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Eye appeal

I don’t cheat on my taxes and I never cheated on a test, but lately I’ve been experimenting with “cheat meals.” This kind of cheating doesn’t require me to make up imaginary deductions or sneak peeks at my friend’s quiz paper, but it does let me indulge in whatever I want for one meal a week as long as I eat healthy the rest of the time. Actually, I started out experimenting with a whole cheat day, but that turned into a food orgy that even Caligula would be ashamed to attend, so I’ve cut it back to just one cheat meal a week. It’s supposed to help prevent your body from thinking you’re starving and keep your metabolism geared up. Just like most diet science, I have no idea if that’s actually true, but I’m willing to experiment with it especially if it lets me sample those pastries in the Kroger deli that always look so delectable.

Sadly, some things look a lot better under glass than they taste in my mouth, like Starbucks pumpkin scones. I carefully examined every item in the coffee house’s display case last weekend, regarding the size of every flake of coconut and the geometry of every caramal swirl, trying to decide which brownie or cookie or cake was most worthy of being my “cheat meal” for the week. I ordered the pumpkin scone along with a pumpkin latte to create an autumnal theme meal, and I truly experienced a Fall when I was disappointed by both of them. When I sipped my coffee, it didn’t taste like pumpkin anything, though I didn’t want to immediately spit it out, which is unusual for a non-coffee drinker like me. The scone was dry and semi-hard, almost like the stale bread we used to feed ducks as a kid. When I walked back to my car I could only think, “I wasted my calories on that? But it looked so good!”

Like so many things in life, the illusion of these desserts is frequently far better than the reality. If you used a computer to follow my eye-tracking at the grocery store, you’d find my pupils tend to linger several seconds on the elaborate cake and cheesecake displays before they flick back ahead to direct me to the meat section. I don’t really eat that sugary stuff anymore and I don’t even miss it most of the time, but I do notice it. If I want to I can dream about how tasty it must be. Now that I’ve sampled a couple of the items, I wonder if it’s better to live in the fantasy world. There I get to believe that pumpkin scones are scrumptious even if I’m not eating them, instead of in reality where I eat them and discover they’re just “meh.”

It’s probably best to buy baked goods from restaurants that actually bake them fresh. I recently read the book Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, an insider’s memoir about the restaurant industry, so I really should know better than to buy pastries from chain coffee shops. When my mom worked at Borders, she said they bought pastries from outside manufacturers and simply defrosted them before setting them out on a tray.

The anticipation of eating something good can sometimes transcend the experience itself. I get to spend all week thinking about what I want to eat for my cheat meal and how good it will be. By the time Saturday actually rolls around and I bite into a cinnamon roll, even if it’s as delicious as I think it will be the experience is over fairly fast. There can be just as much joy in anticipating something good than having the good thing actually happen.

The other good thing? I can now eat “bad” foods in public without shame. For another cheat meal, I went to my local whole foods grocery store and bought a fist-sized mini pound cake for an afternoon snack. After purchasing it at the register, I sat at one of the tables and chairs in the middle of the store and ate half the cake right there, in front of everybody, plastic fork held proudly. When I was morbidly obese I would have hidden my cake in a plastic bag and waited until I got home to devour it in its entirety. If I was still that large, I would have feared being judged by other shoppers who would see a really fat girl eating something that wasn’t going to make her any thinner. Now that I’m basically thin, I feel like I can eat crap in public without being judged, or at least not judged as harshly. I’ve also reached a point where I don’t care what people think of what I eat, be it frosting or a salad. People are going to judge no matter what, so I may as well eat what I want to.

I’ll probably still be mesmerized by rotating pie displays, even if I intellectually know the slices probably look better than they taste. According to an episode of the radio show “This American Life” the spinning increases pie sales. I guess I’m not the only one who has been fooled by eye appeal.

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43 Comments

john • October 24, 2007 at 8:55 am

I’ve never heard that about a cheat meal helping to let the body know it isn’t starving. I thought that was the whole point of eating small meals throughout the day.

PQ – I guess ultimately whether your body thinks you’re starving depends on how many calories you’re eating vs. how many you’re burning. Either way, the cheat meal isn’t supposed to be a binge meal, just a time to eat whatever you want to until you are full. I haven’t come to a final verdict on its effectiveness yet, but I’m going to give it a couple more weeks.

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Debbi • October 24, 2007 at 9:09 am

“People are going to judge no matter what, so I may as well eat what I want to.”

Proving that what other people think of me is none of my business.

I like the idea of saving that cheat experience for one meal a week. Turning the idea into reality … ahhh, that’s the challenge. Especially since I’m still in training and think I can eat whatever (within reason) I want.

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Migraineur • October 24, 2007 at 9:39 am

I think one way you keep your body from thinking it’s starving is by consuming adequate protein. But I am not completely sure of this. I am not a fan of the “several small meals a day” approach – a small meal never completely satisfies me, so I spend my whole day hungry, tired, and thinking about food. Plus it doesn’t really lend itself to an active lifestyle – stopping to eat every three hours is a pain in the a**. I prefer three (or sometimes even just two) nutrient dense meals. If I eat an omelet at 7:30 am, I’m good until at least 1:00 pm. That’s 5 1/2 hours of not thinking about food! And if I eat a nice big salad with adequate protein at lunch, I’m good until 7:30 pm, which is when my husband gets home for dinner. YMMV, of course.

But that’s not really why I’m writing – I just wanted to say how much your notion of cheats often being disappointing rings true. I sometimes think I want that donut or cinnamon bun, but it’s never worth it. And oddly, I never feel that way about food that’s truly good for me – maybe because the anticipation is less, or maybe because nutritious food actually IS more tasty? Not sure. I do want to mention that last night, I swear I am not making this up, raw broccoli stems tasted sweet to me. (Not the florets, though – they’re still bitter when raw.)

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MB • October 24, 2007 at 10:26 am

I agree that sometimes the anticipation is so much better than the actual experience. It is like when people give rave reviews of a product, restaurant, movie, or whatever – it gets so built up in your mind that you are usually dissapointed it didn’t live up to its hyped up billing. It even happens in relationships where you have a crush on someone and think they are so wonderful until you actually go out on a date and get to know them and find out they are complete *ssholes. The fantasies are often so much better than reality.

P.S. I’ve heard the pumpkin coffee at DD is awesome but don’t want you do be disappointed if it is merely meh. :)

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Marianne • October 24, 2007 at 10:33 am

Keep us posted on how this goes – it’s really interesting!

I’m trying to live on the 80/20 rule, where I eat “right” 80% of the time, and don’t worry do much about the other 20%. It’s interesting to see how much less I want and enjoy the “junk” stuff now that I’ve given myself permission to eat it without shame.

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Cate • October 24, 2007 at 10:51 am

The true test: do you finish eating something that is not wonderful? I find it hard to resist… waste of money, waste of food, but also waste of “cheat” calories, no? We trainees soldier on…

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K • October 24, 2007 at 10:55 am

I can’t not finish things either, but I AM disappointed by things that aren’t worth the calories.

I’m finding, increasingly, that I only buy very small amounts of chocolate when I want a treat, because it has diminishing returns: the first few bites are fine, but if I eat a whole single-size bar, the last bite will be too rich and I’ll feel slightly sickened.

Starbucks’ sweet food is never as good as it looks, alas. Either it used to be better or my tastes have changed; not sure which.

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TOWR • October 24, 2007 at 11:01 am

I’m impressed that your cheat meal was only a scone and coffee. I would have bellied up to my Olive Garden table, ordered the tour of Italy with salad and a Diet Coke, and then headed over to Cold Stone for dessert. You’re obviously more of a thin girl at heart than you think! I can’t wait until I get there myself!

PQ – I LOVE baked goods. I’ve been using the cheat meals to eat donuts and cake mostly. I went to Starbucks because I wanted to try the pumpkin latte and I knew it would only be available for a limited time.

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Laura • October 24, 2007 at 11:17 am

I think I just had a cheat week

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Jenny • October 24, 2007 at 11:31 am

I have a “cheat day” now that I’m maintaining my weight and I try to change it around so that I’m not waiting for Saturday like a middle-aged child waiting for Christmas.

So not pretty.

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spacedcowgirl • October 24, 2007 at 12:17 pm

I do think that “changing up” the amounts you eat through a cheat meal or calorie cycling or whatever probably keeps your metabolism working less efficiently and therefore your body has a harder time figuring out how to maintain or gain (as it would like to) on 1000 calories a day or whatever. Of course I have not read the research, so this could be complete crap… and everyone’s different so I’m sure it doesn’t work this way for everyone… but it does seem logical in general.

I’m not a fan of Starbucks pastries. That’s too bad because their coffee is my favorite, but their pastries always seem dry (in the case of scones) or greasy (in the case of cookies and muffins) and too sweet. I absolutely love the reduced-fat cranberry-orange scone at Caribou Coffee and I have one every Friday morning for breakfast. I look forward to it all week. And while I suppose the anticipation is better than the actual scone, and the experience of eating it is definitely over way too soon as you describe, I like it so much that it’s not a letdown, so the whole experience (looking forward to eating it and then actually eating it) is pleasant for me.

Speaking of pastries and regarding your donut post, DD all the way! :) Krispy Kreme seems to feel the need to put glaze on everything. As a pre-planned birthday treat this year I got two Old-Fashioned donuts and a large black coffee at DD for breakfast. The flavors of the cake donuts and coffee together are just perfect. If that combo were somehow good for me, I’d eat it 3 meals a day. :)

My fat girl cred is intact because I love donuts so much (whereas many fat people don’t even like them, yet are still tarred with the same media stereotype that we must all eat a dozen a day) yet is slightly in question because I find the glazed ones gross and way too sweet.

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Nina • October 24, 2007 at 12:42 pm

Oh dude, I know how you feel about the rotating pies. Every time I go to Giant, there’s this cookie I want. It’s two chocolate chip cookies really, that sandwich this big thing of frosting. It’s a disgusting display, but man do I consider buying it every time I go grocery shopping.

Still haven’t, yet. I’m hoping it’ll still be there when I get to my goal weight of 120lbs.

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Lora • October 24, 2007 at 12:58 pm

My fiance’ does the cooking at home and when he makes his homemade banana bread I literally swoon! Otherwise, I stick with those 100 calorie packs for an itty-bitty cheat treat if I want sweet!

PQ – Oh, I thought I’d do a shameless plug of my new blog while I’m here. I’ve never done one before so any advise is nice! :)

http://weight-in.blogspot.com/

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Debbie • October 24, 2007 at 1:08 pm

Sometimes, when you get away from eating sweet foods for a long time, you lose your taste for them. At least that’s what’s happened to me from time to time.

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Mia • October 24, 2007 at 1:17 pm

What a good idea to have a cheat meal once a week. It’s bound to help you not feel so deprived, but also help you figure out what you really want, because it’s only one meal. You don’t want to waste it on something that isn’t that tasty. I agree with you about Starbuck’s food. I haven’t tried their scones, but I’ve had their breakfast muffins. “Meh” as you say, is a good way to describe it. I do like their lemon poundcake, but it’s 500 calories! Needless to say, I don’t get it very often. :))

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sarah • October 24, 2007 at 1:33 pm

PQ… was rereading an anthology recently that I thought you might enjoy called – Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. Lots of good writing. Some painful, but mostly quite thoughtful and enjoyable. sj

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Dee • October 24, 2007 at 1:48 pm

Just wanted to give you a tip on buying baked goods– they taste so much better fresh and without added preservatives. I recommend buying them from your local Farmers Market or from a health food-type store like Whole Foods. They never fail to disappoint from those venues. That way you will feel that those “spent calories” were worth it!

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Kyle • October 24, 2007 at 2:17 pm

that’s the worst! when you are salivating over how good something looks/sounds and it ends up not being what you hoped for. you’re right, anticipation really is half the deliciousness in and of itself :)

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Reb • October 24, 2007 at 2:50 pm

Scones, as a cheat meal? I am not surprised you were disappointed. Unless down there they are way different from here, scones are just a drier version of baking powder biscuits with stuff thrown in. Home baked is the best, I keep one or two for me and give the rest to neighbours or take it in to work, where it disappears like magic. Unless it is cookies, then I freeze the batter and only cook 2 at a time in the toaster-oven. That way I avoid disappointment from what looks really good, only to find either I can’t have it because it has something I am allergic to, or, as you said, it’s just Meh.

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April • October 24, 2007 at 3:24 pm

Thought I would weigh in on the cheat meal concept. I lost over thirty pounds and have maintained that loss using a “cheat day” concept. I am very careful about food consumption and calories six days a week and on Saturday, I have whatever I want for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and one dessert. I try not to gorge or binge, but just order what I want. (I usually eat out lunch and dinner on Saturdays.) I lost 4-5 pounds a month on average, very consistently. I might have lost more quickly if I hadn’t used that method, but mentally, it kept me from feeling deprived. Also, my lifestyle is one in which Saturdays were always difficult food challenge days anyway, this way, I make that work for me. I use the same method now for maintenance.

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the former veggie paparazzo • October 24, 2007 at 5:14 pm

I feel defensive when I eat something unhealthy in public, particularly if I am in the car at a stoplight, because I think people around me are rolling their eyes and going, “Well, that figures.” Intellectually, I know this is silly, and I’m working on letting it go. . . .

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Emily • October 24, 2007 at 5:59 pm

Someone else already mentioned this, but I was going to reccommend the scones at Caribou Coffee, also. Though, in looking them up to see if they are in your area (they aren’t) I found my favorite one has 490 calories. I actually really didn’t want to know that. haha

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Nancy Bea • October 24, 2007 at 7:24 pm

Sounds like you are having more of a cheat snack than a full cheat meal. My dream cheat meal: Roast Beef and Gravy, Garlic mashed potatoes, asparagus with hollandaise, parker house rolls with butter and a big glass of red wine, followed by cheesecake and coffee with real cream. Aaaah. Probably, as you say, dreams better than it tastes!

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JoLynn Braley • October 24, 2007 at 8:56 pm

I would have to be wary of a free day because that means that I would be playing head games with myself and my sugar addiction. When I eat sugared, processed foods I always want more, therefore a free day would really set me up for wanting more and more. Does this mean that this is how you are or how others are? No, and if you can handle it, that is wonderful, you are the only one who knows what works for you. :)

Re: your body going in to starvation mode….that occurs when you don’t eat. I do eat several smaller meals (if I want to fill up on veggies I can eat large meals) throughout the day to get my metabolism burning. As long as I keep on eating and don’t go more than 3 hours without eating, then I’m fine, and my blood sugar stays even. You have to be committed to that kind of lifestyle though, but it sure gets the weight off and makes your energy soar. ;)

Those are my thoughts. Genuinely love yourself a little bit more each day and keep on doing what works for you…if it’s healthy and gives you awesome energy then that’s the best. :)

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Lauren • October 24, 2007 at 9:26 pm

a cheat meal would be too much stress for me. there are too many choices. So what I do is I allow myself Ice cream once a week. I found last week that 2 scoops is too much (wild) and if during the week I want to go out for pasta, I don’t stress, I just kind of adjust the rest of my day to account for it.

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Mark • October 24, 2007 at 9:56 pm

“The scone was dry and semi-hard.”

Isn’t that like saying, “The soup was wet”? What are scones supposed to be like?

PQ – I can’t recall ever having a scone before, so I have no idea what they’re supposed to be like. If they were going for dry they did a good job!

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Catherine • October 24, 2007 at 11:11 pm

Scones — was served them in England with butter smeared all over the top. Not really my thing. What wasn’t baked into the scone was delivered on top of it, in other words.

I think that, in general, the scone situation illustrates the fact that the American style of baking involves a lot more fat and sugar than the European style. Their things will taste dryer, denser, and less sweet than ours. I think Americans have to try really hard to actually LIKE scones! :)

Thanks for another great post, PQ.

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Lily • October 24, 2007 at 11:59 pm

I wouldn’t be able to handle a designated day for a cheat meal. I would be afraid of missing out on surprise opportunities to eat good food.

I totally know what you mean about how food can look better than they taste. I hate it when that happens to me. It makes me feel that I wasted my calories, time, and money. Personally, I only like pastries from Filipino bakeries or homemade.

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CurvyJones • October 25, 2007 at 7:16 am

My cheat meal used to be Friday nights. It’s actually chicken wings with bleu cheese dressing. LOVE the stuff but I don’t have them often because though they’re protein, they’re deep fried so they’re also fattening. When I stopped losing, I cut out the free meal. That meal is supposed to be a reward for doing well on plan. For me if I’m not dropping lbs or inches I’m not doing well on something and I need to tighten the reins.

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Rah • October 25, 2007 at 8:15 am

PQ, your idea is great, and it really normalizes eating patterns that most people have. May I therefore encourage you to think of it as something besides a “cheat?” Perhaps an indulgence, or just a special meal? I may be alone in this, but I think we who tend to overeat tend to become, over time, very legalistic. It has always seemed to me that one of the keys to your weight loss, most recently reflected in your interview, was that you found guidelines rather than rigid rules. After a whole lot of reflection, I realized that that kind of legalistic thinking was very self-defeating for me. Often, once I “broke the law,” it was kind of a license to just blow the whole reat of the day. I’ll step down off my soapbox now. :-)

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Kristi • October 25, 2007 at 8:19 am

I like that you mention eatingthe pound cake where everyone could see you. When I was heavier than the norm I felt eyes on me all the time whether I was eating or not. The really cool change for me since becoming thinner is that I can leave the house in jeans and a t-shirt and be comfortable. I no longer feel the “need” to eyeball every inch of what I’m wearing…..is the jacket long enough, do my pants pull in the crotch, are my hair and makeup appealing enough no one will notice the rest, etc….Most days I just make sure I’m clean and go now saving the primping for special times.

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Diana the Scale Junkie • October 25, 2007 at 8:24 am

I think that you’ve probably bridged the gap between being on a diet and living a healthy lifestyle. I really think that an occasional indulgence or cheat is perfectly fine. For me knowing that I can have something pretty much takes the temptation out of wanting to eat something. Of course you are the one who has successfully lost half of their body weight, maybe check back with me in two years once I’m able to eat cake in public without guilt because I’ll look like a normal person on the outside.

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Chil • October 25, 2007 at 12:54 pm

Great idea. This way the motivation is up all week and only one meal is a special treat meal to eat what we crave! I have to have a little something sweet now and then and look forward to it.

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Mia • October 25, 2007 at 1:35 pm

Forgive the double post, but I had to tell you that your “cool” factor just raised another two notches for mentioning “This American Life”.

PQ – Does it go up even higher if I tell you I listened to that episode while walking on the trail? NPR and cardio, woo-hoo!

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Nanette • October 25, 2007 at 1:58 pm

I think I overeat–at least some of the time–because I’m trying to find the good taste or flavor in some food or another. I keep searching, i.e., eating, instead of realizing that it’s just not there and quitting after the first or second unsatisfactory bite.

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Susan • October 25, 2007 at 10:31 pm

“Like so many things in life, the illusion of these desserts is frequently far better than the reality.”

Totally agree with you there! I have a pet theory – restaurants don’t spend much effort on desserts as they figure that by the time you eat it, you’ll have drunk so much you’ll have lost your critical faculties.

Well, that’s the theory…

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Pam • October 26, 2007 at 7:59 am

Weight Watchers uses a similar idea – don’t deprive yourself or you just set yourself up for a huge binge. Think about what you really want and plan for it. Also, when you’re stuck at a plateau, they’ll often suggest you mix it up a bit – leaner days mixed in with extra points days. (Okay, I’ve got the non-deprivation part down, now if I could just get the leaner days part right…)

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Mia • October 26, 2007 at 7:27 pm

Hey, if anyone can make walking on a trail cool, Ira can. (he and Jon Stewart are My men!) Ahem, I should clarify that I like older, much older, men!

:)

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Michelle • October 27, 2007 at 12:48 am

If you’re ever downtown, try MoJoe’s… it’s much better than the evil empire (Starbuck’s). It’s local, their pastries are usually quite good, friends tell me their coffee is great (I don’t drink coffee), and one of their Barista’s is the Cocoa Master! Best Hot Chocolate I’ve ever had, but you have to be there when he’s there, or it’s not worth it.

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diamondwife • October 27, 2007 at 1:58 pm

I usually agree with the statement that things look better than they taste, but this weekend I had an experience where my expectations were exceeded. I had never been to a Cheesecake factory restaurant as the closest one is 3 hours away, but I was in Chicago this week with some co-workers who ended up wanting to go there. I chose to induldge in a slice of chocolate coconut cream cheesecake and it was honestly the most wonderful tasting confection I have ever had in my mouth. I’m so glad there is not one near-by. That could be dangerous…

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Julie • October 27, 2007 at 7:40 pm

I worked at a BAKERY that pulled out their FROZEN cakes to decorate. The ones that were in the display case all made up would stay there for a whole WEEK before they would throw them out. I never assume anything is fresh anymore!

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Bree • November 1, 2007 at 4:55 pm

I’ve often taken one bite of something and stopped! I’m not wasting precious calories on this crap I’d think. It’s too hard to work things off. Might as well be something good if I’m gonna have to pay for it. :)

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Trish • November 2, 2007 at 7:22 pm

I am wondering how do you maintain only having one cheat meal a week. I have a husband that can eat anything and everything and not gain a pound. On the weekend he wants to go to dinner out or to his parents, and I don’t have the chance to prepare my meals. I on the other hand have a lot to weight still to loose. I have tried the one cheat meal, which turned into 2 cheat meals, 3 cheat meals and then I gained 3 pounds in a week. What I want to know is how do you just make it one cheat meal a week. Or am I better off to not have any cheat meals? If I don’t allow myself cheat meals how do I pick the “right” food when we go out to dinner, or can I never go out to dinner again? Help me, any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

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Comments are now closed on all PastaQueen entries. The blog is an archive only so I don't have to deal with spammers. For fresh discussions please visit my new blog JenFul.

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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JenFul now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

Disclaimer: I am not responsible for keyboards ruined by coffee spit-takes or forehead wrinkles caused by deep thought.

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