Why I Wrote Down Every Single Meal I Ate for a Year

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Food diaries are so often associated with shame and suffering: your nutritionist asks you to keep a food diary for a week to try and isolate the foods that are making you fat or your allergist asks you to keep a food diary to try and isolate the foods that are making your stomach upset. There’s nothing glamorous about that.

On Jan. 1, 2013, I was sitting at brunch on New Year’s Day and had the most delicious shitake mushroom omelet and wanted to remember it. I came to the conclusion that I have so many memorable meals but when it comes down to it I can never remember them. So I started it as a record to remember the good meals, good times and the bad meals and the not so good times. So starting that day, I wrote down every single meal I ate and kept notes in a daily planner. 

My food diary became part of my routine and reflecting on it two years later, I now have over 1,000 meal ideas and memories to devour. The day I had the best shrimp dumplings of my life was also the day I found out my childhood dog Harry had died. The night I had a very unpleasant egg white cocktail was the night I was celebrating my best friend Stephanie’s engagement. Eating food creates sense memories and though I can’t remember every detail of every day, remembering exactly what I ate helps bring the days that are long gone back to life.

I learned that I eat a lot more meat that I thought and that I make a disproportionate amount of Mexican food at home – much more than any other food. I learned that people I used to see all the time have sort of faded out of my life. I rediscovered forgotten bars and restaurants and was pleasantly reminded that I love putting balsamic vinegar in my tuna salad.

If you stick with it, at the end of a year you’ll have an amazing catalogue of your personal habits, trends, and preferences.

You’ll also have an easy way to remember just what was in that “house” dressing that made it so good. Our minds are quite complex and often we choose to edit out certain details. You’re likely to forget a meal you thought was incredible by the time spring rolls around, but with a food diary you have all the cues you need to recreate it.

Also, keeping a food diary is also a great way to track expenses. If budgeting your food and drink allotment is a concern this year, keeping track of what you spend is easy in your food diary. Simply record the rough dollar amount next to the meal and add up the total at the end of each week.

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How to Start a Food Diary

A food diary shouldn’t feel like a punishment. This should not be an exercise in calorie counting; you are creating something: a record of pleasure intake, if you will. Writing in a food diary should feel like part of your routine, like taking vitamins or brushing your teeth. Major congratulations are in order if taking vitamins is already part of your routine. This is something you do everyday that isn’t always fun, but is still necessary. To stay on track, make sure your food diary is appealing to you. Buy a pretty red notebook or create a spreadsheet on your smartphone – something that works with your lifestyle.

I found that having a physical object beckoning me to fill its pages was helpful. I tried to take notes on my iPhone but it just didn’t feel important and I didn’t keep it up. That said, if you keep notes electronically, your meals will be searchable, and with a simple keystroke, you can find out just how many slices of pizza you consume in a week.

Your food diary should be small so it can travel with you. You don’t need to take it with you everywhere, but make sure to record each meal before the day is over, otherwise you’ll forget. It’s incredible how easily we are able to forget what we ate for breakfast three days ago.

What to Record in Your Food Diary

Your food diary should be a list of every meal you eat. I found it necessary to skip uneventful snacks like potato chips or a cup of coffee if I was sure they wouldn’t lead to recipe inspirations. The level of detail is entirely up to you. Record restaurant names, cocktail ingredients, recipes from friends, and menu descriptions – things that might inspire you later.

Here is what my entries looked like:

  • Had toasted everything bagel with butter from corner deli.

  • Met Jill for lunch at Jack’s Wife Frieda. Had tuna salad with balsamic glaze and tons of red onions. Glass of house red wine, not very good.

  • Pouring rain and trains delayed. Had a turkey burger with pepper jack on Kaiser roll from Old Town Pub. Liquid Gold Pale Ale and rhubarb ice cream.

Do you need to record the fact that the onions were grilled instead of raw or that you also had fries? Probably not. Record things that stick out to you. Record the names of drinks you like and interesting flavor combinations.

Author Bio: Ally-Jane Grossan is an editor and food writer in Brooklyn, NY. Her recipes and food adventures can be found at Ally-Jane.com .