Food & dining

HELP DESK

How to tackle your food issues

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Arpad Nagy-Bagoly/stock.adobe
Do you vow to eat better at the start of every year, only to feel like a failure in no time? Food habits can be hard to change. Here’s some advice from experts.

It unfolds the same way, year after year: You vow to eat mindfully — less takeout, more meals at home. You’ll pack your kids’ lunches every morning, you say. You’ll cook on Sundays for the week, you promise. But by February, your crockpot is dusty and your crisper contains one lone package of wilted salad in a bag.

Here are some (rational, actionable) tips from the experts on how to eat well all year long, no matter what your dining persona.

If you . . . want to shed pounds

Stop resolving to “lose weight.” Brookline-based registered dietitian Kate Sweeney asks clients to dig deeper to define what this goal really means.

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“I have clients whose parents told them that they need to ‘lose weight’ their whole lives. What does the weight really represent?” Sweeney asks. “Explore what about your life would be better if you lost weight,” she says.

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Do you want to be more active? Do you want to implement healthier habits, such as eating breakfast or reducing snacking? Drill down on precise, actionable goals — which could indeed result in weight loss — instead of setting a sweeping resolution.

After all, most people can’t fully control the number on a scale.

“We know genetics, medications, stress, sleep, menstruation, PMS, and many other things affect the numbers on a scale. If you’re eating enough, drinking enough water, and exercising, you can fluctuate by 5 to 7 pounds just in one day,” Sweeney says.

When we equate pounds with health, we tend to “cut out things from our diet instead of adding things. For some people, this can turn into disordered eating. If we restrict things, we think about them more, and we start to crave,” she warns.

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Instead, think about what foods and activities buoy you.

To support this process, Sweeney recommends these podcasts to her clients: “Food Psych,” “Love, Food,” “The BodyLove Project,” and “Nutrition Matters.”

If you’re . . . in a takeout rut

Set short-term goals. “Form a three- to six-month goal. What do you want your health to look like? Then, take small steps rather than drastically reform,” says Boston-based health coach Kathy Whelan.

Goals should be specific, realistic, and timed, she says. For example, “By the end of four months, I will cook at home with fresh food five nights per week. For the first week, I’ll cook dinner two nights per week. It’s all about breaking your goals into small steps,” she says.

Get real. Next, take a hard look at your calendar. Who has to work late; who has to get to soccer practice? Then build your dining agenda around your schedule, choosing the easiest nights for cooking at home, and set up a fallback plan in case of derailment. If you skip a cook-at-home night — and you will, because you’re human — make sure you have a Plan B night instead.

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That success will build on itself.

“You’ll gain traction and feel better,” Whelan says.

Cheat. Nutrition and wellness coach Jenn Menzer, who sees clients in Boston, cuts corners when shopping and cooking. Give yourself a break: Menzer champions precut veggies and precooked meats whenever possible. One of her favorite meals? Tacos, courtesy of Trader Joe’s.

“They sell an awesome, already cooked roasted pork. Cut it up, top with red or green salsa, heat it in a saucepan with precut peppers and onions, and fold it into a flour or corn tortilla. It’s a quick taco night,” she says.

If you . . . snack when stressed

Normalize your treats. “Food is pleasurable, and when we’re stressed, we turn to food,” dietitian Sweeney says. “But when it becomes a chronic issue, it becomes dis-regulating and can make people feel horrible.”

If you gobble ice cream or chips when upset, find ways to integrate those soothing foods into the course of a day. For instance, instead of categorizing ice cream as a bad-day splurge, have a small portion for an everyday dessert.

“Eat [those foods] in the context of a normalized meal,” she suggests.

Seek out happiness. If eating is your main source of comfort, look for other ways to make yourself happy, such as a brisk walk or a quick catnap.

“Sometimes people aren’t taking care of themselves in other ways when they stress eat. Food [has become] the main way they feel pleasure. . . . You need to step back and think: How is my eating? Is it balanced? Am I getting pleasure in other ways?” Sweeney says.

Try reaching for water instead of a snack.
Shutterstock / Aaron Amat
Try reaching for water instead of a snack.

Ask yourself: Am I really hungry? Dan Raia used to weigh 441 pounds. Happily, the director of culinary operations at Boston’s Big Heart Hospitality lost 200 pounds through a combination of surgery and careful eating. One of his favorite tricks? Reaching for water when he hankers for a snack.

“Water intake fills you up and takes your mind off eating. Sometimes your body, at least for me, plays a trick. I might think I’m hungry, but I’m dehydrated,” he says.

If you . . . have a picky kid

Food refusal is a key way that children — who lack agency in so many areas of their lives — can wield power. Flip the script by giving them some control.

Include your child. “Bring your child into the cooking process. Talk to them. ‘Hey, we’re not doing chicken fingers or hot dogs again. We’ll make something else. Is there something you’d like to try, and can you help me?’ When kids see the fruits of their labor, they’re more apt to buy into it,” Sweeney says.

Legitimize their fears. Sometimes parents mistake fear for fussiness. Your child might harbor true angst over certain foods — taste, texture, even calories — and no amount of cajoling or yelling will change it.

“Kids talk about food like this even when they’re very young. So validate it. Say, ‘Yes, it’s scary to try something new. You don’t need to eat a full portion. Try a few bites,’ ” Sweeney suggests.

If you . . . love restaurants

Pick your battles. Whelan urges clients to strategize menus before dining out. Plan your order and choose your splurge. This way, you won’t be derailed or paralyzed by a massive menu when you sit down.

“It grounds you,” she says.

If you want something saucy, opt for a salad with a clear dressing. If cream is what you crave, look for yogurt sauce. Finally, pick your go-to treat.

“It’s about the whole meal, not just one core thing. Bread, wine, dessert — you don’t have to have everything,” she says. If it’s wine night, skip the bread. If an appetizer caught your eye, avoid dessert.

Start with veggies. “Vegetables have fiber that keep us feeling fuller longer,” says Menzer. She favors salads with satisfying, healthy fats: sesame and sunflower seeds, fresh avocado, goat cheese, cashews, and slivered almonds, topped with a herb or balsamic vinaigrette. “This will keep you satiated longer. Then, you tend not to overeat your main meals,” she says.

Treat an appetizer as your entrée. Look, part of the fun of dining out is gorging on calorie-laden foods that you would never make at home. So don’t deprive yourself completely. Instead, satisfy your longings by frontloading your meal.

Raia orders two appetizers, one healthy, maybe with a herb- or yogurt-based sauce. He eats the healthier one first, to fill up, and then treats his richer appetizer as an entrée. The portion is smaller, he says, and he’s already somewhat full.

“This way, I trick myself: I’m having something rich but not eating a full-size, entrée portion. I leave satisfied,” he says — and less likely to snack later.

Booze wisely. If you’re drinking with your meal, opt for wine, which has roughly 120 calories in a 5-ounce glass. Or try hard, clear liquor such as vodka or gin, without additives or mixers. Finally, drink 8 ounces of water between tipples.

“Your body stops burning fat when it’s dehydrated,” Menzer says.

Plus, you’ll avoid hangovers — another worthy resolution for the new year.