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12/30/2014 11:41 am ET Updated Mar 01, 2015

3 Painless Ways to Start Eating Right When Nothing Else Will Work

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You know what you're supposed to eat.

You don't need another blog post telling you this food is good and that one is bad... those rules seem to change every day anyway. (Hint: "Eat whole foods" is one that's a constant.)

It's not that you don't want to eat healthy. You even understand that, over time, your taste buds will adjust, and you'll actually crave raw fruits and vegetables while becoming less interested in processed and fried foods.

You know how important it is. Not just for you, but for your family. And that if you don't start soon, it'll one day be urgent. And -- maybe -- too late.

And yet you can't seem to start. It's just too much, with the time it would take to plan meals and shop for new ingredients before you even get down to cooking. Not to mention the effort of packing healthy lunches for yourself and your kids, if you've got them. And don't even get started on breakfast... where's the time for that going to come from?

The Hidden Force that Prevents You from Starting

Here's how it goes, most often:

We've tried eating well in my house, and it just doesn't work. We last for two days, and soon we're right back where we started. I work a full-time job and so does my spouse, and with the kids and their school and everything else, we just don't have the time to make a healthy diet work.

To this I say... of course.

Of course it's hard to change habits. Habits start out as tiny threads, and each time you repeat the habit, you add a new thread. Eventually, you've got not a thread but a cable, and it's very hard to break.

So when you try to change not just your own habits but your whole family's all at once, you're trying to break four or five thick cables. And not only are you changing the experience of eating (to one that's less salty, fatty, sugary, and enjoyable, at least at first) -- you're also adding to your schedule, since new foods takes more time to plan and prepare than what you're used to.

Does this mean you're stuck? That you're doomed to a life of junk food and the fat, unhealthy family that goes with it?

No. It just means instead of trying to change everything at once, you need to start breaking the cables one thread at a time.

This post is about which thread to start with.

3 Simple Ways to Start Small

If you're talking about a habit like running, it's easy to start small.

Just go run for five minutes. Or two minutes. Then do the same thing the next day, and the next day, and the next, before you even think about increasing the time.

Whatever it takes, set up the rules so you start accumulating wins, and you start to change your perception of what it means and how it feels to run.

But with diet, it's not so clear. What, are you supposed to eat healthy for just five minutes a day?

Measuring by time works for great running, not so well for eating. Changing your diet takes a different approach.

So here are three approaches that do work for eating -- approaches that allow you to start small, and eventually, realize big gains. (The good kind of gains, not pounds.)

Small-Step Approach #1. Instead of trying to overhaul your entire diet, pick just one day a week.

And on that one day a week, do everything in your power to eat exceedingly well -- the most important of which is planning ahead. I suggest Mondays, so that you can use the weekends to plan meals and shop. On Tuesday, go back to eating however you want, but on Monday, promise yourself (and whoever else will hold you accountable) that you won't slip up.

Once you learn how to prepare and execute for just one day (and get used to it, for a few weeks), it'll be easier to do it for multiple days. After a week or two of healthy Mondays, add a healthy Thursday. And so on. To save time and effort, just increase the quantities of whatever you're shopping for and preparing on the weekend (we've eaten this lentil-avocado salad for several lunches this week).

Small-Step Approach #2. Make just one meal healthy each day.

To create more continuity in your healthy habits than just once a week, try eating better every day, but just for one meal.

For example, replace junk-food breakfast with a smoothie (easy to adjust for different tastes -- for example, we add a little fruit juice to my son's). If that doesn't fill you up, add something like whole wheat toast with nut butter. Over time, you can focus on making your smoothie greener (just increase the proportion of vegetables to fruits), or you can focus on expanding the number of hours around breakfast that you eat healthily.

Eventually, you'll approach "vegan before 6" (or "healthy before 6," if vegan isn't your goal), and you can spend a few weeks there before going all the way.

Small-Step Approach #3. Go all in, but give yourself an end date.

I understand that some people just don't have the patience for gradual change. I've been there -- when you're inspired to make a change, you really want to change. Now, and completely.

But "all in" takes willpower. For example, if you're attempting to go vegetarian or vegan, when that little voice in your head reminds you that you can NEVER again eat a real cheeseburger.

To counteract this, and make "all in" a viable approach, put a time limit on your challenge -- a date in the future, where, if you get there without screwing up, you win. You can reassess then, but until the time is up, you're going to make this work.

Set up a fun challenge for yourself and the family, and decide that -- for three days or a week or 10 days -- you're all going to eat healthily. But don't start today -- set a start date a few days from now (again, Monday is probably best) so that you have time to prepare.

Having a delayed start date also helps to increase the importance you give the change in your mind, which makes you more likely to stick with it when cheeseburger-voice starts talking. Have a reward planned (ideally not food) for when you finish: that, and the very fact that there's an end date at all, will also help you to keep going when you're craving junk food.

Once you're done, think about what worked and what didn't. Plan another challenge, modifying based on what you've learned, and set it for a longer duration. Rinse and repeat.

To Help You Get Started

Two strategies that will help with any of the above approaches:

1. Make "healthy" more fun.

A big part of the resistance to eating well is that healthy food is perceived as boring and bland. For example, if you're taking Approach #3, choose a theme that's interesting. Make it a week of ethnic dinners that you've never cooked before -- Mexican one night, Thai the next, Indian another, etc. Or try a raw-food challenge. Or replace one meal a day (your worst one) with a juice meal. Or buy a new cookbook. Make the whole thing about something more exciting than "healthy," and it's much more likely to be met with openness.

2. Start where you are.

I got this tip from No Meat Athlete book co-author and registered dietitian Matt Ruscigno. The idea here is to not radically alter your meals, but make small changes in each of them to move it along the spectrum toward healthy.

His example is beef and broccoli: If your goal is to go vegetarian or even just eat more vegetables, still eat the beef and broccoli, but make it more about the broccoli. Over time, increase the proportion of broccoli until it's "broccoli with a tiny bit of beef," and go all the way when you're ready. You can do the same gradual replacement process with fruit smoothies (using more vegetables, less fruit over time), kids' drinks (slowly dilute fruit juice with water), whole-grain flour or rice, water instead of oil for sauteing, etc. Something that has worked for me, to use less salt, is keeping a grinder full of toasted sesame seeds and a few coarse grains of salt, instead of all salt.

The point is not to make the shift all at once, but in small, nearly imperceptible bits at a time.

I could go further with this last approach, especially when it comes to feeding kids (our son won't eat beans or spinach but will eat pasta with sauce = puree beans and spinach into the sauce). But perhaps that's another post.

Notice that these last two tips aren't meant to be used alone, for most people. If you're already eating healthily, they might help you go further.

But without the "hard line" of the first three approaches, it's too easily to gradually slip back into bad habits.

Your Turn

If you're serious about eating healthily but just can't seem to start, then I'm begging you: Don't just read this.

Pick one of the three approaches above. Make a commitment. Plan. And then give it a try.

When you mess up (and trust me, you will), learn and try again.

Lasting change starts with the smallest of steps, but it doesn't start by standing still. Someone's got to actually take that step, and that someone is you.