We’ve all scratched our heads and thought, “Hmm. I don’t know what to eat. What should I eat right now?”
We’ve all had this thought. We’ve felt hungry, gone to the cupboard or fridge, and not been able to pick anything to eat right away.
But then after a few moments of pondering and staring at the fridge, they make up their minds and pick something to eat. For some people this situation is normal. No big deal. Life goes on.
How do they make these decisions? In a nutshell, food preferences without baggage. I’ll explain what I mean by this down below.
On the other hand, many people experience the opposite: not knowing what to eat triggers a mini-panic attack.
If this is you, you stare at the fridge, feeling frustrated you can’t make up your mind. “Why can’t I make up my mind?!” Angrily you stomp off to the cupboard, “Nothing looks good in here either.”
Here are some other thoughts you might have trampling through your mind:
- “I’ll just order a pizza. But pizza has too many calories!”
- “I’ll just eat something healthy, but I don’t want anything healthy!”
- “Why am I such a failure?”
Notice how these thoughts get progressively worse. You begin with the simple thought, “I don’t know what to eat” and you end up thinking you’re an utter mess and failure.
No wonder food decisions can be so stressful! Your self-esteem is on the line!
You have food preferences too, but these food preferences get clouded over with your thoughts. It’s like taking a clean glass of water and mixing it with dirt. You can’t see through once it’s dirty!
Ideally our food preferences are as easy to understand as this clear water metaphor, as they are for some people. But if we panic when we think to ourselves “I don’t know what to eat”, then this means our thinking is the equivalent of dirty water.
In this post today we’ll examine:
- Why Food Decisions Are Confusing (Where The Dirt Comes From)
- How To Avoid The Most Common Pitfalls Which Prevent Food Preferences
- 3 Questions To Make Food Decisions (How To Clear The Dirt Away)
Please note that food decisions are a critical part of the Eating Enlightenment philosophy, not least understanding how our subconscious beliefs affect our food making decisions.
In general, the first step in working with our beliefs is to become aware of what we believe. Then we can use this awareness to take appropriate action.
So the first 2 sections of this blog explore beliefs that are limiting and where they come from, and the final section explores practical steps.
Why Food Decisions Are Confusing (Where The Dirt Comes From)
Before you beat the hell out of yourself for being indecisive, please realize our society’s food authorities are indecisive.
The very people who are supposed to be telling us what to eat keep changing their minds!
For example, take into consideration eggs. You know, good old-fashioned eggs. Great for scrambling. Easy over on toast. Chicken eggs.
In the 1950’s, eggs were an American staple. Scrambled eggs for breakfast, egg sandwich for lunch, and deviled eggs for appetizer.
Then some 20 odd years later in the 1970’s, some scientists started studying cholesterol. They concluded that eggs had high cholesterol and therefore eggs were bad.
No more eggs, they said, “Stop eating eggs. Eggs have high cholesterol and will give you a heart attack.”
But starting in the 2010’s, some other scientists studying cholesterol now say there are two types of cholesterol, good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. Eggs have cholesterol, yes, but it’s the good type.
So eggs are back in. But who knows, maybe some other scientist in the future figures out another classification and eggs are back to being bad again.
This constant confusion and switching of messages is like pouring dirt into clear water.
Maybe your natural food preferences were for eggs, and you had no problem. But then you were told that eggs were bad, so you questioned your food preferences.
This doubt is like the dirt that can get into our minds when we only listen to external authorities and never, or hardly ever, heed our own inner wisdom.
Plus, dirt can arise when we never disobey the nutritional authorities. Eat this, eat that, and this and that and this. If we try to be perfect we’ll end up getting tied up in knots!
Our inner wisdom has to be able to clear through some of that cutter. If we don’t have some inner wisdom guide, it’s not just eggs that will confuse us.
Here are some other foods that have gone from good, to bad, and back to good again:
- Dairy (still considered ‘bad’ in present moment)
Pretty much the only food group that has stayed universally ‘good’ has been vegetables.
Is this your experience too? Let me know in the comment section below.
American Authorities Say You Need To Eat XYZ To Be Good And Healthy, But Then They Change The Yardstick
The other day I believe I saw a mother luring her child with candy, and taking the candy away. Her child was very unhappy and it nearly broke my heart watching the scene unfold.
(In hindsight I perhaps should have said something, but admittedly I did not.)
I was walking through the isles wearing my facemask, and I saw a mother holding out some candy to her child.
The child smiled with glee … but then she yanked the candy back and waggled her finger. The poor kid began to cry. Then the Mom yelled at her child!
(GRRRRR. Makes me mad just thinking about it right now.)
You can have it, you can’t have it, you’re in trouble.
Isn’t that pattern how American food authorities treat us?
Eat this to be healthy, don’t eat that. Then they change the rules and we’re still unhealthy!
So no wonder there’s so much food confusion. No wonder we feel confused and angry.
The authorities keep changing the rules! They pour the dirt in the water, and they mix it all around so nobody can see anything!
But can you see the solution?
The solution, first of all, is to NOT play their game!
At Eating Enlightenment we believe that scientific nutrition information is important. But we can’t rely totally on this scientific information because there’s so much confusion.
We also need to hone our body’s natural wisdom and intuition to make food decisions.
If we can calm down and listen to our body, we’ll be able to navigate through food chaos and confusion, and be able to take into consideration our health as well.
We’ll be able to take dirty water and make it clean again.
How To Avoid The Most Common Pitfalls Which Prevent Food Preferences
There are few things which prevent the water from becoming clear. One example is the image above.
You do NOT need to have your peas lined up perfectly in order to eat them! And the same with any other food!
Let’s remember that ideally our relationship with food is clear like clear water. For example, I’m sure you have a friend who has a normal, easy relationship with food.
- This person can just go to a party and not worry.
- If they overeat it’s not a big deal
- Once this person is done eating they stop thinking about food
Yet, food confusion is common too. Food confusion is like when scientists constantly change their health standards. When this happens the water of your food preferences, or your relationship with food, becomes dirty.
(I use food preferences and food relationships synonymously. If we have a clear understanding of our preferences, our food relationship will be peaceful. If we have a good relationship with food, we’ll be able to listen to our preferences)
At this point I need to introduce the idea of a ‘subconscious food belief’.
Remember that child in the supermarket I told you about earlier? Whose mom gave and took away candy?
Do you think this child is gonna have a normal relationship with candy?
I bet on Halloween that kid is going to binge eat Halloween candy. Maybe she’ll end up purging too. I bet this kid is going to struggle with candy for a long time.
(If this incident in the supermarket was just incidental, then no long-term damage would be done. However, I suspect this mom’s behavior was probably part of a pattern she had with her child)
The reason this kid will struggle around food is because she developed subconscious beliefs that limited her food decisions.
These are the beliefs she learned as kid from her mother, and now believes without even knowing it!
Now when this kid binges on Halloween candy, the kid will be ignorant. She will simply think she lost control, right?
She won’t consciously think, “I binged on Halloween candy because I developed a subconscious limiting belief that my mom taught me. My mom taught me that candy was unreliable, and that if I did get my hands on candy I would have to eat candy right away before my mom took it away’.
The bolded words in the previous sentence are an example of the subconscious limiting beliefs this child developed.
While I don’t know the exact beliefs this child specifically developed, I can tell you that based on my experience working at an eating disorder clinic as well as helping 100+ individual clients, some common subconscious limiting beliefs are:
- I need to get this food perfect or I’ll fail
- I am fat and hopeless
- Food doesn’t make any sense
The key factor is that 99% of the time these beliefs are hidden from conscious awareness. The person thinking these beliefs doesn’t know they are thinking these beliefs.
These limiting beliefs are the dirt that makes the water dirty.
And at this point I’d like to go into further detail with you. I’d like to examine the dirt more closely.
We know that dirty water is obscuring our body’s natural wisdom. But what color is the dirt? What texture is the dirt?
The more information we have about what’s blocking us, the easier we will be able to let go of these blockages.
Stepping away from the dirty water metaphor, here are some common characteristics of these subconscious limiting beliefs.
- Self-Esteem – your self-worth is dependent upon what you eat
- Perfectionism – your self-worth is dependent upon eating “correctly”
We can learn these beliefs from the food authorities who constantly change their ‘science’ about which foods are good and which foods are bad.
We also can learn these beliefs from irresponsible parents, or even parents who are well-intentioned!
For years dieting and intentional weight loss was considered normal. Of course, now we know these things backfire, but countless parents lovingly wanted their children to diet. It’s pretty sad looking back in retrospect 🙁
Also, diet and wellness programs also espouse these beliefs, where each new diet program or cleanse gives you a different set of good and bad foods. We don’t just learn limiting beliefs from parents, diet programs also play a role too.
And what happens once all these subconscious contradictory beliefs are in place? It’s all very confusing to our minds and we easily can develop subconscious limiting food beliefs if we don’t learn to think for ourselves.
Stop Tying Food To Your Self-Esteem And Perfectionism
Self-esteem and perfectionism are the common pitfalls that block people from their food preferences. While I separate them into two categories, they oftentimes are indistinguishable from each other.
Self-esteem and perfectionism are the dirt in the clear water, obscuring your natural wisdom.
These are the real reasons why making food decisions can be so difficult. Let’s look at two scenarios when you think to yourself, “I don’t know what to eat.”
Scenario 1) “I don’t know know what to eat, but no big deal. I’ll listen to my gut to figure out what I’m approximately hungry for, and I know that my stomach will also give me information on how much food to eat. I’ll also take into consideration when I’ll next be able to eat, and I know that if I make any mistakes it’s no big deal. It’ll be fine.
Scenario 2) “I don’t know what to eat, and I have no clue what to eat. Got no idea and I can’t think of anything, and I always find myself in this predicament! Why does nothing sound good right now? I’m very upset! I don’t know what to do when I feel this way.”
Can you tell the difference?
The second scenario the person is freaking out, instead of calming “approximating” what they want.
Deep down the second person believes they have to be perfect to be worthy of love. Their self-esteem is tied to perfection.
–For these people, being less than perfect is NOT acceptable. Any small mistakes or errors are NOT tolerable. Perfection is mandatory, anything less means you’re unworthy of love.
And guess what, perfection is impossible. Especially around food.
Whenever food decisions are involved, there is no perfection. There are only guesses, guidelines, approximations.
So, when the second person finds themselves thinking, “I don’t know what to eat right now,” deep down this person knows that perfection is out of reach.
They’ve been in this situation before of not knowing what to eat, and they’ve tried every mechanism of making a perfect decision before. They’ve tried following the diet, measuring out the calories, eating only healthy foods.
But it’s never worked.
Deep down the subconscious limiting beliefs around food ruin the second person’s relationship with food.
A Safe Relationship With Food Is Ok With Imperfection
And let’s talk about this word ‘approximating’, real quick, because it represents a key difference in mindset.
Being okay with approximating means you are okay with imperfection.
Your friend who is normal around food in situation 1, they are okay and feel safe with approximating. When this person feels their stomach, they are able to make an approximation of what they feel would satisfy their stomach.
This person thinks, “I don’t know what to eat, so I’ll make a good guess and everything will be fine.”
The other person thinks “I don’t know what to eat, and I have to be perfect!” This idea puts a lot of pressure on the person and they panic.
Therefore to properly help someone who never knows what to eat, you must first deal with the limiting beliefs.
You have to switch any limiting food beliefs:
- Perfection Belief: I need to exactly know what to eat
- Imperfection Belief: It’s ok not knowing what exactly what to eat
- Perfection Belief: If I don’t eat perfectly healthy then it’s horrible
- Imperfection Belief: Even if I eat unhealthy, I’m still worthy of love. My food choices have very little to do with my self-esteem.
- Perfection Belief: I need to be perfect around food
- Imperfection Belief: I can be flexible around food
Now let’s return back to our dirty water metaphor.
These beliefs around food are the dirt in the water.
Now I wish beliefs were easy to remove or change. But beliefs are often dug deep into our minds. It’s difficult to change your beliefs.
So we have a cup of dirty water right now, and we can’t just suck the dirt out of the water. The dirt and the water are all mixed up right now.
You can’t separate the dirt from the water.
However, what you can do is let the dirt settle to the bottom of the glass. Then you can carefully pour the water out into a new cup and drink some fresh water.
In food decision-making terms, what we need to do is prevent our limiting beliefs around food from becoming activated. We just need to stay calm.
And a big part of being calm is allowing for imperfection. Food isn’t supposed to be perfect, or exactly measured.
It’s okay to guess at how much food you need, and to make mistakes if you eat too much or too little. If you can stay calm and not fall into a cycle of guilt, you’ll make it out ok.
The thought “I don’t know what to eat” is a normal thought, but it’s how you react to it what matters.
3 Questions To Make Food Decisions (How To Clear The Dirt Away So You Don’t Think “I Don’t Know What To Eat” In Panic)
To stay calm and feel safe, it can be helpful to have a flexible approach to food.
If we can stay calm and feel safe, the dirt will naturally settle and we’ll make wiser decisions because we can see clearly.
Here are 3 groups of questions you can ask to determine if you are thinking flexibly to stay calm and safe:
- Safely Feeling What You Feel: What is my stomach wanting? What are my emotions wanting? Am I willing to face uncertainty? Do I feel any sort of pressure that I have to be perfect or make the perfect decision?
- Safely Making Food Guesses: If physically hungry, am I willing to listen to my food preferences? Food preferences be taste, texture, smells, or intuition. Am I willing to try a few bites of the food I might want to eat? Are I allowing myself to be imperfect around food, or do I feel that I need to be 100% perfect?
- Am I under any sort of time constraints?
- Safely Making Emotional Decisions: If emotional needs aren’t met, can I take care of myself before turning to food? If I still want food after I take care of myself, can I eat mindfully? Is it ok to prioritize taking care of emotional needs? Or do I feel that any sign of needing rest is a sign of failure and weakness?
The key is to feel safe. There are numerous other synonyms for safe. Unrushed. Calm. Relaxed.
And these aren’t totally separate groups of questions either. You can be both physically hungry and need to take care of yourself emotionally. We don’t want to get into a fixed, limited mindset as that is similar to the perfectionistic mindset we are trying to avoid!
Furthermore, some emotional eating is totally normal. We just don’t want to rely only on food to manage our feelings.
I’ll break these questions down for you down below which will help you understand when and how to meet your physical hunger and emotional needs – but just know as you walk through these steps the intention is simply to feel safe.
I just want to emphasize that these questions can be used as a framework when you make eating decisions. You don’t have to go through precisely these steps. If following these steps seems confusing to you, just forget about the steps and remember the intention behind the steps.
(I firmly believe that emotions, intentions and actions go together. It’s a critical part of intuitive eating.)
The intention behind the questions is to feel safe. Calm down. Don’t think you have to get things perfect.
Overall we want to break free from a perfectionist mindset. But if we think we have to do these steps perfectly then we’re just maintaining the old belief!
So, we need to keep the idea of safety in mind as we practice using these 3 steps whenever we get into a situation where we are upset and are thinking, “I don’t know what to eat!”.
Yes, it takes time and practice. But this is the key to getting rid of our limiting beliefs and being able to tell the nuances between emotional and physical hunger.
Then, these 3 questions can help you stay calm and flexible towards your approach.
In other words, these three steps will help you let the dirt settle.
Instead of accidentally stirring up the dirt and making the water dirtier, which is what would happen if you got flustered because you thought you needed to be perfect.
With that being said, let’s take a closer look at each of the 3 steps:
Step 1) Safely Feeling What You Feel
- What is my stomach wanting*?
- What are my emotions wanting*?
- Am I willing to face uncertainty? Do I feel any sort of pressure that I have to be perfect or make the perfect decision?
*Physical hunger or wanting refers to having growling in your stomach, whereas emotional needs or wanting refers to being too lonely, upset, stressed, angry and needing to somehow take care of your emotional needs.*
It’s when we ignore our emotional needs that we turn to food to meet our needs, and this makes for a ton of food confusion because we aren’t sure whether we are eating for physical or emotional reasons!
This first step is about noticing what you feel in terms of both your stomach and your emotions.
Please be sure to allow yourself a few moments to settle into feeling. Feelings are not like data which can be transferred instantly like email. It takes time for feelings to come into focus.
So just chill out for a few moments. See what your stomach is feeling. Take a look at what your emotions are doing.
It can be difficult to separate whether you are physically hungry or emotionally hungry, especially if you have these limiting beliefs or a past history of struggling with food.
So be sure that you’re compassionate with yourself, and also be sure to be compassionate with yourself if you struggle to be compassionate to yourself.
Just take a deep breath and try to feel your stomach. Any signs of hunger there?
Take another deep breath and notice whether your breath is shallow or your heart is racing.
We simply want to tune into our intuition to see whether we are more emotionally hungry, or physically hungry.
Can you tell if you are emotionally hungry, or physically hungry?
Take a look at this graphic:
As you can see, physical hunger comes on gradually whereas emotional hunger comes on instantly.
When you pause during this first step and notice your physical and emotional feelings, you can become more aware of whether you are physically hungry or emotionally hungry.
Here are some other important signs of hunger:
- A growling stomach
- Gurgling stomach
- Emptiness in your stomach
Here are some other important signs of emotional hunger:
- You are eating to feel better or to calm down
- Your ‘mouth’ is hungry for foods, but your stomach doesn’t feel any hunger
So the first step is to distinguish whether you are physically hungry or emotionally hungry.
And again, don’t get caught up in the idea of perfection. Just realize that slowing down and chilling out for a few moments to calm down a bit is the key.
Remember, safety is what we’re aiming for within these 3 steps. With that being said, let’s take a look at the next step.
Step 2) Safely Making Food Guesses
- If physically hungry, am I willing to listen to my food preferences? Food preferences can be taste, texture, or temperature.
- Am I willing to try a few bites of the food I might want to eat?
- Checking in to see if I am allowing myself to be imperfect around food, or do I feel that I need to be 100% perfect?
- Am I under any sort of time constraints?
For the first step about food preferences, here are some things you might run through, again without any judgment:
- Texture: Do you desire smooth, crunchy, noodly, solid, creamy?
- Flavor: Spicy, savory, bitter, salty, sweet?
- Temperature: Hot, cold, warm?
And lastly, are there any sort of time constraints? Do you have a meeting soon?
If you do have a time constraint, can you just grab something quick and easy like a protein bar?
If you do have time to cook or prepare something, here are some foods you may want to consider:
- Brown rice
- Whole wheat bread
- Meatless Meat like Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat
Good Fats (and most of these would go on the protein list too!)
- Peanut butter
- Olive oil
- Brussel Sprouts
Of course, feel free to combine foods, like in these two examples:
- Bananas, with whole brain bread with peanut butter
- Avocado toast or eggs with toast
- Here are other recipes to make if you don’t know what to eat
Step 3) Safely Making Emotional Decisions
- If emotionally hungry, can I take care of myself before turning to food?
- If I still want food after I take care of myself, can I eat mindfully?
- Is it ok to prioritize taking care of emotional needs? Or do I feel any sign of needing rest is a sign of failure and weakness?
If after tuning into hunger you realize that you’re not hungry but simply stressed out, then leave the kitchen and do something else.
You can go on a walk, or take a shower. You can journal. Try grounding yourself.
The key is to calm down first. If you still want food then check in with yourself.
It’s ok to be emotional, and hungry at the same time. We just want to make sure that you have at least some physical hunger if you eat.
So, feel safe and calm. Just remember that safety is important with food.