We’re back with another Healthy & Whole post, a series we started as a real, candid conversation on how to embrace home cooking and a sustainably healthy lifestyle. Today’s guest is Robyn Downs, author behind the blog Real Food Whole Life. Robyn is a recipe developer, photographer and truly kind soul devoted to spreading the word that healthy eating is simple and inspiring. Her website and Instagram feed are exactly that, full of vibrant photos and encouraging words. We’ve been lucky enough to count Robyn as friend, brought together by our similar philosophies on healthy eating and living. Here, she shares some standout thoughts on baby steps to take towards healthy eating – we couldn’t have said it better! Many thanks to Robyn for these words and beautiful photos.
Though I write a blog about healthy eating and living, I haven’t always been a model of healthy choice making. In college I survived on lots of processed food and plenty of soda. Later when I got married, juggled a career and school, and gave birth to my daughter, I struggled to find balance between everyday life demands and the knowledge that I should be doing more to take care of myself. Eventually I was able to take control of my health, but it’s important to know that this change did not happen overnight. It took a series of small, baby steps that have added up to a shift in the way I care for myself and my family overtime. These are steps you can take as well, and I’m thrilled to share them with the Healthy & Whole community!
Robyn Downs (KLiK Concepts)
1. More, Not Less
Many of us immediately think of all the things we can’t eat when transitioning to a healthier way of eating. Instead of focusing on what’s off limits, think about what you can add more of. The best thing to add more of? Eat more plants! Think filling up on a fruit-filled smoothie at breakfast and adding a handful of baby spinach to your eggs. Snack on some almonds and an apple. Add a side salad to your lunch or have your sandwich on greens instead of on bread. Grab some raw veggies and hummus for an afternoon snack. And then pile roasted veggies onto your plate for dinner.
Even if you’re not yet able to break away from the frozen pizza habit, you can still add veggies alongside. Baby steps. After a while, you might find that your body starts to crave the flavor and nourishment of plants. But you can arrive at your own pace, on your own terms.
Healthy eating doesn’t have to be grounded in deprivation or suffering. Instead it can be a celebration of vibrant, real food and the feeling of wellness gained from making healthy choices. Add a rainbow of plants every chance you get, and you’ll take a big step toward your healthy goals over time.
2. Rethink Your Standbys
Like many of you, I get home from work exhausted and am often overwhelmed by getting a quick, healthy dinner on the table for myself and my family. It’s at these times I’m most likely to fall back on old standbys. For me that’s always been pasta and Mexican food (that warm basket of chips gets me everytime!). I’ve learned over the years, however, that I don’t have to ditch the old standbys altogether. Rather, I’ve spent some time rethinking how we can still have our favorites by using ingredients that won’t weigh us down.
You can do the same by thinking about your standbys and then brainstorming ways to make them healthier. If pasta is your go-to, be sure to keep good quality whole grain or gluten-free options on hand, and add plenty of vegetables and beans or lean meat for a quick sauce. If Mexican is your weakness, keep your pantry and fridge stocked with whole food ingredients like corn tortillas, beans, lettuce, and avocados to whip up your favorites in no time.
3. Read Labels
Perhaps one of the most important steps you can take toward healthy eating is the simple act of reading labels. Before buying any food product, flip the package over and read the list of ingredients. I use Michael Pollan’s rule of five ingredients or fewer to decide whether to buy. That is, If there are more than five ingredients listed on the package, ditch it. Similarly, if there are ingredients that you don’t recognize or are difficult to pronounce, chances are it’s not real food and shouldn’t go in the cart.
4. Skip the Chemicals, Additives, and Preservatives
This one is huge. Processed foods often contain artificial ingredients, colors, and preservatives that are at best devoid of nutritional value and at worst harmful to your overall health. I’ll happily eat real cheese or pasta, but you’ll rarely find me eating a box of processed crackers or drinking a diet soda.
Real food is fine, but stay away from the fake stuff. It’s just not worth the cost to your overall well-being. Make a simple rule for yourself to limit processed foods that contain chemicals, additives, or preservatives.
5. Think Long Term
Making habit changes can be difficult and at times can seem daunting. Try to remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. You don’t have to change everything all at once. Add a few more plants to your diet, read labels, and kick the chemicals to the curb. Then see how you feel. Do you have more energy, are you sleeping better, and thinking more clearly? Use the positive momentum to add additional healthy habits, keeping in mind you don’t have to change everything right this minute. Baby steps add up to big changes over time.
6. Keep Breakfast and Lunch Simple
If you’re working toward adding more healthy habits to your eating routine, give yourself a break and keep breakfast and lunch simple. I find that rotating through 2-3 breakfasts and 3-4 lunches gives me enough variety without being overwhelming in terms of choices and prep time.
My favorite breakfasts are smoothies packed with fruits, veggies, and healthy fats; scrambled eggs with avocado and a handful of baby spinach; or oatmeal with apples and nuts or seeds. Lunch is most often leftovers or a big salad with veggies and a can of drained wild salmon or hummus with lemon juice and olive oil. Identify your simple favorites and make sure you keep those ingredients on hand so you can enjoy a fast, nourishing breakfast and lunch every day.
7. Always Carry Snacks
Do you find it’s fairly easy to eat healthy at home, but that all the good intentions go out the window when you’re out and about? Keep hunger pangs (and temptations) at bay by bringing along some simple snacks to tide you over.
My go-to’s are a big bottle of water, a bag of raw almonds, and an apple. Those simple snacks have saved me on countless occasions, so it’s worth the small effort to make sure they’re in my purse or workbag everyday before heading out. You can do the same. Grab a stash of your favorite nuts and some fresh fruit, then keep them somewhere convenient so you can grab and go when you’re headed out for the day.
8. Cook at Home
I’m a working mom and the convenience of eating out can be super tempting, especially at the end of an exhausting day. Regardless of how tired I may be, I try to eat the majority of meals at home (or at least homemade meals on the go). Cooking at home allows you to control the type and quality of ingredients. You know what’s in your meal, and just as important, what’s not. It doesn’t have to be fancy; simple, real food cooked at home is better than take-out every time.
9. Upgrade Your Splurges
Life is no fun without splurges, especially when it comes to food. Think about how to upgrade some of your favorite splurge-worthy recipes and then research some ways to make it healthier. My family loves pancakes and fruit crisps for dessert, so I’ve found ways to boost the whole food ingredients and ditch the refined sugar and white flour. The results meet our need for the familiar splurges, but we feel much so much better after eating the upgraded version. Think about your favorites and then upgrade!
10. Be Kind
My takeaway message when it comes to healthy eating is always the same: be kind to yourself. Remember that healthy eating is simply a way to take better care of your body. It’s a choice you can make everyday to be good to yourself. Mental health is just as important in the wellness equation. Practice a kind and forgiving mindset toward yourself. Do the best you can, celebrate the successes, and then show yourself empathy when you fall short.
Healthy eating isn’t about perfection. It’s about taking care of your body, doing the best you can on any given day, and enjoying your life. Cheers to your baby steps!
About the Authors
Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.
Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.