Hey, momma. Perhaps you recognize this picture: You just spent 30 minutes preparing and boxing up a healthy lunch for your preschooler, packed with fresh organic veggies and lovingly peeled fruit. Now it’s your turn to eat. Oops! No time left. You sling back a cold cup of coffee and rush off to work. Breakfast: grab a stale donut from the breakroom. Lunch: sandwich at your desk. By mid-afternoon, your energy is flagging - but it’s Donna’s birthday, sooo...there’s cake. Never mind! You’ll cook another healthy(-ish) dinner for Junior tonight, and before you go to bed you can stand at the kitchen counter and eat the leftovers.
It’s not all bad news: most kids hate vegetables, so there’s usually a vitamin or two left on that plate. Chalk it up as a win.
It’s funny, because it all started out so well. During pregnancy, women are bombarded with messages about healthy eating, and many of us find ourselves eating better than we ever have before - I know I did. But along with those folic acid supplements, I seem to have swallowed the message that the nutritious, balanced diet was all for the fetus, not for me. And so it came to pass that, at some point in between acclimating to the crazy sleep deprivation and learning to juggle my new baby and my work, I stopped paying attention to what I was eating. It’s not that I had forgotten how to eat well. It’s just that the idea of concocting delicious, nourishing meals for myself seemed completely alien; something a different person used to do, a long time ago.
It happens to a lot of us, and it’s not exactly a mystery: We’re exhausted, we’re over-stretched, and we can’t be blamed for grabbing the closest calories we can find. So next time you find yourself eating your kids’ leftovers and despairing about what’s become of all your good intentions: give yourself a break. (That goes for you too, dads.) Heaven knows there are enough ways to feel like we’re failing as parents without adding this one, too. And once you’ve forgiven yourself, remember the airline safety announcement: “Passengers traveling with small children should fit their own oxygen mask first, before helping others.” Make it your mantra. I can tell you from hard-earned experience that you can’t be a happy, patient, energetic mom if you’re running on empty. And while it’s totally ok in my book to snack on birthday cake to get you through the afternoon, it’s also more than ok to bump your own nutritional needs a little further up the priority list.
In my experience, one of the best ways to get back into the habit of nourishing yourself is to focus on getting your ‘5-a-Day’ - the minimum five servings of fruit and veg that nutritionists recommend for a healthy diet. I know - one more thing to keep track of is not what you need right now. But trust me: Remembering to eat more fresh produce feels way more positive and gentle than banning carbs or counting calories, and most moms could do with being more positive and gentle on themselves. It’s about reconnecting with food as nourishment, not just as fuel.
Besides, five servings isn’t that big a deal! These great pictures by Faith Durand are a helpful way to visualise what 5-a-Day looks like - totally achievable.
For what it’s worth, here are five of the more useful things I’ve learned during my time as a working mom (and mid-afternoon birthday cake snacker).
Parents often buy healthy snacks and tempting produce specifically for our children. But believe it or not, those tempting strawberries/peaches/baby tomatoes are good for you, too. So match your kids one-for-one: Every time you offer them a piece of fruit or veg, have some yourself.
Most of us have a go-to place in the kitchen for ‘treats’ - and it’s rarely the fruit bowl. Try moving the apples so they’re near (or even in) the cookie jar. Sounds too obvious to be true, but if you’re in a rush and reaching for a quick sweetness fix, this makes it far more likely you’ll choose fruit instead of refined sugar.
Prep more bite-size veggie snacks – for everyone. You already do it for the kids, so next time make three times as much as you need right now. Chopped crudités like carrot, celery and bell peppers will be fine after a day or two in the refrigerator. Plus, don’t forget tip 1: it doesn’t count unless you eat some yourself.
You’ve heard it a million times, but that’s because it’s true: Don’t skip breakfast. It might seem like a time saver, but you’ll pay for it later on. And make sure breakfast includes a piece of fruit, or some spinach, or maybe a juice or smoothie.
Sadly, carrot cake is not a vegetable. But however many of your 5-a-Day you ate, if you got to the end of the day in one piece, you’re doing just fine.