Not long after determining that Wheat Thins (and pasta, and cookies, and shortbread, and pancakes) made up an unconscionable percentage of my diet (150%, plus or minus), I decided to give them up for four weeks: a midsummer experiment designed to short-circuit my dependence on what I’d begun describing as “boxed carbs” but are more appropriately termed foods of convenience that are high calorie relative to their nutritional offerings. (A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition sums it up: “Refined grains, fats, and sweets are inexpensive, palatable, and convenient. However, they can also be energy-dense and are sometimes poor in vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients.”)
I designed the trial to be low impact: I wouldn’t avoid all carbs, just the ones that came in boxes, sat on my shelves, and provided a poor substitute for more nutritionally rewarding foods when the hour was late and my stomach was grumbling. My problem was mindless eating—a box of Wheat Thins gone before I realized what had happened. That meant bread from the bakery, which went stale in 12 hours, was allowed. Ditto sandwiches made at the shop below my apartment, and pasta from restaurants, where I rarely eat anyway. I wasn’t banning carbs so much as I was forcing myself to change how, and when, I typically ate them: as a default option, when I’d given up the option of making anything better.
A small shift, nutritionally speaking, resulted in a cataclysm in terms of meal planning. I live alone, and as a freelance writer, my schedule is unpredictable and erratic: If I have a deadline, I work until I’m finished, and then eat. I can’t count how many times I’ve looked away from my laptop to realize that it was after 9 p.m., and glumly pulled out a pot for the spaghetti (or dialed for delivery): At least I’d have something.
The first day of my experiment, I worked into the evening, passing up every opportunity to go to the grocery store or the farmer’s market—instead, as I had so many times in the past, I looked away from my computer and saw that it was too late to buy food that didn’t involve (a) a Big Mac or (b) falafel. I’d just returned home from a two-week trip, so all I had in my refrigerator were olives and almond milk. The only items on my shelves were the foods I’d just outlawed: a box of penne, pancake mix, a half-empty carton of shortbread. Any other night, and I would have gone with the penne. I ended up walking a mile to the one late-night bodega still open, where I chose the best of a tiny, terrible selection: a carton of yogurt, an abused banana.
Something became clear as I walked home at 11 p.m., holding a plastic bag filled with my meager dinner. Twenty-four hours earlier, I would have said that my biggest nutritional hurdle was my reliance on boxed carbs. Removing them from my diet, though, revealed the much more destructive, underlying issue: my unwillingness to be accountable for my meal planning. Pasta and pancakes had helped me get by with a catch-as-catch-can strategy—if it can be called a strategy. Without them, I had no meal-planning skills to fall back on—and if I was going to eat like an adult over the next four weeks, I had some serious changes to make.
What’s your relationship with meal planning? Do you stock up on nutritionally dense foods for the week, or do you catch-as-catch-can? Tell us in the comments below!