Real Food Picnicking

Today is National Picnic Day! It’s probably no coincidence that National Picnic Day is in April. Spring picnics timed right practically guarantee the warmth of the sun on your face, a soft breeze stirring your hair, the rustling of leaves in the trees, and the fresh smell of new blossoms and cut grass. Mother Nature is rejuvenating herself and it’s hard not to notice and feel inspired!

There is nothing like eating natural (real) food in nature–that’s al fresco dining at its best! My family loved the cultural norms of eating fresh foods “in the fresh (air)” while we lived in Italy, but this time of year always takes me back to Japan. Cherry blossom season in Japan elevated picnicking to an artform–the sake is freeflowing, the delicacies are intricate, and both are to be enjoyed with friends under a canopy of beautiful sakura blooms celebrating the start of spring.

But you don’t have to leave the country to enjoy a spring picnic. Even in your own backyard, your real food picnic can be relaxing and provide nourishment well beyond the food. Because being outside just makes you feel better, doesn’t it? Why is that?! I think it’s partly because being outside makes you feel small in a big world; seasons come and go and weather changes daily and we are not in control. Yet, the fact that many aspects of nature function in an orderly way, without our input, is predictable, and therefore, comforting! Plus there are all those pretty views.

So, a picnic is the marriage of two of my favorite things: being outside and eating real food! But it can be stressful to feel pressured to make fancy foods and to literally haul a bunch of stuff outside to enjoy the meal. It doesn’t have to be stressful, if you keep things simple.

Three Tricks to A Stress-free Picnic

  1. Use real foods you have on hand or items you usually make.
  2. Finger foods are easiest for everyone (and may even eliminate the need for plates and utensils–hey, every day is Earth Day)!
  3. Sometimes you just need to find a different way to transport (i.e., mason jars or skewers) the same easy, real foods you usually enjoy!

Here are some of my favorites:

Real Food Picnic Ideas

Happy picnicking! Grab a blanket and get ready to embrace some serenity today, even if it’s in your backyard or on the floor of your living room (kids love that!)

It’s National Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Day–Yet It’s Really All About You!

Did you know dietitians have their own day? Yes, I know, everyone has their own day these days. But truth be told, I don’t really want my own day! In fact, sometimes when I’m meeting a new person for the first time, I hesitate to even disclose that I’m a dietitian–I hate that I’m known as the food police!

Do you work in a profession that slaps a pre-conceived, metaphorical “label” on you the minute someone hears what it is? (Share it in the comments!) But seriously, which other profession does this as much as one that involves food??? I think it’s because everybody eats, am I right?

Don’t get me wrong…I’m not at all embarrassed to be a dietitian.  I worked very hard to become an RD. An RD (or RDN which is the same thing) is more qualified than a “nutritionist”. Here’s what I did to become an RD, if you’re interested:

  • First, you get a 4-year college degree at an accredited university.
  • Then you apply and get accepted and matched to a year-long, unpaid internship program.  (Thanks mom and dad for the support!)
  • Then you study like crazy and pass a national exam on all areas of dietetics, even if you’ll just be specializing in one. (No, I don’t wear a hairnet and don’t ask me about cooking meals in a hospital!)
  • In my case, I chose to also complete a Master’s in Nutrition Communication, to specialize in evidenced-based writing, and food and nutrition marketing.
  • And finally, I also chose to specialize in diabetes by training with patients for 1,000 hours, and then taking a difficult certification exam to be a Certified Diabetes Educator (which I maintain every 5 years by retaking the exam AND completing 75 hours of continuing education credits in the field of diabetes).

No wonder I feel old sometimes! But I love the wandering path my career has taken! I just don’t like to disclose that I’m an RD first thing because it opens up a can of worms when I bring it up in a casual, cursory conversation.

For example, during summer camp drop-off, I felt I had to share with my kids’ camp director that I am a dietitian. In the two minutes it takes to drop off your child in the morning, you may be wondering how it could possibly have come up.

Well, I sent my two kids to camp with one small cooler half-filled with cold packs so that their healthy foods could stay cold. He teased them about their 10-pound lunch and said he was sitting next to them. So, in defense of my kids, I felt the need to explain with a laugh, that I am a dietitian as I started to walk away…

But do you think I could just walk away? I should’ve known I couldn’t just walk away…

He stepped towards me and fired a few loaded nutrition questions one after the other, expecting a short answer to each. “What’s the deal with gluten? What about those flat pretzels? My wife and I really feel better eating those…”

My first thought escaped as a stammer: “Uhhhhh….”

Where to begin!? Do I even want to begin right now??

What I Mean By “Uhhhh…”

  • I hesitate because nutrition science is so complicated.
  • I hesitate because I don’t have time right now, in the spur of the moment…and frankly, I figure you probably don’t either.
  • I hesitate because I need more information from you.
  • I hesitate because I wonder how much you know about the topic already, especially if you think I can answer your complicated questions in passing.
  • I hesitate because I wonder if you are really ready to know the long answer to your question. 
  • I hesitate because I don’t want to burst your bubble or bruise your ego.
  • I hesitate to squash myths with evidence before we have a rapport because you don’t yet know you can trust me as a reliable source of information.
  • The fact is, I hesitate mostly because I’m thinking about you –it’s really all about you, and I mean that in the best possible way!

Don’t Worry, I am NOT the Food Police

My focus really has to be all about you because my experience with food is irrelevant to your journey. I can relate to you without sharing the exact same food struggles, because we are human and we all eat! We are all different and working on different things in our lives, and that’s okay! I don’t think I need to tell you I’m not perfect. It can be assumed–and it might be the only correct assumption you can ever safely make about a person.

Therefore, please do not feel like I’m judging you. I really do not care what you are eating, especially if you don’t ask me for help. Even if you ask me for help and share what you are eating, I’m still not judging you. Sometimes I make choices that are less than ideal and not the healthiest. Everyone does it. It’s called living. And it’s why dieting doesn’t work. There’s no place for guilt or shame in building healthy eating habits. And there’s no place for judgment either.

Sometimes it’s frustrating, but what works for one person may not work for another. I prefer to think that’s positive and even liberating–we don’t have to conform to one way of eating! So, as always, please share your comments and ask your questions here! I’m passionate about helping people know what and how to eat for better health and I’m always happy to respond when I can focus 100% on YOU!

Finding Motivation to Give It More

You know when you listen to a song and there’s a line of lyrics you can’t exactly figure out? You listen to it over and over and still can’t make out what they are saying!

I know it’s not just me–a classic example is Bruce Springstein’s “Blinded by the Light” where for years (yes, before the Internet was invented) I thought he was singing “wrapped up like a douche” (it’s supposed to be “deuce”)!

But even in the age of Google or Apple radio lyrics, I sometimes find myself wondering what the heck I’m hearing when a new song plays on the radio as I’m driving! Adele’s “When We Were Young” has a part where she repeats over and over “when we were young”. I was 99% certain she’d coined a new term “in-EE-bree-uh”! Inebria, like inebriate…okay, maybe now it’s just me! But once that was in my head, I couldn’t hear anything else…I finally remembered to look it up when I wasn’t driving!

Well, all this to say, sometimes (not often) I invent my own song lyrics–and end up liking my version better! Shakira’s “Try Everything” from Zootopia is a song I may not have heard if I didn’t have kids, but it’s one of my favorites! (If you don’t watch kid movies, you’re probably missing out on a ton of good, motivational messaging in catchy, upbeat songs…I love listening to these positive songs with or without my kids.)

Here are my Top 5 Favorite Inspiring Songs from Animated Movies:

So, my favorite line of Try Everything is this: “Nobody learns without getting it wrong.” Love this “growth mindset” message that failing is an integral part of learning. It certainly doesn’t feel good to fail, but when we know it’s just something 1) everyone does sometimes and 2) it’s how we learn best, it takes the sting out! Especially when we’re afraid to even try something for fear of failing (true story).

But when I first heard the song, I thought these were the lyrics: “Nobody learns without giving it more.” I have to admit…I love my version even better! And no, not because I came up with it! Because it answers the question “what happens after you fail?”

You give it MORE!

YEAH you do!

So, what will you do next time you fail at something? Have you failed at changing your eating habits for the better? Have you failed at making exercise a regular part of your routine? Have you failed to follow up with your doctor about your health? Have you failed to even think about your health at all?

Do you want to just get it wrong and stop or GIVE IT MORE?

“Give it more” means you don’t give up on yourself or your health. And it means, you do NOT beat yourself up about past failures. “Give it more” does NOT mean try a different diet. Diets are temporary and meant to end–you didn’t fail.

Instead, give it more by figuring out one small meaningful thing you can do for yourself today. Make it asking for help if you don’t know where to start. Or check out this Calendar of 30 Eating Habits of Healthy and Happy Families and pick one. Make it something you’ll be able to do tomorrow, too. And the day after that. Give yourself MORE because you deserve it.

Tell your goal to everyone around you.

Better yet, find someone who will help you with your goal.

Make yourself a list and check it off every day for a month.

Listen to one of these songs or any others daily for inspiration.

Pray or meditate about your goals.

And rest assured that giving it more will get easier with time…when it becomes a healthy habit!

 

3 Nutrition Truths for the New Year

Happy New Year! I know it’s late, but I decided to sit out the first Internet wave of new year nutrition advice. This was intentional, but then the SEVEN snow days with my three kids at home kicked me completely out of commission. (Although extending vaca wasn’t half bad…if I’m honest!)

So, although I am somewhat late, at this point I hope you are like me and still mulling over what/if anything to do differently now that it’s January. If so, these are my deep thoughts and words of encouragement to help you keep it real for 2018with real food and real talk, as always! Because January is the peak of nutrition-related misinformation, in case you haven’t noticed.

But stick with me (if you want, subscribe to follow this blog via email, or follow @dvnorwood on Instagram or The Wandering RD on Facebook) and we’ll get through it together. Let’s start with three “nutrition truths” to help you wade through the media buzz and start your year off with steady, science-based steps in the right direction.

  1. Goals Are Still Resolutions (Do Set Goals)

So, new year. New you? Wrong. If you read the many wellness articles this year, most tell you not to set resolutions. Have you noticed lately the health and wellness conversation has shifted from always trying to improve yourself to accepting yourself?

I get the focus on self-love. I mean, I love you (ya know, as a neighbor) enough to want to help you figure this stuff out. So, surely, I want you to love yourself. But as with all things, a healthy balance is important. And to be our best, I believe we all can make small changes to our lives that would improve our health, wellness, relationships, productivity, etc. The important things in life are worth the effort—are they not?

Nothing explains what happens when we don’t put forth the effort as well as the scientific concept of “entropy,” which is the universe’s tendency for disorder (a.k.a. why our kids’ rooms get messier by the day.)

So, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with setting goals. And you can even call it a resolution, if you want. Because isn’t a goal still a resolution? “Resolutions” just have a bad rap because it’s human nature to want to change ourselves in grandiose ways and then drop the ball when it’s unachievable. So, if “resolutions” are a New Year thing, then maybe “goals” are better.

But the point is this: it’s never a bad idea to set realistic, small resolutions (a.k.a. goals) to improve yourself or your circumstances. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about that. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the current you. It doesn’t necessarily mean your self-worth is in jeopardy. If anything, it means you are investing in yourself, and isn’t that something we do when we can see our own potential?

And further, there’s no reason anything has to start on January 1st. I don’t know about you, but I’m still mulling my goals over and yes, it’s almost February. It’s great if you want to ride the wave of motivated people in January, but it’s equally great if you decide you’re ready to start something in September. Goals have to be realistic and practical. It helps to have a plan in place to be able to achieve them. And most importantly, before you even try, you have to decide which goals will be meaningful or you will fail and not even care about it—don’t ask me how I know this…

So, wait till you are fully ready, but go ahead and start to wrap your brain around what it is that would help you become the you that you’ve always wanted to be!

I was reminded recently in this NYT article that sometimes, for many of us, the hardest part of doing anything is starting…(unless it’s finishing, then read the book, Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done. Ha! It’s a great quick read and I am not paid in any way to say this.)

  1. Diet is a Four-Letter Word (Do NOT Restrict Drastically)

About half of the population makes resolutions that involve losing weight and getting in shape. But have you heard? “Diet” is a “four-letter” word—literally, and figuratively. Yes, diet can be just a word that means “habitual nourishment,” but it has come to conjure up images of a very restrictive way of eating to lose weight. Research shows that’s bad because most people lose weight only to gain it back when they go “off” the diet, and often even more weight than they lost. So, bottom line: diets don’t improve your health if you gain back the weight (or more) and even decrease your metabolism in the process. And then there are the feelings of failure you’ll have to deal with, too.

So, if your goal is to restrict yourself so drastically that you can’t maintain it, then please, please, please change your goal to a more attainable, sustainable one. It’s okay to want to make changes to your diet, even to lose weight and/or improve other aspects of health, but consider smaller changes that you can incorporate to become lifelong habits.  That said—even a lower sugar, and/or lower carbohydrate diet can be maintained if you slowly make changes that become your new normal, which is especially helpful for preventing and managing obesity, prediabetes and diabetes.

  1. Mindfulness Isn’t Always Intuitive (Do Practice Mindfulness)

So, 1) set goals, 2) don’t drastically restrict—this begs the question: what’s a person to do?

Have you heard about Intuitive Eating? It’s often used in the same sentence as “mindfulness.” The principles promote a non-diet approach to eating, which involves ditching the scale, listening to hunger and fullness cues to determine food intake, and perhaps most importantly, finding other ways besides food to deal with emotions.

Let’s be clear, I am not at all against any of these things. But I do have a serious problem with the word “intuitive.”  If eating is supposed to be so intuitive, how are so many people doing it “wrong”? It appears to me that eating is not intuitive for a large part of the population, or there wouldn’t be a growing obesity and diabetes epidemic.

The problem may be this: it’s intuitive to eat what is available. Studies show people weigh more when presented with more variety and diversity of food options (think: buffets). And in America, we have a disproportionate amount of unhealthy foods available at our every turn.

Or the problem may be this: what if certain people with a genetic predisposition for overweight or obesity are biologically driven to overeat certain foods (such as refined carbohydrates and sugar)? It is far from conclusive, (and I talk about it in this comprehensive post about sugar) but there is a school of thought that refined carbohydrates and sugar could be addictive in some individuals. If it proves true, aren’t we judging and–even worse—alienating many people we are trying to help by telling them, or even trying to teach them, to simply “eat intuitively”?

I believe it’s not fair, accurate, or helpful to call eating “intuitive” in our food culture and that it does more harm than good.

Rant over!

That said, can one learn to eat mindfully? Absolutely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

However, it appears mindfulness may be harder for some people to learn and practice, perhaps due to one or more of the following:

  • our fast-paced culture,
  • our food supply,
  • differing genes,
  • and/or emotional issues (including eating disorders).

Some people can eat “everything in moderation” while others prefer to avoid certain foods because they can’t stop at a “reasonable” portion. It’s highly individual and we all know ourselves best, although sometimes need help and guidance teasing out all the factors that affect building healthy eating habits.

It should be noted it is impossible to talk about mindful eating without fully addressing the emotional aspects of eating, especially eating disorders, preferably with qualified therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists, in addition to RDs.

Nonetheless, mindfulness for most everyone involves learning to incorporate more real foods, and far fewer processed foods, especially those with refined carbohydrates. I like to say it is a practice, because it is important enough to do the hard work and there is no room for perfection or guilt–just keep at it the best you can.

And you can always count on me to try to make practicing mindfulness as simple as possible with an ever-growing list of easy, real food recipes.  Stay tuned for a post with specific tips on how to practice eating mindfully!

My Journey to Embracing an Instant Pot

A friend asked me what I thought about my Instant Pot yesterday. The short answer: there’s still time to tell Santa you need one.

What follows is the long answer…with my pros and cons–and of course a few easy, real food recipes for the Instant Pot.

I’m not an early adopter when it comes to newfangled things, or anything really–I have never been a trendsetter. I am much too cautious for that, and in my scientific mind, I don’t need to be a guinea pig! I prefer to wait and see if it works as promised, and then assess if it will add value to my life–which believe it or not, I try to keep simple (just don’t look in my garage)!

And I’m more than okay with the delayed gratification. Come to find out, science (the Stanford marshmallow experiment, for example)  has shown that better things come to those who wait!

So, years after most everyone else, I finally bought my Instant Pot this past July, on Amazon Prime day because it was heavily discounted. I still wasn’t convinced I needed it. I just thought as an RD and a nutrition and food blogger, I should try it out. It is clearly a huge trend, at the very least.

But the biggest reason I waited to get an Instant Pot is because the word “instant” didn’t sit well with  me. Instant oatmeal, instant rice, instant gratification–instant is usually a bad thing, am I right?! Instant foods are convenience foods. And convenience foods are usually more processed. And more processed is usually less beneficial to your health.

Obviously, I knew you could cook easy, real foods in an Instant Pot. But I can’t help but think it’s a bad thing when we (as a culture) expect all things (food or not) to be instantaneous. Not all short cuts are good. There is something beneficial in the “work” we do. But when we bypass the whole process in a blur, many times we miss out on the “journey” (which, as you would expect, is important to “the wandering RD”!)

  • If we simply cram with rote memorization for a test, we don’t remember the material later.
  • And you may know, I feel similarly about meal planning…if you regularly subscribe to meal plans or order meal delivery kits, you don’t learn sustainable meal planning and prep skills, or learn flexible eating habits since you can’t always eat all your meals at home.

So, given my preconceived notions about the Instant Pot, I am surprised that I have come to embrace my Instant Pot wholeheartedly. But like many nutrition trends, the Instant Pot just has a catchy title. It’s not as “instant” as I thought, which is both good and bad. (Good because real-food meal planning in an Instant Pot still takes forethought. Bad because the cooking process takes longer than it seems from the recipe; the times are misleading– it takes a good 20 minutes to reach the pressure level before the timing begins. But it’s passive time I can be doing something else–so not a big deal.)

But the most important thing about the Instant Pot is that it helps me get an easy, real food meal on the table a few times a week, and that’s gotta count for something. Plus it’s just kind of fun experimenting with it! Here are my pros and cons…

Pros of an Instant Pot:

  1. It is great for making easy, real food. There are many recipes out there, but you do have to search a bit to find the ones that include real food and limit processed foods. Each time I am successful, I share my Instant Pot recipes on my recipe page, so please check back often! And scroll down this post for a few links to get you started!
  2. The texture of meat that is pressure cooked is phenomenal.  This is what I love the most about the Instant Pot. You can make real-food recipes many ways, but they have to taste good! I am a very picky about slow cooker recipes; I don’t like how meat especially gets stringy and dried out despite being cooked in liquid for 7 to 8 hours. This does not happen when you cook meat in an Instant Pot. Ribs, chicken, pork tenderloin, beef stew, etc. tastes like it was roasted in an oven or over the grill, but in a fraction of the time.  
  3. It’s really one-pot cooking. I am also picky about slow cooking because I usually like to saute meat and some veggies (like onions) before slow cooking. In the Instant Pot, I love the saute feature. It allows you to saute, and then all the browned bits contribute to the flavor while minimizing dishwashing. Aaaawesome!
  4. I am not a guinea pig, nor am I reinventing the wheel. Someone else has indeed done the work of figuring things out–I am part of the Facebook Group Instant Pot Community and it is nearly 850,000 people strong!!! Searching for recipes has helped me tremendously adapt my own recipes for the Instant Pot. And I know if I were to ask a question, hundreds of people would respond within minutes. It is such a wonderful resource.
  5. I have had only one epic fail–and let’s just say, it was operator error (owning it!) I forgot to add water to my whole chicken and when the beep summoned me, the chicken was still raw. I knew I had to add the water to achieve pressure, but I had simply forgotten that step. Won’t do that again!

Cons of an Instant Pot:

  1. An Instant Pot may not free up your pre-dinner hour(s). Each of my 3 kids comes home at a different time in the afternoon. Then we spend most afternoons doing the “activity carpool shuffle” and usually arrive home in time to eat a fashionably late dinner. A slow cooker allows you to prep your meal in the AM and it is ready at dinner with little to do just before you eat. An Instant Pot, because it takes much less time, may require operation an hour or so before eating.  But with most one-pot recipes, I have learned a “work around” to this is starting my meal in the early afternoon and allowing it to hold on “warm” until we eat it, which has worked thus far with all my attempts. (And allows for an AM run to the grocery store if I don’t know what we’re having that day! Sometimes I wing it…keeping it real!) But anyone who doesn’t work from home would not have this luxury. Of course, in that case you could also meal prep a few meals in one day with the Instant Pot and solve this problem with another “work around.”
  2. It takes up space. As yet another large kitchen appliance to store (it’s an occupational hazard for me), it is taking up space–honestly, in the corner of my kitchen. I haven’t found it a concealed home yet 1) because it’s big and 2) I have a lot of other kitchen equipment and 3) because I use it frequently (but that’s kind of a pro, now, isn’t it?) Notice I didn’t say my kitchen was too small for once…military spouses can relate to that one, but my current rental home actually has adequate storage! I just have too much kitchen stuff, if I’m honest…
  3. They’re pricey. Although there are many sales lately, and they are already making them bigger and better (gotta love America!)

So, that’s my honest opinion, in case you are in the market for an Instant Pot! I am not paid by nor have I received free products from Instant Pot. I am simply a fan!

Here are a few of my easy, real food recipes to get you started!

Instant Pot Beef Stew

Instant Pot Chicken Soup

Instant Pot Chicken Enchilada Casserole

Instant Pot Country-Style Ribs

Instant Pot Pulled Pork Tenderloin

Smoothie Science: Are Smoothies Good For You?

Everyone seems to love a good smoothie these days.

Everyone except me. I know I’m getting old because, more and more, I seem to be an outlier when it comes to popular opinion. Over 40–check. Opinionated–check. Crotchety–wait, no…I hope!

Nevertheless, I sometimes feel like I am the only person on the planet who doesn’t drink smoothies. Not even green ones or those with other real-food ingredients. I am just not a smoothie person. Never have been. Even if you call it a smoothie bowl (which is a smoothie in a bowl with toppings). But even I have to appreciate that clever rebranding!

I know I’m in the minority…a lot of people drinks smoothies, right?  That’s the idea I get from blogs, Pinterest and Instagram anyway, but please leave a comment and correct me if I’m wrong!

The thing I hate most about smoothies is that they often masquerade as health food when they are typically anything but. They are often full of sugar and calories, even if they have some redeeming qualities. And you know my thoughts about sugar; we all eat way too much! I just don’t think you need to eat something healthy–kale, for example–bad enough to load it into a smoothie with more sugar (natural or not) or calories than you should eat in one sitting. I’d rather have you learn to like kale–or frankly give yourself a break–and don’t eat kale, but choose other whole, real foods you do like.

Yes, you heard me! Kale is a nutrient-packed food, but you don’t have to eat kale unless you want to (preferably in a salad, soup or sauteed). That’s good news, isn’t it?

Well, maybe this is bad news, if you like to drink a lot of smoothies.

I know–you’re thinking your smoothies are healthier than most…and yes, there are healthier ways to make smoothies with real food ingredients. But even if you can keep the portion and amount of carbohydrates reasonable, the simple act of blending everything together may offer fewer benefits than the act of eating whole foods intact. Put simply, smoothies may cross the line into the “refined foods” category. Here’s why:

6 Good Reasons Not to Drink Smoothies:

Chewing, secreting saliva and other digestive “juices,” and movement (peristalsis) of the gut have important functions in digestion. I can’t bring myself to drink smoothies in part because pulverizing whole foods bypasses normal digestion processes.

  • First of all, when you drink smoothies, there’s no chewing, which is the first step in stimulating digestion. When you chew, enzymes are secreted in your saliva that begin to break down carbohydrate and fat in your mouth. Chewing also signals to the rest of your gut (and pancreas and brain) that food is on the way.
  • When food reaches your stomach, it causes the stomach to stretch. Liquids do not achieve the adequate stretching of the stomach that solids do. Every step in digestion, including stomach distention, results in a cascade of hormone secretions, some of which we understand well (insulin), some of which we have only begun to understand (ghrelin, leptin and GLP-1), but all of which are vital to optimal digestion and metabolism.
  • When fiber is no longer intact, and many servings of fruits and vegetables are blended into a high-carbohydrate beverage, the carbohydrates are more quickly absorbed and this results in a sharper increase in blood sugar. This affects insulin and hunger levels–and can be especially harmful in the short term (high blood sugar) and long term (obesity) for people with insulin resistance, prediabetes, and/or diabetes.
  • Research supports that when we blend fiber, its effects in the body are changed; how this matters is a little more difficult to determine. It’s difficult to study fibers’ effect on the gut because there are many types of fiber that occur in nature, and the gut is a complex organ. However, it is my belief that mechanically blending fiber probably does not offer the same prebiotic benefits that we are learning are beneficial to our microbiome (the natural bacteria in our gut).

Yes, there are ways some foods should be processed in order for us to eat them, such as cooking meats to avoid bacterial infection–so I’m not totally crazy to think we don’t need to process anything. However, we don’t need to blend foods into smoothies, so I really prefer to eat and chew my foods and let my body do the work of digesting them more slowly and fully.

Smoothies aren’t satiating and may make you eat more later.

  • Research has shown that participants who consume liquid calories (beverages) consume more calories overall than participants who consume solid calories (food).
  • This study showed that eating a piece of whole fruit before a meal makes you feel more satiated than the same fruit in pureed or juice form and eating the whole fruit before the meal makes you eat fewer calories during the meal.
  • Part of the reason some research shows liquids aren’t as satiating may be the speed at which liquid calories are consumed and absorbed. Usually smoothies are downed quickly, sometimes while doing other activities on-the-go, such as driving or working. In addition, liquids result in less stomach distention–the actual stretching of the stomach with food–which is an important cue for the body to detect fullness.
  • But more recently, it has become clear that the GI tract, the largest endocrine organ in the body, plays a very complicated role in the secretion of many hormones to regulate processes such as satiety and food intake. Liquids and solids appear to affect these hormones differently. For example, ghrelin, the “hunger hormone,” is produced in the GI tract when the stomach is empty. It stimulates hunger, gastric acid secretion, and gut motility to move food through the GI tract. When food stretches the stomach, ghrelin secretion is stopped. When liquids are consumed, the stomach is not adequately stretched and may contribute to feelings of hunger even with adequate nutrient intake.

Smoothies (and juices) can contain more calories and carbohydrates than could typically be eaten in the same amount of time if eaten in whole food form.

  • In the same amount of time as it takes to slurp a smoothie down, you wouldn’t eat 5+ servings of fruit. A 20-oz. serving of orange juice, as a reference, contains 65 grams of carbohydate–the amount of carbohydrate 4 1/3 oranges. Your stomach would feel too full, due in large part to the fiber, which is an important part of satiety. But a smoothie (or juice) allows you to tolerate that much fruit at once, which jacks up the carbohydrate content significantly.
  • While nutrients are important for health and most people don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, our bodies can indeed be overwhelmed by too much carbohydrate. 
  • Rather, research shows it is more beneficial when you eat a solid meal with whole foods, because it takes more time to eat and contains fewer calories.

Smoothies often contain protein powders to increase the protein enough to balance out the carbohydrates and fat content.

  • To make smoothies a balanced source of nutrients, protein powders are often used, which are also processed and further increase calories.  It is not difficult to get enough protein in your diet when you eat a variety of whole foods.
  • Chewing whole foods requires more time, which is helpful for proper digestion and satiety–and provides added social benefits. We generally eat smoothies on the go rather than taking the time to sit down and enjoy the food, preferably in the company of other people.

I choose to model eating whole fruits and vegetables to my children.

  • I do not agree with sneaking fruits and vegetables into my children’s diets unbeknownst to them. I want them to learn to like whole fruits and vegetables, not to just get the nutrients from them. I am shaping their mindset and this is one of the greatest gifts that will keep on giving long after they leave “the nest”!
  • So, I repeatedly offer them fruits and vegetables in raw and cooked form and they learn to like them over time, some more than others. That’s normal and to be expected. The important thing is that you don’t give up eating them and continue to offer them to your kids.
  • My kids sometimes have smoothies, but these are considered a treat.

It’s simply a pain to clean the blender.

  • A lot of people eat smoothies daily as a meal replacement because they say they are aiming for simplicy.
  • But frankly, it’s a lot easier to wash a piece of whole fruit and go. Or even slice up some peppers and cucumbers and start chomping while I rinse the knife quickly. Or boil or scramble some eggs and portion them in reheatable containers for the week.
  • Smoothies are really not easier when you have to figure out what to put in them, make them, and then clean the blender–every day.

Bottom Line:

What to do if you like smoothies?  Enjoy a small portion of a homemade smoothie with real-food ingredients infrequently as a healthier treat. Stick with fruits, vegetables, water, and full-fat yogurt or milk, or your unsweetened milk of choice as main ingredients.

As for your non-smoothie days, work on expanding your horizons with whole real foods, such as: 

  • set a goal to eat one fruit and one vegetable serving at each meal (or more if desired), OR
  • add a salad every day to your dinner, OR
  • try preparing a new vegetable (or a familiar vegetable in a new way) each week, OR 
  • join a delivery service or Community Support Agriculture (CSA) program through a local farm to have produce delivered right to your door.

References:

https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/199317

World Diabetes Day: Why and How YOU Should Eat More Easy, Real Food

Yes–I’m talking to you. All of you. Whether you have type 2 diabetes or not–on World Diabetes Day–I’m talking to everyone just the same, because I believe you all need to hear this: 70 percent of cases of type 2 diabetes could be prevented by the adoption of a healthy lifestyle (according to the International Diabetes Federation).

Many people watch the news or scour social media and are upset by what they see.  It’s part of our high-tech culture to be inundated with polarizing opinions on important topics.  Me? Right or wrong, I tend to avoid daily political news. Frankly, I love our country, but I don’t see how my rants could possibly help.

Instead, I channel my beefs elsewhere; I simply go to the grocery store and find myself fired up by what I see. It’s now part of our culture to be inundated with CONVENIENT JUNK, some of which masquerades as health food. And sorry (not sorry), I have no choice but to rant because I’m hoping it may possibly help you.

God Bless America…we have choices, we have innovation, we have advances in technology, we have more of everything. But it seems like everything that makes America great has made our food culture deplorable.  So, if you feel helpless when it comes to eating better to improve your health, my only goal is to help you figure out what to eat. I hope you choose to keep reading because it is my passion to help you eat easy, real food to prevent obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Although type 2 diabetes is affected by your genes, studies have shown its progression can be prevented and managed by healthy lifestyle interventions. But our food culture is not making this easy. Successfully managing, reversing or preventing diabetes requires a complete overhaul of our way of thinking, which means bucking our ubiquitous food culture.

It’s a daunting task, but I strongly believe in owning the responsibility for your own health. We can’t expect the government to tell us how or what to eat, or food companies to change their products for the better. The changes to our food culture have to come from within us–the consumers. And when we simply shift our focus from one processed food to a “healthier” processed food (gluten-free products, for example) or continually seek better “fast-food” options, we are completely off the mark and missing the point.

We have to slow down…and value ourselves, our family and our health enough to want to find the necessary time it takes to prepare and really savor real food in the company of our closest companions–our physical and mental health depends on it. And no governmental policy or commercial product can help us do that. 

But it doesn’t have to be terribly time-consuming or complicated. That’s why I am always talking about EASY, real food. You don’t have to do elaborate meal planning. You don’t have to plan a month of meals in advance. And you don’t have to cook all your meals for the week in one afternoon (unless, of course, you want to). But you do have to find ways to incorporate real food that work for you. I am sharing these suggestions that work for me and I hope they will help simplify the task of eating more easy, real food.

10 Ways To Eat More Easy, Real Food:

  1. You can eat eggs every day. I eat 2 eggs every day for breakfast. It takes less than 5 minutes. Sometimes I scramble several portions for a few days and store them in individual containers to reheat for 20 seconds. Sometimes I add sauteed veggies, or cheese, but most days just salt and pepper. At first, it was monotonous, I can’t lie. But somewhere along the way, it became a healthy habit and now it’s just “what I eat” and I don’t have to think much about it, which works for me and my busy mornings.
  2. Set real-food goals. Try having at least one fruit and vegetable at every meal. I do this for my kids’ packed lunches from home (because I can’t wait for school lunch to get healthier) and after we returned late Sunday from a weekend trip, I skipped the veggie on Monday because I hadn’t gone to the store and I got complaints about it! I love it when healthy habits become ingrained!
  3. Cook more. I usually cook dinner 4 to 5 times per week (often with leftovers). If you don’t cook much at all, start with one meal a week and increase as you can. And try to keep your meal planning (I use a white board) and your meals simple and full of real foods. Visit the recipe index for a sheet-pan meal, or a slow cooker meal, or an Instant Pot meal.
  4. Rebrand “leftovers” as “premade meals” and enjoy the extra free time. I know I talk a lot about leftovers, which don’t sound very appealing to many people. I used to be one of them! But as a busy mom, I now appreciate that they are time-giving, lifesavers! So, I recommend doing whatever you have to do to wrap your brain around using this meal prep strategy to your advantage. For lunch, B and I usually eat leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. Or I will make a quick simple salad with cucumber, tomatoes, and tuna or chicken for protein, toasted pecans or walnuts for crunch and flavor (with olive oil, vinegar and salt and pepper as dressing). Sometimes I double a meal to have leftovers for dinner the next night if I know it’ll be a busy one.
  5. Snack on some real foods if you want, or don’t snack; the choice is yours. But if you do snack, stick to lower sugar, easy, real food snacksAs a snack, I usually choose some nuts (walnuts and macadamias are my favorite), OR a piece of cheese OR a piece of fruit, such as an apple, pear, or clementine. About once a week I’ll have 4 oz. of my favorite Noosa pumpkin yogurt or even a convenient Kind Bar (Maple Glazed Pecan and Sea Salt or Madagascar Vanilla Almond), because it’s nut based and yummy, if not exactly real food.
  6. Buy fewer processed food products. I find it easier to avoid many products because there are scant good choices: such as cereal, crackers, and easy side-dish mixes. And keep in mind, even if you need to follow a gluten-free diet, gluten-free processed products are not better than their replacements for someone with diabetes. Instead focus on simple ingredients and ask yourself, “does this food come from nature?” For example, meats, fruits, vegetables, dairy, rice, quinoa, etc.  Some minimally processed canned foods I buy include canned tuna or salmon, chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, tomato paste, a variety of beans, pumpkin puree, coconut milk, and broth.
  7. Limit sugar. When you think you’ve decreased sugar in your diet in the obvious places (sugary beverages, limiting sweets, etc.), decrease it some more by reading the ingredient lists on food labels and avoiding products with sugar (and its various names). At first you may miss it, but you’ll likely notice your taste buds adjust and things taste sweeter without the sugar.
  8. Limit refined carbohydrates or preferably all carbohydrates.
    Highly processed carbohydrates such as white flour, corn flour or even gluten-free flours break down quickly into sugar in the bloodstream and research shows these refined carbohydrates are harmful to your health. A recent randomized controlled study conducted in Norway reveals that neither a very high-fat diet nor a very low-fat diet (both of which included “good” low-glycemic index carbohydrates) contribute to abdominal fat or metabolic syndrome—if they are free of refined carbohydrates. This is why for someone with diabetes, or anyone trying to prevent diabetes, it’s most important to limit refined carbohydrates, not saturated fat. Research also shows a lower carbohydrate (not just the refined type) diet is a very effective way to manage blood sugar for people with diabetes or for those wanting to prevent obesity. In particular, a diet low in carbohydrates is beneficial for reducing belly fat, which contributes to insulin resistance and diabetes. One randomized controlled study found that participants following a very low carbohydrate ketogenic diet lost more abdominal fat (trunk fat) than participants following a low-fat diet.
  9. Choose fats wisely. I use olive oil and butter mainly, with some coconut oil and sometimes even rendered bacon grease. Although these fats contain some saturated fat, research supports that saturated fat does not appear to be harmful to heart health.  Also, these fats are fairly naturally derived and minimally processed–unlike many vegetable oils such as corn, and soybean oil (which are in almost all processed foods) and even canola oil. I also recommend avoiding all trans fat, which is in margarine and other processed foods.
  10. Choose unsweetened, low-sugar beverages. I start my day with one (or two) unsweetened Italian “long” (diluted) espresso, to which I add a splash of whole milk.  I consider fresh-brewed coffee a real food, which is only minimally processed, when nothing else is added to it. Recent research suggests coffee may be protective against type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. In fact, a recent study suggests 3 to 5 cups per day had the most protective effect on risk for heart disease. Another study suggests at least one cup daily is protective against type 2 diabetes. Then I drink seltzer (La Croix grapefruit is my favorite) and water the rest of the day. Sometimes I add a lemon or lime wedge for flavor. And I often have a glass of red wine with dinner.

Bottom Line:

I hope these tips and recipes help you rethink your day-to-day eating to incorporate more easy, real food to prevent or manage diabetes.  By doing so we can harness the power we have to control diabetes better with real food, less processed food and a healthy lifestyle. As a diabetes expert, it is difficult to deliver restrictive advice, but on the bright side, it is the best evidence-based advice to prevent and manage diabetes.  And if it helps to know that I do follow my own advice, then rest assured I know it is difficult–but also possible and satisfying to eat this way longterm. As always, feel free to share your questions or comments! 

 

What Do You Do When the Going Gets Rough?

Me? Sometimes I quit. I have many unfinished projects, some nutrition-related, some not. For example, I have at least 20 unfinished blog post drafts. True story. Yes, that’s what NOT to do when the going gets rough.

School has started, so life with my three girls has become more challenging during the past two weeks. I haven’t been blogging much, I haven’t been meal planning much, and I haven’t been doing much to complete my personal projects. Can you relate?

Of course, sometimes life also gives you extra “lemons” during these already challenging times: another flat tire and a dog accident on my Persian rug. Yeah…there’s never a good time for either of those.

I thought it was just me, but failing to finish projects is a common problem.  I know this because there’s a book about it.  Today I just received a pre-ordered copy of the new book, Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, by Jon Acuff. It sounds so promising! I’m so grateful he finally finished the book. Stay tuned, if I finish it, I’ll let you know if the strategies are indeed life-changing.

I think it’s interesting and important to note, though, that I take commitments very seriously and will go to great lengths to not inconvenience or quit on anyone else. I work in a field that revolves around deadlines. No problem–I’m on time or early! But chaos or not, I often quit on myself. I tell myself it’s prioritizing, that my children are more important, or that anything for myself can wait. But if I’m honest, it’s also because I have a fear of failing, which I’ve learned is quite common among perfectionists.

It’s also common among people with a fixed mindset, according to the fantastic book Mindset, by Carol Dweck. I highly recommend it, for yourself and especially if you have children. (After all, your mindset shapes their mindset.) Most importantly, with a growth mindset you believe you have the power to learn and grow more through challenges and perseverence. And failure is an important part of that growth.  A growth mindset is far more helpful in life than a fixed mindset, which essentially focuses on quitting when the going gets rough, because you just aren’t ____ enough. Fill in the blank, you big loser.

Those who know me might find it hard to believe I’m a perfectionist–my house gets cluttered often, I mess up meals sometimes, and I never remember everything I need to. But often on the inside, and sometimes on the outside, I have been known to verbally beat myself up. And then I must add “sweating the small stuff” to my growing mental list of faults…

Yes, I do realize everyone makes mistakes. And when I make them, I can even verbalize “everyone makes mistakes.” But it takes a conscious effort to believe it to your core when attempting a new challenge and seeing it through to the end.

My point: we are all works-in-progress. We all fail. But when was the last time you tried so hard you fully failed? Chances are, if you’re trying that hard, you won’t fail. But even if you do, there’s growth in that. So, frankly, I’m done holding myself back to prevent failure. Are you with me?

We all know building healthy habits (food-related or otherwise) is not easy. That’s why New Year’s resolutions fail more often than not. But the reality is we can all learn more through challenges and perseverance, and especially through failures. So, we keep trying. But we must seek better strategies to complete our personal goals and find more balance in our lives.

Maybe you are striving to improve your eating habits and want to try a new approach. (You’re in the right place!) Or like me, you could be striving to stop sacrificing yourself too much for your kids so they see you as an accomplished, well-rounded individual. Whatever your personal goals, go big or go home!

So, here’s to challenging ourselves in this new school year (parents and students alike) to finish–or even fully fail–more of our important personal goals we set! I figure it makes sense to start with the book, Finish.

Top 10 Foods I Buy at Trader Joe’s

When I’m not in a hurry, I generally love grocery shopping–exploring the various products, reading the labels, comparing the prices. But alas–I’m usually in a hurry–and oh, how I missed Trader Joe’s for the four years we weren’t near one while in Italy! There’s nothing like being able to run in and out of a favorite store quickly, get the good quality items that you need, and at a good price to make easy, real food.

I know. We were in Italy! Definitely not complaining about that or the various outdoor produce (and shoe!) markets and cool grocery stores. (BTW, one of them, a German grocery chain Lidl, is here in Virginia Beach!) I will always embrace a new food-related adventure, especially while traveling. I find it most fascinating to figure out a new culture via its foods. Restaurants are fun, but grocery stores tell you so much more about a culture. And strangely enough, it even provides a certain comfort while out of my home country to notice that generally the same real-food ingredients I use are used in different ways all around the world! Somehow that makes the world seem smaller and more relatable to me. Everybody eats, as I like to say…

Sometimes I even enjoy the challenge of a store’s layout, looking for needed items while questioning the placement of related products. It’s like a game of mind-reading and I feel so accomplished when I guess correctly! Is almond butter near the jelly, like peanut butter is, or in the “health food” section. (Oh, smart–and note to self for next time–it’s in both places!) I know, maybe it’s strange I play weird games in my head…

But for efficiency and simplicity, I like knowing my way around a store and having the price comparisons all figured out. It’s the worst when you have to start from scratch figuring out where to get all your favorite ingredients, and even some new ones occasionally, and at the best prices. So, in my opinion, you may as well live in a foreign country if you don’t have a Trader Joe’s nearby!

I’m not being paid in any way to say this–I’m simply a passionate foodie who loves a great grocery store! Trader Joe’s stores are strategically located, and I have been fortunate to live near one in MD, MA and now VA. That said, I don’t do all my shopping at Trader Joe’s–not even close. They are famous for their commitment to quality, the avoidance of preservatives, and customer service, but there are plenty of unhealthy options–even organic and gluten-free junk–just like any other store. So, you really have to pay attention to the Nutrition Facts Label, and particularly the ingredient list of each product.

So, what products are a sure bet at Trader Joe’s, you ask? Here are the Top 10 Foods I Buy at Trader Joe’s. They are fantastic quality and the best prices around compared to regular or specialty stores in my area.

  1. Nuts and Seeds–I regularly buy bags of pecans, walnuts and almonds, my favorites. But you can find any and all kinds of nuts at Trader Joe’s. They come raw, toasted, in pieces or whole. I prefer to buy raw pieces; they are cheaper and I toast them myself when I’m ready to use them. I use them in salads mostly, sometimes grain-free granola, and I sometimes eat them by the small handful. For convenience and a portion controlled treat on the go, I also like the individually packaged mixed nuts with dark chocolate pieces (although I wish they were 70% dark). My kids enjoy these, too!
  2. Honey–you can find good quality raw honey at TJ’s. I don’t use honey a lot, but if I do, I want to be sure it’s real honey and not a poor-quality honey diluted with corn syrup.
  3. Real Maple Syrup–We are New Englander’s at heart when it comes maple syrup. My daughter SE was once at a sleepover when she was about 7 years old and we still laugh at how she rudely turned her nose up at the other “syrup” she was offered! She actually lectured the other family that they are made from corn syrup and not “the real stuff.” Whoops, occupational hazard of a foodie RD parent! We promptly discussed when it’s most polite to keep your food opinions to yourself, but it’s still a work in progress…
  4. 100% Italian Organic Olive Oil–We were absolutely spoiled by good quality olive oil in Italy. Did you know most olive oil sold in the US can be a blend of olive oil and other oils like soybean or corn? And the labeling can be tricky. Even when it says Italian it can be a blend of different sources of olive oil. There is a certain amount of trust that you are relying on when buying olive oil, but I feel better when it says the source is 100% Italian organic olive oil. (As an alternative, it’s not certified organic, but my daughter visited the Oropallo olive farm in Italy on a school field trip, so I recently ordered their delicious, good quality olive oil, which you can buy through their FB page, Oropallo EVOO.)
  5. Chipotle Salsa–I prefer to make my own fast fresh salsa, but sometimes there’s just no time for making a condiment when you’re busy making the Mexican-inspired main dish, usually along with B’s homemade guacamole. This Chipotle salsa has a great texture for a jarred salsa, and the chipotle adds another dimension to the flavor.
  6. Organic Eggs–I prefer to get local free-range eggs, but when I run out or need to buy store-bought, I choose Trader Joe’s because they are organic and the price is the cheapest I’ve seen around town.
  7. Red Pepper and Eggplant Sauce–This sauce is from Bulgaria, but it reminds me of one we enjoyed so much at restaurants while on a road trip through Croatia and Slovenia that we sought it out at a grocery in Slovenia. It has a simple ingredient list and I use it as a condiment, along side some grilled chicken thighs topped with homemade seasoning salt for the ultimate lazy, real-food dinner. Sometimes I also use pesto on the side in the same way with the chicken and the two condiments’ flavors work well together.
  8. Canned Tuna and Frozen Wild-Caught Fish--I was hooked on Italian canned tuna packed in olive oil. It was phenomenal and it is the #1 thing I miss from Italy. I know what you’re thinking…how good can it be? Well, let me just say, I eat it, but I’m not a huge fan of American tuna in the can. It can be dry, the color is off-putting and the flavor is not the best. But Rio Mare brand from Italy is the opposite. It’s packed in good olive oil, is an appetizing pink color and the flavor is delicious and slightly salted. TJ’s has an olive oil-packed tuna that is not quite as good, but it’s a close second and a good substitute. In the freezer section, I enjoy the wild-caught salmon, cod or other white fish.  I make it a point to buy wild-caught seafood from the USA, and although it’s not cheap, it’s one of the rare places you can even find frozen fish that is sourced from the USA, not from China. (Military friends, FYI, I buy Emeril Lagasse’s shrimp from the commissary, because it is caught in the USA).
  9. Cheeses–I love cheese and Trader Joe’s has good prices on a variety of specialty cheeses. If I had to be dairy-free, this is what I would miss the most. I use cheese to add flavor and interest to some my meals when they are free of refined carbs and sugar. I regularly buy imported feta from Greece (I’m half Greek, you know) for salads, and I use the small balls of fresh mozzarella in scrambled eggs, salads, or my kids’ lunches. I love the seasonal cranberry-coated goat cheese log in salad during the holidays, although it’s a treat, since it’s pretty sweet! Usually I pick out a different cheese to try every once in a while such as brie, various cheddars, havarti, etc.
  10. Frozen Vegetables–sometimes you just need to use frozen vegetables. They are perfectly healthy, quick, and a good way to round out your real-food meal. I like to buy organic ones when I can, and TJ’s has a pretty good selection at good prices, but I don’t always use organic. Some of my favorites: green beans, broccoli, spinach, riced cauliflower, and sliced bell peppers.

Of course, I buy other things at TJ’s, too, but these are my staples. Hope it helps you with your shopping!

Plan Your Own Meals, Please: Here’s Why and How

I am frequently asked to make meal plans. It seems like a reasonable request. And I really want to help you eat better. But fundamentally, I just can’t bring myself to do them. Here’s why. And read on to find out how I’d rather help you–step by step–learn to eat mindfully.

Here’s Why I Don’t Do Meal Plans:

  1. What I eat may not be what you like to eat. As a result, meal plans are not simply a matter of me writing down for you what I eat; it can be a very overwhelming, time-consuming prospect to build individualized meal plans. There are sensitivities, intolerances, and allergies. There are so many real foods, so many different cuisines and flavors, some of which you may not like. Even if I interview you and figure out what some of your preferences are, I’m sure we will forget to mention some that end up in your meal plan, rendering it ineffective.  Plus you simply may not have the desire, time or inclination to make and eat what I have planned for you on a particular day. Which leads me to the next point…
  2. You won’t follow a meal plan. This is not a judgment; try as you might, you can’t. Meal plans are temporary. So many factors affect your meals, such as your location, mood, the company you’re keeping at meal time, or the time it takes to cook the meals. Inevitably it’s a waste of time to create meal plans. (And did I mention it takes a lot of time?) And when you can’t follow them, it creates shame and blame. You possibly blame me, or even worse, yourself; either way you feel like a failure. Thus, meal plans are definitely not a positive and productive use of your time or mine. So, what is a productive use of our time? Mindful eating…
  3. Meal plans don’t teach you how to eat mindfully for life. The number one way to learn to eat mindfully is to plan what you will eat ahead of time. That’s the goal right? Anyone can help you lose weight. I want to teach you how to change your behaviors and stick with it. If I’ve done the work of planning your meals, there is a point when you will come to the end of the meal plans (or throw them out the window mid-week) and still not know (or care) what and how to eat. If I do it for you, it’s not mindful, it’s meaningless.

So, all this begs the question: how do you make your own meaningful meal plans and learn to eat mindfully? I’ll take you through the steps I take weekly–sometimes begrudgingly, I’ll admit!

Yes, I don’t always want to sit down and do this. And truthfully, sometimes I don’t. But when I don’t, I’m scrambling during the week to provide healthy meals. And let’s face it, when you’re scrambling, you’re lucky if the meals provided are healthy.

So, do yourself and your family a favor, take 20 minutes and crank out these simple steps. It gets easier and quicker the more you build up your collection of real-food recipes. Check out my recipes to get you started. And check back frequently, I add a few new recipes each week! You can also find me on Instagram, Facebook or Pinterest where I showcase easy, real food.

Here’s How To Make a Simple Weekly Meal Plan:

  1. Start with planning only dinners. This keeps it simple, especially if you’re just beginning to meal plan. Plus research shows eating together as a family, as many evenings as schedules allow, is beneficial in many ways beyond health.
  2. Plan the easiest meals for the busiest nights of the week. At the beginning of the week, look at your calendar and decide which evenings you need easy, low maintenance dinners. The days you work late, or your kids have evening activities, choose real-food, slow-cooker recipes, plan for leftovers, or buy a rotisserie chicken and just cook simple vegetable side dishes.
  3. Look at recipes or ideas online to gather varying ideas for dinner. I usually try to choose a variety of meat entrees to rotate for the week. Chicken, beef, pork, fish or seafood, vegetarian, for example. Seek out real-food options as much as possible. Once your family accepts a recipe, it’s perfectly okay if you rotate through some of the same recipes every week or two. You don’t have to win any culinary awards for creativity.
  4. Round out the meal with a vegetable or two to prepare alongside the meat. If the main dish involves a marinade or something more time consuming, I usually keep the vegetables simple, such as roasted or grilled vegetables. If the main dish is simple, sometimes I’ll spend more time on the side dish, such as creamed spinach or grilled vegetable caponata. I always try to use what’s in season and vary the color of my veggies, too; it looks pretty and is a simple way to vary the nutrients.
  5. Complete each meal with a simple salad. This “autopilot” side dish comes together in 5 minutes and provides extra texture and nutrients, and fills the plate (and hence your belly) without adding refined carbs and/or excess calories. 
  6. Keep it flexible. I make myself a “flexible” weekly meal plan that includes about 4 to 5 meals for which I’ve purchased the ingredients. Assuming I don’t have evening commitments, I decide each day which meal I want to eat because I am allowing myself to be “in the mood” for what I feel like eating or making–give or take only a few days (to avoid waste).
  7. Have a leftover night. By Thursday or Friday, I’m tired of cooking. Yes, I get tired of cooking, too! So, whatever main dish meats we haven’t eaten as lunches, we pool together for a “leftover night.” Then I sort of “take orders” of what each of my kids wants, like a waitress! (It’s the closest I get to being a short-order cook because I will not prepare separate, typical kid foods.) If there aren’t leftover side dishes, I add an easy vegetable, maybe even frozen green beans or broccoli, and/or a salad. Definitely no culinary awards to be had here, but I feel pretty darn good about not wasting food–and about not having to cook now and then!
  8. Consider making double batches. Even when you don’t need leftovers, you can freeze an entree that will make another night that much easier. Just label it before putting it into the black hole that is your freezer. And you might want to keep a very informal list on your fridge detailing what’s in your freezer, so it’s a quick reference when you’re looking for a quick meal to thaw and serve. Soups work great and most meats can be frozen as well.

Final Thoughts

You may find meal planning services useful in the short term, and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you choose healthier meal options. Just don’t let trendy meal planning services make you believe you need fancy, photogenic meal plans to eat easy, real food. Real life with real food is simpler, less expensive, sustainable and worthwhile if you build a healthy meal-planning habit week by week.