A few years ago, eating healthy food and spending time preparing meals used to be my absolute last priority. I was the definition of a junk food vegetarian, subsisting almost entirely on cheese flavored crackers, frozen pizza, and boxed mac and cheese. I was anxious, depressed, and I hardly had an appetite so I didn't think about my food choices at all and thought that spending money on food was a waste. I'd actually do the majority of my grocery shopping in the frozen/processed section of the dollar store, and only visit the grocery store when I needed to buy kale... for my rabbit.
I was tired all the time, my BMI was dangerously low, and I felt like I had to wear makeup every day because my skin was constantly breaking out, but I thought that because I was thin it didn't matter what I ate. Since I've been underweight my whole life, as a teenager my pediatrician would even encourage me to binge on junk food so that I could possibly gain some weight, but what I didn't realize until I got older was that being thin does not equate with being healthy and that junk food was just as unhealthy for me as it would be for someone struggling to lose weight.
The more I ate this way, the more I hated food. Every time I'd eat, I'd have less energy and feel a little more sick, so in an attempt to feel less sick I would eat smaller portions of the junk food, but that wasn't making me feel better either.
I knew that I'd eventually have to learn how to cook and prepare healthy foods, and even before learning anything about nutrition I instinctively knew that whole fruits and vegetables were the magical foods that I needed to be eating more of- the problem was that they just didn't taste that good to me and I had no idea how to prepare them. It took a lot of daily practice and about one full year of cooking every day before I felt comfortable in the kitchen.
1. Allow yourself to spend a lot of time in the kitchen at first.
When I first started learning how to prepare whole unprocessed plant foods, chopping a sweet potato was terrifying. I had rarely used kitchen knives before and since I didn't have the skills, the process of preparing these foods went by painfully slowly. It would take me fifteen minutes to chop a single vegetable and after all that time spent chopping, I wouldn't even know how to flavor it so I'd end up with something that tasted bland, boring and seemingly not worth the effort. Overtime though I got a little faster at chopping and tried many recipes which taught me how to use different spices and flavors to make the food actually taste good.
I realized that a big part of what held me back from learning how to cook was the frustration I had with myself for not knowing my way around a kitchen. When I decided that eating healthy foods was going to be a priority, I had to remind myself every day that it's okay to be a slow and unexperienced cook and that the only way I'd ever get better was if I prepared food every day, several times a day, until it became easier.
After about a year of cooking every meal from scratch, chopping seven different kinds of vegetables for a soup became no big deal. I'm glad I took it slow while I was learning because now I have the confidence to use big sharp knives and to work a little faster-and I kept all my fingers in the process! It's more than okay to work slowly and make mistakes, it's a necessary part of the learning process and it gets so much easier with practice.
2. Pay attention to how you are feeling after each meal.
Making the choice to chop a bunch of vegetables for a salad or soup instead of having a frozen pizza might seem like an incredible feat of willpower and discipline, but there's no force involved when I make the choice to eat healthy foods. This is because I actually don't want or crave junk food anymore and the idea of eating highly processed foods is entirely unappealing to me these days. Here's how I got there-
Around the time that I got into making healthier food choices, I was also learning about managing my anxiety and depression through the practice of bringing my focus back to the present moment and letting myself experience the feelings I had been running away from. Along with letting myself face difficult emotions, I was also being more present with the physical sensations in my body including the way my body felt after I'd eat certain foods.
When I first went vegan I ate a lot of oil-based faux cheese and plant based meat substitutes, but after eating them I'd take a moment to check in and see how they were affecting me. I realized that when I'd have poor digestion or skin breakouts, it directly correlated to what I had been eating. On the other hand, the more whole plant foods I ate the better I felt.
After making a conscious effort to notice how these foods were making me feel, eventually when I saw a bag of potato chips or vegan cheese crackers at the grocery store, I didn't see it as food anymore. Real food became the colorful fresh items in the produce section, which gave me energy and lifted my mood, not the stuff with ingredient labels that made me feel low and clouded my head.
Don't expect to stop craving junk food overnight, but when you do occasionally have processed junk food just take the time to check in and see how it's affecting you. After making it a habit to pay attention to how each meal affects how you feel, it gets much easier to make the healthy choice.
Our gut bacteria, which communicate directly to our brain, will cause us to crave more of whichever foods we're currently eating, so after a few weeks of consistently eating unprocessed whole plant foods, you'll find yourself craving a nice bean soup instead of something processed. Alternately, if you were eating healthy foods but then decide to have a bag of chips, for the next few days you'll likely spend a lot of time craving more chips and will find it harder to make the healthier choice again. This is why complete abstinence from these factory made food products is the most effective strategy for longterm healthy eating habits.
3. Find healthy whole food alternatives for all of your favorite comfort foods.
Ever since I can remember mac and cheese was my #1 favorite food. Growing up as a vegetarian in a house of meat-eaters meant that I always had to have my own separate meal, so to make things easier I ate a lot of frozen veggie burgers and boxed mac and cheese. I always had some vegetables on the side, but only if they were covered in a cheese sauce. Needless to say, giving up cheese was bound to be a difficult process for me. When I went vegan and learned about what happens to dairy cows and their babies I stopped eating all dairy products including cheese overnight, but my cravings for heavy, creamy foods continued.
At first I curbed my cravings with processed vegan cheeses, then when I got confident enough in the kitchen I started making my own cheese sauces from soaked cashews and almonds. Most of the vegan mac and cheese recipes I found called for a whole cup or more of nuts, and I was finding that while these sauces were so heavy and delicious, I would break out after eating too much of them and they didn't make me feel my best, so I started lowering the amount of nuts in the cheese sauce recipes and I experimented with making my sauce bases from mostly vegetables instead.
I was surprised to find that these vegetable-based homemade sauces were just as good if not better than the ones that contained mainly cashews! I developed cheese sauce recipes made from sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and even cauliflower, all of which taste creamy and delicious with very few nuts or seeds needed. While the processed vegan cheeses will definitely taste more like cow's cheese, these savory creamy sauces made from vegetables are just as satisfying in their own way, and the best part is how great I feel after eating them.
Making the decision to fuel myself with nutrient-dense whole plant foods is the best decision I ever made and sticking to it has been easier than I'd ever imagined it could be.
Patience with yourself while learning how to prepare these foods, paying attention to how you feel after eating, and finding healthy alternatives to your favorite recipes will make the process fun and not feel like such a chore. Take things day by day and overtime you'll find that no willpower is required anymore and you'll naturally gravitate towards the foods that your body really needs.
I hope you found these tips helpful and I'll be back with more healthy recipes and tips very soon! ❁