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  • Dina Cohen

Cleaning Up Your Eating

If you're doing some spring cleaning, you're already spending time deciding what to keep and what to throw away. You may want to take a moment to look at your diet, too. What do you want to save? What might deserve an adieu?

Let's get rid of the clutter first. Here's my list of what I suggest you DISCARD:

1. Belly Ache Foods: These are foods that cause significant physical discomfort. You don't digest them well or they cause you some other negative physical reaction. They can be foods that are highly nutritious but just don't agree with you. Or they may be foods that you eat just for fun but really suffer from afterwards. Sometimes, it's really the dosing that matters. Some broccoli in a salad may go down just fine, but a whole plate of broccoli may cause you pain. Or maybe you can enjoy half a milkshake, but drinking the whole thing will upset your stomach. Other times, you might be better off replacing the troublesome food with something similar in nutritional content or taste that doesn't cause you discomfort.

2. Filler Foods: These are foods that are light and airy, high in volume and low in energy, such as rice cakes and popcorn. I'm not opposed to these actual foods and even think that under the right circumstances, they can be enjoyable. But when you’re really hungry, those foods are not going to do the trick, because filler foods are not necessarily filling foods. The same goes for foods that have a high water content, such as raw veggies. They won't take you very far. Therefore, they go on the toss list if you’re using them as a “solution” for when you are really hungry. Rice cakes and peanut butter? Popcorn and string cheese? Veggies and hummus? Maybe then there’s something to talk about. But trying to use “airy” foods or drinks to quell hunger is not a fix I’d recommend. You may want to include them as part of a meal or snack, but I’d toss the reliance on them.

3. Virtuous Foods: These are the ones you eat because you think you should, but you really dislike. Please bear in mind that n.ot every "superfood" is going to be your cup of tea. Turns out you may really dislike chia seeds or spinach or sourdough bread...and that's ok. There is a whole wide world of wonderfully nutritous foods that can also make your tastebuds happy. Before tossing these foods out, you can try experimenting with them to see if you may actually enjoy them in another form (spinach pizza?) but if a particular food is just really unpleasant for you, please toss it and open the door to a more enjoyable replacement.

4. Criticism: I suggest tossing criticism about your eating habits not only because mean girl talk isn't nice, but also because there’s no point. You might think that with enough criticism and shame, you’ll finally “change your ways”, but actually, sitting in a pool of shame doesn’t lend itself toward positive changes. Telling yourself what a loser you are for failing to prepare, eating too much/too little, or making poor choices doesn’t exactly leave you feeling empowered. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t make changes (more on this below); it does mean that yelling at yourself is neither kind nor productive.

5. Perfectionism Around Food: Thinking that every meal has to be perfectly balanced, glowingly appealing, or provide just the right amount of satisfaction will make meal time a huge burden. It sure is nice when a meal ticks all those boxes, but that's not reflective of real life. Stressing yourself out to create perfect meals that hit the spot every time is neither realistic nor necessary. It's nice when it works out, but essentially, fed is best. (You can read more about this in my post Calling All Perfectionists.)

Now that you've cleared up all that space, here's what I suggest you SAVE:

1. Nutrient-Dense Foods You Enjoy: these are foods you enjoy eating which are also sources of important nutrients. These are really valuable because they help maintain your health and you also look forward to eating them! Make a point of keeping them on your grocery list and incorporating them into meals and snacks. Try new recipes for them so that they can stay in your rotation without getting boring.

2. Fun Foods You Enjoy: There are some foods that mainly benefit you by providing energy and pleasure. They're not heavy hitters when it comes to nutrition - and that's ok. Food is meant to be a source of pleasure as well as a means of sustenance. Including some foods just for taste can actually be protective of healthy eating habits because it preserves eating as an enjoyable activity rather than a chore. (For more on this, check out my post Is It Ok To Eat For Fun? )

3. Convenience Foods: These are foods that function as a quick source of sustenance when you don't have the time or energy to prepare something that might be more substantial or satisfying. You may want eggs and toast for breakfast but only have a few minutes, so you grab a yogurt with granola and a banana. These are convenience foods. You might be stuck in traffic when it's lunchtime but fortunately you have a bag of pretzels or trail mix in your purse. These are convenience foods. You accidentally burned supper but luckily you have pizza in the freezer. That's a convenience food. It's great to have foods that require zero-to-minimal prep to help fill in the gaps. Sometimes these foods are high in nutrition and sometimes they're just plain something to eat, but either way, they serve an important purpose! Keep 'em.

4. Foods That Make Good Memories: Sometimes you may want to eat something because it's part of a special experience. Don't love birthday cake but do love sharing a bonding moment with your little birthday girl? Don't enjoy stuffed cabbage but do enjoy making your grandmother happy? It might be worth having some just for the emotional experience. Of course you can decline food at your own discretion, and I'm not talking about ignoring your body cues altogether and suffering physical discomfort. It's totally ok to skip something you really don't like or to say "no thank you" if you're really full, but sometimes it's worth eating something that's not your favorite or that you don't feel particularly hungry for in order to participate in a special experience that will create good memories for you and loved ones.

5. Food Lessons: If you have an experience around food or eating that leaves you regretful, try and find the lesson. Regret is more helpful than guilt. Regret means, "I wish I would have made a different decision." It can be a great learning tool because you get to consider what you might do differently in the future. If you came home from work really hangry, you've learned that going too many hours without adequate nutrition leaves you feeling irritable. What can you do to avoid this the next time you have to stay late? If you ate at a restaurant and left feeling uncomfortably stuffed, you've learned that arriving at a restaurant starving or ordering a particular combination of foods doesn't leave you feeling good. What might you do differently the next time you eat out? If you find yourself wanting to eat snacks instead of dinner because you're utterly bored by your weekly rotation, you've learned that even tasty meals can eventually lose their appeal if they're overused. How can you get out of this rut? Unpleasant or undesirable experiences with food can have valuable lessons buried inside. Try and find them - and hold on to them!

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