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Practical Matters of Food

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Practical Matters of Food


(Last updated 2013-03-02)

Changing one's eating behavior is perhaps one of the biggest jobs that anyone can tackle, so here are some things I learned about the logistics, and practicalities of weight loss and nutrition.

Plan Everything You Eat

Don't just plan before the day or meal you eat it; plan it before you shop or let anyone shop for your groceries. Learn those things that have a high satisfaction to calorie ratio—that you like to eat. Make sure you always have sufficient stock of these. If you're like me, and eat a lot of fresh produce learn which stores have the best produce, and the best sales.

For quick snacks and meals, make sure you have some/many/most things that have an easy metric for amounts. Some examples (for me) are:

Fresh fruits and vegetables. They're generally low in calories, and as long as they are eaten raw or prepared without sauces, butter, margarine or sweeteners, one can have a pretty good bead on the calories consumed without a lot of measuring. Avocados, potatoes, yams, bananas, etc. are exceptions. Make sure you measure these because they will surprise you. Sweet corn while somewhat in the middle, in terms of calories, comes in handy units – ears; and, there is less variation, in weight, here, than with potatoes. Frozen veggies are a great way to always be prepared. Winter squashes hold up well without refrigeration, and fall closer to “vegetable side dish” than “carb side dish” on the spectrum of food nutritional values.

Nonfat yogurt cups – pre-measured, with listed nutritional information on the package as well as most brands already listed at SP.

Cheese sticks – with varying degrees of fat content to match calories allowances and taste. Again these are pre-measured with fixed calories content, and already in the SP database. (Avoid Weight Watchers brand unless you're looking for a bad food that can double as wood glue. ;-))

Cans or other pre-packaged units of low-calorie soups.

PopSecret 100 Calorie microwave popcorn.

Weigh beef and pork, before and after eating until you know which of these weights you will need for look-up in the SP database. Avoid sauces and complex recipes, unless you want to enter the recipe into SP's database. And, then make sure that the version you eat conforms to the recipe. (This is a constant source of variation in my house, in that Beth will change the recipe, and not remember to tell me. It's made me more vigilant, and a greater participant in the cooking process.)

Make Sure You Have Measuring Facilities Readily Available

We keep a digital scale with gram, ounce and pound metrics as well as automatic subtraction of tare (container) weight on the counter. (I have also learned how to do conversions of all these and others right off the top of my head.) When I enter my food into SP, I always have the calculator, open on my desktop.

The tare arithmetic works in either of two ways. You can either put the tare on the scale first and then turn it on, at which point the scale reads zero, and then add the food. Or, you can put the food on the tare on the scale and turn it on, and then take the food off of it, in which case the food is measured in negative units. I typically only use, measure and record gram units and convert these as I need to, to SP database unit values.

A peanut butter example might be helpful. I put two slices of 35 calories bread on a plate and put the plate on the scale. I then turn the scale on. It reads 0 grams. I then smear an even, minimally thin layer of PB on one slice of the bread – usually about 9 grams – if not I smear some off. Note that nothing got dirty that wouldn't have otherwise gotten dirty without the measurement process.

(Note: Your scale may operate differently, but I gave some specific details to show how a scale can, or even should be used, with minimal effort)

WRT volume measurements, used for non-fat hot cocoa, cold cereal, decaf, coffee, oatmeal, home made soups, skim milk, etc., I have several sets of measuring cups. For those that I eat often, I keep the appropriate size measuring cup with the foodstuff. This means that measuring is little different than serving myself, and I don't have to wash the measuring cup, until I replace the package of foodstuff.

Part of making measurement second nature is reducing the attention, time and labor costs of doing it.


Before I go to a restaurant for the first time, I try to look up nutritional information about menu items on the web. If I can't get these, I eat very conservatively and make sure that I'm eating generally low cal foods with knowable ingredients, avoiding sauces, gravies, cheeses, most bread, and all butter, olive oil, and croutons. I tend to eat a lot of fish, shellfish, fixed, small (compared to my previous consumption, but not compared to Beth's intake), known amounts of beef, skinless chicken or pork entree and sides like baked potatoes which generally have fewer calories than other forms (like french fries or mashed), they also tend to be very knowable via “eyeballing” the size of the potato, although potatoes can be deceiving until you've weighed a large number of them. Russet potatoes, for example, can easily vary in size from 150 to over 400 grams (near a pound). (Because of this, when at home, I generally substitute winter squash for potatoes.)

I'm big on salads as both a main course, or as a side, and if I order them, I do so plain, without cheese, butter, sour cream, etc. For salads, I usually take off any croutons, if I did not rule them out with the order itself. Now, you may not think of these actions as measurement, but they are a process that makes measurement estimation tenable (doable). If I do order a salad as a main course it will generally have simply prepared seafood, skinless, roast chicken or turkey breast, or lean ham. If I order dressing at all, I always make sure it is on the side and I rarely use even half of the allotted dressing, if I use any at all.

Remember, this is when I don't know the calories from the web. For those where I can look up nutritional information, one of my favorites is salmon Caesar salads. They tend to be good across restaurants. The salad dressing is tossed onto the salad offering maximum coverage and flavor with minimum calories, and you know going in what it will “cost” you from your calorie budget.

Ah, but do you enjoy eating?

More than ever before!

Record What You Eat

Record everything you eat. Do it before you eat it. If, while eating it, you discover that the amount was different that you initially thought, change the record. Keep a paper and pencil with you, or a smart phone editor, or keep the recording materials near wherever you select or eat food. I keep pads near all the places I eat, or get food at home, and use my smart phone editor for all other recording. I generally transfer all these to the SP tracker once or more per day. The only days I have not done this have been when I was totally incapacitated or couldn't get near an Internet connection. Same thing for weight and exercise. More on these other topics, in a later post.

Shopping for/Selecting Food

For packaged foods like snacks, look at the nutritional information on the package. If the baked chips give a serving size in “chips” as well as weight, count out the chips onto a plate that your calorie budget allows. Put the container away, and then eat those and only those. When you are selecting that baked snack chip at the supermarket make sure that the nutrition information on the box convinces you that the calories, and other nutrition element cost is worth the satisfaction that that food offers.

If you're unconvinced that this effort is worth it, and you like cold cereal, I strongly urge you to go to the cereal aisle and compare the serving sizes (volumes), weights and calories of alleged low sugar cereals. It's a real eye-opener, and mouth-closer!

Food Preparation

Look for recipes, ingredients lists and preparation techniques that maximize satisfaction, and minimize calories or other to be avoided nutritional elements (salt, carbs, fat, whatever may be your issue).

I am by no means a chef, and I am unlike most people in my food preferences, so these examples of random elements are just what I've noticed for me. Your items may be completely different, but you've got to figure out what they are:

* Use cooking sprays rather than oil, butter or margarine
* If you like scrambled eggs, or omelets, eat egg whites rather than whole eggs
* Bake broil, and barbecue grill rather than saute or deep-fat fry
* Eat whole foods over highly processed foods
* Stock up on a wide variety of spices, and low-fat, low-sugar sauces
* Microwaved vegetables beat sauteed, boiled, baked and steamed for convenience, nutritional value and taste
* If you crave a grilled cheese sandwich, toast two slices of bread; slap one or two slices of American cheese with known weight onto the bread and microwave for 30 to 40 seconds; quick, easier to measure, and more likely to be within your nutritional budget

Again, while this advice is not directly related to measurement, it makes measurement easier.

The Food Spreadsheet

I found a table on the web from the USDA that lists the calories and other nutritional values for over 300 foods. I wrote a script that read these into a spreadsheet. I originally did this to be used as a reference table. (I was using Weight Watchers Online and I was extremely frustrated with the limitations of their database.) As it turns out, I have seldom used it as a reference, but in reorganizing the table I learned an awful lot about the relative nutritional values of all kinds of foods. In the parlance of my blog piece on Vision, it was a brute force (rote memory) exercise in teaching me about relative nutritional values of different classes of food, and it gave me a visual model of food nutrition. That helps in the selection and measurement process.

What are your techniques, tricks and tools that make measurement and food budgeting easier? Speak up or forever hold your piece (of cholesterol laden food? emoticon )!


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Member Comments About This Blog Post
  • 1SALMON1
    Oh wow - what a gold mine of information and valuable suggestions. I will be re-reading this a few times, I can tell you! What stood out for me is to track before eating. I am not (formally) tracking food yet but it's on the horizon. I was thinking that the only way I'll be able to make it work is to plan everything ahead then stick to the plan. After-the-fact recording will probably be too late. Earlier today I read (on another page - maybe Indiegirl?) to have sliced fruit or veggies on hand when cooking, & munch that instead of what I'm cooking (a good idea which may help me with a major source of un-documented calories). Thank you for sharing!!
    1918 days ago
  • POPSY190
    Great blog with plenty of useful information all in one place. Your advice to look at cereal packages is very sound: we found out when travelling that it's almost impossible to find one that isn't loaded with fat, salt or sugar in one form or another. I make my own at home so that I know exactly what goes into it. I also think the advice to shop for your low-density foods so that they are always available is one of the best things we can do to help ourselves.
    1918 days ago
    All of that is great and essential. I try to portion out all of my food on Sundays and put it in the fridge. Then it is just grab a bag or Tupperware and I'm ready to eat!
    1918 days ago
  • 68ANNE
    I love this. I have everything I need and I just have to use it better. The way you use restaurants is wonderful, too! Thanks for such an informative piece
    1918 days ago
    What a great blog and reminder of what it takes to be accurate with what we are eating! I may share this with my TOPS group!
    1919 days ago
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