I grew up in a family of restaurateurs, so my relationship with food started out as a love story. Since growing up and living on my own, though, culinary flare pretty much disappeared from my meals. In fact, my job became so hectic I often forgot to eat lunch. Not that I had time to prep meals most weekends, anyway…
During the week, I often resorted to not-so-healthy vending machine options like Pop Tarts out of desperation. Many nights, I ended up ordering huge, unhealthy dinners to ‘make up for’ missed lunches.
My lack of planning and control around my eating habits started to make me feel guilty—and just plain unhealthy. I wanted to clean up my diet and my relationship with food. But how?
Could Food Journaling Help?
Desperate for more balance and accountability, I took to the internet for a solution to my diet predicament. After reading a few intriguing articles about food journaling, I reached out to dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., author of Read It Before You Eat It—Taking You from Label to Table for some guidance.
“The biggest benefit of a food journal is that it helps connect people with what they’re eating,” Taub-Dix told me. “It makes your food intake more real, and really brings it to light.” It sounded like just the reality check I needed.
Taub-Dix told me to take my journaling day by day and log all of my eats with great detail.
“Don’t just write ‘grapes,’” she said. “Write ‘24 grapes,’ or however many you had.”
I’d also want to rate my hunger levels before every time I ate. “Use some kind of hunger scale—like ‘one’ being starving and ‘five’ being stuffed—so you can track how hungry you are when you eat,” she explained. This would help me identify any boredom- or stress-eating.
At the end of each day, I’d review my entries and reflect. “If you go to bed feeling really good about the way you ate that day, it’s positive reinforcement,” Taub-Dix said. If not, I could ask myself how the next day could be a little better. Could I eat more vegetables? Could I plan my food better, rather than make reactive, impulsive (and usually not-so-healthy) decisions?
Armed with a little orange notebook, I set out to track my eats for the next month. I was curious to see what trends I’d identify, and whether I’d be able to better balance my diet.
I also wanted to see whether or not this would impact my weight, which had slowly crept up from my usual 118 pounds (I’m 5’2) to 123 pounds.
My Monday that first week captured the exact eating predicaments that drove me to food journal in the first place.
I started the day with an early-morning gym class, shoving three and a half strawberries in my mouth before running out the door. Afterward, I stopped at the deli by my office and ordered my go-to breakfast: two fried eggs on a spinach wrap with tomatoes, lettuce, and onion, and a black iced coffee. I headed to the office feeling good.
That’s when things started to spiral. Of course, one of my coworkers brought in homemade oatmeal cookies that morning, so I grabbed two knowing I probably wouldn’t make it out for lunch until late.
When my hunger level hit ‘starving’ that afternoon, I ended up back at the deli. I grabbed a turkey sandwich and a bag of white cheddar Cheetos.
When I got home (around seven o’clock), I was too tired to make anything. Around nine, though, hunger hit, so I forced myself to heat up a can of chicken soup. I snacked on some Triscuits while I waited.
Before bed, I took a look at my journal. It was clear: I allowed my day’s agenda dictate what I ate. And save for the lettuce and tomato on my wrap and sandwich, I’d hardly eaten any vegetables.
The next day, I tried to plan better. I made breakfast—two eggs and some strawberries—at home. On my way into the office I pre-ordered a salad (romaine, tomato, grilled chicken, black olives, avocado, and hearts of palm, with oil and vinegar on the side) for lunch-time delivery. I wasn’t crazy hungry (a two or three on the hunger scale) when it arrived, so I ate about half and set it aside.
I ended up working late, so I ate the rest of my salad for dinner. When I finally got home, I was craving something sweet and munched on a mini Kit-Kat.
Overall, my second day felt much better—more vegetables, less reactive eating, and a well-portioned sweet treat to end the day with.
The rest of the week had its ups and downs. At Dim Sum for a coworker’s, knowing I’d have to track my eats didn’t stop me from eating a record 14 dumplings. (To be fair, most of them were steamed—and at least five of them were veggie!)
I noticed a pattern emerging: I tended to eat more when eating out with other people than I did at my desk. That seemed valuable to know.
That weekend, I made dinner (a shrimp boil with potatoes and corn) for my boyfriend and me. In the process, I downed eight mini potatoes—to test that they were cooked, of course. Seeing this on paper, I wondered, could I have just stuck a fork in the potatoes to test them? Absolutely. I vowed to be more conscious of snacking while cooking moving forward.
After just a week of food journaling, I found myself paying much more attention to what I ate. Turning down random food at the office grew easier; the leftover pizza in the office kitchen didn’t tempt me as much, because I’d already pre-ordered myself a Chipotle salad bowl for lunch.
I didn’t feel healthier or thinner just yet, but I did feel more in control. Knowing that I was keeping a running list of everything going in my mouth (and that said list would be shared in this article for all to see) certainly made me more mindful.
And then Thursday rolled around… I caught up with two of my girlfriends after work, and five rounds of drinks later, we ordered chicken quesadillas, chips and guacamole, and wings.
The next morning, I felt so hungover that I swapped my usual breakfast for a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich—and downed three times as much coffee as usual.
Realizing how much drinking had derailed my mindful eating, I ordered a salmon avocado roll with brown rice for lunch and made grilled chicken with broccoli for dinner (and didn’t sample any of it while cooking). By the end of the day, I felt back on track.
By the start of my third week, I’d generally cut down on impulsive food decisions and started eating more protein and vegetables.
Luckily, I’d had a rare free weekend to meal prep. I stashed a week’s worth of oatmeal and strawberries at the office for breakfasts, and packed red lentil pasta with tomato sauce, zucchini, broccoli, bell peppers, onions, and chicken every day. (Except on Friday, when my coworker and I treated ourselves to ramen.)
Dinners continued to be tricky, since I often either worked late or had after-work plans. Monday night, I ate at home (grilled salmon with frozen mixed vegetables sauteed in olive oil). Tuesday, though, I met an old coworker and took down three margaritas and three tacos. The other nights, I had a few drinks and free food at work events, but felt confident in my choices.
By the end of the week, I started to feel like I could actually maintain control in situations that typically derailed my eating habits. At the very least, I knew how to identify—and rebound from—less-healthy choices.
By the time my final week of food journaling rolled around, I had learned a few key lessons.
First, I’d identified my pattern of making bad food choices when strapped for time, and come to grips with the impulse decisions I made when presented with free food.
I’d also stopped snacking mindlessly on ingredients while cooking. By this point, I could sit down and eat the meal I’d prepared without having eaten half of it in the process.
My last week brought its own challenges, though. I didn’t buy many groceries or meal prep because I’d be traveling for work—and it backfired. I continued with my morning oatmeal, but found myself giving into leftover office food in hopes of saving a few bucks on lunches before leaving for my trip on Thursday.
On Monday, I ate a stale croissant for lunch. It did nothing to satisfy me. (I rated my hunger at a ‘two’ afterwards.) That night, I was so hungry on my way home from work that I stopped into the pizza shop by my apartment for two slices and four garlic knots.
On my work trip, though, I managed to keep my choices pretty healthy—even when out with clients! One night I opted for grilled swordfish with broccoli; another, a chef’s salad with oil and vinegar.
Though food options on my work trip were actually pretty healthy, I caved and took the stewardess up on her offer of Cheez Its (my favorite) on the flight.
Looking back on week four, I saw some wins and some losses. Though I’d gone down a rabbit hole after that croissant, I’d kept my breakfasts and dinners balanced most days.
In the end, food journaling was just what I needed to kick my relationship with food back into that honeymoon phase.
Evaluating my choices at the end of each day motivated me to do better the next. Every win reassured me that, with preparation and focus, I could consistently make healthier choices.
Perhaps the biggest win, though, was realizing how much I snacked while cooking—and nixing the habit. It completely changed my experience of cooking for myself. Now, I sit down to eat a meal feeling excited—and walk away feeling satisfied, not over-stuffed.
Plus, when I stepped onto the scale after a month of food journaling, I was delighted to see I’d dropped back down to 118 pounds! While weight loss wasn’t my primary goal, I think journaling held me much more accountable for my choices, and highlighted when I ate mindlessly.
Though I probably won’t continue journaling, I know the habits I’ve formed will stick with me, especially during hectic weeks.