Into the Dreaming Imaginative Fiction from Author, Editor, and Writing Coach Christine Amsden

Category Archives: Diet And Exercise

A Chocolate Snob’s Favorite Winter Drink

Hot Chocolate Taste Test


The leaves have almost left the trees, cold fronts are on their way, and the news is predicting snow in the next couple of weeks. That can mean only one thing — It’s time to stock up on HOT CHOCOLATE!

As a chocolate snob, I disagree that Swiss Miss or Nestle should even be called hot chocolate. More like chocolate flavored water. And don’t even get me started on the “light” varieties. (See “Mindful Eating: 5-Star Desserts“)

Land O Lakes has been my go-to chocolate for many years now. It is readily available at most grocery stores (which is one of my biggest challenges as a chocolate snob). It is rich, creamy, and delicious. A little  piece of heaven on a cold winter’s night that satisfies even my most urgent chocolate craving.

But last weekend, while perusing chocolate at the new Hy-Vee on 151st street, we ran across Stephen’s hot chocolate. The price was similar, and it had a guarantee: “The best hot chocolate you’ve ever tried or your money back!”

Blind taste test time!

My entire family participated — my discerning husband and my enthusiastic children, a six-year-old girl and a nearly nine-year-old boy. We put stickers on the bottom of 4 identical mugs so we wouldn’t know which mug was which until after the test. Then we made the cocoa, mixed them up, and started tasting.

The first thing I should note, out of a sense of honesty, is that the blind taste test didn’t work as well as it should have because even me (I’m severely visually impaired) could tell that Stephen’s was a darker chocolate than Land O Lakes. But I went forward, trying to be as honest as possible.

I began with my tried-and-true Land O Lakes, which tasted just as delicious as I remembered. One counter-clockwise shift later, I had a mug of Stephen’s in my hand. And … I LOVED it!

Since Land O Lakes is the richest hot chocolate I’ve ever had (I did grow up on Swiss Miss and Nestle), it was hard for me to imagine a richer hot chocolate. But Stephen’s is. The margin isn’t staggering or anything, but Stephen’s topped Land O Lakes on richness.

Land O Lakes is slightly sweeter than Stephen’s, and even now I am not entirely certain which one I like better. I think Stephen’s by a hair. These are both EXCELLENT hot chocolate options that I highly recommend for the upcoming winter. For my part, I plan to buy whichever is on a better sale.

My son, almost 9, seemed to think Stephen’s was quite a bit better. After our initial taste-testing we checked which was which; he grabbed both Stephen’s mugs and refused to give them up! My 6-year-old daughter didn’t have a preference, she just wanted marshmallows already. 🙂

In conclusion, I am pleased to report that there are excellent hot chocolates in the world. Buy them because I can’t support the industry all by myself!

Mindful Eating: 5-Star Desserts

When I first embarked on my mindful eating journey a couple of months ago I had a set of rules that I’ve more or less stuck to, but from time to time they evolve. One of my rules was that there’s no point eating anything that I don’t think is less than a 4-star dish. I’f I’m not really liking it or loving it, why bother? I made an early exception for vegetables, allowing myself to eat 3-star vegetables, because I’m not crazy enough about that food group in general and it’s too important to skip. This weekend, I decided to make another exception, this time for desserts. The new rule is:

I will only eat 5-star desserts.

Now I’m not suggesting that everyone else rush out and adopt this strategy. Heck, my entire eating philosophy is difficult for the average person. It’s entirely psychological and really requires you to get your mind in the right place. It requires you to know good nutrition inside and out and to be able to enjoy a wide variety of foods from many different food groups. It also, IMHO, requires the ability to look inside yourself to fine tune the details. To know what’s working and what’s not. Knowing myself as I do is what convinced me to make the change I did this weekend.

I went on a weekend trip and I ended up being surrounded by desserts the whole time. There were Weight Watchers desserts (which I don’t have any trouble deciding not to eat at this point) and candy like M&Ms and Twizzlers. I didn’t eat any of it. Why not? Well, even if I believed the people who assured me that *this* diet recipe was actually very good (when I’ve never found this to be true in 35 years of dieting), I didn’t want to eat something very good. Mindfully, I was willing to wait for the cheesecake on Saturday. And if it hadn’t been that, then I would have known I could go out and get myself a really, really excellent dessert later in the week.

It helps that in my case I know how to bake. I buy ice cream and quality chocolate from the store. The rest of my desserts start from flower, baking soda, salt, eggs, butter, and sugar. I know something that most of the American public has been fooled into thinking isn’t so — that baking a cake from scratch is ridiculously simple. Box cakes? Why? If you’re going to take 5 minutes to mix up a cake batter you may as well take 10 and do it right. You can still get it in the cake pans before the oven is done preheating. (Or at least, you can once you get past your learning curve. I admit, I’ve been doing it this way for a few years.)

As for cookies…there is an entire aisle in the grocery store that I sometimes forget exists. It’s the one with the chemically-enriched  cookies in plastic packages. I’ve come to a point where I actively dislike them, but the point might have come sooner if I’d implemented my 5-star rule because there’s no way you can pit a hard, stale chocolate chip cookie from a plastic package against almost anyone’s homemade cookies and win.

Homemade cookies take more effort to cook than a store bought cookie. I’m not even going to pretend that opening a bag isn’t easier than mixing up cookie dough and spooning it onto cookie sheets. But in mindful terms, didn’t you have to think about it a bit before you made those cookies? And in the end, don’t they taste like a little piece of heaven?

5-star desserts are not exactly hard to come by, whether you can cook them yourself or not. If your goal is to love your food, then why settle for second best? Especially when we’re talking about foods that are inherently not good for you and have almost no nutritional value?

The Least Important Meal of the Day


Americans have their dietary days backwards. I’ve known this intellectually for years but on a deeply ingrained cultural and social level I’m still working hard to know this in my heart. We save the biggest meal, the one with the most calories, for the end of the day. We’re just about to use up our monumental reserves of energy to… go to sleep. Maybe watch some TV first. Yet that is when we are most likely to sit down to a huge 1,000+ calorie meal.

What are we thinking about?

Well, partly we’re thinking that the end of the day is when we can come together to a family to sit down to a meal. Dinner is the meal we cook, whereas lunch is the meal we throw into a bag and breakfast is the meal we grab on the go. Dinner is most likely to consist of the foods we look forward to.

Yet dinner is a big reason that dieters fail. I know it has always been a stumbling block for me. I get so hungry in the middle of the afternoon and even if I’m looking forward to dinner because I have something exceptionally yummy planned, I need the calories sooner. I need them when I’m working, playing, thinking, and exercising.

One thing you may now know about me is that I have binge eating problems. And 90% of those problems occurred in the afternoon when I was depriving myself of food because I had 600 calories left and I needed to use them for dinner. I would already have those calories written into my journal so they were as good as gone and psychologically I’d have no out. I’d try to eat a piece of fruit or even a salad tossed with light dressing, but it didn’t always work. And then came the guilt. Oh, no! I’ve eaten too much. I can’t have dinner now. The day is ruined, I may as well eat a bunch of cookies.

Mindful eating is about listening to your body. It’s about eating when you’re hungry and not eating when you’re not. This doesn’t just mean during snack times. If you’re not hungry for dinner, why would you eat?

Yet we do.

I just ate a peanut butter cookie. I made a batch of them this morning for a family get-together tomorrow and they smelled so delicious! I couldn’t resist having one cookie this afternoon. And okay, I might have licked my fingers a bit while I made the cookies in the first place. Now I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t have a lot of calories “saved up” for dinner at this point. The old me — the mindless one who used journals for permission to eat — would be freaking out right about now. But the new me, the mindful eating me, realized something.

I’m not hungry.

Yeah, I’m not hungry. I just had a cookie, probably closer to 1.5 or 2 if I count the batter-licking. I had a pretty small breakfast because I wasn’t feeling all that hungry this morning, a larger lunch (including seconds after the allotted 15 minutes had passed) because I was, and I ate some cookies. Now, is it the end of the world?

No, it’s not. Because dinner is the least important meal of the day. If I’m not hungry, I’ll skip it. I’ll have to find ways to bond with my family that doesn’t involve food. If I am hungry, I will have a small portion.

As an aside, I hate the ad campaign that suggested families eating dinner together was some kind of magical solution to children’s behavior problems. Do you remember the one I’m talking about? It was ridiculous even at the time, even before I got mindful about eating. Families need to spend time together. It doesn’t have to be over food.

Quick Dinner Tips:

1. Try to eat dinner early. I know it’s tough if you work, but late meals just sit in your stomach while you sleep.
2. Eat half as much dinner as you think is a normal portion. Wait fifteen minutes before deciding you want more. (In reality, dinners should be no bigger than any other main meal. Arguably, they should be smaller.)
3. Be willing to simply not eat dinner if you’re not hungry. If you were looking forward to that meal, save some of it to reheat for lunch the next day.

The Most Important Meal of the Day

You know what’s coming right?


It’s not just a cliche, it really is the most important meal of the day. Yet overwhelmingly dieters trying to save calories have no breakfast or have a pitiful scrap of a meal that barely counts.

The studies back me up on this — go look it up. Overwhelmingly people who eat breakfast have an easier time losing weight. They are less likely to be obese. They are more likely to exercise.

Why do dieters skip breakfast? I have at least one answer because I’ve been that dieter. I want to eat. I want to eat big meals. If I skip breakfast I can have big, satisfying lunches and dinners. Plus, I have more willpower in the mornings than I do later in the day.

Well, no wonder I have more willpower past early morning! I’m starving by lunchtime. When I wasn’t skipping breakfast entirely I was skimping breakfast, eating under 200 calories if I could. This usually involved a sugary cereal (nutritious cereals have more calories in them) and half a cup of milk — just enough to get it wet. Might as well not have eaten, really.

Most Americans, when they do eat breakfast, eat almost entirely carbohydrates-based cereal. Now, I am NOT advocating a low-carb diet! But it is a fact that carbohydrates are good for quick energy — easy come easy go. By mid-morning (if you’re lucky) that energy is used up and you’re hungry again.

WebMD has some good information on a healthy, balanced breakfast, including the importance of including lean protein. Protein takes longer to break down and keeps you feeling full longer. Healthy eating is about balance, which is why you’ll never hear me advocate cutting carbs. Carbohydrates are great, especially right before you exercise. But a breakfast full of only carbs is as unbalanced as a breakfast consistent of just bacon and eggs.

These days, my typical breakfast is about 400-450 calories and consists of four food groups (I tend not to have veggies for breakfast).

If you’re eating mindfully this number shouldn’t strike you as a problem. It’s a reasonably sized filling meal consisting of all the things my body needs to get me through the morning.

If, on the other hand, you’re dieting you might balk at it. But..but…if I eat 400 calories at breakfast, then I only have 800-1200 calories left for the rest of the day and it’s only 7:00 in the morning! How am I going to get through the rest of the day?

If that’s your mindset then you’re not going to get through the rest of the day. You’re setting yourself up for failure by your very belief system. You’ve set yourself a max number of calories (whatever it is) and your body instantly starts to rebel at being forced into doing anything. There’s a calorie shortage coming…impending starvation….must fill up while I have the chance!

I’m not telling you how big a breakfast to eat. I’m telling you to let your body decide how big a breakfast you need.

If you’ve gotten exactly what you need at breakfast an amazing thing happens. You’re not as hungry during the rest of the day. The temptation to snack goes down. You don’t look mournfully at your lunch thinking how pitifully small it is before you even start eating. (And if you think something looks pitifully small before you begin eating it, you will make that a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

The worst part of eating a small breakfast and lunch to save up calories for a big meal at the end of the day was that by the time I got to dinner, even my 800-calorie dinner looked pitifully small to me. It’s still not exactly restaurant sized. But worse, I knew that when I took that last bit I was done eating for the day whether I wanted to be or not. There were nights when I cried because I couldn’t have anymore food and I so desperately wanted it.

Is that real hunger or a psychological reaction to strictly controlling my food intake? When you spend your life dieting I swear you stop being able to tell the difference between real hunger and psychosomatic hunger. The results aren’t pretty.

Eat breakfast. Eat a good, balanced, healthy breakfast. It gives you the energy you need to get through the morning and the entire day, it cues your body that you are not being starved, it helps maintain blood sugar levels, and psychologically it means it is okay to eat. It is. It really is.

Fear of Food

Whenever you start talking about dieting, there are always a series of questions that come up…
What do you do when you eat out?

What do you do at a party?

What do I do when I’m on the road?

How do you avoid all the foods people bring in to work?

How do I handle feeding my family when I’m eating diet food?

There are other questions, but they all follow along those lines… The issue is that you have a strictly controlled dieting environment and the second you step out of it you’re not sure what to do. I’ve been there myself!

Call me crazy if you like, but I was a little afraid of food. Or maybe of my ability to control myself around it.It might have started with the latter, but eventually the two blend together. I created an external locus of control. It wasn’t me who failed. What was I supposed to do when I went to an amusement park one day, a birthday party the next, then went out for dinner with coworkers?

Food isn’t the enemy. For some, the enemy if self-control. For others (like me) the enemy is that very control. Isn’t that the most confusing dieting advice you’ve ever heard? Sorry, but it’s true. Psychology is the biggest part of dieting and to find a strategy that works for you, you have to know yourself. Do you need to count and record every calorie so you won’t be tempted to touch that piece of chocolate cake? Or do you need permission to eat that piece of cake so that suddenly it doesn’t sound as appetizing?

There was a psychological study done years ago in which a group of dieters and non-dieters were asked to eat way too much food at dinner. Afterward, they were offered a choice of also eating dessert. Dieters overwhelmingly accepted the dessert even though they were stuffed silly. Non-dieters turned it down.

Hmmmm…interesting. It sounds like a lot of dieters out there need to give themselves permission to eat the cake. If I can have it tomorrow, then it’s not the end of the world if I don’t have it today. Especially if I’m not hungry.

So what do you do when you go to a party or go out of town, or when your coworkers bring in donuts?

1. Give yourself permission to eat it if you really want it.

2. Decide whether or not you really want it and only eat it if you do.

3. Have a small serving of whatever it is you want.

4. Wait at least 15 minutes before deciding if you want something else.

5. If you do decide you want something else, don’t eat another piece of cake. If you were eating the cake because it’s delicious, it has already filled that goal. If you’re eating it for any other reason, it will never work. You know it. Let yourself have another treat tomorrow. Know this isn’t the last time you’ll ever be allowed something you really want. But also know that right now it isn’t going to fill any holes in your life.

Restaurants and Serving Size

Let me just start with an extra large helping of reality: A “serving” at a typical American restaurant is so far outside the realm of sanity that it makes the sorcery in my fantasy novels seem reasonable by comparison. If you think your body needs the calories in a half-pound cheeseburger, 32-oz soft drink, and extra large helping of fries then either you run marathons on a daily basis or else I’ve got a bridge to sell you…

When I was much younger — a teenager — I honestly thought a serving at a restaurant represented a properly sized meal. Hey, what did I know? I worked at a fast food restaurant for two years and ate there almost every day. Unsurprisingly in those same two years I went from a size 12 to a size 20. That was my first clue. 🙂

I don’t eat at fast food restaurants anymore, but I do still enjoy eating out at nicer sit-down restaurants. These restaurants may offer higher quality food made from better ingredients, but they don’t deserve any more credit in the serving size department than fast food joints. In fact, they’re sometimes worse. I’ve seen 3,000-calorie meals at some sit-down restaurants that could honestly feed a family of four. (“So I’d like to order your 16-oz steak with a Texas-sized loaded baked potatoes, steamed veggies, and a basket of rolls. But can you bring three extra plates for my husband and kids?”)

One of my favorite restaurants is Lambert’s Cafe, which has two locations in Missouri (and maybe one in another state). Their claim to fame — they throw hot delicious rolls to their customers from across the restaurant. I could make a meal out of one of those rolls and some fried okra — bot those are just the free pass-arounds that come with the actual meal! First you have to order a heaping pile of pork chops or meatloaf or even a “veggie plate” which includes four of their sides. And even that is too much food.

I don’t mean to pick on them — like many homestyle, country, or southern cooking restaurants part of their ambiance is heaping plates of way too much food. They even take pride in it so it’s hard to imagine a customer going in there and not realizing it’s too much.

Yet too many people do think a restaurant serving is somehow representative of the right way to eat.

Worse, dieters who want to go out to eat see the plate of food and think that because they’re on a diet, they should take the advice to ask for half of it in a to-go box right off the bat.

Wait, why is that a bad thing? The advice is not bad at all! Some of the best eating-out advice for dieters involves getting a to-go box and putting half (or more) of your meal in it before you begin eating. Alternately, you can split a plate with a friend or spouse.

The problem, from a mindful eating perspective, is that dieters are doing this because they’re on a diet — and not because they understand just how wildly insane it is for anyone (dieter or not) to eat so much food.

Serving size has always been a big problem for me. Even after I understood with my head that restaurants gave me too much food (late high school/early college), I still had to convince my heart.

I love food. I love to eat it. I love to eat lots of it. I love the feeling of being full.

Do you know what I figured out? All of that is more a state of mind than a state of body/stomach. I was originally going to say that I spent years convincing myself that a real serving size is tiny, but that’s not the truth. I spent years convincing myself that a portion I once considered tiny is actually quite big, and that servings at restaurants belong in a fantasy world with the sorcerers and werewolves. Oh, and the magic weight-loss potion. Can’t forget the magic weight-loss potion.

It’s hard. I don’t mean to make any of this sound easy. Changing your thought processes is harder than white-knuckling it for a few weeks and dropping two dress sizes. It takes years. But the dream is that one day you can enjoy food without being afraid of it because your natural, daily behaviors are right for mind, heart (emotion), and body.

Dieting Psychology: I Quit!

I can’t even count the number of diets I’ve quit over the years. I don’t have enough fingers and toes! It happens for any number of reasons, and level of devotion at the beginning is only part of the equation. Especially as I get older and week-to-week weight loss is harder, I find that frustration plays a big role. That’s why I’ve switched to weighing monthly instead of weekly.

My monthly weight check came back with 6 pounds gone…I used to be able to do that in a week in my 20’s but hey, I’m not 20 anymore. I’m 35 and have 2 kids. It make a difference.

The other night at the gym a fellow dieter stepped on the scale, apparently didn’t like what she saw, and announced, “I quit!” My heart went out to her. I’ve been there. I know what that feels like.

Mindful eating isn’t for everyone. Honestly, I got to this place after decades of calorie counting and personal psychological issues. It works for me because I need to feel in control, but also because I understand good nutrition.

But there’s one thing I can say for this approach: Why should I quit? I can eat whenever I want. I can eat whatever I want. I can’t eat *wherever* I want, and I have to do it mindfully, but otherwise whether I’m losing weight or not I’m doing the right things for my body.

A few years ago when my kids were babies I read a book called “Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family” by Ellen Satyr. It was a behavioral approach aimed at parents raising kids, but it helped me to understand my own eating behavior as well. I wasn’t read to take the plunge and “trust my body” the way she told me to at the time, but for the past five years I have gradually moved to that place.

One of the things she said that made so much sense to me was that if you’re on a diet that you need “a break from” then you need to change your diet. Good nutrition isn’t a weekday only experience. If you’re taking off alternate Thursdays (either intentionally or because you snap and binge) then you’re not helping your body in any way. You’re certainly not learning the long-term strategies you need to *stay* healthy once you lose weight.

You’ve all heard people talk about lifestyle changes, right? Me too…a million times…but I didn’t get it until recently. A lifestyle change means an approach to dieting that I will never quit, not even after I lose all the weight I want to lose.

I spent nine months getting my mind to a place where I could do this. I couldn’t go straight from the last diet to this diet because I was too psychologically damaged from years of “have-to” and “must.” I didn’t know what real hunger felt like anymore and I didn’t know how to convince myself that I wasn’t trying to control it, manipulate it, or starve it.

I’ve been meditating. I’ve been using self-affirmations. Think it’s corny if you like, but “I am beautiful. I am strong. I do not need food all day long.” I said it to myself every day for nine months, and followed it up by NOT dieting.

When it came time to get down to business (because my hips and knees are hurting), I came up with this long-term lifelong strategy:

1. Food is not the enemy. I can eat it.

2. A wide variety of foods is the key to long-term nutritional health.

3. Food should be savored. Any food that is not worth savoring is not worth eating. (Savoring includes eating slowly, but it also involves truly enjoying your food.)

4. The kitchen table is the right place to eat. If I cannot be bothered to stop what I am doing (TV, computer, etc.) and go to a table where I can sit down and consciously eat, then I’m not really hungry.

5. Start with small servings. If it’s on my plate I will probably finish it whether I am hungry or not. If it’s not on my plate I have to think about it before getting seconds.

6. I am permitted more food if I am still hungry, but I must wait 15 minutes to be sure I am. (Often I wander away and get so caught up in other things that the second helping never happens.)

7. Life’s short. Dessert can be eaten first. I don’t eat high-calorie desserts every day, but if I’m looking forward to a piece of cheesecake, why not start with it? I may be so full afterward that I skip the meal. Not a good idea on a regular basis, but a couple of times a month having dessert in lieu of a meal is better than having a high-calorie dessert in addition to a meal — especially when I’m already full!

8. *Small* desserts are allowed every day. I have bags of high-quality chocolate in my cupboard (you know I’m a chocolate snob 🙂 ). I eat one piece most days, usually putting it on my plate with lunch or dinner. I could have another piece ,but I’d have to go back to the table to eat it and well…I can always have another one tomorrow. This isn’t my last chance for x days to eat chocolate.

Did you notice that most of these are things I am *allowed* to do rather than things I am *not* allowed to do? These are all about things I will do, as opposed to the usual diet advice which tells us all about the things we are not allowed to do.

Dieting is at least 50% psychology — probably more. Most of us have heard enough dieting advice by now that it’s bleeding out our ears.

If you don’t want to quit, don’t give yourself a reason to quit.

How Often Should You Step on a Scale?

Not often.

How often do you get to the doctor’s office for your annual checkup? That’s probably good enough.

One of my biggest challenges with mindful eating has been the numbers on the scale. Those numbers have dictated my actions for far too long, and it’s time to stop giving them power over me.

Have you ever stepped on the scale, learned that you haven’t lost so much as half a pound in the previous week, and decided to give up? Or heaven help you if you gained half a pound! How did it make you feel?

I know how it makes me feel. It makes me feel as if I’m doing something wrong. Or on a bad day, it makes me feel as if this is all hopeless. An exercise in futility. If I’m doing everything right and not losing weight, then what’s the point? I may as well go out for pizza and have four slices. Because pizza makes me feel better and right now I’m so, so sad.

Wait…. Did I really do everything right?

No. I made one big mistake. I used a number on a scale as a measure of the success or failure of my diet.

I do not have any direct control over the scale or the numbers it shows. I can’t tell you all the factors that go into weight loss, but I can name a few — diet, exercise, metabolism, water weight, time of day, time of month (for women), water retention, muscle mass, percentage of body fat… And if you think you can account for all of those factors, then there are still random things that even the experts don’t understand. Sometimes bodies cling to weight. Stress is a factor we only partially understand.

Only set goals you can directly control.

I don’t know how to stress this enough. It is the cornerstone of my new dieting mentality, and it makes all the difference. My goals are to:

1. Run 3 times a week for about 30 minutes using the couch to 5k program.
2. Go to a Body Pump class on Saturday mornings if at all possible. If it is not possible, try to reschedule for Wednesday night. (Everyone seems to want a piece of my Saturday mornings. It’s my favorite time to do this workout, but I accept my limitations and work it into my goal.)
3. Eat only foods I enjoy.
4. Eat at the kitchen table (exceptions apply for eating out or travel).
5. Start with small portions and eat slowly.
6. Wait at least fifteen minutes before getting seconds.

I have met my goals. That means success, whatever the scale says.

So in case you’re wondering, I did step on the scale this morning. Because I’m in a weight loss challenge to help motivate me, I’m getting weighed weekly. I take my own measurement in the morning because I find them to be more stable than evening measurements (my team meets in the evening). And no, there was no change from last week.

The worst part is that I knew there wouldn’t be. During my years of obsessive dieting, I learned that I lose several pounds the first week of any diet. In my 20’s, I then steadily lost weight for a month or two before hitting a plateau. After I hit my 30’s and had two children, the plateau consistently comes during week two. It doesn’t matter what kind of diet it is, how many calories I eat. I call it the “second week plateau.” It happens every time, and yet every time when I see that number I start to think about changing my plan. Maybe I should eat less…or more…or different things…or exercise more…or less…or…or…or…


I met every goal. That is the definition of success.

Mindful Eating Revelations: Do I really want to eat this?

I don’t really like waffles. I certainly don’t love them. Oh, they’re okay. I don’t DISlike them. They’re fine. Just… just fine. Really. Fine.

One of the things I’m working on doing as part of my mindful eating approach is to stop eating foods I don’t thoroughly enjoy. Mindful eating isn’t about counting calories (though I am eating fewer calories), it’s about changing the psychology. The mindset. It isn’t about what, when, or how much I eat. It’s about how and why I eat.

When it comes to food choices, I have come to realize that there are choices I make every day that are only meh. Maybe I eat it because it’s easy or convenient. Or out of habit. Or maybe I even think I like it more than I do because it’s just one of those things everyone likes. I mean…who doesn’t like waffles? They’re waffles!

Okay, well, you don’t have to agree with me on that one. It was my own personal revelation this morning as my husband mixed up a batch of buttermilk waffles at the kids’ request. All I could think about was the syrup that would go on top, which is most of the flavor of the waffle. I don’t use syrup on pancakes anymore. I’ve gone to fruit toppings, usually warmed in a skillet with just a bit of brown sugar and lemon juice. (Blueberries, strawberries, and peaches work great for this. You can use fresh or frozen, though if you go with frozen you may want to add a bit of cornstarch to thicken it.) The pancakes soak up the juices and the flavor and are marvelous conveyances for warm, juicy fruit. Waffles, on the other hand, with their many divets, are really made to hold syrup. And that’s not what I want to eat right now.

At the end of a meal, I want to feel like I just ate exactly what I wanted. I want it to have been delicious. Savory. Delectable.

Moreover, I want to look forward to my next meal with eager anticipation. I’m less likely to spend all afternoon snacking if I know I’m going to have meatloaf for dinner. I really like meatloaf! On the other hand, I’ve noticed that on nights when I have skillet chicken breasts on the menu (in any of the thousands of available recipes), I spend the afternoon looking through the pantry for something else to eat. Something better. Something I really want. I guess it’s time for me to admit that I don’t like skillet chicken breasts all that much. It’s just a habit I’ve gotten into because it’s easy and, as others have pointed out “so versatile.”

Of course, meatloaf has more fat and calories than chicken. I know that. But a single serving of meatloaf with a side of mashed potatoes, asparagus, and milk is about 500 calories. At least, if you’re getting any better at figuring out serving size. (I am.)

One of the biggest problems with dieting is the usual emphasis on depriving ourselves of our favorite foods. No wonder it’s hard to stick to! That’s a white-knuckle approach, not a long-term approach. And it’s not a realistic lifelong plan.

Start by taking a hard look at what you eat. Think about why you made that choice. Only eat something because you love it, or at least really like it. If it’s not a 4 or 5-star recipe (out of 5 stars) then never make it again. Don’t make it because you always have, or because you think you should, or because it’s low-fat, or because it’s easy. Make it because you really like it, or not at all. (Note: I do go to 3 stars on veggies because that’s just how I feel about veggies. Some people learn to love them after a time, but even eating fresh, local, etc. I mostly only think they’re okay. Fresh asparagus may be my only 5-star veggie. I do believe in using a bit of fat to improve the taste of veggies, but I’ll get to that in a future blog post.)

***Important note: If you do not enjoy a diverse diet, then mindful eating is not the right approach for you. You cannot eat pizza and cheeseburgers everyday because those are the only foods you like. You really need to enjoy at least some foods in each of the five major food groups. If you don’t, I suggest learning to enjoy more types of food. Diversity is a big key to a healthy diet, and there are so many foods to love! For my part, I am a 35-year-old woman who stopped eating fast food over a dozen years ago. I enjoy most fruits, meats and seafood, nuts, beans, dairy, pasta, potatoes, oatmeal, rice (in some dishes), and enough vegetables to get by. That’s why I can do what I’m suggesting. I was addicted to fast food in college, so I know what it’s like. I also know you can get over the addiction. It’s hard, but you can. And believe it or not, there’s a delicious world over here on the other side. 🙂

Daily Indulgences: Why I Won’t Settle for Pale Imitation Dieting

One of the first things that happens when I go on a diet is people start suggesting low-calorie, low-fat, low-carb, or generally pick-your-favorite-low recipes. “You’ve got to try my cherry pie with Splenda! You’ll never notice the difference!” (Yes, I will.) “These black bean brownies are delicious!” (I’m thinking of another word that begins with ‘d’ — rhymes with trusting.)

Cookies without flour. Cakes without fat. Chocolate without sugar. Oh my!

And all the while, I am forced to grit my teeth, put a smile on my face, and pretend that I was eating what I actually wanted. My body knows differently. My subconscious knows differently. Heck, my conscious usually knows differently. It doesn’t shake the craving.

Worse, this is exactly how yo-yo diets happen. I should know. I’m something of an expert in yo-yo dieting. It’s how I bounced up to my current weight in the first place. It’s the reason I am starting yet another diet.

Look, I rarely say it out loud because my thick figure doesn’t exactly exude nutritional credibility. But I do know nutrition. I can tell you roughly how many calories is in everything I eat. I know how to find calcium. Where the extra salt is hiding. I have read about low-fat, low-carb, low-sugar ideologies. I’ve kept journals. I’ve OBSESSED over journals.

But at the end of the day, I’m still significantly overweight. Why? Because half of dieting is psychology.

I cannot lose weight eating foods I hate. I can’t live that way. Oh, I could white-knuckle it for a while. Maybe that would be the way to go if I only had 10 pounds to lose. But I don’t. I have to live with my weight loss plan for a long time.

More than that, I have to live with my weight loss AFTER I reach a cozy weight. (And I’m telling you right now some people will still think I’m fat at the end of this — I don’t want to be skinny. I want to be comfortable and healthy.)

If I’ve just spent the past 6-12 months eating low-X foods when what I really want is the food that got me here in the first place, what do you suppose will happen after I lose the weight?

Times up! Those of you who guessed that I would gain it back and then some, go to the head of the class.

I’ve spent the past 9 months *not* dieting. Strangely enough, I didn’t gain any weight. Hmmm. Interesting. Because in all the years before that, striving to be as skinny as models in magazines, I steadily gained weight every year in an up and down pattern. I wonder if there’s something to that…

Something has clicked for me this time. I’ve got weight to lose and I’m going to do it, but I refuse to eat second-rate food in some vain hope that I’ll fool myself into thinking it’s what I really want. My problem isn’t what I eat. I KNOW what to eat. My problem is that I eat too much of it.

All of it.

I’ve eaten too much salad and soup before. My problem isn’t chocolate. That’s just something I happen to love. And something I mourn when I think I can’t have it to the point of insanity.

Fifty percent psychology, like I said. 🙂

I haven’t just been not dieting for the past nine months. I’ve done something else. I’ve taken a hard look at how I eat and when I eat and have realized that I eat too much and too often. I don’t want to be the person who eats all day long. I want to enjoy food, but I want to enjoy the rest of life too. (I refuse to choose between “eat to live” and “live to eat.”) And I want to be able to do this, not for a few months, not until I reach x pounds, but for the rest of my life.

I want to not be afraid of food or of my compulsive reaction to it. I want to not feel compelled to eat when I’m not hungry. Heck, I want to know what hungry really is! Somewhere over the years, I think I forgot how to tell. I’ve spent too much time counting and not enough time listening to my body.

I haven’t been entirely idle these past nine months. I’ve spent them convincing myself that I am allowed to eat. But also that maybe, just maybe, I don’t have to eat all day long.

“I am beautiful. I am strong. I do not need food all day long.” — That is my personal affirmation. I’ve said it daily for nine months.

Now that I’m on a diet again, I intend to eat. I intend to eat the foods that I love. I plan to give in to cravings (although I haven’t had them so far).

But I will not, now or in the future, eat an entire piece of cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory. There are about four servings in that single piece. And amazingly, when I split it with my family of four, I’ve had enough.

Loving food is about indulging it in. Enjoying it. Reveling in it. Eating it slowly and giving yourself over to the pleasure of each and every bite. Some foods even call for closed eyes and a bit of a moan while you let the varied tastes and textures explode over every inch of your tongue. If you can do that, you don’t need more than 1/3 of a piece of cheesecake. Done is done, after all of it or 1/3 of it. But one path is healthy and satisfying, whereas the other leaves you bursting from fullness, disappointed with your own weakness, and caught back in a trap of your own psychological making. If you’re looking to fill a void with that piece of cheesecake, it isn’t going to happen. If you want to enjoy the delicious food, you don’t need much of it.

Besides portion control, one other thing I intend to do is to plan meals around indulgences. Instead of having a cheeseburger and French Fries, I’ll have a cheeseburger and salad, with a piece of fruit for dessert. Or was it the fries that I really wanted? Hmmm…well then, how about a piece of juicy grilled chicken or fish with the fries on the side?

Pair high-calorie desserts with low-calorie dinners. High-calorie entrees with low-calorie sides (and vice versa). Do that, and you can eat whatever you want.

I was asked to come up with some diet-friendly recipes for my next “weight loss challenge” team meeting. I’m thinking it over carefully, because to me, a real diet-friendly recipe can’t be a pale imitation of something else. It must stand out in its own right.

In the meantime, here is my list of daily indulgences — things you can have almost every day and still stay true to a diet plan:

1 Lindt Truffle (about 75 calories) — Don’t forget to eat it slowly, and enjoy the varied sweetness and texture of the outer shell and the inner creme.

1 small piece of chocolate (usually about 50 calories each)

1 candy cane (about 50 calories) — takes a long time to finish, too! Great holiday treat. Plus, if you’re sucking on a candy cane for half an hour, you can’t eat as many cookies.

1 small piece of candy (calories vary depending upon type, but probably about 50)

1/2 cup ice cream (about 130-150 calories, depending upon variety) — This is the good stuff, mind you. It’s not light or low fat. (You save 20-50 calories and give up so much!) This is a good treat when you’ve just had chicken or fish. A bit over the top if you just had pizza.

1/2 cup sherbert (110 calories) — I love sherbert in its own right, and not as an imitation of ice cream. It does make the grocery list more often because it has fewer calories, but if I’m just looking for cold and sweet, this hits the spot! (If I’m looking for cold, sweet, and creamy, I do have to go with ice cream.)

1 homemade cookie (about 100 calories) — These do vary widely. Make sure you bake them at a reasonable size. But if you don’t make monster cookies, and you don’t have a dozen of them, most homemade cookies are about 100 calories each, butter and all! And they go great with a glass of milk. (Note: I don’t do store bought cookies. Lost my taste for them years ago. I also don’t think they’re as good for dieters due to artificial flavors and preservatives. These things can increase appetite. Diet cookies are some of the absolute worst.)

1 mug of hot cocoa (140 for the Land O Lakes I prefer, and it’s among the highest)

**Note: Thanks to exercise and a gradual approach to dieting, I allow myself 1300-1600 calories per day. Actually, I allow myself more than that if I’m really hungry. Less if I’m not. If you are dedicated to a 1200-calorie diet, any indulgence is going to be difficult. But after years of trying, I do not believe 1200-calorie diets work.