Do you often notice yourself standing around the kitchen, wondering if you’re really going to eat the same dinner again? Maybe you planned it out in advance, but the thought of another grilled chicken and veg meal sounds awful.
Perhaps thoughts like these echo in your head too much: “I have no energy or motivation to cook, let alone try something new. I’ll have these chips, chocolate, or a bag of popcorn instead.”
I know how you feel. We’ve all been there. It can be challenging to spice things up in the kitchen while keeping up with a busy routine.
As a health coach, I’ve worked with many clients who can’t decide what to eat. I also spoke with two experts, Melissa Mitri MS, RDN, and Carlee Ferrell, certified in Precision Nutrition. You’ll learn how to recognize true hunger versus eating when bored, and get suggestions for what to eat and how to get out of a food rut. Whether you have no time, don't know how to cook, or want something healthy and fast, there is something here for you.
Are You Hungry or Not?
Before we dive deep into what to eat, it’s important that we learn (or possibly relearn) what hunger feels like so we can make sure we eat when our bodies tell us it’s time for fuel. Honoring your hunger cues may help reduce the effects of psychological stress, regulate eating habits, and improve energy balance. Stress can often be a culprit in skipping a meal, overindulging, or even putting off planning meals for the week.
Some research suggests that learning when to recognize hunger is most helpful in early childhood. Were you ever told you had to finish the food on your plate or eat when you may not have been hungry? Those learned habits could have had a massive impact on your actions today. For example, young adults who ate regular family meals during adolescence ate more fruits and vegetables as young adults than those who never shared family meals in childhood.
If this wasn’t your experience as a child, don’t worry! It’s possible to change your eating habits. All it takes is motivation, resources, and maybe even a trusted coach to put it all in place.
There are a few keys to avoid a food rut and decode real hunger. I’ll walk you through each one.
Top 3 Tips to Decipher Hungry from Other Emotions
With real hunger comes real hunger pangs, stomach growling or rumbling, or even nausea or lightheadedness. Other common feelings that can bring you to eat include anger, boredom, stress, or sadness. Stress eating promises to soothe negative or uncomfortable feelings.
Follow these steps below to see if you’re honoring your hunger cues or following another emotion to eat instead.
At the first sign of hunger, drink water. Did you know that 37% of people confuse real hunger with thirst? That may be because 75% of adults in the United States are chronically dehydrated. If you’re hungry at abnormal times, drink a big glass of water or a solid 5–6 sips from a water bottle. Then wait 20 minutes and see how you feel.
Before eating, always check in with yourself. A great way to do this is to rate your hunger on a scale of 1–10, and you can even use this popular hunger scale to gauge how you feel, says expert Melissa Mitri, MS, RDN.
Put your fork down between bites. Take your time and eat undistracted whenever possible, explains Mitri. Savoring a meal at a slower pace is much more enjoyable. Mindful eating can be a helpful way to be sure you’re eating as a result of hunger, and that you avoid emotional eating. To further practice mindful eating, take a few deep breaths before eating, which can also benefit digestion.
One essential element to remember about emotional eating is that while eating nutritious food is vital, obsessing about it can be dangerous, too. Obsessing about healthy eating to a point where it can damage your well-being is called Orthorexia Nervosa.
Some signs of orthorexia could include emotional eating, extreme rigidity about healthy eating, feeling certain foods are dangerous, or guilt when falling off an eating pattern. If these feel familiar, always remember there are many nutritionists and healthcare professionals ready to help.
Hungry But Not Sure For What? We Got You
After you know if you’re following your hunger cues, what happens when you are bored with your food routine or uninspired? There are plenty of ways to change things up, and I’m here to let you in on a few secrets from my clients and a few others.
Mitri had a client who was always bored with what she was eating and never felt satisfied. Mitri shared new recipes that were quick to make to fit her client’s busy schedule, easing her into a routine of making one or two new recipes per week.
I worked with a client who was always getting home late and unsure of what to eat in a pinch. She was famished, but with no energy to cook, she would rather go for unhealthy snacks instead of a meal. She was in a food rut, bored with the typical healthy meal options. Eating unhealthy food too late was causing insomnia, weight gain, and fatigue.
If you can empathize with these two clients, check out the food options below to see if anything intrigues you.
How to Avoid a Food Rut & Stay Satisfied
Switch up each meal with a new protein, veggie, and fruit. Healthy swaps include: Greek yogurt instead of eggs for breakfast or canned tuna, salmon, and edamame in a salad instead of chicken. Simple swaps can make all the difference in preventing boredom.
Bring a healthy snack to work: This will help avoid that insatiable hunger you may feel when you get home. Examples include a low-sodium trail mix, green smoothie, low-sugar protein bar, or a piece of fruit with a small handful of almonds.
Prep larger meals or snacks: Ferrell suggests that her clients prepare larger portions of healthy meals and snacks, and store them in appropriate serving sizes so you can cook once and eat twice (or even three times) from the same recipe. Take about 30 minutes during the weekend to research a few easy recipes to prepare, then set up a menu for the week. Create a grocery list and stick to it. Advanced preparation can help you maintain control over your food choices and provide a greater opportunity for success, says Ferrell.
Add a new healthy sauce to your cooking: Some ideas can include homemade chimichurri, peanut sauce, sriracha mayo, or even a different take on soy sauce, like coconut aminos. One great brand to satisfy a creamy mayo craving is Primal Kitchen’s mayo made with avocado oil, or you can make your own for the week.
Join a community to get ideas: Eating the same meals every week is no fun, leading to a no-good food rut. Try out a new food delivery service for inspiration. Mitri’s favorites are Sun Basket and Purple Carrot, providing plant-based or a variety of proteins for all. Ferrel loves to check out the Minimalist Baker for easy ideas.
Now that you have a few ways to change things up and get inspired, it’s time to get right into cooking. Check out some meal and snack options when you’re in a hurry or bored with your routine. You’re sure to find something both nutritious and delicious below.
Healthy Go-To Food Ideas
(Hint: Include a protein, healthy fat, and complex carbohydrate to stay full longer.)
Bento boxes: One of Mitri’s favorites, these are pre-portioned containers that can store a variety of ready-to-go foods like hard-boiled eggs, chicken salad, nuts, fruit, veggies, hummus, and more.
Chopped-up salads or mason jar salads: For chopped salads, grab a bag of already chopped salad kits or shredded veggies (think broccoli slaw, shredded cabbage, shredded carrots, etc.) and add your favorite protein like tuna, salmon, chicken, or eggs, and you’ll have a nutritious meal in five minutes. You can easily prepare a mason jar salad the night before, making it easy to add some more veggies to your meals. Maybe it’s even a simple routine change like trying a bacon-esque crunchy element like Beyond-Bacon Crunchsters or flavored Crunchy Roasted Sea Salt Lentils on your normal salads.
Try a one-pot or sheet pan meal for dinner: Combine cubed protein, veggies, and a complex carb on a sheet pan drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with your fave spices and herbs. Try chicken breast with Brussels sprouts and pre-cut butternut squash. There are so many options for simple, minimal effort for a healthy dinner with these tricks, says Mitri.
Put a spin on old favorites: Some of Ferrell’s favorite recipes are from NASM's free online cookbook, like Cauliflower Mac and Cheese, Mocha Oatmeal, and a Pesto Egg Salad Sandwich. Healthy eating doesn’t have to taste bland. Once you start finding your favorites, you’ll be ready to change them up in a pinch in no time.
Grab ready-made egg bites or frittatas. These are usually stored in the freezer section of the grocery store. Wrap one or two in a damp paper towel and pop them in the microwave for an easy breakfast. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can find different recipes for egg bites online, so you can switch up the flavor profile whenever you get bored, says Ferrell. Combine all of the ingredients in a big bowl, pour into muffin tins and bake for a great make-ahead breakfast. You can even buy some hard-boiled eggs and pair them with mashed avocado on toast for another grab-and-go option. Try to avoid white bread and stick with a whole wheat, sprouted wheat, or gluten-free alternative.
Don’t be afraid to stretch your creativity with a new seasonal veggie, homemade sauce, or even a new protein you may not be used to.
The Bottom Line
There are so many ways to switch up your food routine and get out of a rut and, like all aspects of healthy living, we’re all unique in what works. Testing out a new cookbook, meal plan, or support system is a great way to get inspired again.
Do you feel like you need individualized advice on what to eat most of the time? Sign up for a free consultation with a certified nutritionist today for more tips, motivation, and a personalized plan for long-term success.