Why? Simply put, it’s one of the few healthy eating “golden rules” that experts can agree on, no matter if they’re a fan of Paleo or keto or the Mediterranean diet. And it’s something that can be adapted to nearly any way of eating, regardless of a person’s unique nutritional or dietary needs.
But it’s easy to bite off more than you can chew when working towards a new goal, no matter how gung-ho you feel on January 1. Because it takes 28 days to build a habit, we’ve set up our food challenge to give you a piece of actionable advice every single day for the next four weeks, all with the goal of getting you to eat more whole foods while meeting your own individual healthy eating goals along the way.
Ready to join us on four weeks of change? It all starts on January 5. Read up on the plans, sign up for our newsletter* (in the box below), and sync the plan to your calendar. Your healthy eating goals are so close, you can almost taste them.
Keep reading for the full 28-day healthy eating challenge:
Day 1: Set your goals
Think about what healthy eating habits you want to change or implement in your own life today, and write them down. As mentioned, we’re encouraging everyone to eat more whole foods and fewer processed foods, but what does that look like for you?
Brigitte Zeitlin, MPH, RD, CDN and founder of BZ Nutrition in New York, recommends whittling down broader goals into something more specific that you can “count and measure” in order to stay accountable. “For example, you can say that you want to never skip breakfast, which is something small that you can count and quantify. It’s a tweak that’s going to make a huge impact,” she says.
It’s also important to keep your goals focused on behaviors, not specific foods, to avoid falling into a restrictive mindset, says Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, the owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness, a virtual private practice that specializes in intuitive eating. “I recommend asking yourself: Am I hoping this resolution will change my body? Am I only removing things from my life, or am I adding? Am I attempting to change a behavior or an outcome?” How you answer can help you figure out whether a potential goal is coming from a healthy place or not.
You should also think about your lifestyle and how your eating patterns fit into it. “The whole point is to make these habits last all 12 months,” says Zeitlin; if you’re setting goals that don’t mesh with how you realistically want to live, you likely won’t be able to stick to them. For example, if you like to eat out a lot with your friends, saying you’ll cook every single meal for yourself probably isn’t feasible. But if you decide that you want to cook at least one meal per day, that still gives you some flexibility to have social time with your friends without overhauling your life.
Day 2: Start a food diary
Zeitlin suggests spending a full week, including weekends, tracking what you eat and drink to get a more holistic picture of your typical eating habits. You don’t need to track calories, portion sizes, or macros—Zeitlin says just jotting what you ate and drank and the time of day you ate it is enough. The exception: beverages. “We do want to know if you’re having eight glasses of water or if you’re having eight glasses of wine,” she says.
Why start a food journal? Having a clearer picture of your current eating habits will make it easier to make goals that are relevant to you and your needs—which may help you tweak or revise those goals you set on Day 1.
Day 3: Assess your sugar intake
It’s universally accepted at this point that excess sugar consumption is a major risk factor for inflammation, diabetes, and heart disease, yet it’s still a huge part of most people’s diets. Per the American Heart Association, adult women should eat no more than 25 grams (about six teaspoons) of added sugar per day, but most of us consume about three times that amount.
That’s why as part of your food diary, Zeitlin says it’s a good idea to track all of your sources of sugar, from the healthy (fruits and grains) to the more decadent, and assess where your sugar is coming from in a given day or week. Then, rework your eating habits so that your sugar intake reaches the recommended levels—without cutting everything out.
“If you’re someone who wants your overall sugar intake for the day to have something sweet, all you have to do is know that about yourself,” says Zeitlin. “Then we work backwards. Every night after dinner you have one ounce of dark chocolate, fantastic. Then the rest of your day, make sure that you’re having no more than two cups of fruit a day and no more than two cups of grain a day.” Approaching it in this way leaves room for dessert while keeping your overall sugar levels in check.
Day 4: Do a fridge and pantry inventory
Healthy eating of course starts with what you have in your fridge and kitchen. Often what we have on hand in our own environments helps inform the food choices we make. "If your pantry and fridge are stocked with lots of healthy, easy food options, you’ll be a lot less likely to cave,” Kimberly Snyder, CN, previously told Well+Good.
Take a look today at what foods you currently have on your shelves and look for patterns. How much of it is fresh versus packaged? How much of it is plants? How much of it qualifies as processed? Note that down and aim to cut back on the processed stuff and replace it with fresh or minimally-processed goods. And ditch items that are expired or that contain artificial preservatives, artificial sweeteners, or high fructose corn syrup.
Day 5: Stock up on healthy supplies and groceries
Now that you’ve seen the areas of your kitchen that need filling in, it’s time to take a trip to the grocery store to load up on new supplies. Some general things to keep in mind when shopping for healthy food: Buy produce that’s in season, choose minimally-processed foods with short ingredients lists, and buy only what you truly plan on cooking. “Nothing is more debilitating than buying a whole bunch of fresh vegetables and then throwing them out when you can’t cook them all before they go bad,” says Zeitlin. She encourages everyone to make a list of exactly what they intend on cooking and sticking with it at the grocery store.
Some of Zeitlin’s favorite staples that she always has in her kitchen: almond butter, tomato sauce, olive oil, parmesan cheese, spinach, blueberries or some other form of fruit, and dark chocolate.
Day 6: Enjoy a produce item you’ve never tried before
Take a baby step towards eating more whole foods today and eat a produce item that you’ve never had before. Bonus points if it’s in season!
Day 7: Practice reframing your internal food talk
Healthy eating is about more than what you consume; it’s about how you relate to food, too. “A good relationship with food means that food has no moral code,” says Zeitlin. Yet for many people, food choices are often complicated by feelings of guilt or shame—which can have damaging effects on our psyche. “Categorizing foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can cause some mental restriction, where we feel badly after eating ‘bad foods’ and then tell ourselves we'll never eat that way again,” says Rumsey. It can lead to a cycle of restricting foods, then bingeing on those foods, then feeling guilty about overdoing it and working to restrict again—a cycle that is unhealthy for physical and mental health, she says.
It can take time and practice to neutralize your internal dialogue, says Rumsey. Start today (and keep it up every day after) by actively questioning and challenging your thoughts about food. If you find yourself thinking that you “shouldn’t” eat something, for example, ask yourself why. Is it because you think the food is “bad” or because you truly don’t feel like eating it? If it’s the former, tune out your judgy thoughts, eat the food, and pay attention to how it makes you feel after (and, you guessed it, put it in your food journal).
Day 8: Commit to eating 30 plants over the course of this week
Research shows that people who regularly eat at least 30 different kinds of plants—including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, and herbs—have the healthiest guts. Boost your own gut health by committing to eating 30 different plant foods this week. The number seems daunting, but remember that this isn’t just focused exclusively on fruits and veggies. If you add some chia seeds and berries onto your yogurt in the morning, make a grain bowl with roasted sweet potato and kale for lunch, snack on an apple and some nut butter in the afternoon, and add cauliflower mash and sautéed spinach to your roasted salmon for dinner, you’re already a third of the way there in one day.
Day 9: Replace one processed snack or food today with a whole-food alternative
As part of our quest to eat more whole foods and fewer processed foods, take a snack or food you plan to eat and replace it with a whole-foods alternative. So if you typically reach for a protein bar at 3 p.m., try eating a handful of nuts with a piece of fruit instead, says Zeitlin. Some other whole-food snacks she loves: hard boiled eggs, half of an avocado, or part-skim string cheese with carrots, grapes, or a pear.
Day 10: Identify your "top 3"
Eating a variety of foods is one of the foundations of a healthy diet—not just for the above-mentioned gut-health benefits, but because each whole food comes with its own unique nutritional profile. “All of our fruits and vegetables are different colors because of the different amounts of vitamins and minerals they have,” says Zeitlin. By eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, you get a variety of vitamins and minerals in your diet, from potassium and magnesium to vitamins C and K. Same goes for protein sources, she says—they all offer different amounts of protein as well as nutrients like iron and omega-3 fatty acids.
Today, actively introduce variety into your diet by identifying the top three fruits, vegetables, and proteins that you eat most often. Then challenge yourself to find a fourth of each to add into your meals today. So if you often gravitate towards salmon, try another fish like halibut or tuna. If you only ever eat spinach, try out arugula or baby kale instead. Try this trick again whenever you feel like you’re stuck in a food rut.
Day 11: Add an extra serving of fiber
Considering that most women only eat about 15 grams of fiber per day (just over half of the recommended daily intake), everyone could stand to add another serving of fiber to their meals. “Fiber is important for regulating blood sugars [and] regulating bowel movements,” says McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN, founder of Nutrition Stripped. “Some [fiber-rich] foods are prebiotic foods, meaning they feed the good bacteria in our gut, and fiber has been shown to help decrease cholesterol, improve cardiovascular health, and more.”
Start adding in more fiber today in the form of an extra serving of leafy green vegetables, legumes instead of meat as your protein, or sprinkling chia seeds on your morning oatmeal or yogurt. (And yes, because we’re all about whole foods sources of nutrients, skip the supplements or powders.) Now that you’ve got a good fiber thing going, keep up this extra serving throughout the rest of the month.
Day 12: Swap out something with meat for a plant-based protein
Most health experts agree that all of us could stand to eat less meat for health and environmental reasons. But you don’t have to go completely cold turkey (no pun intended) in order to reap the benefits. Start by replacing one meat-containing meal today with a plant-based protein, suggests Kooienga. She’s a fan of Start adding in more fiber today , but really any whole-foods, plant-based protein works.
Day 13: Practice mindfulness during meals
Mindfulness isn’t just for your meditation app—it’s a crucial part of healthy eating, says Rumsey. “Mindful eating is being conscious of what you are eating and why. It’s about getting back in touch with the experience of eating and enjoying your food,” she says. This can promote a more loving, intuitive relationship with food.
Put it into practice by adding a “pause” before each meal or snack, Rumsey says. “Use this pause as a time to check in with your body. How are you feeling? What are you feeling? How hungry are you? What food sounds good to you? This non-judgemental curiosity helps you connect with your body in order to respond to needs and desires.”
Day 14: Eat at least one type of “sea” food
Fun fact: 85 percent of Americans don’t eat the recommended eight ounces of seafood per week. That’s a BFD, considering all the benefits that fish and shellfish offer in the form of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and more. Consider this motivation to buy a serving of salmon, tuna, or any of your other favorite kind of fish and cook it tonight for dinner. (These healthy fish recipes should serve as some worthy inspo.)
Vegans, you’re not off the hook—it’s crucial that everyone gets their share of omega-3s and B-vitamins from ocean foods. Add some spirulina powder to your smoothie, sprinkle algae flakes (called dulse) onto your breakfast, or crunch on some seaweed snacks to get similar benefits.
Day 15: Take stock of your cooking knowledge
Unless you want to eat everything raw (which… is not recommended), a huge part of eating more whole foods is being more comfortable and confident in the kitchen. You don’t need to have a degree from Le Cordon Bleu, but it is important to master a few baseline skills. “Start with a high-quality chef’s knife and learn basic knife skills—this will completely transform how you cook at home!” says Kooienga. (YouTube tutorials are your friend.)
Knowing how to make rice or other cooked grains is another key fundamental skill. So is roasting and broiling, says Zeitlin. “Broiling is super easy—all you have to turn that oven notch to broil and not much else,” she says. Plus, it’s a good way to quickly cook proteins, from chicken and salmon to tofu. “It’s very versatile, not super labor intensive, and yet goes a long way,” she adds.
If any of these things are a mystery to you, take advantage of your Sunday to practice them at home. Your future cooking efforts will thank you.
Day 16: Commit to cooking 3 dinners this week
Again, part of embracing eating more whole, unprocessed foods is cooking. This week, say yes to cooking at least three dinners for yourself. (We have suggestions on how to do that in the days ahead.) Set cal reminders, go grocery shopping today, do whatever it is you need to do to make cooking in some form happen this week.
Day 17: Try a new spice you’ve never used before
Consistency can be great when you’re trying to establish new habits, says Zeitlin. But consistency with food can also get boring—which is where flavor enhancers like spices can come in. Shop the spice section at Trader Joe’s or your favorite grocery store to find new seasonings to experiment with. Or combine spices you like in different ways—like mixing ground ginger and chili powder to put on a salmon bowl—to excite your taste buds. Plus, spices can count towards that “30 plants a week” goal.
Day 18: Roast a tray of vegetables
Roasting is another crucial cooking skill, so test your hand at it this evening by roasting a tray of any vegetables you like. “You can take any vegetable, toss it in olive oil, sprinkle salt and pepper, bake at 350-400 degrees F for 30 minutes, and be good to go,” says Kooienga. “Every vegetable is different depending on their water content, so you'll just have to keep an eye out for the vegetable to get soft, golden brown, or crispy depending on the desired texture.” If you’re an old hat at this, upgrade to a sheet-pan dinner that roasts vegetables alongside a healthy protein of choice.
Day 19: DIY a sauce or salad dressing
Another easy way to add flavor to foods: sauces and dressings. Since store-bought options often contain extra additives and hidden sugars, DIY your own today instead and store it in the fridge. Then just whip it out and add a teaspoon or two onto meals that need more oomph. Mastering this now will also come in handy for next week’s tasks.
Some sauce recipes to try:
- 5-ingredient “liquid gold” sauce with turmeric and tahini
- Lauren Toyota’s go-to vegetable sauce
- Healthy barbecue sauce
- Healthy ranch dressing
Day 20: Cook with an item of seasonal produce as your main ingredient
Check out your farmer’s market today to see what’s in season—in January, that typically means citrus fruits, butternut and acorn squashes, and Brussels sprouts—and take something home to cook with. “You’re not only supporting local farmers who take care of the land, but you’re also consuming produce at its peak nutrition,” says Kooienga. “In addition, it encourages you to get creative with the recipes and meals you're making because you may be cooking with produce you haven't tried before.”
Day 21: Shop your pantry for a quick dinner
Your pantry is your secret weapon when it comes to healthy cooking—think of it as home to crucial staples like rice, beans, grains, cooking oils, and spices that are the foundation for practically any meal. Scan your pantry and your perishable leftovers and challenge yourself to create a healthy meal based on everything you’ve learned so far. Everyone’s pantry is a bit different depending on their tastes and health needs, but here are some easy pantry recipes to reference (or try yourself).
Day 22: Cook a big batch meal to eat the rest of the week
It’s time to take your cooking and nutrition skills to the next level this week with meal prepping. You’re less likely to buy pre-made, packaged foods or order takeout when you essentially already have your meals in the fridge ready to go.
Your task tonight is to make a batch of something that you will then eat in some form all week long. Zeitlin says while you can certainly make a big thing of chili or soup, she generally likes to approach her meal prep by preparing two vegetables and a starch in large quantities. “That can be burnt broccoli and cauliflower, or roasted cauliflower and brussels sprouts, plus quinoa or brown rice,” she suggests. Cook and store them separately, then build your full meal for each day by adding a cooked protein (whether that’s shredded rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, roasted salmon, or marinated tempeh), some healthy fats like cheese or sliced avocado, and a sauce or dressing for flavor.
This mix-and-match philosophy is what Kooienga calls “meal components and rotations,” and she encourages all her clients to use it. “This helps reduce decision fatigue with meal prep, reduce food waste, saves you time, saves you money, and saves you energy to put towards other things in life that nourish you,” she says.
Day 23: Bring your lunch to work every day
Use the ingredients you batch-cooked to create a delicious healthy lunch for yourself every day this week, using the principles above. Don’t forget to add a sauce or spice for extra flavor!
Day 24: Cook something new with your leftovers
So you still have a ton of leftovers from your Sunday meal prep. Today, cook something easy and new using those ingredients. This doesn’t have to be exceptionally fancy; Zeitlin swears by tossing leftover vegetables in cooked chickpea pasta, or putting a new sauce on plain leftover foods to give them a different flavor profile. Or, put everything back in a hot frying pan and make a stir fry or fried rice.
Day 25: Take a night off
You’ve been cooking a lot this month—good job, you! But food is also meant to be enjoyed with others, so take the night off and go out to dinner with friends or loved ones.
“Going in with a game plan is everything when eating out,” says Zeitlin. “What tends to trip us up [from healthy eating goals] are the spontaneous choices.” She recommends reading the menu before you go if possible. Then strategize your meal accordingly. “There are four main places that people tend to overindulge at restaurants: alcohol, bread basket, starchy mains, and dessert. I like to say pick one or two, call it out to yourself before you go, and then enjoy those two things,” she says. So if you’re going to an Italian restaurant and really want pasta and a glass of wine, enjoy those two things, and save the unlimited breadsticks for another time.
Day 26: Prep your breakfast for tomorrow
Most meal-prep efforts are focused on lunches and dinners, but considering that 31 million Americans regularly skip breakfast, it’s worth trying to make the morning meal process a bit more point-and-click for the sake of your mood and energy levels. Prep tomorrow’s breakfast tonight by cooking a batch of hard-boiled eggs and storing them in the refrigerator, preparing overnight oats in a mason jar or reusable container, or even just buying a larger 32-ounce container of plain yogurt and portioning it into half-cup servings, suggests Zeitlin. “Top it off with your favorite fruit in the morning,” she says, along with any nuts, seeds, or spices you like.
Some other make-ahead breakfast options:
Day 27: Make a healthy version of your favorite recipe
Test the new skills that you’ve mastered this month and make a “healthy” version of your favorite recipe, whether that’s adding more vegetables to your go-to mac and cheese or making your mom’s beef chili recipe totally plant-based. Feeling a bit stumped? Check out these healthy winter comfort food recipes for some inspiration.
Day 28: Plan next week’s menu and shopping list
Congratulations, you made it to the end of the challenge. Ready to use the tips and skills you’ve mastered for another month of healthier eating? Keep up the momentum by committing to at least three nights of cooking at home each week. We know that life is unpredictable and this isn’t always possible, but it definitely won’t happen if you don’t plan ahead for it. So spend some time today mapping out your meals and stocking up on supplies.
For inspiration and encouragement on this journey, we suggest joining the Cook With Us community on Facebook to connect with other like-minded healthy foodies.
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