“But where do I start?” It’s the question I get asked all the time from those who are eager to make a change in the foods they eat and how they cook. I know first hand how overwhelming it is since I started down this path over a year ago with no formal education and little prior knowledge of nutrition. Sure, I could cook, but that was about it. I certainly didn’t know “what” to cook to get my family eating healthier. At least at first, anyhow.
Getting started down the path of eating better is always the hardest part, filled with overwhelming questions and confusion, not to mention polarizing opinions. Just last year I thought I remembered reading that agave syrup was the best natural sweetener, and now you’re telling me it’s just as bad as high fructose corn syrup? Are GMOs bad or good? And how do I even know if I’m eating a GMO?
I understand the confusion completely, and even after more than a year of researching labels, reading medical studies, and overhauling our entire pantry, fridge, and freezer, I still get confused. Yes, that was me, Googling calcium propionate in the grocery store aisle this morning. When you’ve been raised on packaged foods and drive-thru lanes, it’s hard to know where to start, so I often advise readers to start small, but start somewhere. While my journey was a bit of trial-and-error along the way, there were some building blocks laid as the foundation of change and that’s where I advise people to start. Here are 5 simple changes I recommend starting with today to get you on your journey to change. If you want to tackle eating healthier head-on, feel free to make these changes all at once. But if change feels overwhelming for you and your family, start small and just pick one thing. Then add on as you go. Before you know it, you’ll be well on your way to making healthier changes in your food choices each day, and while there may always be questions and some sort of confusion every now and then, eventually you will feel like a skilled pro when it comes to feeding your family wholesome, real food.
1. Ditch the sugary breakfast
Starting first thing in the morning, ditch the boxed cereal, frozen waffles, or sweet pastry for something simpler and less sugary. Try scrambled or sunny-side up eggs or a bowl of oatmeal topped with fresh fruit and a squeeze of real maple syrup or sprinkle of coconut sugar if you crave something sweet. Over 80 percent of packaged foods in the grocery store have added sugars in them, and on average American children and adults are eating three times the amount that is recommended by the American Heart Association. This list breaks down the amount of sugar found in some of our most common foods, including breakfast cereals. More and more studies are blaming added sugars for our country’s obesity epidemic rather than fats. So the takeaway here is to start your day on the right foot and ditch the sugar in exchange for a breakfast filled with fiber, healthy fats, and protein.
2. Ditch the coffee creamer
Just this morning I got an email asking about non-dairy creamer and how to get off the addiction train. Man, that stuff is so good and so addictive that when I encourage readers to dump the fake “cream,” they almost gasp in horror. But non-dairy creamer is exactly that: fake, without an ounce of real cream in it. So after you’ve had your protein-packed breakfast, try to also skip the unhealthy, processed oils found in your average flavored coffee creamer and try a simple dash of half and half with a small teaspoon of real maple syrup. Popular non-dairy creamers are filled with unhealthy hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors, colors, and sweeteners. Hydrogenated oils are trans fats, which are considered by doctors and health experts to be the worst possible fat you can consume. A splash here and there each morning, while small, adds up, so skip the bad stuff and go for the real deal: actual cream and a real, non-artificial sweetener.
3. Switch from refined carbs to whole grains
So you’ve made it through breakfast and you’re sort of surviving, and it’s lunch time. What now? Try eating a lunch packed with whole grains instead of refined carbs. Brown rice instead of white at your favorite Chinese place, whole wheat instead of white bread at your favorite sandwich shop, or whip up a batch of quinoa to add to your salad at home. You’ll feel satisfied and full and will have a steady source of energy to fuel you through the day. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that at least half your grains come from whole grains, but most Americans don’t eat even half of that recommendation.
4. Ditch soda for water or even iced tea
No matter how the industry tries to reinvent the wheel (like coming up with lower or zero calorie options, smaller cans, or unique flavors), soda is BAD. A regular can of soda contains 10 teaspoons of sugar, which is the equivalent of two iced Pop-Tarts and a Twinkie combined. Forty grams of sugar, or roughly 10 teaspoons, is what we’re recommended to consume each day. You can make a HUGE change in your diet just by ditching soda alone. And even if you drink diet soda, you’re still not safe. Artificial sweeteners found in sodas have been found to increase sugar cravings, therefore leading to further weight gain. Passing on soda and going for water or even iced tea is a huge leap in the right direction.
5. Fall in love with vegetables
At dinner tonight, try filling half your plate with vegetables or salad, allowing less room for grains and proteins. It’s time to make fruits and vegetables the stars. This motto has become so important that the USDA even adopted it instead of the standard old food pyramid to make eating healthier that much easier.
There are a hundred other ways you can make subtle, healthy changes each day, from taking a walk at night with the family to learning how to make more of your own foods at home. The key though is to start somewhere, and I love the concept of going meal by meal through your day. This allows for gradual modification to eating habits, rather than a drastic all-at-once overhaul, which tends to be less intimidating and easier to adopt.