The Money-Saving Diet That Helped Me Hit My Happy Weight — And Let Me Eat Whatever I Wanted
I'm used to people being, well, kind of appalled when they see how I actually eat. As the author of two healthy cookbooks and the food director at mindbodygreen, I'm the kind of person who people apologize to when they eat a cookie in my presence. The gluten! The sugar! I must be horrified...right?
In truth, I naturally gravitate toward food that's best (and perhaps complimentarily) described as trash. I've never met a bowl of sugar cereal I didn't love. Pizza rolls for dinner? I'm there for it. I started developing healthy recipes so I could enjoy cookie dough milkshakes without feeling sluggish and waking up with the inevitable constellation of pimples starring my forehead. And for a long time, that worked for me. I had my green smoothies in the morning, brought leftovers for lunch—except for the exceptions.
A dinner out once a week became twice, and then three times, with a cocktail-laden event in the middle. A stressful day would lead me to visit my local cafe for a sweet baked good. "Just today," I'd say. "I deserve it." But the next day would be stressful, and so would the next. Soon, what was a largely healthy diet with a few exceptions turned into a diet with a sea of exceptions, sprinkled with a few green smoothies.
I wasn't eating the "worst" food—I'd order salads and soups for lunch, and eat at trendy, wellness-y restaurants—but I still felt slow, foggy, and my bank account read like a wasted inverse of my extra poundage. Something had to be done. But what? While I think that the many doctor-backed diets we feature on mindbodygreen are great for solving specific issues, I don't love the idea of restricting or eliminating whole categories of food with no real reason (my health was still great; I just felt undiagnosably bleh).
The Homemade Challenge
The idea came from my husband, Zack, and was relatively simple in origin. "You're a cook," he said. "Why don't you just...cook?"
"I do cook," I protested.
His side-eye burned. "Kind of—you still make smoothies every morning. But you were spending so much time in the kitchen making these creative, original recipes for your cookbook that you stopped making normal, easy meals. On a day-to-day basis, you've stopped cooking."
It was true—I'd fooled myself into thinking that, because much of the time when I was eating out, I was ordering "healthy" food, the fact that I wasn't making it myself didn't matter. But even many of the healthiest restaurants still use inflammatory vegetable oils and other questionable ingredients (they tend to be much cheaper, and restaurant profit margins are notoriously tricky!). When you're eating out, the chef's priority is to make your dish delicious, so you're more likely to become a repeat customer. If that requires elements you would never put in your food at home, so be it. It's not like your tikka masala comes with a nutrition facts label.
Zack and I decided to make it a challenge, mostly because we're motivated by competition. For 30 days, 100 percent of our food had to be made at home. We could do this—right?
Our first major hiccup hit before we'd even begun, when we sat down over a glass of wine (a mineral-rich natural white from Italy, delightful) to discuss the rules. Did homemade mean everything? What about tomato sauce? Did bread count? Could I still cook with my beloved grain-free Siete tortillas? "And what about wine?" Zack asked. "And cocktails? Is booze off the table?"
With any new diet, over-restricting is an express route to failure.
We ultimately decided on a special tools exemption: Everything would be homemade, except for that which would require us to buy, say, a tortilla press or a barrel to make at home. Wine and booze were on the menu, and the importance of that shouldn't be overlooked: With any new diet, over-restricting is an express route to failure. Cutting out all restaurant, cafe, and pre-prepared grocery store food was already a huge change—trying to make another huge change, like not drinking, on top of it would likely be a huge hindrance to a successful 30 days.
I spent much of the first Sunday meal-prepping vegetable-filled almond flour flatbreads for hummus-filled lunch sandwiches throughout the week and making butternut squash and poblano chipotle enchiladas to heat up for dinner. While they were delicious, by Wednesday, my palate was uninspired, and I found myself ruefully eyeing the veggie-filled quesadilla at Dos Toros, my favorite grab-and-go dinner.
This is where the challenge turned for me: I could make my favorite quesadilla; I could make the cookies I'd lamented passing up at an editorial meeting. I could make and eat whatever I damn well pleased—I just had to, you know, actually cook it myself.
I recreated the quesadilla that night, and it took about 10 minutes. It was far more delicious than its inspiration and better for me as well because I controlled every single ingredient that went into it. I could buy the pasture-raised cheese from a brand I believed in; the romaine lettuce came from a small local farmer that used biodynamic practices. According to food activist and journalist Michael Pollan, the ramifications of home cooking extend far beyond the meal you're actually preparing. "When you cook, you get to shop," he told CNN. "You get to vote if you want the pastured-raised pork or the organic grain. You can get to help produce your agricultural system, and you give that up when you outsource your cooking. You become dependent on what's offered—and that's a shame."
About a week later, the challenge hit another snag when friends invited me and Zack out to dinner. I told them about the challenge, apologizing for the inconvenience. "I could host you here, though," I said. I normally shy away from work-night dinner parties; when people come to my house, they often bring expectations with their wine or flowers, and I feel the need to perform a meal at the level I perceive them to expect from someone who has devoted her life to food.
Because I didn't really have a choice (if I wanted to see friends and be social!), I lowered my standards and ended up creating one of my favorite dinner party meals ever, a carbonara-type pasta that took approximately 10 minutes to prep. My friends arrived at my house around the same time as me and happily went to work setting the table and helping prep a salad, talking about how fun the idea of the challenge was. Instead of spending $50 on dinner in a loud, crowded setting, we relished the intimacy of our shared kitchen activity—and spent $20 to serve four people.
That was, perhaps, one of the greatest realizations of the challenge for me: Cooking is about relationships.
That was, perhaps, one of the greatest realizations of the challenge for me: Cooking is about relationships. During the 30 days, Zack and I would engage in easy conversation while dicing and chopping and boiling rather than retreating to our separate iPads with our takeout. We had friends over for dinner. We used food as it's been used for so many years: Not as a means to lose weight (as so many with restricted eating do) or even achieve ultimate health (as the wellness world is keen to pitch) but as a way to come together. To take a moment, to pause, to connect.
After spending years interviewing hundreds of the world's best doctors and reading thousands of studies—many of whom and which contradict each other—I've found that the most universally agreed upon health tip is to stress less. No matter what we're eating, if we're eating it together, we're healthier. (Full disclosure: I feel so strongly about this sentiment that my entire new cookbook, Healthier Together, is based on cultivating relationships and true wellness through cooking together).
At the end of the 30 days, I had effortlessly slid back into what I consider a happy weight for myself while eating homemade cookies and pasta to my heart's content (it didn't hurt, of course, that the hour it took to make the cookies was enough unto itself to decrease the frequency with which I consumed them, and my pasta dishes were packed with vegetables and half the portion size of anything I'd get at a restaurant). I'd regained my excitement about getting into the kitchen and saved more than $800 compared to my previous month's spending.
Most importantly, though, I'd regained a sense of perspective about food and wellness in general: It's a tool, not an end unto itself. Salad shoved hastily in your mouth between meetings isn't the same as getting your greens by buying a lettuce that's enticing, selecting vegetables you think complement its flavor, and sitting down to eat it with someone you love. There's eating, and there's nourishment, and I'll take the latter any day of the week.
Want to do your own Homemade Challenge?
Here are a few easy ways to make it work for you.
- Pick a realistic amount of time. Check the calendar for any vacations or can't-miss special events, and tailor your challenge appropriately. A week is a great starter; two to four weeks is even better!
- Decide what "homemade" means to you. I included bread and tortillas on my "OK" list but made my own sauces. Do what feels achievable for you, but make sure the rules are clear so you don't have excuses to deviate and quit.
- Find a buddy! Doing the challenge with my husband made it infinitely easier and way more fun. A partner, friend, co-worker, or family member can make the challenge easier and more enjoyable.
- Hold yourself accountable! I documented the entire challenge on my Instagram account and invited all of my followers to join in. Knowing I'd publicly announced it made me think twice about quitting, even when I was tempted to. Announce the challenge to your co-workers or on your social media channels! Tell all of your friends! Bonus: Maybe you'll find more people to do it with you.
- Don't put other restrictions in place. Eschewing pre-made food is enough; this is not the time to also try to quit sugar or cut back on wine.