Working moms can change their lives by changing how they prepare food.

Food for Change

Working Mom Principles to End Overwhelm and Find Fulfillment

By Andrea Jacques

As a working mom who prides myself on being informed and connected in this Internet age, I’m constantly bombarded with information about how to be a good mother, wife and business person…. I should spend X hours with my husband and Y hours with my son. I should be always available to help friends and family overcome their trials and celebrate their triumphs. I should network, volunteer, and advance my career. I should work on my next book and grow my business. I should stay fit and look fantastic. I should always feed my family healthy, organic, creative meals. It’s a lot of pressure in a finite day trying to be all things to all people. It’s no wonder that most of the working moms I know feel exhausted and overwhelmed!

Despite knowing on some level that these expectations that we put on ourselves are unrealistic, it’s hard not to feel that one doesn’t measure up.

But it doesn’t need to be that way.

When working moms learn to right-size their expectations, set boundaries, and delegate to their family, not only will they get rid of overwhelm, they’ll build the capacity of those around them to lead happy, healthier and productive lives as well.

So how do you make this shift?

The blanket answer is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution because we’re all starting from a different place. But there are some key principles for making positive and lasting changes no matter where and when you start. For ease of example, I’ve related these principles to healthier eating habits, but you’ll find they are just as applicable in other parts of a busy life!

Set your own standards.

There are many different points of view about the right way to eat. Should you be gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, vegan, paleo, low-carb, or some combination of those? Not to mention religious or cultural considerations. Should your family be expected to eat the same? Do you really need to create new meal from scratch every night? Do you have to eat organic all of the time? Expert advice and research is useful, but with so many conflicting expert points of view, the only way to decide if and how to apply that knowledge is to look inside. When it comes to changing eating habits, the experts always make it sound like their eating plan is the easy answer to trim your waistline or amplify your energy. No change is ever easy, but if something feels like the right fit for you, making the shift will be less of a struggle. The only way to know this, unfortunately, is to experiment. This natural experimentation to find what works often leaves people feeling like failures when they lose the motivation to stick with the latest healthy eating regime they got excited about. Let go of the guilt and accept this as a natural part of wading through all of the information out there on the “right” way to eat to ultimately discover the way of eating that is right for you. Replace “shoulds” with “choose-tos” to set your own standards. The rest is external pressure. Let go of it. Once you’ve tried something for awhile, you’ll have a new cupboard of experience to draw from and test against.

Start where you are.

Everyone starts from a different place. If you were raised on meat and potatoes, it can feel overwhelming to switch to a more vegetable-based diet. If you are Italian, giving up on carbs and cheese might feel like a death sentence. You might want to make some of these changes for health reasons, but hesitate to make the leap because it feels like you need to invest huge amounts of time learning new recipes or completely give up the comfort foods you and your family love. This does not need to be the case.
When you think of it as an all-or-nothing deal, change is daunting, but if you make the change slowly, it’s easier to implement and maintain. If you want to eat less meat, start by simply adding raw veggies and hummus to every meal, then gradually introducing meat substitutes. Or get your family involved in coming up with creative ideas for “meatless Mondays.” Make it a contest and vote on who made the best meatless Monday meal at the end of the month. (Just don’t make the prize a gift certificate for the local burger joint!)

Going all in is especially grueling for someone who juggles as many balls as a working mom. Burn out is expected. Exhausted from weeks of creative cooking, you’ll find yourself resorting to fast food more often, ultimately causing your attempts at healthier cooking to backfire. Maximize the benefits of trying new recipes (or even using old ones), by investing in some new containers and cooking larger amounts so you can freeze one or two meals for a future date. I get a great “super mom” feeling when I can put a healthy home-cooked meal on the table with almost no effort because of this strategy. My rule of thumb is to cook three meals in one – one to eat that night, one to freeze, and one for leftovers the next day for either lunch or dinner. Again, everyone starts from somewhere different, but we can all make positive changes. Acknowledge your personal starting point and work from there.

Avoid intention overload.

Each change takes energy. It’s important to limit the rate of individual changes as well as the number of concurrent changes. Pick one area of your life that you most want to optimize and work on that. Want to get a promotion at work? Work on that —not on your career, healthy eating, exercise, better time management and learning Italian all at once! If you feel like you’re in a rut, pick an area of your life that you feel change will have the biggest pay-off and work on that first. The momentum of little successes will move your forward, snowballing into bigger victories as you go. If eating well is what excites you, set your goals, develop a plan and execute it. Let go of the other things. In the course of meeting your main goal, they may happen as a byproduct, become easier, or become unimportant. Some people, for example, find that when they focus on eating well, they have more energy and better health to deal with the other issues in their life. A few years ago, I actually lost weight because I decided to stop obsessing about dieting and instead focus on finishing my first book. Because I was thinking about writing instead of food, I naturally ate less and my scale reflected this.

Keep it simple.

Change puts pressure on your family, too. You may be tempted to try wild new recipes that involve flavours and textures brand new to your partner and children. This is likely to backfire spectacularly. Instead, start with staples that you know and love and find simple ways to adapt them. For example, I puree kale with veggie broth and combine that with ground beef or turkey when I make shepherd’s pie. The flavour and texture are nearly the same, but I can get a whole extra serving of vegetables into my kid: a major victory. I also use a combination of mashed sweet potatoes and cauliflower instead of white potatoes. Those two small changes have turned a family favorite comfort food into a meal that also packs a hefty nutritious punch. As a bonus, if my child complains that he doesn’t like kale, I can always say that he liked it in the shepherd’s pie!

Create routines.

Just as you are more likely to exercise if you have a consistent routine, you will find it easier to eat healthfully if you create streamlined routines for feeding your family. Introduce fruit shakes for weekday breakfasts. A big blender, some protein powder, and some frozen fruit is all you need to make a healthy breakfast in a matter of minutes — and get rid of leftovers! Chop up a big tub of veggies and keep it in the fridge ready to snack on. I do mine every Sunday and keep tons of hummus on hand to go with it. That way, if anyone feels peckish, it’s just as easy to reach for a handful of carrots as it is to get a sugary granola bar.

Creating new routines can be easier said than done, so remember to keep them simple and never introduce more than one new routine each month. Also keep in mind that it’s important to have your family participate in putting these new routines in place. If you want to implement the Sunday veggie chopping routine, don’t assume you’re the one who should be doing the chopping. A strategic way to implement this routine might be to spend the first month helping your spouse and/or child to learn how to do it. Then they can take the lead on keeping that healthy habit going in the future while you invest your energy in implementing the next routine.

Ask for help.

Making yourself 100% responsible for changes that require buy-in from others is bound to leech your energy. If you want to make changes that everyone will benefit from, get input from your family on what they want and where they can contribute. When I was young, each family member was responsible for cooking one meal per week. Of course, this wasn’t an easy path to eating right. In the beginning, my youngest sister often fell back to easy comfort foods, like hot dogs. However, as we all got older, we came to look forward to our cooking day as a chance to try new recipes on each other. This was much more sustainable than having one person responsible for the change.

Like it or not, research shows that women still take on the lion’s share of the mental load when it comes to managing the home. It’s important to remember, however, that if you’re in a management role, you don’t do all the other work too. Identifying the work that needs to be done, training people to do it, and creating systems to help it get done more efficiently take tons of time and energy. If you can’t realistically give the household management role to your spouse or children, then you must delegate specific roles and routines to each family member or you’re bound for burnout. It takes effort and discipline to shift out of being both the manager and the “doer”, but doing so will save both your sanity and your relationships as well as building great life skills for your kids.

Let go.

One of the frequent complaints I hear from my female clients is that their partners or children don’t help out as much as they would like. In many instances, the woman is contributing to the problem. Imagine someone running as fast as they can with a heavy backpack and complaining that no one else will carry it for them. You have to slow down and take off the pack so someone else can pick it up! You may need to leave that pack sitting there much longer than you would like before someone else picks it up, but many working moms are surprised to discover that their family will help out if they slow down long enough to let them share the load. (And if they learn to let go of having things done in exactly the same way they would do it. Developing a tolerance for diversity of methods is essential to empowering others to get invested in driving positive change.)

Be patient with yourself.

There will be false starts. You will fall off the wagon. Don’t expect change to be instant, or a linear progression from good to better. A sensible plan involves small changes over long periods of time. Month one might involve keeping chopped veggies in the fridge at all times. In month two, you might develop the habit of cooking one meal a week that you freeze half of for the future. Next month, replace white bread with whole wheat. In month four, introduce one new recipe each week. Or, even better, one new recipe per month for a year. Keep goals small and focus on building sustainable habits instead of quick results and you will be more likely to succeed.

If we are to survive and learn to thrive as women, we need to learn to look at all of the expectations we place on ourselves, re-think them and re-design them to fit our own standards of success and fulfillment – not anyone else’s. Whether you want to change food, fitness, career, relationships, or parenting, you can use the above principles inspire you to remember that sustainable change is based on knowing who you are, what you want, and what can realistically be expected of any human being.

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