3 Painless Ways to Start Eating Right When Nothing Else Will Work

[small steps image]You know what you’re supposed to eat.

You don’t need another blog post telling you this food is good and that one is bad … those rules seem to change every day anyway. (Hint: “Eat whole foods” is one that’s a constant.)

It’s not that you don’t want to eat healthy. You even understand that, over time, your taste buds will adjust, and you’ll actually crave raw fruits and vegetables while becoming less interested in processed and fried foods.

You know how important it is. Not just for you, but for your family. And that if you don’t start soon, it’ll one day be urgent. And — maybe — too late.

And yet …

And yet you can’t seem to start. It’s just too much, with the time it would take to plan meals and shop for new ingredients before you even get down to cooking. Not to mention the effort of packing healthy lunches for yourself and your kids, if you’ve got them. And don’t even get started on breakfast … where’s the time for that going to come from?

The Most Common Problem, Straight from the Mouths of NMA Readers

For almost the past month, I’ve blocked off ten hours each week to get on the phone with NMA readers and find out what’s keeping them from being where they want to be with their health and fitness (and that of their family).

Far and away, the problem of “I can’t seem to get started” has been the single most common frustration.

These one-on-one calls are part of a special program that so far I’ve only made available to previous NMA customers (more details on that program, the No Meat Athlete Academy, coming soon). But with a problem so common as this, I figured answering it for everyone would be helpful.

So here goes.

The Hidden Force that Prevents You from Starting

Here’s how it goes, most often:

We’ve tried eating well in my house, and it just doesn’t work. We last for two days, and soon we’re right back where we started. I work a full-time job and so does my spouse, and with the kids and their school and everything else, we just don’t have the time to make a healthy diet work.

To this I say … of course.

Of course it’s hard to change habits. Habits start out as tiny threads, and each time you repeat the habit, you add a new thread. Eventually, you’ve got not a thread but a cable, and it’s very hard to break.

So when you try to change not just your own habits but your whole family’s all at once, you’re trying to break four or five thick cables. And not only are you changing the experience of eating (to one that’s less salty, fatty, sugary, and enjoyable, at least at first) — you’re also adding to your schedule, since new foods takes more time to plan and prepare than what you’re used to.

Does this mean you’re stuck? That you’re doomed to a life of junk food and the fat, unhealthy family that goes with it?

No. It just means instead of trying to change everything at once, you need to start breaking the cables one thread at a time.

This post is about which thread to start with.

3 Simple Ways to Start Small

If you’re talking about a habit like running, it’s easy to start small.

Just go run for five minutes. Or two minutes. Then do the same thing the next day, and the next day, and the next, before you even think about increasing the time.

Whatever it takes, set up the rules so you start accumulating wins, and you start to change your perception of what it means and how it feels to run.

But with diet, it’s not so clear. What, are you supposed to eat healthy for just five minutes a day?

Measuring by time works for great running, not so well for eating. Changing your diet takes a different approach.

So here are three approaches that do work for eating — approaches that allow you to start small, and eventually, realize big gains. (The good kind of gains, not pounds.)

Small-Step Approach #1. Instead of trying to overhaul your entire diet, pick just one day a week.

And on that one day a week, do everything in your power to eat exceedingly well — the most important of which is planning ahead. I suggest Mondays, so that you can use the weekends to plan meals and shop. On Tuesday, go back to eating however you want, but on Monday, promise yourself (and whoever else will hold you accountable) that you won’t slip up.

Once you learn how to prepare and execute for just one day (and get used to it, for a few weeks), it’ll be easier to do it for multiple days. After a week or two of healthy Mondays, add a healthy Thursday. And so on. To save time and effort, just increase the quantities of whatever you’re shopping for and preparing on the weekend (we’ve eaten this lentil-avocado salad for several lunches this week).

Small-Step Approach #2. Make just one meal healthy each day.

To create more continuity in your healthy habits than just once a week, try eating better every day, but just for one meal.

For example, replace junk-food breakfast with a smoothie (easy to adjust for different tastes — for example, we add a little fruit juice to my son’s). If that doesn’t fill you up, add something like whole wheat toast with nut butter. Over time, you can focus on making your smoothie greener (just increase the proportion of vegetables to fruits), or you can focus on expanding the number of hours around breakfast that you eat healthily.

Eventually, you’ll approach “vegan before 6” (or “healthy before 6,” if vegan isn’t your goal), and you can spend a few weeks there before going all the way.

Small-Step Approach #3. Go all-in, but give yourself an end date.

I understand that some people just don’t have the patience for gradual change. I’ve been there — when you’re inspired to make a change, you really want to change. Now, and completely.

But “all-in” takes willpower. For example, if you’re attempting to go vegetarian or vegan, when that little voice in your head reminds you that you can NEVER again eat a real cheeseburger.

To counteract this, and make “all-in” a viable approach, put a time limit on your challenge — a date in the future, where, if you get there without screwing up, you win. You can reassess then, but until the time is up, you’re going to make this work.

Set up a fun challenge for yourself and the family, and decide that — for three days or a week or 10 days — you’re all going to eat healthily. But don’t start today — set a start date a few days from now (again, Monday is probably best) so that you have time to prepare.

Having a delayed start date also helps to increase the importance you give the change in your mind, which makes you more likely to stick with it when cheeseburger-voice starts talking. Have a reward planned (ideally not food) for when you finish: that, and the very fact that there’s an end date at all, will also help you to keep going when you’re craving junk food.

Once you’re done, think about what worked and what didn’t. Plan another challenge, modifying based on what you’ve learned, and set it for a longer duration. Rinse and repeat.

To Help You Get Started

Two strategies that will help with any of the above approaches:

1. Make “healthy” more fun.

A big part of the resistance to eating well is that healthy food is perceived as boring and bland. For example, if you’re taking Approach #3, choose a theme that’s interesting. Make it a week of ethnic dinners that you’ve never cooked before — Mexican one night, Thai the next, Indian another, etc. Or try a raw-food challenge. Or replace one meal a day (your worst one) with a juice meal. Or buy a new cookbook. Make the whole thing about something more exciting than “healthy,” and it’s much more likely to be met with openness.

2. Start where you are.

I got this tip from NMA book co-author and registered dietitian Matt Ruscigno. The idea here is to not radically alter your meals, but make small changes in each of them to move it along the spectrum toward healthy.

His example is beef and broccoli: if your goal is to go vegetarian or even just eat more vegetables, still eat the beef and broccoli, but make it more about the broccoli. Over time, increase the proportion of broccoli until it’s “broccoli with a tiny bit of beef,” and go all the way when you’re ready. You can do the same gradual replacement process with fruit smoothies (using more vegetables, less fruit over time), kids’ drinks (slowly dilute fruit juice with water), whole-grain flour or rice, water instead of oil for sauteing, etc. Something that has worked  for me, to use less salt, is keeping a grinder full of toasted sesame seeds and a few coarse grains of salt, instead of all salt.

The point is not to make the shift all at once, but in small, nearly imperceptible bits at a time.

I could go further with this last approach, especially when it comes to feeding kids (our son won’t eat beans or spinach but will eat pasta with sauce => puree beans and spinach into the sauce). But perhaps that’s another post.

Notice that these last two tips aren’t meant to be used alone, for most people. If you’re already eating healthily, they might help you go further.

But without the “hard line” of the first three approaches, it’s too easily to gradually slip back into bad habits.

Your Turn

If you’re serious about eating healthily but just can’t seem to start, then I’m begging you: don’t just read this.

Pick one of the three approaches above. Make a commitment (we’ve got a place for that, you know). Plan. And then give it a try.

When you mess up (and trust me, you will), learn and try again.

Lasting change starts with the smallest of steps, but it doesn’t start by standing still. Someone’s got to actually take that step, and that someone is you.

Speaking of habits …

I’ve just started sending out a new (free) small-steps-focused email course to help people get started with an active, plant-based lifestyle. It’s called the Beginner’s Guide to Becoming a No Meat Athlete, and it’s replacing my previous e-course that people get when they join the NMA newsletter. If you’d like to get the new course, you can check it out here. (And if you’re already on the email list, don’t worry, I’ll make sure you don’t get duplicate emails!)



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  1. Nancy McNevin says:

    Hi Matt, I’ve been enjoying your posts as a new vegan athlete – new on the vegan part since Jan 2014. So far I have made the transition completely, enjoying the new foods and cooking, and even just beat my 5-yr old PR in a half marathon – cool! However…my spouse is not on board with no-meat eats. He has no interest at all in “converting” at least for now. So my question is, do you have any links or resources or even recipes for a “combined household” where both of us can be happy? Other than cooking complete separate meals which kinda stinks. Maybe an odd request I know. He just doesn’t care for the recipes I’ve made that are vegan -that I’ve really been enjoying. We also have 2 kids which is a whole other story as you know. Thanks for any tips! Nancy

    • Hey Nancy, as someone who eats with meat eaters sometimes i can suggest a method which works well :). The idea is to produce a similar end result but add the meat/dairy/cheese in after you take your serving out and use vegan alternatives to end up with a very simple dish that BOTH enjoy. As your not trying to change him, this method is non intrusive and over time he may see your doing great and getting even healthier. I make a mushroom bolognaise with spaghetti and canned tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic etc but add avocado and chickpeas in too so its hardy enough for yourself, then simply add his seperate cooked mince/cream/cheese/eggs etc 🙂

  2. It all started with lent…

    This sounds like exactly how I started the way to healthier eating. In 2011, I gave up meat for lent—not chicken broth, not gelatin, just meat. Sometimes, I’d get chicken noodle soup and pick out the chicken. Talk about low commitment! I also took Sundays off, in case the desire for a hamburger overcame me.

    Three years later, and I’ve gone from no meat to vegetarian to strict vegetarian and now working my way to veganism. (I eat all vegan foods, but still working on transitioning out of leather/wool/silk and buying cruelty free household goods—it’s been a long process.)

    None of it seemed overwhelming over the course of three years. And now, we’re teaching our housemates how to cook vegan foods. Even one vegan meal a week is awesome! One housemate switched to almond milk, another bought tofu for the first time ever—all steps in a great direction!

    • Lent! Yes, I’ve used that too! I’m probably a 90% vegetarian, struggling to transition into that final 100%. For the past two years I’ve made it my goal to completely give up all meat during the time period of Lent. I really do think that focused time period has really helped me to slowly increase my progress towards that goal of becoming 100%.

  3. These are awesome tips! I was raised a whole foods vegetarian and don’t have any problem with it, but getting my partner on it was tough. So we used one of these tactics (we followed Mark Bitman’s VB6) to help him transition. We ate strictly vegan, organic and unprocessed until 6 pm each day. Then, we could eat whatever we wanted. It worked great! These days we eat vegan and unprocessed most days and so the occasional batch of chicken wings is no big deal. Thanks for the great tips!

  4. Abo-NMA-in-Cape-Town says:

    These are great tips and I will be sharing thm with my friends and family. My family is vegetarian, kids more vegan than veggie. I find it is easier to maintain the veggie lifestyle with kids around coz I don’t want to mess up their taste buds or confuse them eg hubby eats fish occasionally but never around the kids coz we feel they are too young to understand the concept of transition/80% veggie etc.

  5. Gabrielle says:

    Excellent post! When you said you’d offer 3 “easy” ways to change, I was skeptical. But YES! I love the idea of the challenge and making it fun! And setting the start date and end date reminded me much of how we train for races. Really great ideas. Thanks!

  6. Hi Matt,
    Your Tips are great. I startet to be vegetarian this february and did really well so far however there was an incident last week. My friends invited me over and I didn’t want to be rude or an extremist so I ate chicken with them but felt really bad afterwards. How do you deal witch such situation?

    • Hi Jens, I’ve had similar experience and have been a part of this lifestyle for about the same time as you. Just out of curiosity, when you ate chicken with them, you mentioned you felt badly afterwards. Was it physical discomfort, or more of the intellectual/emotional feelings you had? Personally I know I felt physically ill as well as almost “guilty” for not sticking to what I know has been a good decision for me. So for me I think it’s a matter of being confident in your own choices, and being willing to take the “heat” from friends and family that aren’t buying into the healthy lifestyle choice you’ve gone to. I’d be interested in Matt’s feedback as well. Good luck!

  7. Hi Jens, I also had this problem and for a very long time let it hold me back from eating in a way that made me feel good and happy. I never wanted to make people uncomfortable or feel guilty for giving them extra work, preparing special food for me. Now I make a point of taking a plate to share so that in emergency I am not forced to compromise my decision. You will find that those around you that understand you will be supportive and the others, does it matter? Stay true to yourself. It’s only food 🙂

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