was not having enough healthy food in the house. Predictably, whenever I ran out of time or lost willpower or was passing out from hunger, I would go with the quick, easy, devoid-of-any nutritional value option (of which I had plenty lying around the house. Interesting). I figured the best way to avoid this situation was to get rid of all the junk food and replace it with the food I really needed, so it was readily available. I also required a number of healthier options that took minimal time to prepare; while I would be up for more elaborate cooking from time to time, there would be too much friction if I was faced with preparing a complicated dish when lacking time and energy.

Here are two practical ways to do this:

1. The weekly shop

As the headline suggests, you go to the store once a week (I usually go at 9pm on a Tuesday because my 20-month-old son is normally asleep, it’s empty, and…well, what else am I doing at 9pm on a Tuesday? Wait, don’t answer that) and pick up every single ingredient for every single meal for the week to come.

Another option that might be attractive if available where you live: some stores offer free home delivery of whatever is on your shopping list. More on this later.

2. Food box 

This could be an option in your area and there are plenty of suppliers; the general idea is to get a food box delivered to your door, with all ingredients for the meals in it. I’ve rotated between gluten free, vegetarian, and a box for parents with seemingly limited cooking skills. Note that these tend to be for dinners only.

However, the trick is to not just buy or order the delivery of your dinner ingredients, but for every meal and snack for a given period of time. I know, I’m excited too! There are a couple of variations on how to go about this and I have outlined my solution below; however, please modify to suit your needs.

Pick four dinners (I usually allow myself one weeknight dinner out and do my very best to avoid going all in on cholesterol on these occasions) and buy enough to bring lunch to work the next day.

My approach to picking dinners:

  •  One dish I have made before and can cook with my eyes closed
    • My favorite: Oven-baked salmon with ginger and soy in foil, rice, and side salad. Delicious, cooks itself, never get tired of it, and, let’s not forget, makes me feel like I know what I’m doing.
  • One dish that takes less than 12 minutes to prepare
  • One dish that is new, sounds interesting, and will require a little more effort (my preference: 30-45 minutes in total cooking time).
  • One that is new and interesting, while also easy to prepare (15-25 minutes).

New and interesting can obviously be anything—the point is to have fun, which could involve picking something from the paleo diet, an Asian dish, or perhaps anything that involves the word “caramelizing” in the instructions. You choose!

There are many cook books, recipes, and other resources around healthy meals available, so I won’t expand on them here. However, one small piece of advice: if this is a completely new journey for you, start by finding two to three things that you enjoy that are deemed healthy by an unbiased source. Look for recipes that make them the center piece, that have a limited total number of ingredients (say, three to four), and that basically cook themselves without a very involved prepping process (anything that says “…cook in the oven for X minutes on temperature Y” is a good indicator you’re on the right track).

On to the breakfast shop. I tend to eat one or two things: oatmeal with nuts and raisins or smoothies (which are way underrated—once you have a blender or mixer, the skill level requirement is virtually reduced to dropping in food and pushing a button). My current smoothie favorite: Banana, kale, protein powder, dates, strawberries, milk, and water. Here’s some additional smoothie inspiration.

One more critical component: snacks. I get hungry often and in a hurry. I snack on fruit (bananas and apples), nuts (mix of almonds, walnuts, and raisins), and vegetables (carrots all the way). Yes, that sounds incredibly boring. You don’t have to be. Pick your own favorite snacks. They could be muesli bars, sandwiches, or the oft-neglected spicy seed mix. These are for in between meals—the times when you are most prone to going for something unhealthy. Make sure these snacks are easy to carry with you to avoid mishaps; remember, you want to make the decision-making process as automated and uncomplicated as possible. Again, there are plenty of great resources. Here’s a starting point.

Batching, Boxing, and the Assembly-Line Approach

Food in containers

If you want to take this system one step further, I highly recommend the assembly-line approach. We’re not setting up a plant and building a Tesla. It’s much simpler. Put all ingredients for each meal in separate containers in your fridge, freezer, and pantry. Mark them with each weekday (for example: Monday – dinner – name of dish).

It may sound silly, but it can be really powerful. If I get home and am low on energy, knowing that I have a <12 minute option, or something I can cook without even thinking, or being able to put five things in the blender and make a smoothie, allows me to stay away from the bag of chips. Which doesn’t even exist because I got rid of all my junk food, which absolutely can be frustrating at times. However, once I picked healthy foods I actually enjoyed and made them as easy, or easier, to prepare than the non-healthy options, it really turned things around. It’s about strategically designing your environment and constraining certain resources while making preparations that allow you to remove cognitive distractions and simply do. Grab the box, check the recipe, and get started.

Now, all good ideas don’t have to be new. One of the fundamental principles of productivity is batching, and I have found it particularly effective for cooking. Simply put: set aside one evening per week to prepare a number of meals. I know you’re busy, but this is about freeing up time for more of the things you want to do that make you happy. If you have a spouse, roommates, kids, or all of the above, get them involved and make it a fun night. Put on some tunes, open a bottle of your favorite beverage, and have a good time. Since we started this exercise, we’ve established a habit of cooking three dinners and preparing all our snacks for the week in one sitting.

Once you have a big cook-up completed, use the freezer-to-fridge assembly line. As part of your evening routine, move your labeled meals for tomorrow from the freezer to the fridge. Make sure you have your snacks for the coming day readily available. Again, knowing that you have everything you need to eat for the next couple of days ready to go will make a huge difference. Promise.

Your Action Plan

Advice is great, but in order for this to work long term, we need to implement the solutions. Everyone’s situation is different: perhaps you love cooking, perhaps you loathe it. You might have a long drive to the nearest supermarket, or a short stroll. Perhaps you’re like me, where commuting and kids add some restrictions.

I’m a big believer in being introduced to a system, but then finding a variation that suits me. For example, I see yoga as a great system, but it was not until I found a variation that suited my preferences that I started taking it to heart (if you’re curious, it’s Vinyasa: lots of movement, with a little bit of pilates and core exercises thrown into the mix). Point is, the principles of this system remain, but I highly encourage you to come up with any creative twists that make it work for your situation.

Below is a step-by-step checklist that I hope will get you started on a system for healthy eating. At the outset, you need to do a little research and find things you like for snacks, breakfasts, and dinners. Like all good systems, it takes a little bit of time to set up and configure, but once you’re up and running, it’s on autopilot. My biggest breakthrough came after gathering four weeks’ (16 meals) worth of good menu ideas, which I could pretty much rotate among for a long period of time.

Your checklist:

  1. Buy containers to store food in and boxes for bringing leftovers to work for lunch.
  2. Get over the fact that you’ll be one of the people that actually bring lunch to work in a container (I’m only half-joking).
  3. Buy labels to mark the containers with (pro tip: we use masking tape. Cheap, easy to write on, and you can use one roll for months).
  4. If you want to look into food boxes for your main meals for the week, check online to see what’s available in your area.
  5. Check with local supermarkets to see if they do home delivery of online shopping orders.
  6. Decide when you’ll do your weekly shop. I personally prefer to schedule a recurring meeting with myself in my calendar (on Tuesdays at 9 pm) to ensure it gets done. You can be more flexible if need be.
  7. Make a budget. What can you spend on this weekly shop?
  8. If you have kids, what can they help out with when it comes to preparing and buying meals?
  9. Create space in your freezer, fridge, and pantry.
  10. Menu planning: start by researching and selecting your snacks for next week. Fruit, nuts, muesli bars, sandwiches; whatever you prefer.
  11. Breakfasts—what’s something healthy that you enjoy starting your day with? It could be more than one thing. Write down every single ingredient you need and, importantly, how much you need of each to cover the household needs for the upcoming week. Use pen and paper, your task manager, or one of the multiple apps available for your shopping list. I personally use Trello because I use it for everything and like having all stuff in one place as much as I can.
  12. Move on to lunches and dinners. Make it easy in the beginning and buy enough for each dish so it lasts for lunch the next day. Here is my template (based on four dinners, allowing myself one weeknight out), but tweak it so it suits you if needed:
    One dish that takes less than 12 minutes to prepare, one new dish that is a little more involved (30-45 minutes cooking time), one that’s 15-25 minutes, and one that I can cook with my eyes closed (cooking time can vary for this option).
  13. Optional: Decide on a night of the week for your batch-cooking extravaganza. Aim for preparing two to three of the dinners selected and also prep any snacks that require doing so and that can sit in the fridge for a little while. Seriously, just do it. Why not? But if you’re allergic to this idea, you’re free to move on.
  14. Optional: Box it. Put the ingredients for each dish in a separate box in your pantry, fridge, and freezer. Mark each box with the day you plan to eat it and the name of the dish. And yes, you’re allowed to switch days and meals if you really don’t feel like that omelet on Tuesday evening. It’s OK.
  15. Once you have a few meals for the next couple of days prepared, add this to your evening routine: move the meals you are going to have the next day from the freezer to the fridge.
  16. Add this to your morning routine: before heading out the door, grab your lunch box and snacks.
  17. Back to step 1.

This is a guest blog by Fredrik Jonsson. He might be the only person who rates “Cougar Town” as a true sitcom master piece. He is a former freelance writer, a current sales and marketing consultant, and he loves nothing more than helping people live healthier and more active lives. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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3 Comments

Posted by Linda Maye Adams  | January 30, 2016 at 7:56PM | Reply

I’ve struggled with meals, partially because the industry assumes everyone is cooking for a family, and also because I don’t care that much for cooking. Most recipes assume you love cooking, and that you’re cooking for a family. It’s very difficult doing menu planning for a solo cook because everyone assumes family or making leftovers, and I’m trying to make only what I need.

The result is that I do improvised cooking. I don’t do a menu plan, and I don’t do a grocery list. I go into the grocery store and wander around the produce aisle picking fruit and vegetables. Then I build meals off a template with what I have (to find meal templates, search for cooking without a recipe).

Posted by Mia McLean  | January 26, 2016 at 6:08AM | Reply

Love the idea of systematising a part of life which can often be chaotic (even in an otherwise well organised life!), leading to bad eating habits. Looking forward to giving this a try.

Posted by Scott Jasper  | January 23, 2016 at 7:02AM | Reply

I like your assembly line approach to food. I think I need to work on systematising my food production to limit the time that I spend on it.

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