Minimalist Health Challenge

6-week Minimalist Health Challenge for diet and exercise

I’ve gone soft. Not soft emotionally, but soft in my arms. Specifically the jiggly part under my triceps. I’m sure you know which part I’m speaking of.

This softness is a disappointing development for me. Just over a year ago that part of my arm was firm and toned, along with my shoulders and the muscles in my back. Just over a year ago I could do SEVEN pull-ups in a row (which is not bad for a scrawny girl). And not cheater pull-ups, either. These were the real deal.

Alas, right now I could maybe do two pull-ups. Maybe.

The decline downward in health and fitness can be caused by a lot of reasons. Having a baby. Grief. Burnout. For me it was a change in priorities, which lead to a change in schedule. Specifically I replaced my early morning workout sessions with writing sessions. I don’t regret this decision, but one year later the lack of consistent physical activity is apparent.

In other words, I miss my biceps.

Because of this, and because spring break is just over six weeks away and my plans are to be in a sunny, warm location, I have some work to do. I want to tone up, eat better, and generally get this stiff body moving more. And I want to do it in the simplest, most minimal way possible without radically changing my routine, and without committing to an intense program.

So I’ve created a Minimalist Health Challenge for myself. Part experiment, part resolution, the rules of of this challenge are that there are no rules.

Instead, I’m asking the following questions:

Can I increase my overall health and fitness (aka be bikini-ready) in six weeks without a diet or a formal workout routine?

Can I organically fit physical activity into my day in a way that adds up to results but doesn’t require me to set aside a thirty-minute workout time? Is writing down what I eat enough to encourage me to choose healthy food?

My bet is Yes to all. Yes, I’ll tone up without actually “working out.” Yes, I’ll eat healthier. And Yes, I’ll be bikini-ready. To help, I’m doing the following two things:

  1. Keeping a food diary: Diet experts claim that there’s a lot of power in keeping a log of what we eat. I want to put that claim to the test. Without counting calories or tracking portion sizes or restricting certain foods, I’m simply going to write down everything I eat and drink and see what happens to my eating habits.
  2. Keeping a fit diary: Similar to food, I’m going to write down my physical activity for the day, plus notes about when they happen (ex. “twenty lunges while waiting for toaster in break room at work”). My theory is that we’re over-complicating fitness by compartmentalizing it into “workout sessions.” We’ll see what happens when I break down the compartments.

Like every good health challenge, I’m sharing a photo of my “before” at the start. We’ll see what kind of “after” a minimalist approach to health produces.

6-week Minimalist Health Challenge before picture

You’re invited to follow along with me on this challenge, and join in yourself. I’ll be posting regular updates, including what I’m eating and how I’m moving, on Instagram at @minimalisthealthchallenge.

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The diet-friendly Hot Salad formula that’ll make healthy eating effortless

try hot salad formula and turn salads into comfort food

After years of believing that I was destined to a lifetime of forcing myself to eat salads in the name of health, I accidentally stumbled upon a secret to healthy eating that changed my life.

The secret was Hot Salad, and since discovering it, I’ve managed to eat 2-4 cups of veggies almost every day of my life without even trying.

During this time I’ve developed a formula for building these salads that consistently produces hearty, tasty, healthy salads that feel more like comfort food than…well, salad.

I’d love for you to try this formula, experiment with it, and tell me your favorite combinations!

Some of my favorite Hot Salad combinations include:

  • Cabbage and brussels sprout mix with roasted cauliflower and salmon, topped with horseradish sauce and walnuts
  • Kale and broccoli slaw mix with roasted potatoes, sausage and sauerkraut, topped with mustard and rosemary
  • Kale and spinach with roasted sweet potatoes and last night’s hamburger topped with homemade mayo.

What will you come up with? Tag me on Instagram (@stephaniehillberry) with your favorite combo.

And now, without further adieu–

The Hot Salad formula: two parts leafy veggie(s) that can take some heat + one part additional veggie(s) prepared by your preference + one part protein, then topped with your choice of herbs, nuts, and condiments. Serve hot (#obviously).

Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of options for each category to get you started.

[two parts] Leafy veggies that can take some heat:

  • Kale
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli slaw
  • Coleslaw mix
  • Cabbage
  • Swiss chard
  • Collard greens

[one part] Veggies raw, roasted, grilled, or stir-fried:

  • Cauliflower
  • Peppers
  • Sweet potato
  • White potato
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Green beans
  • Carrots, parsnips
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Eggplant
  • Squash (all types)
  • Peas (sweet, snap, snow)
  • Mushrooms
  • Tomato
  • And basically any other veggie you can think of

[one part] Protein:

  • Grilled chicken, steak, fish, pork
  • Tuna
  • Tofu
  • Beans
  • Sausage
  • And last night’s leftovers, including casseroles, pasta dishes, thick stews/chili, etc. (aka my favorite choice)

Top with a combination of one or all of:

Herbs

  • Rosemary
  • Thyme
  • Basil
  • Parsley
  • Cilantro
  • Dill

Nuts & Seeds

  • Almonds
  • Walnuts
  • Peanuts
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Cashews

Condiments

  • Pesto
  • Mustard
  • Horseradish
  • Hot sauce
  • Mayo
  • Salad dressing

Related: the healthy-eating secret you’ve never heard of

Related: a month of mini fresh starts

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After years of believing that I was destined to a lifetime of forcing myself to eat salads in the name of health, I accidentally stumbled upon a secret to healthy eating that changed my life.

 

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The healthy-eating secret you’ve never heard of

hot salad is a dieter's secret

Settled into the restaurant booth, my friends were talking around me as I feigned attention. Really I was hosting a frequent and familiar debate with myself:

Salad or…anything else?

Like so many moments before, I found myself envying “the salad eaters,” those mystical creatures who seemed to enjoy chewing on cold lettuce and veggies. My mother was one of these people, forever choosing the most colorful salad on the menu every time we went out. She made the decision seem so effortless–so easy.

It was as if she preferred the healthy choice.

I, on the other hand, eyed salad bars with skeptical mistrust. I found lettuce to be…watery. I was consistently bored halfway through a salad, and then immediately starving once it was finally consumed.

But like a good girl who understood the basics of healthy eating, I diligently ate my salads with discipline the way a person flosses or takes the stairs instead of the elevator. I’d resigned myself to a lifetime of forced salad-eating in the name of health, figuring that my future self would thank me.

But then a surprise…

I’m not sure how it happened exactly, though I know it wasn’t one specific event but rather a series of changes over a period of time. But at some point I realized that without even trying, I’d become a mystical “salad eater.”

Only it wasn’t the kind of salad I was used to.

And so now we come to the reason you’re still reading this article. Here’s the part where I share the secret to eating healthy that you’ve never heard of.

The secret is Hot Salad.

As it turns out, I love salad. I love green leafy veggies heaped onto plates with colorful and crunchy counterparts. I love them so much that eating them everyday isn’t a chore at all; I actually prefer it.

The difference, surprisingly, is all about the temperature.

Specifically, I like what happens to veggies when they’re roasted, grilled, and steamed. And if it’s leafy, I universally prefer it to be the kind that can take a little heat. Like kale, for instance. And spinach. And cabbage.

Here’s where the “hot” part of the hot salad deviates from regular salad: when my coworkers, for instance, are pulling out their homemade salads for lunch, I pull out mine as well. Except instead of immediately jumping in with a fork and dressing, I head to the microwave and heat my salad for about 2 minutes.

This extra step creates some kind of happy alchemy whereby my greens soften, my flavorful toppings meld together, and my salad transforms into something more like a hearty, comfy casserole than like a…salad.

You can see why this would be appealing.

Two years after accidentally discovering this trick, I’m still eating hot salad almost every day of the year. The exceptions are days when a crisp, cold salad sounds wonderful. Like in July. (Note: this salad is still never built exclusively on iceberg, romaine, or spring mix. I. Just. Can’t.)

And the best part: I don’t have to work at eating healthy. It’s natural. It’s easy.

Curious to learn more? Good, because there’s actually a satisfying little formula for hot salad and I’m sharing it right HERE.

 

Eight simple ideas for cutting back on sugar

eight ideas to quit sugar

eight ways to quit sugar

Note: I’m doing a month of mini fresh starts, including cutting back on sugar by unsweetening things I normally sweeten. Here’s the whole list of mini fresh starts if you want to join in.

I expect them to pop up any day now–the posts on Instagram declaring new diet resolutions. Whole 30 seems to be the most popular choice in my feed; perhaps for you it’s something different. Maybe your people are going vegan or trying Paleo or eating clean.

I have nothing against diet resolutions. I’ve done Whole 30 and it was a truly great experience. But I know myself and doing a total diet overhaul is just too much right now. Can you relate to the feeling? Sometimes a big change isn’t feasible. It just takes too much energy, too much discipline, too much effort. That’s okay.

When big changes are too much, I turn to small ones. For diet, one of my go-to favorite changes is to cut back on sugar. I like to set a goal for how many “sugar free” days I can have in a week. This week it’s four days. For four days I want to pass on sweets, on added sugar, and on dessert.

The amazing thing about cutting out sugar is that your taste buds start changing almost immediately. Also…

If you cut back on sugar, you’ll start to notice the following within a week:

  • that sugar starts to taste weird–cloying and out of place
  • that sweets gradually become too sweet
  • that your craving for sugar diminishes
  • that other flavors in your food become more prominent and enjoyable
  • that store-bought foods are weirdly sweet, and homemade tastes better
  • that You. Just. Don’t. Need. It. Anymore.

Ready to give it a try? Here are eight ideas for cutting out sugar that you can start today:

1. Replace soda (including diet) with sparkling or soda water. A couple years ago I realized that carbonation was what I loved most about soda–not the sugar. So I switched from cola to drinks like Perrier and La Croix, and started asking for soda water with lime at restaurants.

2. Try removing sugar from your morning tea/coffee. I used to think that my favorite tea was perfect with just a hint of sugar to bring out the flavor. Now the taste of sugar in my tea–even a little bit–ruins it. Honestly I was amazed at how quickly this shift happened; after a couple days of feeling like my tea was bland, suddenly my preference shifted and I started liking the new unsweetened version. Now I’ll never go back.

3. Eat fruit or nuts instead of cookies, granola bars, etc. Mid-afternoon is my hour of temptation. I start to feel my energy fade and crave a boost to get me through the rest of the work day. This is when chocolate or cookies, or really any kind of carb-y sweet thing, calls to me. To fend off the temptation and satisfy my craving, I’ll turn to fruit and nuts. Apples with cashews. Oranges with peanuts. Carrots with almond butter. You get the idea.

4. For homemade baked goods, try brown rice syrup instead of maple syrup. Available at health food stores (and even some big commercial chains), brown rice syrup is lightly sweet but contains no fructose or sucrose. It’s a great alternative in recipes that call for sugar, syrup, or honey.

5. Replace commercial nut butter with natural nut butter. Health food stores almost always sell a variety of natural nut butters, including almond, peanut, and cashew. Avoid the “honey roasted” versions, and check the ingredients. The kind you’re looking for lists just the nut and perhaps an added oil and salt. If you can’t find a sugar-free option, or if you’re looking for a zero waste choice, buy the nuts you like in bulk and blend them into butter at home using your food processor.

6. Make homemade salad dressing instead of using commercial versions. I don’t know what it is with salad dressing but the commercial versions almost always have sugar. It’s weird to think that we’re all putting sugar on our veggies, right? For unsweetened versions, make your own dressings at home. Pinterest has tons of recipes, or try this really fun salad dressing dice set to play with combinations.

7. Choose home-baked bread instead of store-bought bread. Confession: I love baking bread. I keep a sourdough starter healthy and hungry in my pantry so that I can whip up sourdough loaves on the weekends. However, I realize that not everyone loves baking bread as much as I do. If this is you, there are some commercial brands that don’t have sugar–just check the label. Generally sourdoughs are a safe bet, and whole grain breads are not (they almost always have sugar). Tortillas are also a good sugar-free alternative. Like with most things, once you get used to unsweetened bread, the sweet versions start tasting weird.

8. Try these almond butter cups. If you’re really craving a rich desert, make these. As listed, the recipe is really low on sugar but high on satisfaction. And if you’re really wanting to keep it sugar-free, you can modify it the way I do by replacing the honey with brown rice syrup and the chocolate chips with unsweetened cocoa powder. Also, I like these better with peanut butter but that’s just me.

What do you think? Would these ideas work for you? Also, what other small diet changes are you making this month? Tag me on Instagram to share your plans, or leave a comment here.

Also, two resources for quitting sugar that I’ve found to be helpful and inspiring:

  1. I Quit Sugar website
  2. Year of No Sugar memoir

Related: a month of mini fresh starts

Related: a dude-approved (healthy) hot lunch formula

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Dude-approved minimalist hot lunch formula

minimalist hot lunch formula

minimalist hot lunch formula

Attention dudes of the world: here’s a simple minimalist hot lunch formula for eating hearty man food that also happens to be healthy. Women, this formula works for you, too. I’ve been using it to build my lunches for two years and get a ton of jealous stares and comments from envious coworkers. These meals will fill you up, keep you from carb crashes, and help you avoid 3PM vending machine snack binges. They’re also easy to make carb-free/Paleo if you’re into that kind of thing. Here’s what you do:

A minimalist hot lunch formula that passes the dude litmus test

Supplies: get 1 or 2 microwaveable containers, preferably with a lid if you’re taking it to work

Step 1: add a base of green. Choose the one you like best. If romaine or iceberg lettuce is your pick, you’re going to need your second container for everything else. If you like kale, spinach, or other greens that can stand up to a little heat, one container for everything is fine.

Step 2: add a layer of veggies (or start a new container with the veggies). Again, choose your favorites (or, if you’re not a veggie fan, choose the ones you don’t hate). My time-saving hack is to make a big batch of chopped veggie slaw, a pan of roasted veggies, or a stir-fry and then store it in the fridge for the week.

Step 3: add a layer of meat or leftovers. This is always repurposed from dinner, like quiche, casserole, stew, brats, grilled meat, baked potato. Meatloaf is killer. Pizza works, too. Basically whatever you have, just dump it on top. Tips: if you eat out for dinner a lot, order extra to bring home.

Optional Step 4: add a dressing/condiment. Mustard, soy sauce, vinegar/oil, pesto, hot wing sauce (my personal favorite), or whatever you like. Keep in mind that some condiments (ex. anything mayo-based) will need refrigeration if it’s at room temperature too long. Don’t poison yourself.

Optional Step 5: finally, for flavor or crunch, you could add some cheese or nuts. Totally up to you.

Then when lunch rolls around, heat your veggies and leftovers (and greens if they’re sturdy—refer to #1) and eat. Minimalist. Easy. Quick. Healthy. Done.

Related: Minimalist cooking as demonstrated by dudes

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Minimalist cooking as demonstrated by dudes

I’m pretty sure it was the homemade Snicker-like candy bars that first caught my attention. I read through the ingredients and thought, “I could do this.” And then I did, and they were wonderful. My Halloween candy got a serious upgrade.

The recipe came from the Minimalist Baker. Per her “minimalist” moniker, author Dana creates recipes using only a handful of ingredients. And they’re natural ingredients, which is a bonus because as a rule I like to eat things I can recognize. (Cheetos, obviously, being an exception. I think that neon orange faux-cheese dust must come from a benevolent junk food pixie.)

We make healthy eating too complicated

Can we all just agree that eating meals made from scratch is best? We don’t need nutritionists to tell us this. When we recognize all of the ingredients in our meals, and they come from the earth, we’re on the right track with our diets. But even with this knowledge, healthy eating can get overcomplicated. Like fitness, we tend to make it harder than it needs to be. With good intentions, we create overly complex meal plans and shopping lists. We overstock our pantries with excessive variety (yes—I’m talking to you, cans of artichoke hearts and five types of pasta currently sitting on my shelf). And we accumulate more gadgets than we need. What are we to do?

There’s an easier way to eat healthy as demonstrated by this unexpected role model…

Enter the dude litmus test for cooking, whereby I’ll present a minimalist way to cooking as demonstrated by every bachelor you know. This way of cooking includes 5 ingredients or less prepared in 15 minutes or less. And don’t make me go to the store just to get started, ‘cuz that ain’t gonna happen.

The Minimalist Baker’s recipes usually pass this dude litmus test. As does PB&J (especially if the bread and jam are homemade and the peanut butter is natural). And beans and rice. And God’s greatest food: The sandwich.

Of course you’ll discover quickly that even with the dude litmus test, it’s still easy to overcomplicate things. (Ex. is salad dressing one ingredient, or is it the five I used to make the salad dressing?) Don’t make yourself overly concerned. Eat natural. Keep it simple. And stock up on horseradish mustard.

Let’s try a capsule wardrobe, only with food

So let’s try a new lab experiment. If minimalism works for things like clothing and personal care and overflowing garage gizmos, it’ll work for pantries, freezers, and crammed refrigerator condiment shelves, too. Let’s restrict ourselves to a short list of ingredients and gadgets (like a capsule wardrobe, only with food), and see what happens. Let’s cook like a dude, only perhaps a little healthier.

Personally I’m starting this experiment with two things:
1. An inventory and purge of my pantry
2. And research on simpler meal-planning and recipes (the More-with-Less Cookbook is on my hit-list)

Are you in?

Sniff sniff. I’m saying goodbye to premade salads. Here’s why–

premade-salad-mixes1

It was a final goodbye. As I stared down, I thought, “This is it. The last time. There won’t be any more–maybe not ever again.”

And with that, I recently bade farewell to something that’s been a comfort to me for the past year: Premade salads.

(* Insert pause for tears.)

(** Just kidding. I don’t cry over salad. Spilled milk, maybe, but not salad.)

(*** Seriously—kidding about the milk, too.)

Premade salads are among my favorite go-to solutions for healthy eating. Trader Joe’s, Dole prepacked mixes–I can’t tell you how many weeks I’ve taken relief in the convenience of being able to throw together wholesome lunches and dinners with these handy mixes.

If you work full-time, perhaps you know the weight of the dreaded, “What’s for dinner?” question. Or you’ve stood at your refrigerator door like me, already running late for work, wondering how you’re going to throw together a meal from the bare contents on the shelves in front of you. “Maybe I’ll just run to Chipotle,” I think. “Or I’ll impulsively graze the vending machine when my blood sugar is crashing at 11AM.”

Yes–because that’s a good plan.

Premade salad mixes have kept me out of Chipoltle (and other similar fast but expensive ways to conjure up lunch and dinner). They’ve kept me from grazing the vending machine and calling it “lunch.” They’ve rounded out a nice rotisserie chicken, instantly becoming dinner. They make healthy eating easy for busy people.

Premade salads are awesome…except for this one pesky thing

But there’s one unmistakable problem with them: The trash. Plastic bags. Cellophane bags inside the plastic bags. Salad dressing packets. Plastic containers.

There’s a cost to my convenience, and its wages are waste.

Perhaps you think the trade-off of eating healthy is worth a little trash. You won’t find me judging you. I’ve made this trade-off lots of times, and experienced the value of eating healthy. That said, I’ve decided that I don’t want to ignore the waste anymore. Here’s why:

As convenient as they are, here’s why I’m not ignoring the waste from premade salads anymore

First, packaging from food is the largest contributor to household waste. Of the 1.4 billion pounds of trash Americans accumulate per day in landfills, 40% of it’s from packaging. And most of that comes from one-time-use packages from—you guessed it—food. (Read where I got these facts, plus a great list of ideas to reduce trash, here.) When I learned this, I realized that reducing food packaging was the easiest way to significantly reduce the amount of trash I produce. So I’ve adopted it as a mission, and have been slowly saying goodbye to packaged food since.

Currently on my hitlist: The salads.

Second, I believe the trade-off of eating healthy vs. creating trash is a false one. I absolutely can still eat healthy. I just can’t do it conveniently. I fully confess that this is the hard part. I can make my own healthy salad mixes, but it takes discipline and time. And I’m already exerting discipline in so many other areas of my life that a part of me wonders, “Is this sacrifice really worth it? It seems so trivial and rigid. In light of everything else, does it really matter?”

Here’s my challenge to myself: To decide that Yes, it really matters. Small choices matter. They add up. In a culture that praises convenience and indulges wastefulness, going against the grain is hard. Especially when it includes tiny decisions about things like packaged salad mix. But trivial decisions aren’t trivial when they accumulate over days, weeks, and years (just ask a smoker with lung cancer).

But enough about that. Getting rid of premade salads is just one thing on my list of food-packaging to ditch. Curious to see the full list? It’s coming soon.

Also, the colorful coleslaw you see above is chopped red cabbage, radish and carrots. It took me fifteen minutes to make (it’d be much faster if I had a food processor’s help) and lasted for almost two weeks of lunches. Not bad, right?