One night as I was heading for the kitchen cabinet containing the fat-free chocolate chip meringues I usually enjoy while watching the 11:00 news, I realized they weren’t what I was in the mood for. Usually they hit the spot and I was surprised that my body was saying, “Sweets, yuck. Go get yourself some protein.” So I had a yummy chunk of cheddar cheese and boy did it ever hit the spot. Those moments reminded me that we can become so stuck in food routines that we tune out what our bodies really want.

Although we don’t know exactly what factors go into producing a strong craving for a particular food or food group, we have a pretty good idea of the influences: hunger level, hormones, foods eaten earlier in the day, activity level, mood, blood sugar, and what’s available, to name several. It’s natural to slip into food routines—a bagel for breakfast, a tuna sandwich for lunch, etc. Our bodies are programmed to adhere to schedules in order to get our physical/survival needs met, i.e., the more often you have a cup of java mid-afternoon, the more your mind/body expects it to happen. There’s something comforting in familiarity and routine, but it can also cause a disconnect from true desire.

At the other end of the choice spectrum, decades ago, in the days when I was learning to eat “normally,” I had enormous difficulty trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to eat. Moving away from a good/bad food diet mentality left a vacuum in the craving department. One hungry night I was stumped; no edibles in my apartment sparked my interest. It was nearly midnight, so I threw on my coat over my pj’s and headed for an all-night food mart. I traipsed up and down the cookie aisle, checked out the candy section, browsed the ice cream freezer, then returned to the rows of cookies. I didn’t realize how long I was standing and staring until the clerk came over, tapped me on the shoulder, and asked, “Miss, are you all right?”

I don’t recall what I chose to eat that night, but the incident remains indelible in my mind: it was agony to make a food choice. What if I were wrong, what if I took a bite of something and realized I didn’t want it? This behavior falls at the opposite end of the continuum from my mindless (though generally pleasurable) nightly meringue eating. The goal is to avoid making assumptions about what you want to eat, especially sweets and treats. There actually will be times when you want a tomato rather than a tostado or an apple rather than a slice of angel food cake. And vice versa. You can’t go wrong turning inward and asking yourself what you really, really, really have a yen for. And, then, of course, eating slowly and mindfully and savoring what you’ve selected.