A real-life friend of mine recently started blogging her journey towards healthier eating, and I've been enjoying following her entries.
Something she wrote last night struck me as worthy of comment here:
So today I could have done worse, but I could have been much, much better. It is getting easier to look back at the day and say "OK, I should have done it this way." I am wanting to transition to thinking of it on the spot so I don't have to look back on the day and apply to tomorrow.... I know it'll come eventually.
I think it's actually really, really hard to learn the habit of "thinking of it on the spot" -- making careful food choices in the moment, in the face of hunger and possibly cravings, and sometimes in a less-than-healthful food environment. I can make on-the-spot choices that match my goals now, in almost any environment, but this is something I had to learn.
And I did not learn to make good on-the-spot choices by making good on-the-spot choices, or by making bad on-the-spot choices, or in fact by making ANY on-the-spot choices at all. What taught me to make on-the-spot choices was to make choices well in advance, and then stick to them.
Back in 2008, when I was learning, I would sit down in the evening and write out everything I planned to eat the next day, and when I would eat it. Very quickly I realized why I had been unable to make good on-the-spot food decisions: It takes time to figure out what to eat in advance! Even more time when I expected my choices to be limited by circumstance. So why was I being so hard on myself for failing to make good choices on the fly?
The good news is that, after many months of planning ahead, I found that I had gotten better at making choices on the fly. I'd gained a lot of experience in difficult situations, like fast food restaurants and buffets, and I'd internalized some good rules of thumb that I can call on "in the moment" -- like "Eat entrees as if I were half a person and vegetables as if I were two people."
I'd also learned that in some situations, even if my kids needed to eat a meal right then, the best choice for me might be to wait, to stay hungry until I could get home and have a real meal. In other situations, I could eat something very small with protein in it -- a handful of the almonds I keep in my car, for instance, or maybe a kid-size hamburger -- and complete the meal by having vegetables and fruit, by themselves, later in the day.
And I had more knowledge. I had learned that a homemade bran muffin has just about as much protein as an egg -- so I don't need to add the egg to the bran muffin if I eat the bran muffin first. I had learned that certain "healthy" items have more calories than the "unhealthy" items. I had learned that it was possible to ask to have the cheese and croutons left off, the dressing on the side. Things like that.
Just yesterday I found myself at Sonic with the kids at lunchtime. There are no "healthful" meal choices there, although to their credit you can get fresh bananas or apple slices on the side. I could have stayed hungry till I got home, but instead I opted to order one ordinary (not double) hamburger with "the works," and skip the sides and drink. It's a reasonable portion size, really. Adding a banana might have added a health halo, but I know darn well (by now) that the calories in the burger were enough to be my whole lunch. In the past I might have ordered a superficially "healthier" sandwich (like the grilled chicken wrap) and let that convince me I should order fries and a soda too. Which would have given me far more food that I needed -- a gluttonous amount -- even if the sandwich part was theoretically better (something I question anyway).
But the point is, I only got to this point by planning ahead, which forced me to learn the real content of my choices, and empowered me to make better ones. Once I had plenty of practice, I knew what the best choices really looked like -- and they aren't necessarily the ones I thought was best before, with people in line behind me and my children whining for fries. I know better now.