Small Steps Towards a Healthier Lifestyle

A friend recently emailed me to say that she was impressed with how I prioritize healthy choices (eating whole foods and less sugar, being active, using natural remedies etc.) in my life and was inspired by how I live those ideals. Those are all things that she strives for as well, but feels like she's failing miserably at. One thing she said which really struck me was, "It's so easy to get caught up in the easy way out...or the 'this takes less time' approach." So true!

I have to start out by saying that I was incredibly touched by her kind words. It's such a gift to have someone recognize the efforts we make and to offer such generous and positive feedback. That's something I've recently realized I need to make a much more conscious effort to do. There are so many times that I appreciate something that someone said, did or created and I fail to let them know when all it would take is a few moments of my time.

Secondly, I feel like I'm failing to live up to my ideals pretty much every single day (I think that's why they're called "ideals" and not "reality"). I am constantly having to remind myself that no one can do everything, that no one can be perfect and that beating myself up about "failing" doesn't accomplish anything. 

The thing is, even if I'm not living up to my ideals, I have made lots of progress in making healthier choices for myself and my family. It's happened gradually over the years and my progress ebbs and flows, depending on what's going on in our lives at the time.  I know how easy it is is to get stuck in a rut of not being active, not making healthy eating choices and purchasing personal care products based on convenience rather than health concerns. But I've also come to learn that making small changes gradually can create a momentum that, over time, can add up to a pretty healthy lifestyle. And that's a much better way of trying to make positive changes in your life than attempting to do everything at once, burning out, feeling like a failure and giving up altogether.

Here are some easy ways to get started. I recommend trying one thing at a time and seeing how it works for you. If you like it, don't add something new until the first habit becomes second nature.

Keep nutritious foods on hand so that you don't have to run to the store every time you want to make a healthy meal. I buy nuts, dried beans, whole grains, natural sweeteners, tea leaves, healthy oils, etc. in bulk. I also purchase meat, frozen vegetables, frozen fruit, butter, etc. in bulk and store them in a chest freezer. We make weekly trips to a convenient grocery store for perishables like vegetables, fruit and soy milk. Whenever we're running low on something, we add it to the shopping list we keep on a dry erase board in the kitchen. If I don't have time to write a shopping list before heading out to run errands, I just take a picture of the list with my cell phone.

Plan ahead, at least a little. Try to make meal planning a regular part of your routine. If you're like me and you find the process of planning a week's or a month's worth of meals completely overwhelming, consider using some of the many meal plans available for free online. I personally try to take a good look in my fridge, freezer and pantry at least once a week and jot down a few meal ideas on a list I keep on the fridge. I also use the list to jot down staples I want to make as I think of them (like waffles, muffins, applesauce, roasted nuts, peanut butter, etc.). If I come across a recipe I want to try sometime soon, I write the recipe name and where I can find it on the list as well. I tend to plan our meals around which vegetables and protein we have on hand and what needs to be used up first. I try to rotate our carbs so we're not having wheat for every meal. We tend to cycle between whole wheat bread, whole grain pasta, tortillas, brown and/or wild rice, potatoes and oats, with other whole grains (barley, millet, rye, etc.) thrown in occasionally.

Prepare large batches of nutritious food, when possible. For some people, this means dedicating one day a month to preparing freezer meals, or one afternoon a week to doing food prep for the rest of the week. Again, I find that kind of overwhelming so I have a couple different ways of handling this. Anytime I cook a meal, I try to make enough so we have plenty of leftovers. Leftovers make great quick and easy lunches and snacks or starters for quick meals (leftover meat and vegetables can be cut up to make a quick frittata, omelette or soup, for example). I also often prepare more of one ingredient than I need at the time and save it to use later. For example, I may cook an entire pound of ground beef, only use half for that day's dinner and use the other half a few days later. Or I might cook two whole chickens, remove all the meat, use some of it right away and freeze the rest to use later. If I'm cutting up vegetables for a meal I often cut up an entire bag of carrots or celery or a large amount of onion at once. Then it's quick and easy to grab vegetables for a snack or throw some diced onion on a salad or into another dish I'm cooking some other time. On the afternoons or evenings I have a little extra time, I may take time before, during or after making dinner to make a big batch of something else, like granola, waffles (which we freeze for quick breakfasts), muffins, hard boiled eggs, roasted nuts or roasted vegetables.

Prioritize vegetables. Try to eat five servings of vegetables everyday. Like I said, I tend to plan my meals around the vegetables I have on hand. I also try to include vegetables in every meal and snack I eat. Although I'm not a huge fan of vegetables with breakfast, I do enjoy omelettes, egg scrambles and green smoothies so that helps. We eat lots of salads, soups, stir-frys, wraps, and casseroles with plenty of vegetables. I add extra vegetables when I make things like spaghetti, stroganoff, or macaroni and cheese. We often even add extra vegetables to frozen pizzas for a slightly more nutritious convenience meal. You could also try eating dips and spreads with vegetables instead of chips or crackers.

Keep nutritious convenience food options on hand. Meals don't all have to be complicated or time consuming to prepare. We try to keep whole grain bread, tortillas, deli meat, cooked beans, canned tuna, peanut butter, cheese, eggs, oats, vegetables that taste good raw and fruit on hand. Sandwiches, wraps, tortilla pizzas, chef salads, bean burritos, scrambled eggs, oatmeal and French toast with sides of fresh fruit and/or vegetables all make great healthy convenience meals.

Set a ridiculously achievable activity goal for yourself. My current goal is to do something active for at least 5 minutes every day. I have to walk our dog every day that the kids have school, so I blow this goal out of the water most days. Some days I even go for an extra walk with a friend or do yoga or strength training by myself or with Justin. I sometimes struggle to remember to make time to be active on busy weekend days, but if I haven't managed to fit anything in by the time I'm ready to wind down for the night, it's not that hard to convince myself that I can manage 5 minutes of yoga or weight lifting while watching TV before bed. Another way to set about this would be to pick one exercise to start with - say sit ups. Start by doing one sit up every day. After a week, add a second sit up. Keep adding sit ups until you can do a bunch at once. Then add another exercise to your routine.

Make being active convenient. I keep my yoga mat in the living room so I can pull it out easily whenever I want to use it. Our dumbbells are stored in a closet right next to where we lift weights. My running shoes are in the garage so I can put them on as I head out the door. I've created a You Tube playlist of yoga videos I enjoy so I can easily pull up a video whenever and wherever it works for me. 

Create accountability for yourself. Find a friend or family member to check in with everyday or join an online accountability group. I keep a chart of the habits I'm working on creating in a place where I see it everyday (and where Justin can see it too). It's a good reminder and just knowing that he might notice whether or not I'm following through is a good incentive for me too. Also, I love checking off the things I've accomplished! 

Make being active fun. I'm not a fan of exercising for the sake of exercising, especially by myself. I've got several friends and family members that I often invite to walk with me. Talking to a friend makes long walks so much more enjoyable. We try to do fun active things as a family too like hikes, bike rides and kickball games with the neighbors. I'm working on saying "yes" to the kids more when they ask me to play with them - whether it's tag, four square or the obstacle course at a local beach. 

Make being active part of your routine. Maybe you do an exercise video three mornings a week before work, do yoga every night before bed or do five squats every time you go to the bathroom. I walk my dog most mornings, try to park at the back of the parking lot whenever the weather isn't miserable and set a timer to remind me to get up out of my chair every hour during my workday and do something active for a few minutes, whether it's hanging a load of laundry or doing a few yoga poses.

Swap out one product at a time. When it's time to replace something you currently use, try replacing it with a healthier option. Maybe you swap your regular spaghetti noodles for whole grain noodles, your laundry detergent for soap nuts, your all purpose cleaner for vinegar and water or your sunscreen for a more natural option.

Investigate one health issue at a time, in advance. Don't wait until you're in crisis mode to try find natural remedies for problems you deal with on a recurring basis. Make a list of issues that tend to crop up for your family and pick one to research. I've found that coconut oil, WiseWays Herbals' All Heal Salve, The Honest Co.'s Organic Healing Balm, showers after playing outside and oatmeal baths work wonders for my son's spring and summer eczema breakouts. WiseWays Herbals' All Heal Salve also is amazing for cuts, scrapes and burns while their White Pine Salve draws out splinters and drys up zits. A few drops of lemon juice in my kids' ears stops ear infections in their tracks, chewable magnesium helps my husband's leg cramps and raspberry leaf tea is a wonderful remedy for menstrual cramps.

Find a good resource, and use it. The Environmental Working Group has a number of helpful consumer guides and apps including their Skin Deep Database which rates cosmetics and personal care products for toxicity, their Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 guides which rank produce based on pesticide residue levels, a seafood guide, a sunscreen guide and a healthy cleaning guide. I love Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything cookbook for basic real food recipes, FAIRSHARE's From Asparagus to Zucchini cookbook for great ideas for using less conventional vegetables and 100 Days of Real Food and Eating From the Ground Up (websites and cookbooks) for great real food recipes. A few of the many other books I love include Smart Medicine for Healthier Living, Gentle Healing for Baby and Child and The Urban Homestead

In writing this, I've come to realize how much knowledge and how many skills I've amassed over years and years of trying to make healthy choices. Even though I often don't make the best decisions, choose the best products or follow through on my goals, I think it's important to recognize and appreciate how far I've come from where I started and for everyone else to do the same. So remember, start small, do what works for you, celebrate your wins, don't beat yourself up or give up when you feel like you're failing to achieve your purpose and let one positive change lead to another without pushing yourself to change everything all at once.