Five Lessons I Learned from My Two Week Food Challenge

The Promise: “This is a two-week detox plan that’s actually realistic. You’ll learn to eat healthy, feel awesome, and stay that way.”

Lesson 1: It’s Great to Live Without Options

We think of choice as a sort of universally good thing, but choice is only as beneficial as the options you have and the decisions you make. If choosing means you get to pick something that is better, that’s great. But choice for choice’s sake is a burden. It’s wasted thought.

Grocieries Week TwoI had been thinking way too much about what I ate. I’d been making lots of choices, but none were better than any others. Every morning was an exercise in running through endless breakfast possibilities only to choose one of the same four things I always ate. Every night dinner involved staring at the open fridge and waiting for some divine sign to tell me if tonight was the night I should try that new recipe I bought all the ingredients for, or if it was a night to defrost some spaghetti sauce. Again.

I loved having no say in the matter for two weeks. There was no question when I woke up in the morning. No back-and-forth guilt about eating marshmallows at work. I looked in my meal plan and I ate what I saw. No discussion. No decision.

Lesson 2: Food is as Much or as Little Work as You Want it to Be

For as freeing as it was to never decide what to eat, it was a real pain having to cook so damn much. True to its promise, none of the cooking in the challenge was difficult. But everything had to be made. There was no putting leftovers into the fridge and pulling them out ready to go the next day. Salads had to be assembled. Smoothies had to be blended. Chopping and stirring and frying and futzing. Every day for two weeks. It was worse than NaNoWriMo.

With each meal and extra step, I questioned whether the extra work was worth it. I like pistachios, but I don’t like them any more than almonds, and almonds don’t have to be shelled.

Lesson 3: You Can Get Tired of Eating

I’m used to small portions of calorie-dense foods, so the salad-fest was a bit of a stretch for me. There is just so much to eat in a salad before you approach a decent number of calories. You sit there chewing and chewing. Five minutes. Ten. Twenty. Am I really still eating this damn thing?

I don’t handle eating fatigue very well. Unless I’m eating something outstanding, eating starts to feel like a waste of time. I want to move on, I want to do something else. I’m sick of ingesting, let’s get back to work. No, it says, you can’t. You have to eat more salad.

Lesson 4: Nothing is Perfect

When I was getting ready for my second grocery run, I noticed that I was supposed to be buying things I still had plenty of. I had to go through the list, item by item and match it up with the recipes. In the end I still managed to over-buy some things and underbuy others.

I made some mistakes in my estimations, I bought the wrong amounts, I didn’t always eat everything I was supposed to eat. I want to defend the challenge by blaming the problems on my own mistakes. I want to say that it could have been perfect. But realistically, everyone will always make mistakes. There is no such thing as a perfect food plan because it implies perfect implementation. Things come up. Batches get burned. You’ll never get it just right. There is no just right.

Lesson 5: True Balance is a Myth

One of the reasons I wanted to do this challenge was to eliminate questions of balance and quotas. Am I eating enough vegetables? Am I eating too much meat? Is it okay to give into my sweet tooth if I’m healthy in other ways? There’s so much good and bad and changing food science out there. Trying to answer these questions can be maddening.

Food in BowlThis challenge was (in theory) put together by a professional nutritionist, allowing me to outsource the balancing act. However she also put it together knowing that people like variety, and that not everyone will love every recipe (I’m certainly fine with never eating parchment fish again). So maybe sometimes I was eating blackberries not because of nutritional variety, but because of emotional variety. I already know I don’t need much emotional variety in my diet, which leaves the balance question just as open as before.

I find myself looking back on Michael Pollen’s food rules with longing: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” It’s so simple, right? Stop comparing blackberries to raspberries and salmon to tilapia. Stop counting calories and just drink more water. It’s advice so easy that we’ve all heard it a million times and yet we never feel like it’s enough. We’re always looking for that magic bullet, that set of rules, that “one weird trick” that will turn food from an enemy into a friend. It’s unfair to put all of this onto a silly online food challenge, because while it may not have made me “feel like a champion at life,” the food was good and it was a fun experiment.

There’s a nagging voice in my head that tells me to eat more whole grains, no, eat less read meat, no, add chia seeds to everything, no, cut out all dairy. Sometimes the voice gets on her high horse and tells me that what I’m buying ruins the planet or traps third world citizens in poverty and I should know better. When she gets mean she says that I’m doing it all wrong, that I’m falling short of the completely achievable perfection that all those healthy, beautiful people on TV must have mastered. She tells me that no matter how good my abs look there’s always those love handles to work on. She’s there at every meal, on every shopping trip, and every time I look in the mirror. Sometimes I think of her, and I wonder if we’ve been going after the wrong toxins.

My Clean Eating Challenge, Part Three

This is the second half of my clean eating challenge journal. You can read the first part here.

Day 5Arparagus & Pouched Eggs

This morning’s Asparagus with Poached Eggs was tasty enough, considering my aversion to asparagus and recent encounters with eggs. Even so, by 11AM I was hungry again and already craving my mid-day snack. Fortunately my boyfriend and my better judgement intervened and told me if I ate my snack early I’d be kicking myself come 3PM. They were right.

Dinner was Turkey-Basil Meatballs with Tomato Sauce with Sautéed Collard Greens. The name is the recipe, and the writer in me cringes to see the word ‘with’ used twice. But the food was good, and an interesting look at life without gluten (using greens where I would normally use noodles).

One problem with recipes that simply say “one bunch” of collard greens as a measurement is that they don’t consider the possibility that you’ve never bought collard greens before and you have no idea that your local store sells double-sized bunches. There’s a lot of collared greens in my freezer.

Day 6


Lunch today was Shakshuka: two eggs poached in asparagus and tomato sauce. The eggs took much longer than the specified seven minutes, which led me to overconfidently walk away from the pan and overcook them. It was still good, though it’s weird to eat a dish made of mostly sauce.

Snack was six strawberries with a tablespoon of almond butter and holy cow was it delicious. I’ve been missing peanut butter and while almond butter isn’t quite the same, it was a reasonable substitute. I was worried that I had eaten my snack too late and too close to dinner, but those worries vanished when I realized what a herculean task dinner was going to be.

Roasted EverythingThere’s no real oven in my apartment, just a little toaster oven. This evening’s dinner involved roasting large batches of three different things for different lengths of time. This recipe would be unreasonable even if I had a real oven. If you do it right you have to use three full-sized baking sheets and be able to fit them all in the oven at once. Unfortunately the meal was delicious. It even looked fancy. For as long as it took to prepare and as cold as my cauliflower got by the time I was ready to eat, it may have been worth it. I’ll have to play around with this one more in the future.

Day 7

Snack was blackberries with yogurt. The second bin of yogurt I bought was a different brand than the first, and I can really taste the difference. It’s creamier, smoother, and seems to have more flavor. I hesitate to point out that the better yogurt also happened to be organic, since the organic label has grown meaningless with over-use. But in the interest of experimentation, I’ll try out some other yogurt brands (both organic and non) in the coming months.

Day 8

Last night I was hit by a monster cold, which had turned into something truly atrocious by the time I woke up at 5AM to cancel my meetings and tell work I wouldn’t be coming in. I took some generic NyQuil and managed to get a solid 5 hours of sleep before sickness pulled me up again a 10AM.

chickpea avodcado feta saladBreakfast for today was supposed to be Cauliflower Hash with Fried Eggs, but I couldn’t fathom trying to eat such a thing. Instead I opted to switch it with tomorrow’s breakfast, a Kale and Banana Smoothie. The smoothie was awful and I don’t think it was the sickness. The flavor and texture of kale are too overwhelming for a smoothie. I’ll take a spinach-based drink any day.

I took another nap and managed to get myself out of bed with enough energy to fix my lunch – Arugula Salad with Eggplant, Avocado, and Chickpeas. It was actually pretty good, and I didn’t get that bad taste from the arugula that I had last time. Perhaps several days in the fridge toned down the sharpness, or the flavors of the salad were able to offset it. Or maybe I was so stuffed up I couldn’t taste things properly.

Cauliflower HashDay 9

I was still in recovery mode today, so breakfast didn’t happen until almost 11AM. I had the Cauliflower Hash with Fried Eggs that I was supposed to have yesterday, and it was pretty good. It’s a hash made of onions instead of potatoes, and it turned out nice and sweet. I did opt to include just half an onion though, since eating a whole onion the day after a bad cold seemed unseemly.

My snack was fantastic. They call it Banana Avocado Pudding. I’m not sure what distinguishes a pudding from a smoothie in their eyes, but I loved it. The avocado makes for a really smooth texture and adds a lot of tasty fat to the banana. This is definitely a recipe I’m going to be keeping around.

Radish & Egg SaladDinner was Snap Pea Salad with Feta, Radish, and Hard-Boiled Egg. I wasn’t looking forward to it. But I ate it, because that’s what the plan told me to eat. It’s the primary benefit of this food challenge. For as much work as it’s been to make my food, I haven’t been thinking about it at all. There’s no question of snacking, no indecision about dinner. There’s no guilt about how many handfuls of chocolate chips is too many, or concern about skipping breakfast in favor of a sizable morning snack. I know exactly what I’m going to eat all day, every day. It’s made having a food restriction easier. I’m never wondering if there will be something I can eat at the party, because I won’t eat anything at the party. I’m not eating anything I didn’t make and bring. There’s freedom in that level of restriction.

We don’t often think of how stressful choosing our own food can be. Each choice you make is a little taxing, no matter how small a choice it is. It’s been a lot of work to stick with this challenge, but it’s never been a drain on my decision muscles. Today one of my co-workers brought me one of the new pumpkin-flavored chocolates she got for the reception desk. I didn’t eat it. I didn’t even think of eating it. During this challenge, there’s no such thing as temptation.

Day 10

My snack was a pear with two tablespoons of raw, unsalted peanuts. Fun Fact: It is close to impossible to find raw, unsalted nuts in the modern supermarket. With last week’s pistachios I had to settle for roasted but unsalted, and for this week’s peanuts I had to get Spanish peanuts instead of the regular ones.

Second fun fact: Spanish peanuts aren’t very good. They’re a little “green” as my boyfriend put it. It’s like you picked the peanuts before they were ripe, and now they taste like leaves.

Parchment FishMy dinner of Asian-Style Cod in Parchment with Bok Choy had a couple of problems. The recipe has you cutting a piece of parchment paper in the shape of a heart for absolutely no reason (I kept mine a solid, honest rectangle). It also has you putting raw bok choy and shallots under a piece of fish and then cooking it for only 12 minutes. This makes for some very raw and severe veggies, especially the shallot. The fish itself was nothing to write home about. I forgot to add the chopped peanuts, but that’s probably for the best.

Tomorrow’s snack is carrot sticks with hummus again, a combination I’ve discovered I only really like as an appetizer served at someone else’s house. There’s something truly unfulfilling about it, like I’m just eating to keep myself busy. I have a problem with eating out of boredom, but I’d rather get rid of the habit than replace it with carrots.

Day 11

Overnight OatsBreakfast was Overnight Oats with Strawberries and Chia Seeds. It was good and flavorful enough, but it’s hard to overcome the basic feature of being soggy and cold. I think I’d prefer to ditch the oats and milk in favor of granola.

For lunch I had Snap Pea and Radish Salad with Quinoa and Arugula. This challenge has been a real tour of salads, and I’m discovering that I only find salads tolerable when they include something filling. Today that was the quinoa, which made the whole salad a lot more satisfying and cut the strength of the oil/vinegar dressing. The other thing I’m finding is that I don’t like oil/vinegar dressing.

Shrimp Lettuce CupsI forgot to add the tamari sauce to my Spicy Tamari Shrimp Lettuce Cups, but shrimp and garlic is such a good combination I didn’t notice. Eating was a royal mess. Perhaps next time I can cut up the lettuce into little bite-sized pieces and eat it with a fork. Lettuce cups are interesting in theory, but in practice they just aren’t worth it. I’m fine ordering lettuce cups when I’m out at a nice restaurant with friends, but does every meal need to feel like an experience?

Day 12

I ate a Chive and Feta Omelet this morning as my last meal. Technically I should have finished the challenge at the end of the day, but ending early was one of the scheduling concessions I had to make. Like all the omelets I made during the challenge, the Chive and Feta turned out well. But I’m sick of eggs for breakfast. I’m glad I can go back to smoothies now.

BreadFor lunch I ate out with friends and managed to stay unintentionally gluten-free. For dinner I celebrated my new culinary freedom with chocolate milk and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was nice to throw together something simple. It was nice to make a meal without measuring spoons. Most of all, it was nice to have bread again. Maybe I am gluten-dependent.


I’ve got one more post coming about what I learned from my food challenge, plus a bonus post on which recipes I recommend.

My Clean Eating Challenge, Part Two

I did it! I completed the Buzzfeed Clean Eating Challenge as promised. I journaled every day to track my progress, and ended up with a LOT to say. Here’s the first part of the challenge. In upcoming posts I’ll have the rest of my journal, an overall assessment, as well as recommendations on which recipes are worth trying and what I’d do differently if I did this challenge again.

Day 1

I was pretty off-put by the Blackberry Yogurt Parfait at first. I’m used to berry things being sweet, and it wasn’t sweet at all. I almost put a dollop of honey in it just because. The thing is, after a while the lack of sweetness didn’t bother me. I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with love for the dish, but somewhere near the halfway mark it stopped tasting like it lacked something. Of course that might work with any food – you eat enough in one sitting and it’s bound to start getting better or worse. Can I train the sweet tooth out of me? I’ll have to see if this translates to other unsweet dishes.

Lunch was the Asian Chicken Salad. The original recipe called for napa cabbage, which I couldn’t find at the store. I’d like to give this salad the benefit of the doubt and suggest that a different cabbage would have changed things. As it was, it was flavorless. It was like an experiment to see how difficult you could make it to eat chicken. Between the cabbage and the carrots, it felt like so much water and connecting fibers, and very little actual nutrition. Perhaps when the challenge is over I’ll try it again with a more rich and flavorful leaf, like spinach.

Cauliflower-SteaksI was really hungry by the time I started my Cauliflower Steaks with Lentils. I was nervous about the cauliflower steaks because it felt like one of those recipes that looks good on Pinterest but doesn’t work in real life. I’m happy to report that it looked weird but tasted great. My lentils were soupy, but that might have been due to some inattention on my part followed by impatience as the cauliflower was done so much sooner than the lentils. Either way, the combination turned out great.

I made it through the day with average energy levels. I experienced the usual late afternoon, post-lunch slump. When I went to bed I was still hungry.

Day 2

Feta & Scallion OmeletEverything I made today tasted great. I don’t think a Scallion and Feta Omelet is something I would normally reach for, but it turned out really well. My smoothie snack was sweet enough for me, though not as sweet as the smoothies I usually make. I suppose there’s a telling lesson in that sentence.

Lunch was Greek Salad with Lentils. The salad itself seemed huge, at first I didn’t even think I could eat all of it. The photos clearly indicated that the lentils were supposed to resemble beans, but mine were confidently oatmeal-like. I opted to make them a side dish, and they were a delicious complement. I wonder what it tastes like when you make them correctly.

Greek SaladI have never bought fennel in my life. On my shopping trip I circled the produce section four times before admitting that I had no idea what fennel looked like and asking the man stocking salad dressings. When it came time to chop it I had to enlist my boyfriend to help me figure out what they meant when they said to cut it into wedges. But in the end the Roasted Chicken Breast with Fennel and Spinach was amazing, and a testament to how much one can do with just salt, pepper, and olive oil.

I was hungry when I came home from work today. The same was true yesterday. The challenge is somewhat calorie-restrictive, but I’m wondering if it’s too restrictive. Or perhaps I’m normally eating too much. Is it possible to be gluten dependent?

Caluiflower OmeletDay 3

Today did not go well. I’m normally not very hungry first thing in the morning, so it made sense to start on breakfast after making and packing the rest of the day’s food. As I was putting the finishing touches on my Cauliflower Omelet breakfast I started to feel weak. I was suddenly very hungry. I guzzled some water, it didn’t help. I felt a knotted emptiness in my stomach. By the time the food was on the plate and the plate on the table, I wasn’t even sitting up straight. I hoped that my breakfast would fix the problem, but it didn’t work. I felt weak and dizzy. I wanted a spoonful of peanut butter. Just one spoonful. Anything to feel like there was gas in the tank.

Blueberry Qunioa Fennel SaladI moved to the couch to alternate between lying down and forcing a few bites down. I told work I’d be in late. I could feel the cooked egg in my stomach and it didn’t feel good. I thought about the smoothie I had made as a snack yesterday and it sounded good. It would be a deviation from the plan, but it would be sticking with the same ingredients. I gave myself another 20 minutes before I caved and made the smoothie. I started to feel a little better instantly, but the unsettled stomach would be with me for most of the day.

Lunch was a disappointment. I think I would have been okay with my Quinoa-Fennel-Blueberry Salad with Mint and Lime if it had a lot more blueberries – and maybe no lime. But I ate it anyway. I still didn’t feel great.

In the late afternoon I attended a meeting where the host had provided snacks. This was a real test. The cheese and crackers were calling me, especially after the morning’s struggles. But I stuck with it. I ate a couple grapes to be polite, then got out my pre-packed carrots with hummus.

Salmon on LentilsMy Simple Roasted Salmon dinner turned out well. I had no idea I could buy a salmon fillet from the store and just stick it in the oven for 8 minutes. The only seasoning is salt, pepper, and lemon. I’ve been afraid of cooking fish for a long time thinking it would be hard to get right. But this was easier than Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.

Mmm. Cheese.

Day 4

Lunch today was Arugula Salad with Salmon, Green Beans, and Dijon Vinaigrette. Mine was rather understated because I hate green beans and didn’t make any. In eating this salad I discovered a very important fact about myself that has always been true but never previously identified.

I hate arugula.

I know I’ve had it before. I’ve had it many times. But it was always mixed in with other things and prepared by someone else. It was one of many leafy greens in a salad mix, or added to the top of a pizza. The taste is familiar and extremely unappetizing to me. Arugula tastes like plant. I realize that I eat a lot of plants, but arugula actually tastes like one. It’s like when you’re a little kid and you eat the leaves off of weeds just because. It’s plant-flavored.

Salmon ArugulaUnlike all those occasions when I’d had arugula in a restaurant or at a friend’s house, this time I knew exactly what was on my plate. There was no mistaking it, no shrugging it off as a weird spice mix. It was straight up arugula, no apologies. And it was gross. I still ate the whole thing. I was hungry.

This is exactly the kind of thing I was hoping would happen during this experiment: I would try new things and learn more about cooking and my personal tastes. The fish and the vinaigrette were fine, I just would have preferred a different green. And now I know. I suppose my only regret is that I still have a lot of arugula waiting for me in the fridge.

I can’t help but notice a pattern formingI haven’t felt full in days. I get hungry, and then less hungry once I eat. I talked with a co-worker and she recalled similar problems when she went on a paleo diet for a while. Her paleo friends warned her that the transition might be hard. “Your body is used to a certain number of calories from certain sources at certain times of the day.” She suggested I might just be going through an adjustment phase, and I’ll feel better next week. Here’s hoping.

My Clean Eating Challenge: Part One

A while back I stumbled upon the most researched, thorough, useful article I believe BuzzFeed has ever published: The Clean Eating Challenge. The concept wasn’t new. It was a diet plan for a two week “detox” that was supposed to make you feel amazing. Normally I am weary of anything claiming to detox you, because that’s what livers are for. I’m also weary of anything suggesting a short-term diet will have long-term effects.

However this particular eating challenge excited me because of it’s completeness. Many diet plans give a list of restrictions or rules with a few suggested recipes. Some offer complete meal plans with no shopping guides, meaning you have to go through each meal individually to figure out what to buy. Other plans list ingredients to buy, but no provision for what to do with the other 3/4 of the jar of sour cream you invariably end up with.

This challenge had it all. There were meals and snacks for every day for 14 days. There were recipes with instructions as well as Pinterest-ready photos of the completed dishes. There were full shopping lists of everything you needed to get at the store, split into two trips you had to make at specific times. They even went so far as to warn you when to take things out of the freezer to defrost, and which meals would be using leftovers from other meals (in case you were considering switching any around). Hell, there was even a list of required kitchen instruments.

Day 1At the time I found it, I was at a bit of a loss nutritionally. I wanted to change my diet but I didn’t know how. And I didn’t know why. Something about it seemed off, like I should be able to have a diet that was more nutritious or that gave me more energy or cost less money or was easier to prepare. I didn’t even know what I was looking for, just that I hadn’t found it. There was something appealing about having zero choice or decision for two solid weeks. I would eat what was on the plan, nothing more, nothing less. I would have to, because I would have a mountain of produce in the fridge that would go bad if I dared stray from the path.

Unfortunately the main appeal of the plan was also its main problem. In order to do it right I needed two uninterrupted weeks. I couldn’t have parties or barbecues or work events that might require me to eat food. I also had to start the plan on a Sunday in order to have lunches I could pack for work while using up the proper leftovers. While there was a provision in the plan for deviations, I couldn’t see how I would make it work without wasting food. And for me, wasting food (and therefore money) was not an option. I looked at my calendar and found a set of weeks about a month away when I could do it. But then things came up. I moved my food challenge dates. It happened again. And again.

Finally I was fed up with pushing it back. I wanted to do this little food experiment and I was never going to do it if I kept waiting for 14 uncomplicated days. I printed out the entire 50 page plan and started combing through it. I figured out that I could skip the first two days and start on Tuesday with only a few minor adjustments. I could, and would, make it work.

The final step in my preparation plan was writing and publishing this post. I’m doing so to guarantee at least some small level of accountability. The challenge starts on September 30th, which means you should see a follow-up post by October 16th, maybe October 20th at the latest.

If you don’t hear anything from me by then, I expect to hear something from you.