Photos by Mike Gilger

I first met creative powerhouse Megan Gilger last summer in NYC at a party that she and my good friend Amy Anderson were co-hosting. Warm, fun-loving, and insanely creative, Megan runs a successful blog (The Fresh Exchange) and design company (Hitch Design Studio) with her husband Mike, a talented photographer and designer. I liked her instantly, but when I heard she was from Traverse City, Michigan (one of my favorite spots in the country) I flipped. Brandon and I happened to be in Traverse City a few weeks later, so we arranged to meet up with Megan and Mike. We all had a blast eating and drinking, telling stories, and plotting future collaborations, and have been good friends ever since. In fact, we just spent the past weekend with them in Raleigh, North Carolina where they hosted an amazing farm-to-table dinner party for one of their clients. (More on that later!)

Megan and I were talking recently about the challenges of maintaining a healthy lifestyle as a freelancer. Like Brandon and me, she and Mike work from home, and have found that living a healthy lifestyle takes planning and discipline. Though it might seem like it would be easier to build healthy habits when you make your own schedule, if you don't prioritize cooking and working out, you can easily end up sitting in front of a computer all day and eating takeout night after night. When I told Megan about the #marchwellness campaign, she was on board instantly. She designed the pretty March Wellness banner and volunteered to do a guest post on how to build healthy habits into a freelancer's lifestyle. Megan and Mike are a big inspiration to me - not only for their creativity and collaborative spirit, but in the way they balance work and play. Read on for their tips on everything from juicing to stocking a healthy pantry to learning how to disconnect from work. Thanks Megan and Mike!!

So between running a busy design company and a successful blog from home (and collaborating on a variety of other projects!), how do you find time to fit in healthy habits like cooking and exercising?

Building healthy habits takes consistency and discipline, especially at home when you make your own schedule. Everyone thinks when you work from home this is easier...but it may be harder because of the distractions, and how little your time is constrained and divided. You must choose to make eating well and exercising a priority. We schedule our day to make time for exercise, as it helps clear our minds creatively and gets us moving from our desk. Leaving what you do is as important as doing it. To make sure we eat well we keep healthy snacks on hand, like fresh carrots and hummus, almond butter and apples, and dates and almonds. These items help keep us full, healthy, and satisfied. We live far from outside food, so as long as we have healthy stuff at home, it makes it easy not to make poor decisions.

Megan wakes up by practicing yoga first thing in the morning.

What does a typical day look like for you all? (Though as a freelancer, there's never really a typical day!) What are your go-to meals, your prime work hours, and what sort of exercise do you all enjoy?

We tried for a long time to be early risers, but we realized that was not ideal for our creativity or our natural rhythm so we allow ourselves to naturally wake between 8 to 9 a.m. We then drink a cup of hot water with fresh lemon juice. This helps hydrate you first thing and actually takes away that morning hunger right away. Then we practice yoga for 30 minutes to an hour. We heard from a friend the slow wake up is good for the body. So instead of pumping in caffeine, we allow our bodies to stretch, warm, and center themselves in order to allow our day to start off in a calm way. Also the stretching feels so good! Then we juice and have an egg and at this point make tea or coffee if we want it. We then work from 11 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m pretty much non-stop, other than a quick break for lunch. I choose a soup for the week, and make a big batch so we have it for lunch. That way it's as simple as a quick warm up on the stove. I typically choose soups that are vegan and full of veggies, as they feel filling but still very healthy. Butternut squash, veggie chili, tomato soup with coconut milk, and west african peanut are some of our top picks. We try to break at 6 and step away from the desk. I enjoy catching up on a tv show and do a strength workout while I watch it so I don't feel I am wasting time. Then we cook dinner which is well rounded and ranges from spaghetti squash with lentil meatballs to steak and roasted root veggies. We try to keep it simple and based on whole and local foods. We then enjoy dinner and a glass of wine and head back to work from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. This is when we get our uninterrupted work done. Which is the best.

Megan strikes a pose (or two!).

I know you all have been on a Paleo eating plan the past couple of years. What does that entail? Why did you choose this way of eating - and what do you like about it?

We chose to go Paleo because we loved the concept of eating holistically, the way our bodies are meant to eat and work naturally. We decided to do it because we saw ourselves gaining weight after we left college and were no longer athletes. I was having some digestive issues and Mike had reactions after having meals with pasta and breads, so when we read more about it we gave it a try. We did it for 3 months straight, which was hard. At first the cravings are bad – it is like coming off a drug! – but after the first few weeks we stopped wanting the sugar and carbs. After eliminating dairy, one day we decided to try ice cream again and we both were so sick. It was then that I realized our bodies were not wanting or desiring to process dairy. Our whole food eating habits became even more intense, and now we eat very little meat other than once a week we might have local chicken, fresh fish from Lake Michigan, or local grass fed beef (Mike is from Texas, you know?!). Our focus has become on eating what makes us feel good and what gives us the energy our bodies need to do what we love. Paleo has taught us that eating a diet of vegetables, whole grains (barley, quinoa, farro...etc), legumes, small amounts of animal fat, lean meats, red wine, and very few sugars (our desserts are 85% dark chocolate or dates or an occasional cookie) helps us maintain our body weight, have healthier skin, happy bodies, better sleep, and more energy than when we worked out all the time and ate whatever we wanted. Eliminating processed foods can work wonders on your body! A whole foods diet is so important.

Mike gets his juice on.

I love your "Just 5" recipes on The Fresh Exchange. How would you describe your cooking, and what are some of your favorite healthy meals of late?

Thank you!! Just 5's came out of a search for whole ingredient recipes while doing paleo and also living on a budget. I hated seeing an awesome recipe and not having the one expensive spice or noodle that made it all come together. I felt great food could come from common everyday things we already have on hand that don't break the food budget. I learned to cook from my father who makes some killer food. He taught me how to mix spices and have patience with creating a good meal. Now I have taken what he taught me and applied it to a simple whole foods diet full of fresh ingredients that are easy to obtain, grow, and use. Food should not be complicated as it is a necessity to our life and it should be great without being difficult. Since cooking is a creative outlet for me I look forward to coming up with meals every week, but as Mike will tell you, I buy a bunch of things that I think look great and are fresh regionally and make meals from there. I will google parsnips and see what comes up to learn the things that combine well with it and then create from there with what is on hand. Don't have parsley? Why not use oregano? Don't have Parsnips? Why not Carrots? The beauty of cooking with whole ingredients is all you need is olive oil, some spices and herbs, and fresh veggies and you most likely have just started a great meal. Most recently our favorite meals have been from Sara Forte's Sprouted Kitchen cookbook. We are obsessed with her Moroccan Quinoa with Acorn Squash. So amazing, yummy, filling and beautiful. I have made this recipe 3 times now and every time I have had it it has been just as satisfying and it makes amazing left overs.

The Gilgers love fresh orange juice, and sometimes mix in some carrots for extra vitamins.*

What are your pantry essentials?

1. Fresh Greens (kale, spinach, lettuce, arugula) for juicing, salads, and great sides.

2. The trifecta --- Pepper, onion, and garlic --- any great meal can start with these.

3. Bananas and Apples --- with almond butter (yeah you can thank me later!)

4. Almond butter --- we either make our own or buy it from a local producer. We go through a tub once every 2 weeks.

5. Oils (coconut, olive, and sesame) - these are essential especially when eliminating butter.

6. Dried beans such as black, butter, pinto, and garbanzo (buy them dried; they are always cheaper).

7. Citrus (lemon, lime, and oranges) - great for adding quick and fresh flavors to veggies

8. Organic frozen fruit (blueberries, strawberries, spinach, and peaches) - the perfect thing for smoothies anytime.

9. Eggs --- a quick way to add protein in to your diet when meat feels hard on the budget

10. Whole grains (quinoa, barley, farro, etc) we buy in bulk and keep in ball jars as it is cheaper and looks pretty.

The Gilgers store their grains and legumes in mason jars - pretty and practical!

11. Spices (cumin, curry, red pepper flakes, oregano, rosemary, thyme) - don't feel bad replacing fresh ingredients with dried...not as much punch but no one can be perfect.

12. Whole seed mustard - I buy the ones from the UK in the international foods sections because they pack the most punch (also it's super good for you!)

13. Tomatoes -- always good and always yum! I don't think we are ever without them, though we crave for our garden fresh ones in the summer.

14. Dark chocolate - I worked my way from milk to dark slowly but now I prefer the seriously strong 85% stuff. Get fair trade and organic or European, as it is worth the extra penny.

15. Organic dried fruit (dates, banana chips, apricots...) - whatever you like, have one of the kind on hand for a quick sweet fix so you don't cave for something else.

16. Meats-- we go to a local butcher and buy our meat for 2 weeks...we get one or two types. Lately it has been chicken and lamb...but toward summer we get fish and buffalo. We only eat meat once a week and we try to buy it is local as possible. Living on Lake Michigan makes getting fish very easy.

17. Root Veggies (carrots, parsnips, and beets) - these are our jam around here. We live on these whether roasted, juiced, or just as raw snacks with hummus.

18. Cheese (parmesan, feta, and goat cheese) - we cannot kick it, but we buy local artisan-made when we get it, and it is worth every penny. It's my weakness but great on the right dish.

19. Avocado - no need for reasons why, they are just necessary for life!

20. Assortment of in-season veggies - go to the market and grab whatever is in season. As Spring approaches this is much easier, but eating by the seasons is very natural and what our body wants. Also it can be very inexpensive to eat what is in abundance.

Hot water with lemon first thing in the morning; fresh-squeezed juice after yoga.

You all live in one of the most beautiful spots in the country (go Traverse City!) with plenty of spots to hike and bike. Are you all big nature-lovers? Do you spend a lot of time outdoors?

We are huge nature lovers. We spend most every weekend trying to find a new trail or revisiting a favorite. The dogs love it and so many of the places we go feel almost untouched by humans in many ways. Things are magnificent and the best part is you don't need a gym membership. Trail running, dune hikes, and swimming in the lake cost nothing and are some of the best workouts you will ever have. Plus they feel extremely natural to your body, which I think working out should. Also the community here is very active as no matter the season, this area is beautiful and begging to be enjoyed, so exploring and working out in nature is a community thing.

You guys are such a great team - both as a married couple and as work partners. How do you separate between work time and play time?

Ha! Thanks!! We have our moments naturally, but we happen to agree about being a great team. It took us a while to figure it out, but we find that the separation is hard since we are both so passionate about what we do so I would love to say we separate [work from play] but we don't. For now we are very focused on accomplishing goals as a team. Though we have places we don't talk work such as at night before going to sleep, first thing in the morning before and during yoga, and at dinner we try not to, but sometimes during busy weeks that can be hard. Someday when we have a family our plan is to change that, but right now our life is focused at being the best creatives we can be and create a business we love and are fulfilled by.

Also given that what you all do is so web-driven, it's got to be hard to get away from work (it is for me!). Do you have designated times of the day/week to unplug?

Oh this is so important, I could write a book about it! We call it switch off and honestly we almost named our new business on this exact thought because we feel our time working is as important as the time we are not. Our best creative ideas come when we are not working and are hiking, working out, cooking, showering, whatever it is. We develop brilliant ideas away from the computer and work space, normally not in it. Realizing this has helped us realize for the amount we put in, we must equally spend that away. If you have a week that is nonstop it's okay, just make sure to give an equal amount of time off very soon after so you have time to mentally clear your head and allow yourself to reconnect with your creative mojo.

What projects are you most excited about right now?

For a long time I was working on projects alone, trying to pump out as many as possible as a one-lady show, but having Mike has allowed me to choose. He's opened my eyes to see that I can charge more and take the projects I really believe in. In the last few months Hitch has changed so much and we will be renaming and rebuilding the face of Hitch this Spring, which in and of itself is amazing and exciting. But what we are most excited about is a few of our full brand redesigns, like Clyde Oak, a garden company challenging the concept of gardening as we currently know it. Alongside that we worked them to develop the branding for a garden-based bold mixer that will hit the shelves this spring. We are also designing and consulting on a food truck lot and bar opening in TC. Then last but not least we will be launching our good friends' Epicure Catering's new web and brand this Spring as well. All these clients are complete dreams for us and with our new company launching we are hoping we can continue working with clients like this that are focused on doing what they love, changing their communities, and creating great products. That's a lot to be excited about I realize :)