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Want to eat healthier? Set up these contingency plans to avoid old habits

Friday 13 January 2017

A notepad and pen on a wooden table, amid a variety of fruit and vegetables
A pen, some paper, and forward planning can help you stick with healthier eating

Every time you go to the supermarket or decide what to eat, you’re fighting temptation on multiple fronts. This is why one of the first steps you can take, when it comes to healthy eating, is sitting down and putting together a healthy eating plan.

A simple list of everything you plan on eating all week might not seem like a big step, but it has two big advantages when it comes to making healthy decisions about food and drinks.

First, you start mustering will power to make smart choices early, rather than every time you find yourself hungry and trying to decide what to eat. Deciding to eat and drink healthier seems like an easy decision, but for many of us it can mean a big change to our usual habits. It can also be considerably harder to stick with your resolution to do better when you’re running short on time or you’re ravenously hungry.

Second, putting together a weekly meal plan allows you to make decisions about what to eat away from the temptations of the supermarket aisle. You can shop for the week ahead, with a shopping list in hand, confident that you’ve covered all the essentials of a healthy diet and exactly what food and drink you’re going to need to get through the next seven days.

Putting together an eating plan is a great first step, and we’d encourage anyone who hasn’t tried it to spend a couple of weeks giving it a spin. But, if we’re being realistic, we have to admit that it can't account for all the curve-balls life throws you. No meal plan can eliminate all the potential choices you need to make about food and drinks, and within the first few weeks of following a plan you’ll inevitably run into situations where you’re faced with two options: take the healthier option, or stick with familiar habits built up over the years that probably aren’t quite as good for you.

Fortunately, you don’t have to rely on will power alone to get you through those moments. The same approach that makes a meal plan so useful can help you stay focused when the unexpected comes up. Building some contingencies into your meal plan can keep your focus on healthier eating when something unexpected shows up.

Contingency One: If I get home too late to cook dinner, then…

Sometimes, the day gets away from you. Despite your best plans to go home and cook a healthy meal, you find yourself working a half an hour late and you miss your regular bus home. The half-hour you had set aside to prepare a new recipe is suddenly down to ten minutes, and your stomach is rumbling the whole way through. This makes cooking the meal you had planned a whole lot less attractive than it was when you wrote it down a few days ago.

When you are putting together your meal plan and shopping list for the week, take a moment to consider what will happen if you are short on time. Having a healthy, back-up meal which you can throw together on short notice, or leftovers in the freezer which you can eat in an emergency, makes it easier to resist that little voice suggesting now is a good time to rethink your stance on take-away pizza.

Contingency Two: If I’m eating out, or if a friend is setting the menu, then…

Eating is often a social activity, from going out with friends, to dinner with your grandparents. If you’re heading out to a restaurant - or heading to a friend’s place for dinner where you have no control over what’s being cooked - try using these strategies to keep yourself focused on making healthier choices:

  • If you are hungry, eat a healthy snack before you leave the house. This makes it easier to resist that bowl of chips and dip before dinner, and ensures you don’t over-order just because you’re feeling hungry.
  • Drink water instead of soft-drinks and alcohol. This helps keep you hydrated and on the right track for choosing healthier options.
  • Stick to smaller portions. Order a second entrĂ©e instead of a main, at a restaurant, and ask for a small portion when eating at someone else’s home (especially if you feel it would be rude to leave food on the plate). Don’t use this as an excuse to go for seconds - when it comes to eating healthy, how much you eat matters as much as what you're eating.
  • Share your dessert with someone else. The last mouthful of anything sweet and decadent is never as good as the first one. Focus on the best part, and share your dessert with someone else.
  • Eat slowly. It takes your stomach up to twenty minutes to recognise that you’re full so slowing down your eating gives your body time to tell you what it needs.

Contingency Three: If I’ve had a really bad day, and need comfort food, then…

Your boss gets angry at you, your kids are sick, and then it rains on you while you’re waiting for the bus and you left your umbrella at home. Yeah, we’ve all been there. There are days when everything seems to go wrong, and all you want is quick and easy comfort food, your couch, and some truly awful reality television that will make you feel better about your life.

You can’t stop the ‘bad days’ from happening, but you can set down some contingency plans to keep you from eating junk foods like lollies, chocolate or a big bag of chips, to salve the pain of a truly crappy day.

An easy starting point is looking for healthy alternatives for your particular brand of comfort food – here's some great healthy versions of some comfort food classics and some desserts for those with a sweet tooth. Have a selection of these stored in the freezer, ready for the ‘bad days’. Alternatively, if you really need ‘junk’ food or drinks, buy smaller sizes and slowly wean yourself off consuming these items over time.

If your idea of comfort food involves ordering take-away and flaking out on the couch, try to stick to advice offered in 7 ways to eat healthier when you’re out. If you’ve a favourite restaurant or take-away, make a note of their healthiest options you can find on a post-it and attach it to the front of their menu – you’ll be far less tempted by their other options if you don’t have to search through the menu to figure out what you want.

Not sure what's the healthiest option on the menu? Look for some helpful kilojoule (kJ) information on the menu, or search for advice online, and be mindful of how many kilojoules you need each day.

Contingency Four: If I ignore my plan for three straight meals, then…

No-one wants to plan for failure, but if all else goes wrong it can be useful to have a contingency to catch you when things start to slip. If you find yourself ignoring your plan for three straight meals – either because you’ve swapped new food and drinks in or eaten foods and drinks that aren’t on the plan – it’s probably a good sign that something on your plan isn’t working for you.

When you hit this point, look at your plan and figure out what’s going wrong. Perhaps you’ve overestimated the time you’d have available for shopping or preparing food this week? Perhaps you aren’t particularly enthusiastic about the food you planned to eat, and you’re trying to avoiding those meals? Perhaps it’s merely a matter of access, and you’ve stored your plan somewhere that isn’t convenient or can’t be viewed each day.

Even if you discover flaws in your plan that can’t be fixed right away, note them down for the future…and maybe add a few new contingencies to your list that will prevent the problem from reoccurring.

Last updated: 23 August 2017