I am not so good at reboots, but I'm still glad I did it.
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Credit: Jaime Ritter

At the end of last year I was tired. I'm a parent to two young girls, and we had just moved more than 800 miles so I could start a new job here at Cooking Light. We'd been living out of boxes, sleeping on inflatable mattresses, eating plenty of take-out, and I hadn't been getting any exercise. Add to that the holiday season, with its parties and candy and snacks, and I was definitely not feeling well.

So when Seamus Mullen reached out asking if I was interested in trying the 21-day reboot from his new cookbook, Real Food Heals, for our Start Your Year Off "Light" campaign, I thought: "Yeah, why not?"

A little background: while I am plant-forward, I am by no means plant-exclusive. I love to cook at home and I'm into healthy food, but I'm also skeptical of a lot of health claims, and I'm not into dieting.

I like to think about healthy eating in terms of all the foods I can have, not all the ones I can't, and I'm proud of my omnivorous, opposite-of-a-picky-eater status. So the idea of cutting foods out of my diet hasn't ever appealed to me.

I've never done a reboot, and I was feeling nervous. For the first time in my life, I was planning to really pay attention to what I was eating, and to limit myself, in an effort to find out whether I felt better afterward.

I opened up Mullen's book and took a look—it didn't seem all that different from how I idealize my eating habits. He tells you to cut out sugar, stick to olive, coconut, and avocado oils, avoid processed foods and snacking. I'm not a huge fan of sugar or processed foods (mostly). And I cook almost exclusively with olive oil.

Oh, and he also advocates for doing "a high-intensity interval training workout in the morning in a fasted state." He even put one together for Cooking Light readers. I like to run regularly, so I'm no stranger to exercise, but I figured it would be interesting to switch things up.

Here's what I learned:

It's really important to have your family on board

When I told my wife, Karen, that I was going to be doing a reboot, she responded with something akin to "what kind of nonsense is this, now?"

After explaining my reasons (feeling like sludge, wanting a fresh start) and what it involved, she was still skeptical: "So, are we all going without grains for dinner? I like bread. How is this going to work?

After some negotiation, we decided that I'd make meals (primarily from Mullen's cookbook) three to four nights of the week, and she and the kids could round it out with all the rice and bread they wanted.

On the nights where we weren't cooking from Mullen's book, we'd try to keep it largely to Mullen's strictures, and I'd eat the parts of the meal that conformed to the plan—Karen doesn't have much of a sweet tooth, and we cook mostly with olive oil, so I wasn't too worried. I would, of course, skip out on dessert and snacks, and I'd bring leftovers for lunch most days. With that worked out, I felt a lot better about making this work.

The devil is in the details

A few days before starting the reboot I began to look closely at what was involved. There were going to be a few things that I thought would be difficult. The reboot restricts carb intake to 150g per day. That felt tough for a bread-lover like me, but reasonable—this isn't ketogenic, which can sometimes take you to fewer than 20 grams of carbs.

Mullen also has a strict "no legume" policy, which I find a little mystifying. I love eating beans, lentils, and brown rice, and I think they're perfectly healthy. But I figured for three weeks, I could be game.

Other restrictions were more confusing. Under "no sugar," Mullen writes: "No fruit except blueberries (preferably wild, fresh, or frozen), grapefruit, and other tart whole fruit and berries."

I like blueberries, but what, exactly, is included in other tart whole fruit? Elsewhere in the book, he recommends rebooters make "a big-ass salad" from his salad section for lunches. I flipped through looking for sample fruits to get a better sense. I found recipes that included honeydew, watermelon, apple, dried cherries, and even peaches. If peaches are tart, something is wrong.

Eventually I decided I'd leave fruit on the table, but stick mostly to the ones from Mullen's recipes—no snacking on an apple, no matter how tart it is.

Actually, when dealing with a lot of these questions, I tended to defer to the book. Though he says pretty clearly to avoid sugar, a couple recipes call for some maple syrup, or honey, and I didn't leave that ingredient out. He also says no dried fruit, but a caponata recipe (which was so delicious I made it twice) calls for raisins. I tossed them in without an ounce of guilt.

For breakfast, Mullen actually recommends skipping it when you can. I can't. Eating a healthy breakfast is an important part of my routine, but I did keep to the recipes in his book, such as eggs and bacon with kimchi. And though I stayed away from grains elsewhere, I did, a couple times, make his savory steel cut oats recipe.

The best way to change one habit is to change two

One of my favorite ways to de-stress at the end of the day, after putting the kids to bed, and cleaning up the kitchen, was to plop down on the couch next to Karen with a bag of potato chips and an episode or two of something. So when I decided to cut out snacks, I was worried: What would I do during the TV time, when the temptation to just go grab something would be strong? I couldn't choose a healthy snack—I wasn't supposed to snack at all.

So this is what I did: I stopped watching television in the evenings (we mostly watch Netflix, I reasoned, so we can always catch up later). Luckily for me, Karen was on board with this part of the plan. So after putting the kids to bed, we grabbed a book or a magazine we'd been meaning to read, and curled up with them instead. Sometimes I made a cup of tea, but that was it. It turned out that without the tube, I didn't miss the chips—and with a good book, I didn't really miss the TV either.

It’s really hard to make change—and easy to get derailed

For the first few days, I realized how much I tend to snack. Oh my goodness was I hungry between meals. And angry. Angry-hungry. Someone should make a cute word for the feeling of being so hungry you're angry—I would have, but I was too angry-hungry to think of one.

Then, two days into the reboot, I ran into a snag: A bout of stomach flu. For about 36 hours I was completely sidelined. I spent one entire day just lying in bed, unable to keep anything down. When I did finally manage to eat, I went straight for a piece of toast. Then Karen went to the store and got me some sugary Gatorade, which I happily sipped. Neither were on my list, but I didn’t care.

Once I was back to feeling okay again, I resumed my reboot in earnest, figuring that nineteen days was better than none.

Then I ran into another snag: My Christmas present to my wife was a weekly date night out. And we had plans to go to some fancy restaurants. I decided to give myself a once-weekly "cheat night." It's only three meals, out of more than 60, I figured. On those nights, I definitely went off the plan. And I felt particularly grubby each of the following mornings. And it was that much harder to resume my reboot.

During the first couple weeks, snags aside, I diligently powered through. My stomach grumbled at 11:00 a.m. every morning, as I waited to eat the (admittedly delicious) salad I had made from Mullen's book.

New Year. New Food. Healthy eating starts here, with the Cooking Light Diet.

I skipped snacks, I watched my carbs, I avoided sugar, and I missed desserts. One evening Karen brought home a pie that one of her coworkers had made. It looked amazing. It was a dark berry pie and over the course of a couple days she and the kids polished off slice after slice after dinner.

I didn't break—I ate my meal, and then went and locked myself in the bedroom and read my book, trying to ignore the sounds of forks scraping against plates, until it was all over. Then I came back out and helped put the kids to bed.

Going without grains was, unexpectedly, the toughest part, harder than going without snacks or dessert. I found myself really craving bread. And while I didn't mind the lack of pasta, I really missed rice. But worse: my body didn't really adjust much. Even after two weeks, I was hungry all the time between meals. Finally, I relented on this: I decided to keep to everything else in the reboot but to start including whole grains again. I felt only mildly like a failure.

But my midday hunger subsided. I felt better between meals.

Exercise makes a huge difference

As I mentioned earlier, I'm a runner, but Mullen recommends rebooters do a HIIT Tabata session in the mornings. Tabata is something invented by a Japanese researcher named Izumi Tabata. The basic premise is that you can get a lot of benefit out of doing sets of exercises as hard as you can for just 20 seconds with a 10 second rest in between. I picked this Tabata routine at random off the internet. At first blush it seemed pretty easy, but I found that I was incredibly sore after the first day.

Thankfully, I kept at it, and I have to say that I love it! The cross-training makes me feel like a stronger runner, and I find that I've got more energy, and I feel healthier. It's hard to see noticeable physical benefits from exercise after just a couple weeks, but I'm already less sore from the routine and I'm looking forward to keeping it up.

Mullen's recipes are fantastic

Easily the most fun part of the reboot was getting to cook so much from Mullen's book. The recipes are delicious, and full of surprising ingredient combinations. A couple times, while shopping, the cashier would remark that I must be making something pretty interesting—and I learned a few new tricks as well. (One: Use a microplane to grate garlic instead of chopping it up, or mashing it with a press. It makes the garlic just melt into things. It's my go-to technique now.)

Even my reluctant wife and kids got on board, and a lot of these recipes will keep being part of our weekly routine. Mullen has a delicious fish with caponata recipe that I love (especially as I'm trying to eat more fish), and his recipe for hanger steak with roasted carrots and chimichurri is to die for.

He's got a ton of great vegetable dishes, too: One night I made a roasted kabocha squash in pomegranate yogurt sauce, and paired it with a cauliflower roasted in coconut oil. It was hearty enough (and delicious enough) to make a perfectly filling, completely plant-based dinner, and the kids were scraping the yogurt sauce off their empty plates.

Despite failing to stick to the reboot, I've got a couple new habits I can feel good about

I'm still not snacking, or feeling the need to snack as much, and while I'm back to the occasional dessert, I am keeping it to once or twice a week. I've got a new exercise routine, and an armful of healthy recipes that I know my family loves. To me, that's much better than if I'd managed to stick to the reboot 100% and then went right back to snacks in front of the tv, and too much sugar. So despite being not so great at this whole reboot thing, I feel like I got a lot out of it. And that's pretty great.