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portrait of writer Michelle Malia and a snapshot of her food journal

I Tried Two Types Of Food Journaling—Here’s How It Went

The pandemic and volatile political climate made 2020 stressful enough, but on top of that, I had a lot of personal change. I lost my job. I started an MFA program. My husband and I canceled our wedding. We adopted a puppy. We moved. I had knee surgery after tearing my ACL and meniscus. I started a small business. It was a very taxing year.

Though the year had its ups and downs, it had a particularly disappointing side effect: Somewhere along the way, I stopped enjoying food. My mind was always occupied, so I resorted to shuffling around the kitchen haphazardly tossing together sad salads and eating cookies I knew I wouldn’t relish in. I was eating more than normal and enjoying it less.

I know I’m not alone in these diet changes, and the trend makes sense. “When you eat mindlessly, it can cause undereating or overeating, nutritional deficiencies, and imbalances, and can make you lose enjoyment from food,” says The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Roseanne Schnell, CDN.

At the end of December, I was over it. I felt like I was on autopilot in a lot of areas of life, and taking control of my nutrition felt like a solid first step. Schnell had a good suggestion: Start food journaling.

Deciding How To Approach Food Journaling

Like a lot of people, I had tried logging my meals in the past but never stuck with it for more than a few days at a time. Schnell shared some extra insights that helped me tailor food journaling to my needs.

First, she explained that there are two approaches: You can either a) write down what you eat as you eat it, journaling throughout the day or b) use your journal as a meal-planning tool, writing down your meals in advance.

Second, Schnell emphasized that you should take note (mentally or on paper) of what, when, where, why, and with whom you eat. “Journaling with these questions in mind can be eye-opening,” she says. “You’ll notice trends in your food habits so you can determine what is and isn’t working for you and make changes to meet your personal goals.”

I decided to try each journaling strategy for two weeks. Here’s how it went.

Journaling While I Ate

I focused on journaling while I ate for a full two weeks, and initially, I was not a fan. I dreaded looking back at the entries because I knew my food habits were all over the place.

On day three, for example, I had an oat cappuccino and protein bar for breakfast—pretty standard. Then, my husband and I walked our puppy, Appa, to a waterfront park and stopped by a taco stand. We shared three tacos, then went home. We were still hungry, so we snacked on a falafel dish from our local Mediterranean spot. I was busy that afternoon working on a few ceramics projects and didn’t take a break for dinner. Around 6 p.m. I had a hard cider, noshed on more falafel at 7 p.m., and had some more hummus and pita around 10 p.m. It wasn’t pretty.

Read More: The Best Protein Bars For Every Health Goal

This pattern was common during the first two weeks, and I found it was likely because I didn’t plan my meals. I’d end up having a bite here and there, never feeling satisfied, and eating late into the night to compensate.

Still, there were good days sprinkled in between. On day 10, I ate three solid meals plus dessert; it wasn’t my healthiest day, but I enjoyed my food and stayed conscious, which was huge for me. I started recognizing that eating on the fly led to constant snacking and a lack of gratification.

What Set Me Back

Many times during the first two weeks, I did my food journaling right after eating throughout the first half of the day, but then waited until the very end of the day to write down what I ate throughout the afternoon. This made the practice a lot less beneficial because I wasn’t holding myself accountable in real-time.

day three of food journal

To remedy this, I started leaving my food journal (a little black notebook) open on the counter. It’s not like anyone was checking it every hour, but it was good for me to leave it in plain sight instead of tucking it away in a drawer. It acted as a visual reminder of my goal.

Journaling To Meal Plan

Right off the bat, I knew this strategy would work better for me. One of the main challenges I always struggled with was meal planning, and this approach forced me to sit down at night and figure out what I was going to cook and eat.

I did this pretty consistently over the two-week period. I found that I was getting more joy from cooking because I was carving out the time to do it mindfully and intentionally—looking up recipes, writing down when I was going to make them in my journal, buying all the ingredients—instead of just opening my fridge at 1 p.m. and whipping up a quick lunch with whatever I had on hand. Planning ahead also gave me time to get excited about dishes I was going to make and eat each day.

Read More: 13 Gut-Healthy Recipes That Don’t Sacrifice Flavor

A few days into this approach, I decided to add a section to each day called “allowances.” This offered space for things I wanted to enjoy in addition to my main meal, like a beer with dinner or a midday snack.

An example of this was day 25, I planned to have a smoothie with granola for breakfast, a broccoli quinoa bowl with chips for lunch, and a vegetable pasta dish for dinner. My allowances were an extra cappuccino and a cookie, if I was in the mood. The meal planning helped me feel hungry for every meal, which made me enjoy the flavors in each dish rather than scarfing something down simply because it was “time” to eat.

What Set Me Back

There were a few days that I skipped my journaling. I must admit, I thought it would be an easy habit to pick up, but it really does require dedication. Schnell agrees: “It takes time to enter foods into an app or write them down and some people feel they can’t fit it in, although it is so worth it,” she says.

And she’s right about that. Without fail, when I didn’t plan, I ate less healthy and felt less satisfied. 

days 25 and 26 of food journaling

To solve this, I started adding the “allowances” section, which gave me something to look forward to. It also helped me resist the urge to randomly snack because I knew I would enjoy these treats more if I waited it out. I also gave myself the flexibility to adjust the plan depending on my hunger levels.

Final Thoughts On Food Journaling

After a month of journaling, I can say that my nutrition is not perfect but that I am much more mindful of what, when, where, and why I’m eating. It has opened my eyes to habits that I didn’t realize I had, like snacking when I felt anxious about an approaching work deadline and eating while cooking.

Better yet, I’ve started working out more consistently because I’m eating better overall, and I have more energy because of it.

In the long term, the meal-planning strategy seems more sustainable for me. It takes the mental work out of figuring out what to eat in the moment and (bonus!) it makes grocery shopping more seamless.

Food is such a huge part of life, and I want it to be something I can fully enjoy. Even if I don’t continue writing my meals down every day for the rest of my life, I know that I can use this tool whenever I need it, whether it’s to get out of a long-term rut or to keep my nutrition top of mind during a busy week.

It’s important to note that journaling isn’t for everyone. “It can help many people create healthy habits, but for some it can have the opposite effect, causing them to become obsessed with the process and to stop eating intuitively,” Schnell says. If you notice these effects, consider talking to a professional nutritionist to help you find something that works for you.

That said, if you feel like you’ve lost your love of food because of outside factors like stress, journaling can be a good start. If you commit to it, the practice can help restore a healthy relationship with food, which will improve your mental health and, ultimately, make every bite taste better.

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