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The Dinner Diaries

Through the years, I’ve used a food log on and off.

At Weight Watchers in 2004, I bought their branded journals and dutifully tracked my “points.” It was illuminating to get a handle on what I consumed each day, and I loved the ritual of ticking off boxes and scribbling down each meal.

When I switched to the Zone, I bought a notebook specifically to track my blocks and my training. This was not an easy task – the shopping, not the tracking. Finding the perfect paper thickness, binding, cover design, and pen (!) was essential to my consistency in documenting each day.

Eventually, I went digital and logged my intake at Fitday.com, which made it very easy to see the percentage of fat, protein, and carbohydrates I consumed each day with my spiffy don’t-call-it-paleo, call-it-dino-chow diet.

Then I finally, blessedly found the confidence to trust my own sense of hunger and stopped logging most of the time. Every once in a while – say, once a month or so – I log into Fitday and plug in everything I ate, just to see how my day stacks up. I am remarkably consistent: 50% fat, 27% protein, 23% carbs.

Although I’m not doing it regularly now, I think there are times when food logging is an incredibly valuable tool:

If you are really unaware of what and how much you eat each day, even a week or two of tracking can teach you a lot about your habits. Are you eating more fruit than you think? Is there too little variety in your veggie consumption? Do you overeat when you’re stressed or tired – or do you skip meals?

If you’re starting a new eating program and want a means for accountability, food logging can give you a place to track your new habit and reward yourself. Seriously. Give yourself a gold star each day you hit your nutrition goals!

If your usual energy is lagging, tracking intake for a week can show you where you might be skimping on a particular macro-nutrient – or not eating enough overall.

If you want to know which food combos make you feel like a rock star+superhero, a food diary is a handy way to identify which meals make you feel your best. My food diary helped me determine the dinner combos that lead to great workouts the next morning and which before-bed snacks help me sleep soundly. (Turns out, for me, it’s a little bit of fat before I hit the pillow.)

Frankly, sometimes it’s just fun to remember a really great meal. Dave and I photographed every meal we ate in Prague and Berlin – and I recorded the names of the restaurants and what we ordered in my travel journal. That’s served me well in two ways:

(1) we can vividly recall how much fun we had exploring the Czech cuisine

(2) when the “poor me” whining emerged after our vacation – [pout] My jeans are tight. [pout] I used to be able to do pushups. [pout] – I had a record of just how far I strayed from my nutrition path which stopped the whining and reminded me that I had (happily) chosen to indulge, consequences be damned.

The New Yorker posted a story recently that is heart-rending and sweet and all about an unusual food jounral. When a woman’s father died, she found among his other papers, the “meticulous account of the meals he had cooked and eaten for the last fifteen years of his life.” His records were typed on typing paper stored in typing-paper boxes and later, on index cards.

1989 was arranged alphabetically, with a section for each letter. At the top of the card he typed the name of the dish. Underneath, in blue ballpoint pen, he counted how many times he had made it, using the same strokes with which prisoners, at least the ones in movies, keep track of how many days they’ve been behind bars. B and C had the most cards, because of the frequency of beef and chicken dishes. That year, he made Poached Chicken twenty-three times…. They had Aunt Hon’s Chili eleven times that year, and Meat Loaf (“beef, pork, veal; onions, mushrooms spinach ricotta, mozzarella, tomatoes, cheddar; tomato sauce”), which was filed under Miscellaneous, three times.

There’s something beautiful and sad and extraordinarily touching about this record of ordinary meals, a bittersweet record of just how the food we put into our bodies is to who we are. His record – and our food journals – represent the flow of time and how food brings us together: to celebrate, to grieve, to feed our bodies and our spirits, and to make us who we are from the inside out.

You can read the New Yorker piece in its entirety here.
(It’s short, and I give it my highest recommendation.)

6 Responses to “The Dinner Diaries”

  1. DagneyTaggert says:

    What a wonderful post! I love stories about food and how it truly has the ability to shape and embellish the avenues of life. Have you read Ruth Reicl's (spelling?) books?

  2. Ehsa says:

    Yikes – are you me, or what? Some comments:

    (1) "Finding the perfect paper thickness, binding, cover design, and pen (!) was essential to my consistency in documenting each day". (Did you see Charlotte Hilton's CDO post picture? LOL). Your whole riff on the various reasons why recording meals is helpful is Right.On. (My food journal has kept off 60 pounds since 2003, I've kept them all (the journals), and yes — I review them to find those terrific meal memories). Am currently going thru a "crisis" of thickness/binding/cover since my long-time journal of choice has inexplicably changed from a lays-flat spiral-bound version to a sort of paperback binding. (The devil, as usual, is in the details).

    (2) The New Yorker article has so many layers and nuances of feeling: I, too, highly recommend it. Very poignant, as are so many of our encounters with artifacts from our parents. And, techie-gnu that I am, I'm also kind of interested in developing a spreadsheet version of the "how often did I have this meal" prisoner's check off … cross-referencing that with the "what was going on" section of my journal might be interestingly revealing.

    (3) You wrote "There's something beautiful and sad and extraordinarily touching about this record of ordinary meals, a bittersweet record of just how the food we put into our bodies is to who we are. His record – and our food journals – represent the flow of time and how food brings us together: to celebrate, to grieve, to feed our bodies and our spirits, and to make us who we are from the inside out". I'm sure that I have never encountered any more beautifully expressed sentiments about "who we are".

    I hesitate to comment too often because it might seem a little weird, but on the other hand, I don't like to see some of your posts with no comments, lest you think they are of no value. Rest assured … your blog is just terrific — a source of inspiration, interest, and laughter — bravo in the extreme! Thanks so much.

  3. Catherine Hart Rebholz says:

    Reading that last paragraph, I can't help but feel so blessed to be celebrating Thanksgiving with you. So happy to have you in this world Mel. Great post.

  4. kimberlyelise says:

    Great post. Especially dig your last paragraph. You have an amazing literary gift. Which is why I'm always "staying tuned". Have a great weekend.

  5. Marcy says:

    Interesting timing. I've been thinking all day about starting a food journal to try and figure out what's not getting along with my tummy. I'll take your article as a sign and get on it.

    For a whole year, I wrote what dinner we ate and where on a calendar in the kitchen. My original purpose was to get ideas when I was feeling in a rut and maybe use it for meal planning but it just became a neat record of our ordinary days.

    I personally have a 4 year old collection of gas receipts with the mileage written on each one. I have yet to do anything with them, yet I keep recording the mileage each time and tucking them away.

    It's fascinating to speculate on why he was keeping these records, but I wonder if the answer was something as mundane as "I don't know."

  6. Lyds says:

    Ah, food tracking. I did it for three weeks on FitDay last month. It made me a little crazy, but playing with my macronutrient ratios was cool.

    On a food related note, I made your Coconut Chicken with Cauliflower Couscous recipe for dinner last night and it was DELICIOUS!

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