How Long Does It Take To Change A Habit?

We all want to be healthier. Making better food choices is a big part of that but changing the way we eat is hard. How long does it take to change a habit?

How Long Does It Take To Change A Habit?
How Long Does It Take To Change A Habit?

So you’ve started on a journey to change your ways.  You’ve decided to be healthier, eat better, ditch the take out and cook your own healthy meals at home.  It doesn’t take long to realize that it’s harder than you thought it would be.

It takes longer than you thought to research meal plans, find what you want in the grocery store, to prep and put together your meals every day.  And, unfortunately, you’re still craving your favorite frozen pizza.  It’s enough to send any (previously) sane person, screaming, to the nearest drive-thru.

Now, I know you’ve heard this before but it takes time to feel comfortable after making changes to your life, especially big ones.  But how long do we have to wait for this to get easier?  How long does it take to change a habit?

First, let’s break down some of the specific reasons we’re having problems.

How to Create a Healthy Meal Plan

Create a Healthy Meal Plan
Create a Healthy Meal Plan

Creating a meal plan seems like a chore at first, especially for those of us who are used to flying by the seat of our pants in regard to mealtime.  Who has time to find recipes, write out a menu and set up a shopping list for the next couple of weeks??  How would you even know what you’ll want to eat all those days in advance???

Ok, just calm down.  This process is completely malleable.  I’ll tell you right up front that I can’t plan my meals more than a few days ahead of time, either. But what I often do is keep an eye out for recipes online.  When I find something that I’d like to try, I print out the recipe or email it to myself.  This gives me plenty of ideas of what I’d like to try sometime in the future.  If you join the email lists at a few sites, they send the recipes to you!

If the ingredients in a recipe are shelf-stable, freezable or have a relatively long refrigerator life span, I’ll buy them on my next shopping trip so I can have them on hand when I’m ready to make it.  This is a form of meal plan because I already have the recipes and ingredients when I’m ready to cook.

Now for the shopping list.  I have a notes app on my phone (I’m sure you have one as well) so I keep a running shopping list.  If I need something or want to acquire ingredients for a particular meal, I just whip out my phone and add to the list.  When I buy something, I just remove that item from the list.

Sounds easy enough but now you have to face the grocery store.  When I first started on this journey, you can be sure that I knew where they kept the hot dogs and frozen dinners but where the heck are pine nuts?   It’s true that it will take you a little bit longer on your first few trips but you’ll get the hang of it soon enough.  Remember that it’s ok to ask for directions!

For more tips on this subject, check out this article!

Prep. Cook. Repeat.

I love to cook.  I am often at my happiest when I can spend the afternoon creating a complex meal for myself and/or other people.  I understand that not everyone loves (or even likes) to cook and that’s something I can understand on a certain level.

For me, cooking is an undertaking, a project.  I do not enjoy feeling rushed or pressured when I’m cooking and I don’t like to cook when I’m feeling tired after a long day.  And, let’s face it…I usually don’t have an entire afternoon free to make a meal.  So, in that respect, I often don’t like to cook.  But I still gotta eat so what’s a girl to do?

The first thing to do is check your local supermarket.  These businesses recognize the increasing desire of their customers to eat healthy, whole foods while having increasingly less time to spend cooking.

I’m happy to say that they’ve stepped up to the plate by offering a large selection of items that are prepared and/or ready for cooking.  This includes produce that is peeled and cut into various shapes and sizes, both in the produce department and the frozen section.

Check out the meat and frozen food aisles to find proteins that are already deboned, ground or sliced.  Other areas can supply you with sliced or grated cheese, hard-boiled eggs, chopped nuts and many other things to reduce your time in the kitchen.

Another thing I do is take advantage of the opportunities I do have to cook.  Most dishes will last in the fridge for up to 5 days and can also be frozen in serving-sized portions for a minimum of 3 months, sometimes longer.  This means I can make extra portions and eat them throughout the week or freeze them for later.  Here are some additional thoughts on this subject!

But Wait…I Still Want Pizza

I Still Want Pizza
I Still Want Pizza

You’re eating healthy and you should feel better, right?  You should be enjoying the benefits of fresh food and craving some more of that awesome, nutritious stuff that your body needs…except you’re actually dying for a drive-thru sandwich.

You know you shouldn’t.  It’s unhealthy and it’s detrimental to what you’re trying to achieve. It doesn’t even taste that good.  And yet, here you are.  You could be in line right now, waiting for your turn to get one of those nuggets of death and berating yourself for being so weak.

Take it down a notch, ok?  It’s not your fault.

Manufacturers have discovered how to use a precise combination of sugar, salt and fat to virtually ensure our overconsumption of the foods they’re pushing. This concoction lights up the pleasure centers in the brain, creating a euphoria that compels us to want more.

It’s so powerful that it’s been compared to cocaine. Yes, you heard me right. Check out these findings put together by Yale University.

The good news?  The longer you hold out, the weaker that compulsion will be.

How Long Does It Take To Change A Habit?

How Long Does It Take To Change A Habit?
How Long Does It Take To Change A Habit?

This brings us back to the original question.  How long does it take to change a habit?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to that question.  According to a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes between 18 to 254 days and about 66 days for it to become automatic.

Why the wide margin?  Because habits are diverse and affect our lives in different ways.

When you get in your car, you most likely put on your seatbelt without even giving it a thought.  You probably don’t remember struggling to form that habit, it was just something that became a muscle memory after doing it over and over.  Why?  Because, although you know that it could potentially save your life, the seatbelt doesn’t connect with you emotionally.

How about that time you cut your finger with a knife?  I’ll bet it didn’t take you long to form the habit of keeping your fingers out of the way while you’re cutting potatoes.

Food is a different situation altogether.  Eating food gives us pleasure for many different reasons.

We need food to live and so we’re naturally drawn to it.  We also enjoy the different flavors and mouthfeels of these foods as well as the satisfaction of being full.  And nothing compares to the camaraderie of sitting down with our friends and loved ones for a good meal.  Our attitude toward food is wound tightly with tradition, emotion and physical need.

What we eat is a habit that’s much more difficult to change but it can be done.

Here’s my take on the situation.  This is a journey, not a race. You can’t change your entire diet overnight.  Maybe not in 6 months.  Maybe not even in a year.  All you can do is begin.

Ask yourself what you’re willing to change right now.  Maybe you’ll decide to make a smoothie for breakfast tomorrow.  Or trade the takeout one day this week for a super quick and easy tomato and shrimp salad.  Once you’re comfortable with that, maybe you’d like to change something else.

The Best Time Is Now

The Best Time Is Now
The Best Time Is Now

The most important thing to remember is to always be kind to yourself.  There will be hiccups and backslides.  I’ve been at this now for over 4 years and I still have a relapse from time to time. But I’m miles ahead of where I began.  That’s what matters.

So go ahead and get started.  The best time is now.

What’s the first change you plan to make?  Let me know in the comments below!

All my best,

Cynthia
cynthia@cynthiaeats.com

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4 Replies to “How Long Does It Take To Change A Habit?”

  1. Finally something I can weigh in on! The whole habit thing has been ingrained in me with my job. There they claim it takes 30 days to form a habit. Now that habit was usually sales based (and keeping your job) so I’m sure food is different. I completely get the takeout vs cook at home. For about 6 months we were good, really good. Made multiple meals over the weekend so we didn’t have time as an excuse during the week. We would take out one of the meals in the morning as part of our going to work routine so dinner was just heating up when we got home. Problem was, we didn’t want the dinner choice when we did get home. Either we forced ourselves or back into the refrig and a quick drive thru followed. I love your calming suggestions, and ways that this might finally work for us.

  2. Thank you for this helpful post. I have been trying to pick up a healthy diet. and it’s not as easy as it seems. But having delicious foods that are also healthy is a good way to get started. I also have been preparing meals and choosing the ingredients and it’s exciting. There is work ahead and need of a lot of will power!

    1. I’m glad you’ve made the choice to make some healthy changes to the way you eat.  While some willpower is needed (especially at first), it’s important to make little changes you can stick with.  It gets easier when you begin to see the changes that take place!!

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