Sometimes, the only way to break long-held beliefs is a death by a thousand cuts. Or in the case of my eating habits, a thousand meals.
I love food and I try to have a healthy diet but I also know I fail on a regular basis.
Now, after logging and analyzing more than 1,000 of my meals, I have a much clearer picture of what I put into my body. And I’ve gained a better understanding of my relationship with food in general. I also have a plan to make changes and the data to measure my success or failure against going forward.
You don’t need to track a thousand meals to benefit from my discoveries. You can pick and choose from what I’ve learned and find a tool to log your meals for a much shorter period. Then you’ll be able to make data driven decisions about any changes you want to make to your food choices.
The back story
I’m a fairly healthy eater. I rarely eat desserts or deep-fried anything. Healthy smoothies for breakfast most days. At dinner, veggies often fill more of my plate than meats or starches. I do tend to snack a lot but I try to make healthy choices when I do.
At least, that’s the story I used to tell myself.
The truth was I didn't have a firm grasp on how much of what types of foods I was eating over the long haul. A lot of my meal choices were based on what was in my fridge that day or what my family was willing to agree on eating.
There was other evidence that my eating habits had room for improvement. My gradual weight loss had stalled for the last six months and my weight was trending back up. Items that weren’t on my shopping list were finding their way into my shopping cart more often. And late-night raids of the “treat cupboard” were happening more than I care to admit.
Maybe it was procrastination but I decided to build an inventory of my ongoing food choices before I made any serious changes to my diet. The goal was to get a clear picture of my “normal” meal choices. Then I’d set some goals, continue to log my food choices and measure my results.
Lesson #1: I’m a snack-aholic
Hello, my name is Dean and I’m a snacker. I’ll ruin a day of healthy eating habits with a handful of wine gums. Then I’ll go back for the open bag of New York Cheddar chips and use them to scoop up cream cheese because there’s no dip in the house. Okay, that may be an extreme example, but it happened (on Monday, January 7th at 8:30pm).
Prior to my meal logging, if you told me that I eat more snacks than lunches and dinners combined, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you went on to tell me that more than a third of my snack choices involved sweets and treats, I would have scoffed at you.
Once I started logging what I ate, it didn’t take me long to realize that my perception of my snacking was at odds with reality.
The simple act of logging my food intake made me more aware that I had an issue with snacking. It was hard to ignore the fact that some evenings I was grabbing my phone three or four times to record my foraging.
My takeaway: Even the most basic logging can reveal surprising facts. Just the act of logging my meals helped me tune in to trends that should have been obvious but got ignored in the bustle of daily life.
Lesson #2: Charts are logging’s better half
Here's a breakdown of how often I eat different types of foods, broken down first by type of food and then by meals.
It looks like there’s a lot going on in that chart but it’s really just the types of foods I eat ordered from most frequent on down.
Cheese, bread and vegetables are the most frequent, followed by poultry, leafy greens, sweets and nuts, etc. Each little pie chart shows how often that type of food appears in breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Bread shows up equally at all meals. Vegetables are mainly a dinner choice. Snacks are where all the sweets and treats creep in.
I know a mega chart like that can be daunting. It reminds me of a scene in the movie The Matrix that takes place shortly after the burgeoning hero Neo is liberated. Neo is intrigued that Cypher, a long-time Resistance fighter, is spying on the Matrix by watching screens filled with nothing but streams of green coded characters. Cypher proclaims, “You get used to it. I don’t see the code… all I see is blonde, brunette, redhead.”
I see the blue “breakfast” section of the cheese pie chart as cottage cheese being poured into a blender for my daily smoothie. Every time I look at that particular wedge, I think, “Haha! I finally figured out a way to stomach eating cottage cheese without gagging!” The green snack section of the cheese pie chart is Brie melting over chopped steak on toast.
The blue section of the red meat chart is natural bacon spitting in my frying pan. The yellow is ribeyes with Montreal Steak Spice searing on the bbq. I’ll stop there.
My takeaway: I’ve found benefits to simply logging what I eat but charts and other structured summaries of my food data let me explore and learn more. They take the learning to another level.
Lesson #3: You need to dive into the data
Using the online tools at EventLoggers.com lets me drill down to sift through the details of all my meals. Click the image to see a longer example of my highly rated snacks containing cheese.
What isn’t clear from the chart above is that it’s interactive. I can click on any wedge in any pie chart to retrieve a full list of exactly what meals constitute the wedge.
Clicking on the green “snack” portion of the “vegetables” pie chart reveals that carrots are my go-to vegetable for snacks. (I often wash a full carrot and dip it in hummus while I’m catching up on my online reading).
However, if I use the online filter to limit the list to meals I rated as “good” or better, it becomes obvious that leftover meals containing veggies are what I really enjoy the most.
At the start of my food logging project, I considered myself a fairly healthy snacker. The data tells a different story.
I’ll forgo healthier snack options if there are other quick and tastier options, even though they aren’t as healthy of a choice. I’ve just been choosing to focus on the healthy choices and feel good about them.
Drilling down to the details of almost any chart offers useful insights.
If I click on the “snack” portion of the “cheese” pie chart, there is a LOT of leftover cheese pizza (a favourite of my kids). Meat and cheese sandwiches also show up very frequently. As mentioned before, they are a favourite way for me to justify finishing up leftover meat from adult dinners.
If I filter those snacks to only those rated “good” or better, more insights emerge.
I eat the leftover cheese pizza if it’s sitting there because it’s convenient, even though I tend not to rate it highly. I make sandwiches with meat and cheese because I really enjoy them.
My takeaway: I’m going to use convenience and tastiness to my advantage. I’ll cook larger portions of healthy meals that I like and package up leftovers in to snack sized portions. For meals that don’t make good snacking choices, I’ll try to cook only enough for meal time.
Lesson #4: I'm my children's compost bin
So many times I’d eat my version of a healthy meal and proudly log my meal with Google Home. "Hey Google, tell Event Logger I had grilled chicken breast with corn, black beans and steamed asparagus for dinner at 6:30pm today. It was very good." And I'd hear the satisfying reply, "Got it, your dinner has been logged and tagged with poultry and vegetables."
Then I'd spend the next 15 minutes coaxing my kids to eat their grilled cheese and noodles, calling it a win if they got a slight majority of the food on their plates into their bellies. More often than I care to admit, I’d be clearing the dinner table and find myself staring at my kids’ partially eaten grilled cheese sandwiches and thinking, “I can’t bare to compost that!” And in it goes to my belly.
My takeaway: This one is tricky. I need to find a strategy to deal with leftovers that is better than scarfing them all down or composting them. I hate wasting food and my kids are fickle eaters. Sometimes they’ll beg for seconds and other times they’ll barely eat the same meal. I’m open to suggestions, so please comment if you have tips or advice.
Lesson #5: Bread is the Uber of my food world
I try to limit the amount of bread I eat but it's such a good delivery vehicle. Everything gets better with bread! From last night's leftover turkey to peanut butter and jam. And so many variations of bread: buns, english muffins, flat bread and of course, pizza crust.
Many types of foods are prevalent in one particular meal of the day. Three quarters of my fruit gets eaten at breakfast. More than 70 percent of both rice and potatoes get eaten at dinner.
Not so with bread! Bread invades my meals more uniformly than any other type of food. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks are all roughly equal candidates for bread to rear its head.
Bread is especially prevalent at lunch. Forty six percent of all my logged lunches include some form of bread. Breakfast is 21%, dinner is 38%, snacks are 25%. I’m not so concerned about dinners since bread is usually a secondary component for that meal. Flatbread for ground turkey burritos or a bun for turkey burgers and salad. One caveat - pizza. If I’ve committed to pizza for dinner, it’s a full family treat and I’m all-in on bread for the meal.
My takeaway: I love bread, so I’m not going to try rid it from my diet, even though “Bread makes you fat,” Instead, my plan is to banish bread from breakfast and lunch as a first step. I’m going to continue to enjoy it at dinner and try to limit it when snacking.
Also: I need to find a better alternative for leftover meat than wrapping it in bread, even though I really do enjoy its taste and simplicity. I don’t have a proven solution yet. I’ve enjoyed adding meat to chopped fresh veggies with a splash of dressing, a la Julienne Salads. Again, any suggestions are welcomed.
Lesson #6: There’s more to a good meal than taste and nutrition
So far, I’ve focused mostly on my food downfalls and areas that need obvious improvement. Logging my food has also reinforced that I have some good routines.
I have a set breakfast most weekdays. A "protein smoothie" that has endured since my Slow Carb Diet days. Spinach, cottage cheese, a raw egg, almonds, half an avocado, almond milk, ice cubes, vanilla extract and cinnamon. This is what it looks like before it meets the blender:
It gets logged as leafy greens, fruit, cheese, nuts, milk alternatives, eggs.
Admittedly, it’s not going to win any awards for taste. I rate it “average” most days. Occasionally I’ll rate it “good” if the avocado is perfectly ripe and its flavour carries through.
The meal takes about 15 minutes to prepare, drink and clean up. Much longer than a bowl of cereal or toast and peanut butter.
So, why do I make a rather bland breakfast day after day, especially when it takes more time than other options that taste better?
It’s a healthy start to my day. As cheesy as it sounds, being able to say, “I’m going to take a few minutes right now to start my day off on the right foot with a healthy breakfast.” I don’t know about you but I need all the easy wins I can get each day and this breakfast is a winner for me.
It fills me up. On a more pretentious/empirical note, I can last four or five hours without even thinking about my next meal. That lets me get on with things without distraction.
It has lots of healthy protein. My protein smoothie is the only way I’ve found to consistently eat cottage cheese. My brain knows that cottage cheese has lots going for it but my mouth and stomach argue that it is a foul and unswallowable pseudo-food.
It’s easy to clean up. No pots to scrub (oatmeal), no pans to scrub (scrambled eggs) - just add some water and dish soap to the empty blender, turn it on high for 10 seconds and done.
I like the routine. I’m not a morning person. I’ve made this meal so often, I can go on autopilot. Pour a coffee, turn on the radio, grab the four refrigerated ingredients from the fridge… By the time I’m tucking the blender away, I’m awake, fed, caffeinated and informed for the day.
That’s a long list of benefits for my protein smoothie breakfast, even though it lacks in taste.
My takeaway: I think I’ve got breakfast pretty dialed in. My biggest challenge is ensuring I keep all the ingredients stocked. I’ve had to abandon my go-to breakfast protein smoothie because I’ve run out of one of the main ingredients and I’m not willing to make a trip to the supermarket before breakfast to restock.
Lesson #7: I’m a lunch skipper
Most weekdays I go from a late breakfast to an early dinner. When I do eat lunch, bread is involved more often than any other meal.
So, why do I skip lunch so often? And why don’t I take the effort to ensure it’s healthy, like I do with breakfast?
Part of it is that my “standard” breakfast is quite filling and I’m normally not feeling hungry a few hours later. I also think that my afternoon coffee curbs my appetite for a while longer.
But the main reason is that “lunchtime” happens during my productive time of the day. I’ve got the kids to school/daycare, Christine is at work and I have the house to myself for a chunk of time.
The idea of interrupting that precious time to make a healthy meal from scratch doesn’t offer good value. A few hours ago, I’ve assembled a healthy and hearty breakfast. And in a few more hours, I’ll be cooking dinner for the family.
My takeaway: Instead of skipping lunch or foraging for the quickest pseudo meal of leftovers, I’m going to experiment with choosing a simple, healthy food I’d like to eat more of and make it so convenient to eat that it’s a no-brainer. I’ll be setting aside 10 minutes every weekday at 2pm to have cut up veggies and something else for lunch. (No bread allowed.) Wish me good luck!
Lesson #8: Dinner is my favourite meal
We live in a small town and there aren't that many restaurant or take-out options. So we make the vast majority of our meals at home. I'm often the cook.
In addition to logging my meals and their preparation time, I also rate many of my meals on a scale from horrible to excellent.
For me, rating my meals is important. I enjoy taking a few moments to reflect on my food before moving to the next thing.
Dinner is definitely my most enjoyed meal for a few reasons.
The main types of food in my dinners are vegetables, poultry, bread, cheese, red meat and leafy greens. All things I really enjoy.
That translates specifically to a lot of stir fry, bbq'd meat with corn and beans, oven roasted turkey breast with carrots and a lot of salads. Especially greek salad with feta cheese.
Even if we’re having something that doesn’t make my mouth water, I cook the majority of the family dinners in our house. So I can augment it with foods I enjoy and prepare my plate in a way that I like it.
I have a few simple side dishes that have salvaged many mediocre meals for me. Steamed broccoli is something I love. Oven baked asparagus with olive oil, black pepper and parmesan cheese is another. Any simple salad.
When rating meals, I try to focus on rating the food itself and not the larger experience of the meal but I think there's also a bit of bias toward slightly higher ratings.
Dinner is the meal that I invest the most time in. This last week, I spent three hours and 45 minutes making dinners and I consider it time well spent. So I'm a bit attached to the outcome. It's also the only meal that I consistently eat with the whole family, so that adds to the experience.
Recipe for a great meal: Start with healthy ingredients that I like. Invest the time to prepare a proper sit-down meal. Share it with loved ones. Almost bulletproof.
My takeaway: I can almost guarantee a good and healthy dinner by ensuring I have good ingredients on-hand and enough time to prepare things. When that can’t happen, a quick and enjoyable side dish or two goes a long way.
Where to from here?
I’m going to take everything I learned from logging my first 1000 meals and apply it going forward.
Specifically, I want to decrease my snacking and eat lunch more regularly. No bread for breakfast or lunch. I’ll try to adjust the portions of the meals I prepare so I’m left with only healthy leftovers.
But I won’t wait until I log my 2000th to analyze my progress. Instead, I’m going to give myself a “100 Meal Challenge”. That’s approximately a month of logging meals. Then I’ll compare the results with my original 1,000 meals to see what’s working and what isn’t.
If you’re interested in learning how I make out, subscribe to the blog and follow me.
If you’d like to take your own 100 Meal Challenge and log your own meals, EventLoggers.com is free and easy. Most of the charts and food collages I’ve used in this post come directly from EventLoggers.com. The rest I compiled quickly in Google Sheets using my exported data.