"This year, I’m going to go to the gym for an hour every day!"
"This year, I’m going to meal prep lunch every week!"
"This year, I’m giving up sugar for good!"
Sound familiar? When I’m not acting in my capacity as a weird food reviewer, I’m a registered dietitian working in outpatient counseling. Each January, I hear a lot from new patients about their resolutions, but I usually spend most of those consults trying to shift away from that perspective. If that technique works well for you, great! But, if it has resulted in a resumption of the same habits except that now you feel worse about them, I have good news: I don’t typically recommend making resolutions. For many, including me, they don’t work. So, what do I recommend? Unresolutions.
If you have a medical condition that requires prompt and careful compliance to a special diet, talk with your doctor and see if you can get a referral to a registered dietitian for help in making big, individualized changes quickly. If you’re just looking to improve your general wellness and take care of your body, why not take it slow for a change? See what happens if you loosen up, zoom out and re-evaluate, well, everything.
For a unresolution, instead of trying to launch yourself like a trebuchet boulder at the fairy-tale castle walls of a totally new way of being, you are meeting yourself where you are, the way you are, right now. There’s no start or end date. There’s no specific health goal at the outset. You’re focusing on the experience of eating, collecting data about your needs and responses, and eventually using them to broaden your horizons. This is a lifelong process with lots back and forth, but here are a few tips to get started thinking of this huge aspect of our lives in a different way. Now click your heels together three times, and let’s see where we land.
Unresolution #1: Enjoy your food
I don’t care what it is — savor it. Suspend judgment. Instead of running an inner commentary about how you are an irredeemably terrible person with the dietary habits of a bridge troll and the willpower of a beanstalk giant, pay attention to whatever you are eating. Focus on the crunch of your chicken nuggets. Notice the points of salt on your tongue as you eat your Flamin' Hot Cheetos. Observe the progression of flavors and textures as you chew your favorite macaroni and cheese casserole with the buttered bread crumbs on top. Take hold of your joy with both hands. Wallow in it with full awareness, like a Labrador in a forbidden mud puddle. What is it in particular that you like about those things? Flavors, textures, smells, memories of when you’ve had them before, how they fit into your life now. What feels special to you will be different than what feels special to someone else. There are no wrong responses. Then, use what you notice about those responses to make your food work for you a little bit.
For instance, many of us down a handful of Cheez-Its every time we pass through the kitchen unaccompanied, almost like we’re trying to hide it from ourselves (pics or it didn’t happen, right?). Or worse, we force ourselves to make do with the pit of despair that is wilted celery stalks with fat-free ranch. Instead, make your snacks luxurious. Creamy textures and sweet flavors, especially chocolate, are what make me feel like Princess Buttercup lounging in the conservatory. I would like nothing better than to inhale a box of Godiva with my afternoon tea.
But what I’m looking for in a snack to keep me from getting low blood sugar (and then eating an entire pizza for dinner in the car on the way home) is about 100 to 200 calories, three or more grams of fiber and at least a few grams of protein. For long-term health, I’m also looking for nutrients like calcium, iron, magnesium, etc. without increasing my risk of chronic disease by adding a ton of sugar and saturated fat. So, here’s a favorite snack of mine that uses my preferences but also packs in the nutrition: cherry Greek yogurt, a teaspoon of chocolate syrup, and a tablespoon of pumpkin seeds. If I have a minute and I’m at home, I put it in a pretty bowl, but you can peel back the lid and eat it out of the cup, too.
Prefer salty and crunchy? Here’s an example: a serving (read the label!) of lightly salted tortilla chips or whole-grain crackers, some bean dip, and a sprinkle of reduced-fat feta cheese. A dab of olive tapenade and a sprinkle of sesame make it extra special if you’ve got the time.
Another thing I’ve noticed about myself is that I prefer warm snacks when the weather is cold. Two of my secret weapons: a cup of soup, and clean microwave popcorn (2 tablespoons bulk popcorn in a brown paper lunch sack, fold over, microwave 2 to 3 minutes, add 2 teaspoons melted plant-based "butter" and 1 tablespoon hemp seeds or nuts).
Maybe for you, what feels like self-care is something you don’t have to think about, something that’s grab-and-go. Mull over your favorite textures and flavors, and try to find something headed in that direction. Pluses in the label department are first-ingredient whole grains, a few grams of protein and a relatively short ingredient list. Kodiak Cake grahams, Nature’s Bakery bars, Harvest Snaps and Hippeas are pictured, but you can also try Kind Protein Bars, Biena or Saffron Road crispy chickpeas and the host of store-brand equivalents. The options are nearly endless. Even 8 ounces of that ready-to-eat soup pictured above can go into a travel mug.
Maybe your previously guilty pleasure was convenience store food. Dill pickles, Slim Jims and Red Dye 40. Fine. As you wish. But how can you make that work for you as a snack with a smidge of nutrition? A half sandwich on whole grain with tuna, a little avocado mayo and a few dill chips. Uncured beef jerky. Pop a hibiscus tea bag into a bottle of water, and this is the color that will be waiting for you by the time you get to work.
Unresolution #2: Be curious
Try something new once a week. Again, I don’t care what it is. What I’m looking for is variety, broadening of horizons and not necessarily just healthier. The grocery store is full of interesting things that many people haven’t tried: red lentil pasta, persimmons, carrot chips, pink beans, dragon fruit and more. Try a recipe using a technique you’ve never used before. Order a different side dish with your old takeout standby. The key here is not to literally bite off more than you can chew, because occasionally, it’s going to result in minor disaster. You’ll burn the new recipe. You’ll hate the new side. So what? This is what frozen pizza is made for. You can order your favorite side next time. And sometimes, you’ll find a new favorite. Either way, it will be interesting, and over time, if you keep coming back to new things, your diet will widen. It will get easier to include things that are good for you.
Once you start looking with fresh eyes at all the wondrous things available, it may be tempting to decide you want to try a new cuisine and buy everything you can find. I call this the “Whoa Nelly” stage. I recommend just trying one thing at a time. Replace the seasoning packet in your instant ramen with pho concentrate and see what you think. Crumble a little toasted nori on your popcorn. Never tried red curry? Read a few recipes, buy a little jar and try it on a weekend, when you have a bit more time and energy.
This is a favorite Instagram shot of mine: our spice drawer. Bulk bins are your friend. You can buy just a couple of tablespoons of an unfamiliar seasoning, a few ounces of hazelnuts or just enough red lentils to try making dal. It’s more fun when you don’t feel you’re breaking the bank.
If new textures sound daunting to you, try branching out with beverages. I usually suggest trying less sweet, or better yet, totally unsweetened — even zero-calorie and low-glucose sweeteners fail to show a health benefit in most studies, and they may actually increase cravings for sweets. Naturally-flavored sparkling or flat waters like Bubly or Hint, and teas like mint, rooibos and the aforementioned hibiscus are all great choices. If you’re used to a really sweet taste, you can try transitioning by mixing sparkling water with a little juice, or ordering your iced tea half sweet, half unsweetened.
Kombucha is also a good option. There are thousands of flavor combinations on the market. Look for one with just a few grams of sugar for a lower calorie pro- and post-biotic punch. Keep in mind that different brands vary quite a bit in sourness and funk, so don’t despair if you don’t like the first one you try.
Unresolution #3: Let go
I don’t care what rule we’re talking about, how helpful the nutritional guideline is, if you hold it too tightly, it will backfire in time.
The only thing I want you to try to swear off entirely? Perfectionism.
Perfectionism is an awful tyrant, and it lies. It tells you your best efforts are useless, your gradual improvements are failures. It tells you that you have to read a thousand books to find the perfect diet, with reams of details about what you can have, how much and at what time. I talk to people every day who are so overwhelmed and confused by the torrential downpours of health information that they can’t take any steps at all. And it’s not just that it’s available if you go looking. Oh no, it finds you wherever you are and it tries to sell you magic weight-loss beans for the low, low price of $99 (auto-billed monthly).
One of the main things I hear from clients is that they feel like they can’t have anything. Fruit is too high in carbs. Nuts have too much fat and salt. Cheese is too high in cholesterol. And added sugar — perish the thought! The thing is, those are all evil tree-level details. Zoom out to see the enchanted healthy eating forest by pairing a serving each of a couple of different items, for balance and moderation. I’m looking for some (mostly) unrefined carbs, some fiber, some protein, some (mostly) heart-healthy fats. Here are some examples straight out of my own pantry, but remember your choices might look different:
Am I saying you can just blithely eat all the cookies and bacon you want and still get healthier? Alas, no. But, I am saying that you can use the techniques suggested above to gradually improve your diet for the rest of your life, without guilt. Between the extremes of unsustainable effort and giving up, there’s a big, wide range of reasonable behavior. When you have learned to pay attention to food you love the most, you’ve developed a skill that you can use to try new things with an open mind. You’ll slowly notice you are less likely to reject foods that are new to you or that aren’t your favorites. You learn to try things without fear that not liking something "healthy" will make you a bad person. It might be a little bit easier to stop at one serving when you allow yourself to experience it with joy.
When you quiet your judging mind, when you let go of fairy-tale perfection, you leave room for improvement in the real world, here and now.