For years I wanted to improve the way I nourished myself.  Before I started to understand that there were (are) better ways to feed myself and my loved ones, I lived in a place of ignorance for fear of overwhelm.  Breakfast couldn’t get better than a warm, steaming pile of pancakes topped with melting butter and thick, gooey (not from a tree) syrup.  What was wrong with that kind of eating? Or toaster pastries, or gatorade, or breakfast cereals, or any other yummy modern day American foods? At any rate, learning how to do better felt overwhelming.  If there’s one true statement about us as human beings, it is that we do not like an abundance of choice, even if we like to think we do.  We prefer our options to be narrowed down for us, and if you google search for a better diet, you’re bound to be overwhelmed (or sold something unhealthy).  What’s more, no one likes the idea of a total-diet makeover, it’s shocking to the stomach (which is connected to the brain).  

What has worked for me in finding better ways to nourish myself and my family, is to take baby steps- small changes over time.  It makes no sense to me to rush into major changes which prove to be unsustainable, versus taking time and tweaking things, adjusting to new ways, and then, well, adjusting the diet again, and repeat!

I was thinking about what advice I would offer if I could create a beginner’s guide for my past self.  Here are the first steps I came up with:

1. Open Your Mind

Keeping an open mind about food options is a must.  People sometimes rule out things that look different.  How many times have you commented, or heard someone comment, “Eww, gross!” at first sight of a new food.  Trust me, if you begin to analyze some common foods we already eat, you might be turning your nose up to some things most of us call “normal.”  It’s all about keeping an open mind, and trying new things.  When getting my kids to try things, they follow my example and at times they have to try something many, many, MANY times before deciding they liked it.  We always put a new food we hope they will try right on their plates, even if they refuse to try it.  Just a small bite-size portion as an option, and over the years our kids have tried (and some have liked) things like beets, quinoa, hummus, asparagus, brussels sprouts, lima beans and other foods some view as “non kid-friendly.”

2.  Go Back To What Gives You Life: Water

Often, I think that we should celebrate water more than we do.  If Columbus gets a day (and his heroism is arguable) how about a Water Celebration Day? Well, we can chew on that for a while, but possibly what should be considered sooner is your water intake.  Water is truly the basis for your life, so are you getting enough of it? Do you start your day with hydration and continue to drink water throughout the day? Try it!

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3. Know Where Sugar Is Sneaking In

I challenge you to look at where sugar is creeping into your diet.  Do you fall into line with the average american? Statistics vary on how much sugar the average American consumes from “52 teaspoons of added sugars per person per day in 2000?” to “22 teaspoons of sugar each day,” with the average being 10 grams higher for teens.  

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Instead of water, people commonly drink sodas, sports drinks, artificially flavored drinks, and juices.  If you cut down on these drinks, with the goal of drinking more water, you can do so by considering these methods: cut your juice with water- try juice with 25% water or seltzer, then 50-50, and then water with a hint of juice.  Try drinking water ice cold or through a straw.  Switch to drinking water or seltzer with lemon, lime or orange slices.  Switch from sweet iced teas, to home brewed sugar-free green or herbal iced tea.  

Sugar is, in my opinion, a sneaky tool used by manufacturers to keep you coming back to their brand.  Beyond drinking sugar in our beverages, sugar lurks in a lot of cereals, oatmeal, breads, snacks, tomato sauces, yogurts, and condiments (think jellies and jams, dressings and sauces).  Sugar is especially infused in things we like to give our kids: canned fruits, flavored milks, fun-packaged yogurts, apple sauces, “fruit” snacks (where’s the fruit?), granola bars... I bet if you look for it, you can add many things to my list.  

Experiment by tracking your eating and calculate the sugar you consume.  4 grams of sugar equals approximately 1 teaspoon.  You might be surprised at your sugar intake, but don’t be overwhelmed! Steadily made small changes result in big improvements over time.

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4. Go Green

When I started to pay attention to how many vegetables I was eating each day, I was surprised that I ate less than I liked to think I did.  Fresh raw veggies are an essential part of our nutrition.  If you can’t eat certain things raw, then cooking is, of course, the next best choice.  We are lucky that a variety of vegetables are at our fingertips all year round, and I’ve discovered some ways to ensure that I’m getting more veggies onto my plate- or in my cup, as that’s my favorite way!

Try things raw that you might not have considered before: I always thought zucchini had to be cooked, since I had always had it that way, but I discovered it’s one more dippable for my hummus.  Try keeping a container or platter of pre-cut veggies in the fridge with your favorite dip- fresh hummus, bean dip, guacamole or salsa.  Better yet to me, blend veggies into fresh smoothies! I learned all about smoothie making from Kris Carr (check her out!) and I now stock certain frozen fruits and vegetables in my freezer all the time for cool, refreshing smoothies.  I keep pineapple, kale, spinach, berries and more at my disposal.  With plant milk such as unsweetened vanilla almond or rice milk, I can blend a frozen drink that even my kids will enjoy.  My summer favorite is one whole ripe peach (minus the pit, of course), about ⅓ cup frozen pineapple, about ½ cup spinach-kale mixture, and about 2 cups unsweetened vanilla rice milk.  Blend until smooth and enjoy! I have developed a taste for low-sugar treats, if something does not work for you then experiment! It is fun.  Blend in a ripe banana for sweetness.  If you like a creamier texture, throw in a slice or two of avocado- puts the smooth in your smoothie!

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5. Try Out “Meatless Monday”

I have found that this statement is about as offensive to some as a four-letter word.  I lost them at “meatless.”  Yet, diets rich in meat are of concern- ask your physician for more information.  I’m not advocating that everyone become vegan, though beyond the health benefits of diets low in animal-based protein are benefits such as lowering your carbon footprint.  At any rate, you don’t have to give up meat, but you can ease your way into eating less of it, and a great way is to designate one day as “meatless.”  On such days try breakfast quinoa (see my favorite recipe below), nut butters or sunflower seed butter on toast or celery (mmm, ants on a log), soups such as meatless black bean or lentil, hummus, or pasta made creamy with cashews.

My favorite breakfast quinoa recipe:

1 cup rinsed quinoa, cooked in 2 cups unsweetened vanilla rice, almond or coconut milk.  Add ¼ cup shredded unsweetened coconut and a mashed ripe banana to the cooked quinoa.  Add more milk to your bowl, like one might with oatmeal, if desired.  Mmm! Yarm, protein-filled goodness!

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My Favorite vegan penne pasta dish:

Please remember, these are my opinions after having made changes over time to my own eating habits.  Anyone making changes to their diet should probably work with their physician to ensure the changes are advisable.  I am not a doctor, but I know what it is like to be overwhelmed by information and choices.  Each meal is a choice, and each meal brings opportunity to nourish yourself for better energy, longevity and overall good health.

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    Jennifer Loebel