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What To Do When You’re Not In The Mood To Eat Healthy

We all have days where we feel like just letting go. You know – the ones where you want to stay in your pajamas and eat ice cream and potato chips all day while binge watching Netflix.

Yeah, those days.

The ones where, no matter how hard you try to counter it, you’re not in the mood to eat healthy.

I’ve been there too. Believe me.

Remember, health is not built or destroyed by one day’s food choices. But uncovering why you feel so resistant to making better food choices is a great way to learn something new about your body, so you can more consistently eat healthy (without the struggle).

So the next time you get into that mood, use it as an opportunity! Here’s what to do when you’re not in the mood to eat healthy.

Simplify your meal prep

If eating healthy seems stressful, complicated, or time consuming, know that it doesn’t have to stay that way. Perhaps you can consider a salad for dinner so you don’t have to heat up the house (using pre-washed bagged greens, healthy salad dressing, goat cheese, avocado, and maybe some grilled grass-fed steak). Or bust out your slow cooker, so dinner is ready by the time you get home from work (pulled pork, maybe?). Maybe you can buy sausage or pre-marinated meat and stir fry it with some chopped zucchini and bell peppers (hopefully in a cast iron pan). Or pre-make some roasted vegetables, so you have half the meal prep ready by the time you get home from work.

(Psst – there are many tasty roasted vegetables recipes in my ebook “Veggies: Eat Them Because You Want To, Not Because You Have To”! Snag your FREE copy at the end of this post!) When we believe healthy eating is too much effort, it is. It takes a little practice, but I assure you it doesn’t have to be hard.

Get curious about what’s driving your cravings

Did you have a stressful day at work? Problems with friends, family, or loved ones? Did you make the healthy breakfast mistake again? Do you feel addicted to certain foods? Feeling lonely, upset, or depressed?

Eating food to change our state of mind is a natural drive. We know eating can lead to a surge of dopamine and serotonin in your brain that makes you feel good and feel loved – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we also know that food can be used to cover up and distract ourselves from feeling our true emotions. Temporarily masking emotions with food only perpetuates its power over us and the feeling of being helpless. This can lead to binging and feeling out of control. Seek support, counseling, and other ways to soothe yourself beyond food. And of course remember, it’s natural to have days where you need a little (or a lot of) cake and chocolate. Just remember to tune in and recognize the source of those cravings.

Ask yourself if you’re truly hungry

After you’ve considered the source of your cravings, it’s important to check in and see how hungry you are and what you’re hungry for. You want to know if it’s physical hunger or your mental appetite running the show. Are you craving salty or sweet? Crunchy or soft? Hot or cold? A little bite of something or a full meal? You can practice the Hunger Awareness Exercise to help tune in to those cues. Oftentimes we are so driven by habit that we forget to check in with ourselves before diving in to our food. This is especially true with junk food that’s literally engineered to make us want to eat more.

Listen to your body

Denying yourself the pleasure of food just because it’s “good” or “bad” by someone else’s definition doesn’t work in your favor (I call it the nutritionism trap). Unless you have a solid reason (such as a diagnosed food sensitivity or are on a guided elimination diet for restoring your health and digestion), denying yourself certain foods often results in binging on them later. So go ahead and have a little. Enjoy that piece of chocolate. Savor every little morsel! (Full disclosure: there are always treats in my house. And no, kale chips or spinach chips don’t always satisfy a desire for chips. We all need the real thing sometimes.)

Remind yourself why you usually eat healthy

Staying tuned in to how your body responds to food is some of the best self discovery work we can do. For example – you may notice sugary foods make you feel lousy, low energy, or even crave more sweets. I certainly notice that after the holidays and have indulged more than usual. Without shaming my indulgences, I simply observe that I don’t feel great, and find ways to overcome those post holiday sugar cravings. After a certain amount of practice, you may notice you naturally gravitate towards healthier foods because you enjoy feeling good! Again, while there’s nothing wrong with the temporary satisfaction of a treat, honoring your body’s preference to feel good is both sustainable and gratifying.

Make a health(ier) swap

While I do not believe in denial, I do believe that our taste preferences will only change if we make an effort. I like to think of them as incremental changes. For example, if you really want hot chocolate, maybe you can make it yourself with unsweetened cocoa powder and a smaller amount of sugar. Or if you want chips, maybe you can choose the ones that are made with fewer and simpler ingredients (again, I fully realize and agree that kale chips, although delicious, are not the same thing). Or if mac & cheese is calling your name, maybe you can learn to make it at home with real food ingredients instead of resorting to blue box (I think you know exactly what I’m talking about).

Now that you’ve heard my approach to managing those days where eating healthy is the last thing on my mind, I’d love to hear what works for you.

Tell me about it in the comments below.

Until next week,
Lily

Veggies: Eat them because you want to, not because you have to

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Lily Nichols is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Educator, researcher, and author with a passion for evidence-based prenatal nutrition and exercise. Her work is known for being research-focused, thorough, and unapologetically critical of outdated dietary guidelines. She is the author of two bestselling books, Real Food for Pregnancy and Real Food for Gestational Diabetes.

16 Comments

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  1. Haha! I had one of those potato chip cravings yesterday. I didn’t give in because I didn’t have any Coca Cola to go with it 🙂 Besides, dinner was almost ready.
    Normally, I can convince myself that instead of spending money on potato chips, I will indulge in something that I really like and that likes me back. Greek yogurt or Larabars are my usual picks. My budget doesn’t allow me to eat those regularly, so it’s a big indulgence in my mind.

    • I like that approach, Renata – choosing food that you like that likes you back! And you’re right, it’s hard to justify a $3 bag of potato chips when that $3 could go towards real food instead.

  2. I always practice the art of distraction first. I typically get up and do some laundry, tidy up a spot in the kitchen or bedroom, pack my children’s lunches for the next day, or step outside for a breath of fresh air. If after 5-10 minutes the craving is still there, I let myself have a mindful bite, and typically after that, the craving is satisfied. If it isn’t, I fill up on veggies or a protein shake and then repeat the process! Distract, bite, fill up on volume 🙂

    • I like your system, Stacey.

  3. I wasn’t ready to sell my house; I remodel and it is only half done. These people kept telling me they couldn’t find anything and daughter very ill so they need to be close. I live right next door and the daughter is very sweet and dear.

    No matter how great the deal, I have never in my life sold anything not as close to perfect as possible, not for any money. We are nearing retirement, however.

    Yesterday I broke and couldn’t bear the stress of taking the house to code so I went alone to Dairy Queen and ate vanilla ice cream in a waffle cone.

    I’m not going to lie, it was so sooo good, I ate it all alone in a lovely park and was able to calm down.

    Eating out with family and friends has been great because they all now go to places where I can have something wonderful! Several have taken to joining me in healthy choices, much to their surprise that the food is fabulous and I know they often eat differently at home now. My husband, too, is changing – so I have a lot to live up to!

    I may have had ice cream, but I would never let anyone else see me because I want so much to help them keep on eating the good stuff. But every now and then, life overwhelms.

    • And allowing ourselves those treats every now and again is part of being on this health journey, Donna. It sounds like that excursion for ice cream was exactly what you needed – a chance to soothe, calm down, and step away from the stress.

      PS – How wonderful that you’re becoming a role model of healthy eating for your family and friends! I, too, notice many people are surprised that healthy food can taste so good.

  4. Lily,
    I love how you bring up the topic of “other cravings” other than food. I know for me when I don’t want healthy food it’s usually because I’m in the mood for entertainment or novelty or freedom (freedom from cooking or food rules). It’s nice to have a reminder to check it mentally/emotionally with what else may be going on inside.

    • Oh yes, those pesky “other cravings”! Identifying the underlying emotions/urges is step one. Then it’s a choice, rather than a compulsion, to indulge mindfully in whatever it is you want or to manage those feelings in other ways. It puts you in control, not the food.

  5. Hi Lily, Thanks for this post… I am definitely one that falls into the bag-o-chips trap. I have a major salty palate and find myself craving crunchy, salty things often (mostly triggered by stress). One thing I’ve found that helps lessen the craving is roasted nori. Especially the ones with wasabi powder. They have the natural umami saltiness without the added sodium, and the crunch is usually what I’m looking for. Also, they are nice to grind with a mortar and pestle and sprinkle on air popped popcorn. Again, thanks for the post and great tips and advice.

    • That’s certainly a healthy swap, Jill. I also love those seaweed snacks as I tend to crave salty more than sweet.

  6. Oh, yeah! I’m having one of those days today- driven by exhaustion. My “problem” is that rather than seeking out less healthy foods I just don’t eat at all because it feels like too much work either way. But then I pay the price when, later that evening before bed, I get really hungry and then I eat something not-so-terribly healthy and then my sleep suffers and I wake up feeling crummy. Terrible habit that I’m trying to turn around by heading it off at the pass with a super simple snack like an apple with nut butter or a handful of plantain chips with salsa or guacamole. Work in progess…

    • Yeah Jessica, it’s interesting how there are so many different responses to stress when it comes to eating. I’ve fallen into the trap of forgetting to eat or ignoring my hunger just to “get this done” and it always backfires. I have to keep what I like to call “emergency snacks” around for those situations. 🙂

  7. Great tips! I especially like the idea of simplifying meal prep so that we aren’t tempted to just go the junk food route.

    • In my world, if it’s too complicated, it’s not gonna happen. 🙂

  8. This is a great post! I find that eating unhealthy often makes me sluggish and irritated, but I definitely fall into the “I’m bored so I’m going to eat chips” trap. It doesn’t help that my significant other is a twig and can eat all he wants, all the time. When we lived apart for a year (I was in school on the opposite end of the continent) I lost 20 lbs and along with it, 95% of my cravings for unhealthy food. As soon as I moved back in with him, it all crept back. Nightly chips in front of the TV don’t help… I’ll definitely be following your tips!

    • Sara, so many of my clients have had a similar experience. It’s hard not to get stuck in the mindless eating trap, especially when your partner is munching away on junk food (and seems to get away with it, at least when it comes to his weight). I highly recommend checking out my post about how to know if you’re truly hungry and practice the hunger awareness exercise when the temptation/boredom/TV distraction hits.

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