To be completely honest, this is the blog post that has stopped me in my tracks. It may be my most important one to date, and at the very least is important when it comes to the physiological side of health and wellness. Thinking about diving into this post, how to frame it and present it, and do so in the style of my typically witty and wise rhetoric has given me pause, and did throw off my blogging game for a bit. After much thought I have come to realize that the best thing to do is to just do it. Like that occasional class where the teacher has no choice but to present a dry lecture, all I can do is present the information in the best way that I can, and let the chips fall where they may. That being said, let’s just dive right in, shall we…
Whether your goal is to shrink your size, gain muscle, feel better, or just improve your overall health, the single most important factor is, and always will be what you eat. You can’t out exercise a bad diet. There is absolutely nothing healthy and maintainable about a lifestyle that doesn’t give any thought to what you are putting into your body. There are many trendy diets out there, many supplements and buzzwords, many diets that involve leaving out important food groups, and many diets that have been adopted as healthy diets, but are really only supposed to be for people with a medical intolerance or aversion to the avoided ingredient(s). There’s counting calories, counting macro and micronutrients, and I could go on and on. Do these “diets” work? Yes, some of them do, but here is my problem. First of all the word diet has a negative connotation to it. In its original form diet simply means a way of life. The way that we use it in our current vernacular brings the feeling of deprivation, sacrifice, and starvation. How fitting that you can’t spell diet without “die”. Second, I don’t want to have to subscribe to a particular company, I don’t want to spend a small fortune, I don’t want to leave out a food group just because it’s trendy, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life counting calories. I have better things to do with my time, and frankly so do you. Is meal planning important? Yes, but you have to do it in a way that is right for you. In this post I am going to give a breakdown of how I have been putting meals together for over a year.
Step one to this process is you have to open your mind to foods that you haven’t tried, or have maybe tried before, and didn’t really like. Step two is you will have to accept the fact that a lot of added sugar and a lot of added salt are the enemy. Step three is to realize that if your current “diet” is full of complete and utter packaged crap then you are going to have to deal with transitioning to healthier foods. Accept the fact that this will probably be difficult, but change is always hard. It is about mindset. Recognize that food is fuel. You want the best fuel possible, so that you will be at your best. It is entirely possible to do this without blowing your budget, and in a way that will still allow you to enjoy what you eat. The important thing is to give it a chance, give yourself a chance to adapt to a new lifestyle, and keep an open mind.
A little disclaimer before I begin: I am not a registered or certified dietician, or nutritionist. This has strictly been put together through my own research and experiences. Also, as I have mentioned before, I started this with the 20/20 diet and used that as a jumping off point to evolve a meal planning system that works for me, and my family. When I put together meals, I think of them in five groups.
*3-4 oz of chicken breast or thigh or turkey (ground or sandwich)
*4 slices of natural sandwich turkey. We get sandwich meat from the natural section with naturally occurring nitrates. Aldi and Kroger are the brands that we get.
*1 can of tuna in water
*Up to 2 eggs
*A little under a cup of full fat milk. We don’t consider this a beverage, and we use it as the protein component of breakfasts, and snacks.
*A little over a ½ cup of full fat plain, greek yogurt or around ¾ cup of 2% plain greek yogurt (see below for guidelines when purchasing a good, and authentic greek yogurt)
*Up to 2 slices of full fat natural cheese, or around 2-4 oz of shredded or block cheese (depending on the cheese)
*Around ½ cup of raw lentils
*½ cup of chickpeas or black beans rinsed and drained
This is a list of the proteins that we ALWAYS have on hand. Before I continue to the other food groups I want to take a moment to state how absolutely important it is that you check the nutrition label, and the ingredients label. Generally speaking the smaller the amount of ingredients, the better it will be to put in your body (more on that later). Also a quick word about using full fat dairy. We started out by using skim milk, and nonfat yogurt. However, research is now showing that full fat dairy is actually more effective at maintaining a healthy weight because the full fat will help you feel fuller longer. The key is measuring out your portions. The above stated portions are what I use, and are typically what women should use. Men should increase the given portion sizes. My husband generally eats about 25%-33% more than I do per meal. The other thing about full fat is that when companies take out the fat they have to add in other things to make up for the flavor which usually amounts to added salt, artificial sweeteners, and things made in a lab. I am not against gmo’s at all. I enjoy bananas and seedless grapes as much as the next person. I just get concerned when an ingredient can also be found in paint thinners and car interiors. When eating things like mayonnaise, milk, cheese, and yogurt your best bet is to opt for full fat, authentic versions with actual food ingredients. Check the ingredients label, and look at the serving size to portion it out correctly. Also, when buying yogurt look for full fat or 2% fat. Check the sugar and protein information. It should have at least 12 grams of protein per serving, and no more than 18 grams of sugar. Finally the first two ingredients should be milk and live and active cultures. 2-3 times per month we indulge in beef.
Ah, the demonized carb. Carb lovers everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief. The carb is an extremely important part of a balanced diet (there’s that word again…). Again, the key is what’s in it, and what’s the portion size. The recommendation is that half of your carbs should be whole grain. We eat almost exclusively whole grain. We only take the very rare exception, and I have even taken to baking with whole wheat flour, and experimenting with substituting it for all-purpose flour. In terms of calories there is almost no difference between whole grain and white carbs. The difference comes in how nutrient dense the carbs are. More nutrient dense means more of the good fiber that keeps you full, and (how do I say this…)keeps things moving. To illustrate this point I will now tell a story. Once upon a Saturday we didn’t go grocery shopping. I ate only white carbs in the same portion I normally do of whole wheat, but things didn’t move along like they should. It sucked. The end. I keep my carb portion to 120 calories. There are a few exception such as for oatmeal and farro which are 150 calories when cooked in water. Here is what this portion looks like.
*Up to ½ cups of raw rolled oats
*¼ cup of dry farro
*Up to 2 slices of regular whole wheat bread depending on the bread
*2 corn tortillas
*1 whole wheat flour tortilla
*½-1 cup cup shredded wheat cereal (plain)
*½ cup of potatoes
Some measurement and portioning gray areas are pasta and pizza dough. When making your own pizza, as I often do, look for whole wheat premade pizza crusts, or pizza dough. We get the dough from Aldi. Generally speaking I opt for ⅙ or ⅛ of the pizza crust for my portion depending on my mood, and what’s on it. When measuring out pasta I check the label, and adjust my portions. If I am making pasta that is meant to last 3 people for two meals (6 portions), then I will make 4 servings of pasta, and add extra vegetables to the dish or meal to fill it out more. Also, when buying breads and other whole wheat items check the label. The first ingredient should always be “whole wheat” flour or grain. If this isn’t the first ingredient, then it isn’t whole grain. This is especially important when buying items labeled “multi-grain”. The other thing to be wary of is high fructose corn syrup. This stuff has had a bad rap for a while, and more research is coming out to prove it. Look for breads that don’t use this ingredient.
Fat is another ingredient that has gotten a bad rap, but is extremely important for health. Not only does the right kind of fat keep you full, but it can also help raise your levels of good cholesterol(hdl), lower your levels of bad cholesterol(ldl), and is full of omega 3’s and omega 6’s which are important for heart and brain health. Again, know what you’re getting, and how much you are eating. When portioning out the fats, it really depends on what the food is. Fats are typically very high calorie, and when portioning them out I try not to go over 100 calories per meal. This is what it looks like for me.
*2 tsp of olive oil or coconut oil
*1 tbsp of natural peanut butter (two ingredients max: peanuts and salt) or other nut butter
*2 tbsp of unsalted walnuts, almonds, or sunflower seeds
*1 slice of full fat cheese or 1 oz of cheese.
*¼ of an avocado
We buy butter, but we make sure that it is real butter that is unsalted, and it is reserved only for baking, and the very, extremely occasional buttering of bread. If you use butter then it is worth it to buy the good stuff, and remember that a little goes a long way. Also, try to limit your overall butter intake to only 2-4 times per month. Typically we almost never eat it. We keep it just in case for those special occasions.
Okay really, there’s almost no way to go wrong here. One thing to remember is that bananas are among the higher calorie of the fruits and sometimes half a banana will suffice, opt for lunchbox sized and small apples and oranges, and when using blueberries and other smaller berries and fruits go for ¾ of a cup for a serving. Here is a list of what we always have.
*Prunes-5 to a serving and absolutely delicious in a peanut butter sandwich with cinnamon.
*Spinach-store with a paper towel in the bag...trust me!
*Canned-no salt added tomatoes
*Fresh tomatoes-for sandwiches and whatnot
*White, yellow, or vidalia Onions-bulk buy, chop them all, and freeze them. Saute them straight from the freezer when you want them. Same with red. When I want raw red onions I thaw them quickly in some cool water. If I am adding onions to meat for a burger patty, then I quickly soften them in the microwave. When you buy the produce, wash it when you get home so that it is ready to go whenever you need it.
This is an extremely important group. This really is the part that will make or break your meal. When you’ve spent a lifetime indulging in a sugar and salt laden diet, the hardest part of transitioning into something healthier is giving up what you think tastes good. I can tell you from my personal experience that dropping extra salt and sugar cold turkey is not only the way to go, but also if you try to go back to what you used to eat it won’t taste as good. There are many things like chips, spiffy coffee drinks, and other things that I used to love that are now way too salty and sweet for me. There are some places where salt is a must. If you are making a tomato or potato dish, or cooking pasta these dishes will fall flat without a little bit of salt. My recommendation is to take the amount that you want to add, and cut it in half. In the beginning, go with that amount. Don’t add anymore. Give yourself and your taste buds a chance to adapt to the new norm. You want the flavors of the food to speak for themselves, and to stand up on their own. Too often we ruin food by adding too much salt and sugar. Outside of the aforementioned dishes, do not add salt or sugar to any other food. Give yourself a chance to adjust. You will figure out what does and doesn’t need those flavors. Tomato soup and sauce is a dish that will need a little of both, but a very little.
We always keep:
*red pepper flakes
*dry dill-for egg and tuna salad
*dry poultry seasoning and dry italian seasoning (both salt free)
*large jar of minced garlic
*bottles of lemon and lime juice
*apple cider, red wine, and balsamic vinegar
Fresh herbs taste amazing in dishes, but can be a waste if you don’t find a use for the entire batch. However, you can freeze fresh herbs for later use. With these items you can flavor dishes in so many ways, and make your own salad dressings. Typically I will just use vinegar, but occasionally I will make a simple mustard vinaigrette by mixing a spoonful of mustard, two spoonfuls of redwine vinegar, and black pepper, and whisking in olive oil in half of whatever amount of vinegar. I also use a little avocado and red wine vinegar on turkey sandwiches, in tuna salad, or egg salad. We also keep something called “better than bouillon” in chicken and beef in the fridge. Having something like a bouillon cube or powder is great for flavoring meals, making sauces, and soups. However, if you read the ingredients label for pretty much every one of these products, many of what is listed isn’t really what one might call a food. To make your own boullion you would make broth, or stock, cook it for hours until all of the water is gone and it resembles a paste, and then dehydrate it. When it is commercially produced, for some reason a bunch of extra crap is added. “Better than bouillon” is a little pricier, but the ingredients label weighs much less heavily on the conscience, and it really does taste much better. It’s worth the money.
For drinks we have water, unsweet tea, coffee with a splash of milk and ½ tsp of raw sugar, and belle vie, or La Croix sparkling water.
The overall proportions of the plate are ¼ carb, ¼ protein, ½ produce, with the fat and flavor worked into one of those groups.
Things to avoid.
The dreaded list of things to never eat or drink again. This list isn’t as long as you might think it would be. There are many wonderful foods that shouldn’t be a part of your regular diet, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying them occasionally and sensibly. For now though, the foods to avoid are:
ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS. Just don’t do. High fructose corn syrup, aspartame, sucralose, and all of the others have absolutely no business being in your body. They aren’t good for you, they make you crave salty and sweet foods, and they will derail your ultimate goal. There is no upside to putting this category of “food” into your body.
SODAS. Sorry, but these are terrible in every sense of the word. Full of sugar, bad for your teeth, and the list could go on, and on.
ARTIFICIALLY FLAVORED POWDERED ANYTHING such as coffee creamer, imitation vanilla (just buy real vanilla), artificially flavored ice cream (seriously, just buy the real stuff.)
FAST FOOD. Even the salads aren’t great. I know that it’s convenient, and cheap, but really how can you put a price on prioritizing your health and the health of your family. Some fast food chains are getting the memo that we do in fact have an obesity and mortality rate epidemic, but the ones that aren’t adapting should be avoided. If you must, then my recommended list of go to’s are Chick-fil-a (Grilled chicken and fruit), Panera Bread (Transparency in their food options), and places like the Wawa gas stations that allow you to customize your food with many options. With a sense of wariness, I will also include Subway, and I’ve heard that Taco Bell has started upping their game, but I haven’t been, so use with caution and moderation!
Things to enjoy in moderation.
So the list of no-nos is really not that long. Everything else just takes moderation; sensible and very occasional moderation. Have the cupcake at the birthday party. Drink a glass of wine, or have a beer. Eat the french fries and hamburger at the barbeque. And yes, have that one soda if you must(but please really try not to.) It’s all about being sensible, and not doing it very often.
This seems like as good of a place as any to say that sugar is sugar. What I mean by that is that a lot of people are fooled into thinking that raw sugar, honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, and the like are healthier than sugar. The fact is that no matter what it’s form, sugar is sugar, and that is how your body metabolizes it.
To put this information into use, I will now share what I will be eating today:
A cup of hot green tea with lemon first thing every morning.
Breakfast: A bowl of oatmeal cooked in water with cinnamon and blueberries, topped with yogurt, around 2 tbsp of crushed walnuts, a small dallop homemade, low sugar triple berry jam, and more cinnamon. A cup of dark roast coffee with cinnamon ⅓ tsp of raw sugar, and a light splash of whole milk.
Lunch: Sparkling Water. Wrap with Whole Wheat tortilla, black beans, cheese, spinach, cilantro sriracha, cumin, coriander, garlic, tomatoes with 10 baby carrots and an apple.
Snack: Slice of bread with peanut butter and a banana.
Dinner: Sparkling Water. Turkey and Mushroom burger with Sriracha yogurt, tomato, spinach, a slice of cheese (thin cut is great here), wrapped in iceberg, and oven roasted potatoes tossed lightly in olive oil and seasoned with herbes de provence. (Whole wheat sandwich thins also make a great bun substitute. In this case we have a salad as the side.) Obviously, I eat other things, but hopefully this gives you an idea of how to use what I’ve given you to create your own menus.
Whew! Okay, so we’ve made it to the end. This was an extremely long and dry post, but for most people just figuring out how to handle meals is the hardest part. Many people mistakenly believe that just adding a little physical activity is all that is needed when in fact it is what you eat that makes the biggest impact. So if you are ready for a change, then start here. Use the information in this post to create a meal plan that works for you, and for your family. After all, whatever you do, you will have to live with it for the rest of your life.
I’ve mentioned a few times that one thing that I like to do is take typically unhealthy dishes,and redo them in a way that makes them a little lighter, and better for you so that you could in fact eat them every day if you wanted. Today’s recipe is for my version of macaroni and cheese. This has become a family favorite, and my three year old, who is a mac and cheese connoisseur can’t tell that this is any different from the regular stuff. In this particular recipe half of the cheese sauce is replaced with a carrot puree, and the traditional bechamel is altered by using whole wheat flour and olive oil instead of white flour and butter.
Tuna and Broccoli shells and cheese.
-Whole Wheat macaroni or shells. We use shells because it captures some of the broccoli and tuna which means that when my daughter tries to pick around the broccoli some of it still sneaks it’s way in. As far as how much to use, check the package for serving recommendations. I typically use ⅔ to ¾ of the recommended serving size
-1 cup of whole milk
-1tbsp of olive oil
-1tbsp of whole wheat flour
-black pepper and nutmeg to taste
-½ to ¾ cup of shredded cheese. Sharp Cheddar, or a blend like mexican or taco are what I recommend. We typically use a mexican blend.
-3 medium to large carrots washed
-enough chicken broth to cover the carrots(more on this later)
-1-2 tsp of minced garlic
-1 bag of frozen broccoli
-2 cans of tuna drained, but not rinsed.
-salt for pasta water