My mind has been stretched.

I don’t see it going back to its original dimensions.

The last week of February 2010, my partner and I took a roadtrip to Florida, visiting both Disney World (ostentatious fun!) and my uncle Ken’s Miami house (opulent sanctuary!). On the drive home, dreading return to our jobs and mundane lives, we hatched a plan. We wanted to be our best selves, constantly. We wanted to have our Disney World joy and my uncle’s comfortable luxury on a regular basis, created by us, maintained without strain.

In short: rid ourselves of the debris and the chains. Improve and impress. Ad astra per aspera, and all that.

I posted before about my weight loss, which was an ultimately minor result of this new plan. It’s a very tangible result, and thus notable through pictures and numbers – but it came about only through the grand overhaul. Money, food, exercise, and learning all came together.

Before the Frogality Movement (frogality because our symbol is the amphibious Frog, and our mindset is frugal), we’d order in or dine out 10 meals a week. We’d over-buy fresh ingredients, and most of them would go to waste. I made an excel chart (based partly on conjecture, partly on shame-ridden remembrance) and figured that between Jimmy John’s ordering at 3am, pizza twice a week and frequent stops at the Cupcake Station, we’d spend $160-200 a week on food, not even considering groceries. A trip to Kroger’s or Busch’s could set us back $50-80, regularly.

That’s at least $1,000.00 a month.

It’s taken about 9 months to fully work it out of our system, but we haven’t gotten pizza (except for maybe a special occasion) in several weeks. I can’t remember the last time we ordered Jimmy John’s. And the only cupcakes I eat are the incredibly delicious, free ones graciously brought to my workplace by a coworker whose mom owns a cupcakery. We even make our own tortilla chips and salsa.

Maybe more importantly, though, we’ve really learned how to grocery shop, which means learning how to cook. No more rubbery broccoli or moldy lunchmeat or rotten eggs because we bought too much and didn’t use it; no more specialty ingredients for one crazy recipe that calls for an ounce of a $5.99 bottle of fish sauce that won’t be used again before it expires.

We’re now spending about $40 on groceries a week, and trying to work it down to $30 or less. We’re using bulk ingredients – rice, couscous, quinoa and beans – as our base, and buying fresh veggies once a week. We’re being more creative with our recipes – if all we have left is one sweet potato, a green pepper, some amaranth and leftover black beans – I’ll make it work.

Granted, eating a mostly vegan healthy diet, and being invested in challenging my culinary skills are the biggest assets to simplifying our budget. Knowing about nutrition is a necessary combination with being thrifty, too; it’s not enough to think “this sandwich is a whole seven dollars! I could eat on that for a week!” – it was also necessary for me to know that it contained 773 calories and a day’s worth of saturated fat. I’ve also recently taken a (much needed) step down at work, which forces us to utilize a potentially lower income instead of just trying to do better.

But it can be done. Eating at home takes a bit more time – but truly, I’d probably be spending that time refreshing my facebook page or watching a Hoarders episode. I used to be daunted by the idea that if I was going to make a meal, it would have to be this fancy, delicious thing – instead of comfortably edible. I make some tasty things (homemade hummus, Moroccan veggie stew, tamari tofu) but also some comfortable but meh dishes (lentils and rice).

In all, your food doesn’t have to cost more than your rent. I never knew. Our goal is to spend $100/month on food – I’m confident with a little more practice, we can do it and eat well. And we’ll have more money to frolic and gallivant – just like our Disney World trip.

And now I can’t go back to my original ways. (At least, not without wiping the crumbs of guilt from my face.)

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your weight loss resolution.

It’s the new year. You’re feeling exuberant, renewed, inspired, and making a list of ways you’ll change. 2011’s gonna be different. Massive life makeover. P-90x will kick your ass and you’ll never touch another cookie again. You’ve set a deadline for weight loss. 30 pounds in three months. 15 pounds by spring break. No more love handles by bikini season.

It’s not going to happen.

I wish you all the best with your plan, but you can’t change like that. You can’t suddenly go from couch potato to athlete. You can’t consume gallons of soda and piles of pepperoni pizza for days on end and then instantly become a raw low-fat vegan.

What you CAN do is make incremental changes. Focus on tiny goals. Say, “This week, I’m going to cut down to two sodas a day.” Then the next week, you’ll be down to one – or if you’re feeling good, one every other day. You’ll stop craving the sugar and you’ll start feeling cleaner – and before you realize it, you’ll find soda to be disgusting.

Learn about why the “bad foods” are not the best choices. How does your body break down fat? With the help of complex carbohydrates. What provides the best energy for your brain? Carbohydrates! Where does your body store excess sugars? In fat cells! Thinking about the science and reality makes it easier to face those free cupcakes at work, or that taco dip at the party.

If you make it into a morality game – “bad” foods vs “good” – it becomes a complex emotional issue. You might have a difficult day at work and want to reward yourself with “bad” foods, thinking you deserve them. Or you go overboard and banish everything “bad” – leading to obsessions and desires that, I promise, will overtake your brain.

Pushing yourself into a workout that exhausts your body and makes you feel broken the next day — that’s just not going to be sustainable. You want those 15 lbs to stay off, right? Then start easy. Go to the gym and spend 15 minutes on the elliptical. Do 10 laps on the track. When was the last time you jogged up a flight of stairs? It put you out of breath, didn’t it? Clearly, you’re out of shape. Getting into an exercise regimen WILL take time and effort; but if you work up to it slowly, it’ll feel that much better.

Your body will also build up a tolerance to calories burned. It learns to use energy in the most efficient ways – so starting with a 5-mile run or an upper-level spinning class just means you’ll have to challenge your body that much more in the future. Start small so you can build up to the maximum that you can handle. You’ll be able to handle more, eventually, too.

It’s great to have the goals – the 20 lbs by a certain date – because that gives you something to work for. But the only way to do it is by making those incremental changes.

How do I know? I lost 47 lbs from April to August this year.

And I have kept them off. I have fibromyalgia, which means I have to take it easy with exercise anyway – so I started swimming. It’s gentle on my joints and great for a full-body workout. The first time I went, I had no idea how many laps I was capable of before getting in the pool. I hadn’t been swimming in years. So, I started slowly. I think I did sixteen laps (which is about 1/4 mile) that first day. The next time, I was able to do 20, and slowly worked my way up to half a mile.

I also stopped eating pizza. This was an enormous money saver, and had an unintended side effect. My migraines – once a twice-weekly phenomenon – dwindled to a minimum never experienced. Probably something to do with the processed cheese. My stomach aches less, and I hardly ever feel nauseous anymore.

In short – I beg of you: if you really want results, if you want to achieve your goals – take a good long look at yourself, and take small steps along the way. Make every new thing you do something you can see yourself maintaining for life. Can’t do an hour of kickboxing every day? Then don’t, but do park your car six blocks away and walk to work. Can’t walk to work? Stand at the stove and prepare a meal for twenty minutes instead of standing in front of the microwave for five.

Also: drink a whole lot of water. All day long.

I didn’t think I could do it. I’d been paying for a membership at the Y for two years without going ONCE, why would I suddenly start exercising more than once a week? I’d been eating cheeseburgers like it was my job (well – working at a BBQ restaurant, it could be considered…), what would make me stop eating meat entirely?

But I did it! I have faith that you can do it, too – it’s not magic, and it does take effort. Pills won’t work. Self-blame doesn’t work, either. But really? It’s all about diet and exercise – and focusing on a healthy lifestyle.

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