What is a Food Diary and what are they used for?

Lauren Lehmkuhl
What is a Food Diary and what are they used for?

What is a food diary?

Have you ever wanted more accountability with the food choices you’re making? Or wanted to learn more about the patterns of your personal eating habits? Or simply just curious about what your meals look like on an average day?

Keeping a food diary is a great way to accomplish any of these things! So what is a food diary?

A food diary is simply any log you use to record the food and drinks you consume each day. Some people prefer to use their phone to do so, while others prefer physically writing things down in a notebook. There are some great phone apps that can help support your food tracking, such as My Fitness Pal or See How You Eat, which even allows you to take pictures of your meals for easier tracking! If you choose a physical notebook, make sure it’s small enough to conveniently bring with you wherever you go. Try to keep it in the bag that you normally take out for the day!

Not only can food diaries help you keep track of what you are eating, they can also help you reach your personal dietary goals because of the accountability it creates when you write something down as a record. This can definitely help motivate you to choose healthier eating choices, but don’t allow this to be stressful. A food diary is simply a tool to help you, not something that should make you feel any shame/anxiety. 

What should be included in a food diary?

No matter what method you choose, there are few things you should be sure to include in your food diary. 

The date and meal timing

Always record the date as if your meal is for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a snack in your food diary. This helps you track your eating habits throughout the day and notice differences in your meal choices over time. If the goal of your food diary is to eat healthier, wouldn’t it be cool to be able to look back at some of your favorite past meals and see how you’ve improved the nutritional value of what you eat?

Like anything you track progress for, it’s motivating to see growth over time! Another way that knowing the meal timing can help is that it can give you insight into your day. Do you start the day off with healthful meals, but then start to make less healthier choices as your day progresses because you get busier or hungrier? Or, is it the other way around - you have a rushed breakfast and more time or motivation for healthier dinners? Whatever pattern your day may follow, bringing awareness to it can help you find areas to improve upon. 

How much?

Knowing how much you eat of something is extremely helpful when keeping a food diary, rather than just listing foods that were eaten. While estimating exact portion sizes of you what you ate may seem difficult, it really only matters that the portions you write down make sense to you. Recording amounts such as “a palm-sized portion of salmon” or “a handful of blueberries” is perfectly ok! Or, you can try to estimate food portions based off of a cup measurement or weight. It’s ok if you don’t know the exact amount, a food diary doesn’t need to be a means of calorie or macronutrient counting! If you do want to track these, using a phone app rather than a physical journal might make this process easier for you. 

What did you eat?

This is why you’re here - write everything you eat down! This should include beverages, but it’s up to you if you want to track water intake as well. Also remember to include toppings and condiments when you can. Did you have butter on your bread? What kind of dressing did you put on your salad? These things aren’t as important to record a portion for since using the phrases “dallop” or “drizzle” are pretty universally understood, unless you heaped half a tub of sour cream onto something.

Adding if you cooked something versus eating it raw may be helpful as well! If you bake something, don’t feel like you need to list out every ingredient. Rather, it may be easier and still helpful to write “1 medium sized homemade blueberry muffin”.

Where were you and who did you eat with?

Although these details aren’t quite as vital to record as the food itself, they can help you determine if there are various eating patterns that you fall into in certain places or with certain people. Once again, this just brings more awareness and allows you to find areas of your lifestyle that could be improved.

Do you tend to eat an extremely oversized and greasy meal every Monday and Wednesday on your way home from work at that restaurant down the street? Maybe you can limit your visits there to only a couple times a month instead. Does a certain friend often want to stop at a fast food drive-through when hanging out with them? Maybe you can offer to cook instead or ask to go to a healthier spot. Do you rush out the door, grabbing a pastry to snack on in the car on your way to work? Maybe you can set aside some time the night before to meal-prep a healthier breakfast. Being aware of your habits and reasonings for going places can have a huge impact on developing healthy eating patterns!

How do you feel?

This is a bonus - but an important one! If you have the time, try to record how you felt during and after a meal. This can give you insight into how foods affect your mental and physical well being! Seeing on paper that you felt bloated and low energy after eating a fast food hamburger or tub of ice cream might help you to make different choices next time. Or, knowing that you chose the hamburger or ice cream because you were in a poor mood might help you learn about yourself and how you cope with negative feelings. Tracking your feelings while and after eating is important for tracking the relationship between your mood and your food choices. Since 90% of serotonin (our feel good neurotransmitter) is produced in the gut, the connection between food choices and mood is undeniable! Once again, the more self awareness, the better! 

A few more considerations

We get it, life gets busy and it can be hard to keep track of everything! Here’s some more tips for success and additional things to consider:

  • Make it a habit to write down a food or drink right after you consume it - it will make things easier. Waiting may cause your recordings to be less accurate and may make it feel like an overwhelming task to complete. You also don’t necessarily want to be focusing on food right before bed, as this can either make you hungry or can cause you to feel anxiety about the food choices you made that day, which are both not ideal for sleep time!
  • Try to record things as specifically as possible, but don’t stress too much about every little thing! The purpose of this is to provide accountability, detect patterns, and seek out areas to make changes, NOT to be something that takes up a significant amount of your time and causes stress. This isn’t a homework assignment - no one is grading or judging you! 
  • Take this food diary on any trip to a nutritionist or doctor to help gain professional insight - it’s a valuable resource and will help your healthcare professional detect any diet-related issues! Sometimes you are asked to provide a 24 hour recall of what you ate, and now you don’t have to do it on the spot!  
  • Keep your personal goals at the forefront of your mind. Maybe it’s losing a few pounds, or eating less sugar, or adding in more daily vegetables. If you have a goal, thinking about it while journaling can help motivate you to make quality changes. Don’t know what kind of goals are best for you? Check out our post on choosing the right diet to learn about what kinds of diets can benefit you and how to create attainable goals! It’s also totally ok if you don’t have a specific goal, don’t feel like you need to make one up. This food diary is for your use and your personal needs only! 

Just Start

Ready to start a food diary? If you’re a Vessel member, remember that you have FREE unlimited access to our team of amazing nutritionists! And they can help you with any questions or concerns you have! They’re just a few clicks away in your Vessel app!