Diversity is beautiful: Buy food in a variety of textures and colors because they contain more vitamins and minerals, and set up a pantry of staples—olive oil, tamari, wild rice, sea salt, a variety of legumes.
Think about what you do during the day and choose your energy intake respectively. On your feet a lot? Steer toward high-quality carbs.
Step One: Keep a Food Diary
Buy a notepad and, for two weeks, record everything—and we mean everything—you eat each day. At the end of the first week, mark items that are a simple preparation of fresh food as ff. Mark crackers, cookies, ice cream, and other sweet snacks and desserts as ed, for "energy-dense." What's the ratio? When are you eating? (Ideally, your calories should be consumed evenly throughout the day.) Do more than four hours elapse between meals and snacks? (This lag may promote overeating.) During the second week, start checking out ingredients in the products you buy. Can you find items you like with a smaller number of ingredients, and beverages that aren't loaded with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup? After week two, assess what's changed from week one.
Step Two: Plan a Meal Schedule
Eating well requires planning a weekly menu and doing the bulk of your shopping, and even some cooking, ahead of time, like on a weekend afternoon. Write your eating schedule down in your daily planner, the same way you'd schedule a workout or business appointment. Now make a shopping list that balances carbs, protein, and fat. The more active you are—Working out frequently? On your feet all day?—the more that ratio should lean toward high-quality carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. In your plan, include specific time-saving steps, like roasting three pans of, say, red potatoes with rosemary, or carrots and parsnips tossed in olive oil, and storing them in airtight containers in the fridge. Now write down what you'll be eating and snacking on through your day: soup or chili, pineapple slices, a bagel with cream cheese, an apple, homemade zucchini bread. Like to eat out a few times a week? Great. Build that into the plan, but steer toward restaurants with a menu that's fresh and local.
Step Three: Explore New Food Sources
Sitting down to produce, whole grains, meat, and fish at every meal will likely require several trips to a store or market during the week, since foods without preservatives can spoil quickly. Get in the mind-set of shopping for natural foods in a variety of textures and colors. (Coloration is a reflection of different vitamins and minerals.) Diversify your provisions by buying a different vegetable or fruit every week; ask the local farmer or produce manager how to eat a pomegranate, how to slice a mango, or how to sauté Swiss chard. "It takes time to shift the places where you shop and how you think about food," says Anne Lappé. "But we spend a lot of hours at the gym trying to lose the weight we put on eating unhealthy foods. Think how much time you'd save if you didn't have to do that."
Step Four: Build Your Cooking Skills
Take a class, or at least get a good cookbook. Need some suggestions? How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman (Wiley, $35); The Essentials of Cooking, by James Peterson (Artisan, $25); or The Gourmet Cookbook, edited by Ruth Reichl (Houghton Mifflin, $40). Basic cooking includes learning to chop and carve produce and cuts of meat and learning to steam, sear, roast, and grill. Now you can learn more sophisticated techniques—making a simple sauce from oil, shallots, butter, and wine; making fresh salsa; using herbs and spices; making a simple soup from roasted winter vegetables. Invest in decent knives, pans, and bowls. Finally, set up a pantry of staples, like tamari, olive oil, sea salt, legumes, and wild rice, so that every recipe doesn't require a separate run to the market. "If all you have in your refrigerator is ketchup and beer," says nutritionist Ellie Krieger, "that's all you're going to eat."
Step Five: Use the Real Stuff
Foods labeled "low-carb" can cause trouble if you're eating twice as much to feel satisfied. Likewise "low-fat." It may even be preferable to use real butter or cream in a sauce than to drown a dish in low-fat substitutes in order to try to match the taste. That said, if a recipe calls for sautéing with butter, try using olive oil instead. Make your own salad dressing—simple olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and Dijon mustard whisked together is better than most prepared dressings. Remember the glycemic index? Start swapping foods with a high GI rating for those with a low one. For example, try boiled new potatoes instead of baked russets; instead of sticky or white rice, try wild or parboiled rice; replace cream soups with broth-based soups; instead of breads, eat greens. Enjoy cream-cheese dips? Try bean dips like hummus. Also, have an occasional treat—subbing in, say, filet mignon for a flank steak.
Step Six: Host a Meal
It's no accident that the bulk of bad eating happens in solitary or socially deficient settings. Put it this way: Friends don't let friends serve frozen pizza. Take your new skills and put them to work hosting a meal—for a date, pals, or family. "We are tribal animals, and eating for human beings is a social activity," says cookbook author and Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl. "As you start to understand the pace of eating socially—which is much slower—you eat less, and it's more satisfying."
Step Seven: Plant a Garden
Time to close the loop, and few things are more empowering than sitting down to food you grew from a seedling. Live in a city? Try containers on your fire escape, windowsill, or rooftop. Even an herb garden above your sink is a great start. Making the connection between the work that goes into something as simple as a tomato and the flavor it offers on your plate will change the way you view produce—and food in general—forever.