What to Eat When You Don't Know What to Eat
We’ve all been there: you open the fridge, look around, chagrined, and close it. You open the cabinet, pick up a box of crackers and then quickly put it back, knowing it’s not going to scratch that particular food itch you currently have. This sequence repeats several times until you start looking at your take-out menus, or in desperation just start eating things – any and all the things, until you figure out what you really feel like eating. While you’re scrambling around , already feeling guilty and annoyed by the stale rice cakes that you forgot to throw out and trying to determine if you can stomach eating yet another frozen burrito, you might also be thinking any of the following:
“I really should eat something healthy.”
“I totally deserve that $%# brownie right now.”
“I’m starving, I don’t even care that it’s not the healthiest option.”
“I want something crunchy but also sweet and we have nothing like that in the house!”
“Crap, maybe I’m not even hungry at all. I don’t even know. I just FEEL like eating something.”
“Why am I doing this again?”
Why does this happen? Shouldn’t we always just instinctively know what our bodies need and which foods will do the trick to make you feel full and satiated?
Actually, for many of us, we have become completely detached from our physical bodies. We live only through our many distractions, in our constant web of thoughts, perceptions, emotions and the sometimes erratic or unhealthy behaviors that emerge because of them.
And maybe we don’t know what to eat because our inner dialogue is getting in the way of making a decision. What if what we truly desire may be unhealthy or cause us to be sick, and our “inner ego dialogue” is what has you put the box of crackers back. Eating something that you know is healthy, but doesn’t taste that awesome starves our other desire for pleasure that our brains need to give off satiety cues. Essentially, it becomes a “do I feed my body or my emotions right now?” frenzy where the end result is throwing your hands up in frustration and impulsively ordering a pizza or maybe grabbing the pint of ice cream in your freezer.
To really know what you want to eat and what you’re craving, you have to first agree to drop into the body more often and more deeply. You have to pay attention to the subtle cues your body gives you minute-to-minute as it relates to food, sleep or anything else.
Let’s make this whole process easier, shall we?
If you’ve ever suffered from “What should I eat right now?” syndrome, here is my step-by-step process to figure it out effortlessly.
Step #1 – Is it Physical or Emotional Hunger?
The first most important thing to decide is if this is a physical hunger or some other sort of need that is not being nourished. They can feel remarkably similar, especially if you’ve used food in the past to fill certain emotional voids or to help you cope with the disappointments and discomforts of life.
Close your eyes and take a deep, intentional breath. Bring your attention to your core and look for the familiar signs of hunger: growling, emptiness, hunger pangs, etc.
Take several more deep breaths and notice the quality of your breath. Look for signs of anxiety or emotional discord such as a sense restlessness, shallow breath, racing heart, intrusive thoughts, boredom etc.
Now, tune back into your core. Which of the symptoms and signs of Emotional Discord vs. Physical Hunger is more loud and communicative? Which is intuitively calling you to act?
If, after this exercise that you realize that you are not at all hungry but are upset about something, searching for food as a habitual behavior – bored, anxious, sad or just physical or emotional tiredness and malaise – then leave the kitchen. Go to a quiet room for ten minutes to journal about what is bothering you and give it a voice. Then, continue to ground yourself using techniques such as meditation, music, breathwork, connection, nature, self-care and/or creative pursuits to help you self-soothe and solve the actual problem and source of your consternation.
If, you determine, that you are indeed hungry, head to step #2
Without judgement, tune into the type of texture you are craving. Do you want crunchy, cold, smooth, creamy, mushy or even slimy? Then…
Determine what type of flavor profile you’re wanting. Is it sweet and salty? Savory? Sour? Bitter? Combination?
Do you want something warm, hot or cold?
Is there a limit on time? ie. can you cook something or does it have to be quick and easy?
Make sure the food you choose includes both the results of steps 3, 4 and 5 but also inherently supports what your body needs to thrive. For example, even if it’s for a snack, aim for it to have ample protein, healthy fat and a complex carb with fiber.
Apple with peanut butter
Hard-boiled egg in a whole wheat wrap
Build your meal/snack based on the criteria you just answered.
Doing this exercise takes time and practice. But over time, you’ll not only be able to recognize the subtle differences between emotional vs. physical hunger but also, without the frequent frenemy of judgement and morality. You can cut through the noise and unwanted chatter and delve into how to give your physical body, as well as emotional self what it needs. These two things do not have to be mutually exclusive and they can also take place simultaneously in a satisfying meal.
One additional element to consider after practicing this over time, is to start to notice trends that show up in terms of the times of days you crave certain food or start meandering into the kitchen in the hopes of fulfilling something. When you notice the trends, you can start to plan accordingly for the future.
I always scrounge around the kitchen about an hour or two before dinner time, searching for something. Now I know that I’m just tired and a bit bored and want to use food to decompress. Here’s what I can do instead…
It’s always at breakfast that I get tripped up and don’t know what to eat. I’m going to make a list tonight of all the breakfasts that I like and write them down, make sure the ingredients or products are on my shopping list and in the house.
Planning can be critical.
But also….remember….emotions are forever intricately entwined with our eating experience. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to taste the delicious love in your grandmother’s pecan pie or the thrill of a molecular gastronomy meal, or remember the specific sweet and satisfying taste of the cherry popsicles you ate that summer of 1985.
Once we realize that we are all and always emotional eaters and can accept that and work with them to fill our bodies to the brim with mind/body/soul health that we all deserve, we can jettison food shame and confusion and replace it with eating confidence and empowerment, no matter what the situation.