On losing weight (Part 6 – Meals to pack for work)

I do not consider myself to be “dieting”. I have changed the way that I eat. Now that I have hit my target weight, I don’t intend to revert to my previous eating habits. I consider these behaviors to be a permanent change, though I still experiment and modify.

Most of the changes to my diet come about as a result of repeated experimentation and modification, and I don’t consider myself to be “done” making adjustments. Each dietary change has the following goals in mind:

  • Change should be for the better, with each modification focused toward healthier eating. Not every change must be “healthy”, in and of itself. Some enable me to make healthy decisions at another time. But all change is made with the goal of an overall healthy diet.
  • Changes should be sustainable because they are convenient. If a food is difficult or time consuming to prepare, then I am unlikely to consistently use that food in my diet.
  • Changes should be sustainable because they are enjoyable. I consider each change that I make to be permanent. If I can’t see myself eating this way for the rest of my life, then I don’t make the change. If I change something but later realize that I don’t enjoy my new diet, I revert that change. If I have to “force” myself to eat healthily, then I know it won’t stick, and I’m not interested in temporary results.

Criteria for meals at work

During the week, I eat breakfast and lunch at work. My requirements for food to take to work with me are:

  • Portable – I pack a cooler to bring to the office and I don’t want food that will spill all over.
  • Easy to prepare – I am not willing to take much time in the mornings to prepare my meals. If I find that I’m spending too much time packing a food, even if I really like it, I will discard it and replace it with something easier.
  • Relatively non-perishable – I don’t put my food in a refrigerator at work, so I need to be pretty confident that each item will last in a cooler until I’m ready to eat it.
  • Mess free – I tend to eat both breakfast and lunch at my desk. I won’t eat something if it’s too much hassle, or if it’s likely to get my work area (or computers) messy.
  • Healthy – I try to put some effort into hitting the major food groups with my meals at work.
  • Low calorie density – As I mentioned in the calorie counting article, I have the most control over foods that I eat at breakfast and lunch on the weekdays. These meals are my opportunity to “do it right.” That means I need to work extra hard to find foods that will fill me up but not pack on the calories.
  • Taste good – I know myself. I won’t stick with it if I don’t like what I’m eating. If the eating is a chore, then I will eventually give in to the temptation to eat the “wrong” foods. If, on the other hand, I really enjoy the foods that I’m eating, then the habit will likely stick.

I have worked pretty hard, and experimented quite a bit, to find foods that meet the above goals, and I’m still occasionally refining my menu. Here’s what it looks like today.

Breakfast at work

Breakfast is the easiest. My budget is 200-400 calories for this meal. I have settled on Dannon Light & Fit Greek Yogurt as my breakfast of choice. Cherry is my favorite flavor, but blueberry is a very close second. They are delicious, and only 80 calories per cup (0.5 cal/g). I tend to eat two every morning, although I occasionally eat only one, and sometimes will eat up to four cups for breakfast. I frequently supplement the yogurt with some fresh fruit, usually bananas, with the occasional apple, orange, or grapefruit.

I also like to drink an energy drink before work. Rockstar is my brand of choice. My favorite flavors are: lemonade (yellow can), orange drink (orange can), and their zero-carb soda (blue can). They are all low-calorie, and taste good.

Lunch at work

My lunch budget is 400-600 calories. I mix it up a bit for lunch, but I always try to have some fruit, vegetables, grain, and protein. Here are some of the options that I pick from:

  • Grape tomatoes – Wegmans sells a 1 quart box of these, and each box has about 160 calories (0.2 cal/g).
  • Celery sticks – These are pre-cut and washed. A 12 oz. package has only 35 calories in it (0.1 cal/g).
  • Baby carrots – These are my least favorite vegetable, though I still enjoy them. A 16 oz. bag has about 190 calories in it (0.4 cal/g).
  • Grapes – I tend to get red seedless and pack about 1 – 2 lbs each day. A 1 lb. bag has about 300 calories in it (0.7 cal/g).
  • Cherries – I absolutely adore cherries. They are not always available, but when they are, I eat a lot of them! A 1 lb. bag has about 240 calories in it (0.5 cal/g).
  • Apple – My favorites are Empire and Fuji apples. Two small apples have about 200 calories in them (0.8 cal/g).
  • Wegmans whole wheat mini pitas – These things are awesome. I can’t tell you how happy I am to have found them. They have only about 50 calories each (2.3 cal/g).
  • Packaged tuna fish – Another cool find. By far my favorite is the sweet and spicy flavored tuna. Each pouch is only 90 calories (1.2 cal/g).
  • Boiled egg whites – The whites from 5 eggs have about 85 calories in them (0.5 cal/g).
  • Water with lemon juice – I pack a quart of water in my cooler every day. I like to pour a bit of lemon juice (about 2 tablespoons) into it to give it a bit of flavor.

So, on a typical day, my lunch might look like:

1 qt tomatoes (160 cal), celery (35 cal), 2 apples (200 cal), 2 pitas (100 cal), 5 egg whites (85 cal), 1 quart water – grand total: 580 calories. That’s a huge amount of food (about 4 lbs, not including the water) with a very minimal overall calorie density of about 0.4 cal/g.

– danBhentschel

A popsicle stick for your thoughts

To put it mildly, we have difficulties with my son, Jacob. More bluntly, he often feels more challenging than the other five children combined. One of the issues that we struggle with is that Jacob doesn’t seem to be motivated to do what’s expected of him. In fact, he frequently seems to be highly motivated to do the exact opposite of what he knows he should be doing. Another problem that we struggle with is that he doesn’t seem to be very good at anticipating the consequences of his actions. He tends to be (or at least tends to act) surprised when his ill-conceived schemes inevitably backfire on him.

This isn’t something new. The pattern has been pretty consistent for at least 3 years now, and I see no indication that things will change significantly in the near future. Several months ago, Marlene and I sat down together and brainstormed a novel way to attack the problem. The result was the Popsicle Stick Program.

The endowment effect

The endowment effect is a theory of economics (and by extension, psychology) that hypothesizes that people place more value on an item that they own simply because it belongs to them. The corollary theory is called loss aversion. Loss aversion is an attempt to explain and quantify the observation that people seem to prefer to avoid losses over acquiring gains.

This is all very academic. How does it apply to my unruly 6-year-old? Prior to the Popsicle Stick Program, one of the ways we attempted to motivate Jacob to perform well was to promise him a reward. For example, “if you clean up your toys, you will have time to play afterward.” Sounds logical, right? Not to my son.

So, in the spirit of the endowment effect, we have tried to re-image gained privileges as “privileges not lost.” We do this through the introduction of a fake currency: popsicle sticks.

The privilege allowance

Jacob has been provided with the following:

  • income – Each morning, Jacob is given an “allowance” of eight popsicle sticks.
  • catalog – We drew up a conversion table that shows the “price”, in popsicle sticks, of various privileges.
  • expectations – We also provided him with a list of specific behaviors that would result in a popsicle stick being taken away from him.

Here is Jacob’s privilege catalog:

ItemCost (sticks)Opportunities per week
30 minutes playing a video game1many
Hot chocolate at Bob's Diner11
Dessert after dinner17
Play outside without adult supervision2up to 7
Stay awake during weekend naptimes42
Go to Awana41
Do something special with Daddy51

I calculate that, ignoring video games, Jacob could do everything on this catalog for a grand total of 39 popsicle sticks per week. Since he has an allowance of 56 sticks each week, that should leave 17 extra sticks to play video games with, or just to save up.

The bank, and bigger rewards

There are three larger rewards that Jacob can save up his “money” for:

  • Movie theater – 6 popsicle sticks
  • Sleep over at a friend’s – 8 popsicle sticks
  • Whole family spend the night at Chuck-E-Cheese – 15 popsicle sticks

These three rewards can’t be paid for out of Jacob’s revolving supply of popsicle sticks. If he wants to do one of these, he must pay out of the “bank”. Every Saturday at 6:00 PM, my phone reminds me to ask Jacob if he wants to put any popsicle sticks into the bank. The popsicle sticks that Jacob has in his supply can be lost or spent at any time. Sticks that he puts in the bank can never be lost, and can only be spent on one of the three large rewards.

How well does it work?

I have to admit. I am a bit disappointed with the results. When we were planning out the system, I had such high hopes, but it has not been the silver bullet that I had been dreaming of. Looking just at the numbers, the outcome doesn’t seem all that impressive:

  • Jacob has never once, in several months of this system, put a single popsicle stick into the bank.
  • He has purchased a privilege costing more than 2 popsicle sticks only a handful of times, despite many dozens of opportunities.
  • I haven’t calculated exactly, but I’m pretty sure that more than 90% of his sticks are either lost because of behavior, or go to playing video games.

Yet, Marlene and I both agree that it is worth continuing with the system. Here are some of the good results that have come from this program:

  • Jacob is able to plan at the beginning of the day what he wants to do with his popsicle sticks.
  • When he is (almost inevitably) not able to accomplish his plans, I can ask him what interfered, and he is able to relate to me specific events that prevented him from cashing in.
  • Jacob has a very specific measure to help him gauge his behavior.
  • Marlene and I can also better track behavioral trends over long periods of time, based on his spending.

I’m going to conclude with a story about a recent interaction between Jacob and Marlene. Marlene instructed Jacob not to do something. Jacob looked right at her and deliberately did what he was told not to do. Marlene took away a popsicle stick. He made a face at her and did the forbidden act again. She took away another stick.

This repeated several times until Jacob got very agitated and started to throw a fit. It turns out that he had a specific number of popsicle sticks that he wanted to spend that day, and he had been sacrificing the extra ones to make a point. Unfortunately for him, he got carried away and accidentally lost one more popsicle stick than he had intended to.

The Popsicle Stick Program, while not quite what I had hoped for, has been successful at highlighting Jacob’s impulsive behavior. I believe he is more aware of his actions and their consequences, and that’s a pretty good place to start.

– danBhentschel