By Tara Mardigan, M.S., R.D., M.P.H.
Knowing how to make great choices is essential for lasting lifestyle change. Putting those choices into practice day in and out is really the backbone of health. Sometimes the hard part seems to be maintaining the great choices. You know what to do — sometimes it’s just hard to do it!
For example, you know you should pack lunch for work to save calories, fat, sodium and money, but, the fridge is empty, you’re running late and you don’t have any more sandwich bags. Instead, you bring a few extra bucks to work, skip breakfast and have a HUGE lunch. Tired and dragging around for the rest of the day, you skip your exercise routine after work, and so it goes. Before you even realize it, you’re out of a healthful lifestyle routine.
How does this happen, especially when you know how to make better choices? It all starts with organization. If you stick to a plan (yet build in some degree of flexibility), you’ll be able to carry out your health strategy more consistently.
What does your week look like? Are you always pressed for time? The best way to really know how busy you are is to map it out on a calendar. This will help you to recognize times that in general may be more flexible for you to fit in grocery shopping and exercise. If you have healthy groceries in your house, you’ll be able to eat well. If you prioritize exercise into your weekly schedule, you’ll get in that workout. Putting things down on paper or into a personal digital assistant (PDA) helps you to do it.
Go ahead. Look to the week ahead. Print out this page and jot down a sample schedule.
Now you’ve identified some times that are better than others for getting to the grocery store. The next step is to create a grocery list that you can use each week to help organize your choices. It may be helpful to make your grocery list according to how your grocery store is set up. Set specific goals right on your list. Once again, this is something that you can put into a PDA.
Don’t forget the most important rule: Never grocery shop when you are hungry! Have a small snack on your way out the door. It will save you money and help you to resist buying tempting treats.
Here are guidelines for a sample grocery list to help get you started:
Great. You have your grocery list planned and shopping is a snap. Now the challenge is turning ingredients into meals at the end of a long workday, when you’re hungry. Sit down and list your favorite meals- from childhood, friends, a cooking show, magazine or newspaper recipe. Interview family members to remind yourself of their favorites that deserve to be in the regular meal cycle. It won’t take you long to make a list of 10 to 15 meals- enhanced by vegetable side dishes. That’s almost a three-week menu cycle, and planning it didn’t take a lot of effort. Knowing the ingredients needed for these meals will help you to streamline shopping and planning.
A list of proven meals like this can help you make a grocery list, or can give you ideas about what to make with a handful of ingredients in the cupboard. And if you have a good source of new recipes, keep adding those that are tested and loved.
Another fun way to get organized about healthful eating is to join (or start) a dinner club. Look for a small group of friends who also are interested in good food, as well as good conversation. Many groups meet once a month and rotate the host. To keep costs reasonable, it helps to have different people bring different items, similar to a potluck dinner. Scheduling the group once a month for several months in advance helps people to commit. Once again, this can be another way to keep your healthful eating on track by enlisting the ongoing support of others.
Tara Mardigan, M.S., R.D., M.P.H. is a nutritionist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from the University of New Hampshire. She completed her internship at Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut and worked for three years as an inpatient dietitian at Massachusetts General Hospital before getting her master's degrees in nutrition and communication as well as public health at Tufts University.