The following is a guest post from Benyamin Elias, a fitness and habits coach at Routine Excellence.
You drag yourself through the door, kick off your shoes, stumble to the couch, and crumple into a heap.
You might grab the remote and start watching Netflix when you hear it — the rumbling of your stomach.
If you’re anything like me, that describes a typical day after getting home from work and the gym.
I’m exhausted and it’s late — the last thing I want to do is cook.
The truth is though, you can work out all you want – but you can’t out exercise a bad diet.
If you’re trying to lose weight, you need to eat less food. If you’re trying to gain weight, you need to eat more food.
[Note from Slyvon: if you don’t know how much food you should be eating, use our calorie calculator to figure our your calorie targets.]
Ideally, whether your goal is to gain weight or lose weight, a majority of your diet would consist of whole minimally-processed foods.
The key to sticking to a healthy eating habit is understanding why you fall off the bandwagon.
Takeout and low-quality microwave dinners are all over the place. It’s hard to avoid running into them and easy to give in to getting them. It’s especially easy to give in when you’re tired.
The biggest reason you have trouble avoiding takeout is probably that it’s so easy.
The second biggest reason is “defaults”.
Wait, so what’s a “default”?
A default is your automatic setting.
It’s what you do when there isn’t something telling you to do something else.
Defaults show up everywhere in our everyday life — it’s a lot easier to use a default than it is to make a decision about every little thing as it comes up.
One example from my life is that I default to the same shows on Netflix. If I’m putting something on in the background, you can bet it will be How I Met Your Mother, Scrubs, or Psych.
Choosing the same brand of toothpaste or toilet paper at the store is a default. I mean, who really knows how the brands are different? You probably just grab the same kind you got last time.
Even talking about the weather is a default. The weather is such a played out small talk topic that it’s become the butt of jokes — but we still use it because we all have it in common.
It’s a social default.
Defaults aren’t the be-all and end-all of your behavior, but they do have a strong effect on it.
Now think about your food defaults.
Do you cook most of your meals?
When you want something quick, what do you eat?
What’s your “go-to” meal?
In my experience, food defaults start in childhood based on the defaults that your parents model for you.
Imagine two people:
Mary’s parents made home-cooked meals almost every night of the week. Her parents were often cooking and trying out new recipes, and had leftovers in fridge. Even if Mary didn’t ever help cook, her “normal” is cooking — to Mary, that’s just what people do.
Bob, on the other hand, had parents that rarely cooked. Most meals came out of the microwave or in takeout boxes. Instead of leftovers, the fridge is full of pre-made, processed meals. To Bob, cooking is alien, and maybe even intimidating.
Now, of course it’s possible to break your defaults. But if nothing else changes, Bob is probably going to get takeout more often than Mary.
If being tired enough or not having ingredients on hand can make even Mary turn to takeout, Bob is going to be in trouble.
That’s why it’s important to understand your defaults.
Fortunately, it’s possible to change them.
Defaults are usually the easiest action you can take. You use defaults to avoid having to make decisions.
With that in mind, you can make eating healthy a default by making it as easy as possible.
Over time, it will become your new normal.
3 Ways to Eat Healthy When You Don’t Want to Cook
1) Meal Prep
Everyone talks about meal prep, and for good reason. Having meals ready to go makes you way more likely to eat at home.
Meal prep works because it makes eating at home easy. It also works because you don’t want to waste food! The food you cooked won’t last forever, so it would be a waste to go out and spend your hard earned $$$ on takeout.
Especially for people like Bob, meal prep can be challenging because cooking can be intimidating. Fortunately, it isn’t that hard to make solidly delicious meals.
Sure, sometimes I take the 4 hours on a Sunday to make Chef John’s killer carnitas, but most of the time I don’t have the time or the patience for that.
Most of my favorite meal prep recipes boil down to three steps:
- Put stuff in a pot
- Leave it there for a bit
- Store and eat it
Sometimes I use an oven instead of a pot.
As an example, take the stew I made last week. Here’s what I used:
- A bunch of potatoes
- A ton of chicken thighs
- Chicken broth
- A tomato
- A few onions
- Spices (salt, pepper, chili powder, smoked paprika, bay leaves, oregano, cayenne pepper)
You’ll notice I didn’t put down exact amounts of anything. That’s because I don’t know them. I’m not counting calories right now, so I go by feel and taste tests. Follow recipes for a while to get a sense of what spices work, then experiment!
If you are counting calories, keep better track of your experiments.
Here’s another one I like to use, for baked teriyaki chicken:
- Apple cider vinegar
- A lot of soy sauce
- Pepper, ginger, garlic
- A little sugar
- Some corn starch
Combine all that in a saucepan and cook it for a bit, til it thickens (remember to mix the cornstarch with cold water before adding, or it will clump). Then slather it on some chicken thighs or drumsticks and bake at 375 for around 45 minutes.
2) Simple Backup Meals
What if you run out of your prepped meal, or don’t feel like eating the same thing all the time?
I always keep ingredients on hand for super fast backup meals.
Grilled chicken salads are one of the easiest ones. I grill the chicken in advance to use in a bunch of stuff.
Sometimes if I’m feeling especially lazy I’ll buy frozen, pre grilled chicken. At least it’s better than eating takeout all the time.
The nice thing about salads is that you can change out basically anything based on what you like.
Here’s my go-to:
- Grilled chicken
- Mixed greens
- Cherry tomatoes
- Olive oil and orange champagne vinegar
I go light on the dressing (and actually used goji berries instead of raisins in the picture, since for some reason I had them on hand).
It may not be traditional, but I’m a cheese-loving heathen, so I also add a little sharp cheddar.
Another of my favorites is a simple egg burrito.
- Scramble some eggs
- Add cuban style black beans (canned)
- Add avocado slices
- Add cheese
- Add hot sauce (Cholula or bust)
- Wrap in tortilla
Fast, filling, and delicious.
Whatever meals you pick, having quick and healthy options on hand makes you less likely to cave and gorge on takeout.
3) Get Rid of Unhealthy Temptations
The last way to change your defaults doesn’t directly involve cooking.
It’s simple: stay away from things that tempt you to cheat.
Either clean out your junk food or wait for it to disappear without buying more.
[Note from Slyvon: you can either stay away from unhealthy temptations completely, or just make sure to minimize them in your house. You know yourself better than anyone else — so if you think total restriction will cause you to later binge, then I would simply minimize temptation foods in the house.]
Choose a different route home or on the way to work, even if it takes a little longer, to avoid walking past your favorite eats.
If you don’t have the opportunity to eat unhealthily, eating healthy becomes your new default.
Don’t worry if changing your default takes a while — slow progress is still progress.
What are your favorite fast, healthy meals?
About the Author
Benyamin Elias is a fitness and habits coach at Routine Excellence. He has been featured in Mind Body Green, Develop Good Habits, and The Huffington Post, and uses psychology to help busy people stick to fitness – even if getting off the couch is its own workout. You can get the exact, step-by-step guide he used to stay motivated (and gain 50 lbs of muscle) for free on his website.
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