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.

 

Cooking Down: Minimize Waste and Make Easy Real Food

Are you trying to eat real food and cut out processed foods? Do you hate to waste food (and money)? Are you a cooking enthusiast with a fairly extensive pantry and/or freezer stock?  Are you also a military spouse and getting ready to move?

Well, as you may know, I’m all of the above. The move isn’t any time soon, but when you’re a milspouse and more than halfway through your tour, you’re always getting ready to move! But you don’t have to be preparing for a move to want to use up what you have on hand, minimize waste and make easy, real food for your family.

Okay, so I’m not exactly a hoarder, but I do stockpile a bit and organization sometimes takes a backseat when you have three kids–yes, that’s a picture of my pantry! It was a struggle to share that with you, but I think it’s important evidence that I’m not claiming to be perfect! Annnnd, it’s easier than sharing evidence of my “freezing problem.” But hey, it’s mostly a good problem to have, as the freezer has come to my rescue for dinner when I least expected it. (That is, I stumbled on a leftover homemade meal that I forgot about in the depths of the freezer…just when I was wondering what I’d cook for dinner. At least it was labeled…)

The thing is, I hate to waste (food, money, and other resources) and I believe planning ahead is the KEY to eating easy, real food consistently. I really can’t help storing it up so it’s as easy as possible. Buying on sale adds to my “inventory.” And then I tend to choose what I cook/reheat intuitively based on how I feel; I have to be “in the mood,” so that kinda contributes to the stockpiling. After nearly two years in one place, the freezer and pantry are both fairly full. Not a year’s worth of food by any means, but I think maybe it’s a good time to revisit the idea of cooking down…

You won’t find the term “cooking down” on Google (I tried). I don’t know who coined the term–I may have heard it somewhere–please comment if you want to give or take credit! My definition of cooking down is simply the art and science of using up pantry, fridge, and freezer items to minimize waste–and this is my addition–while making easy, real food.

If you enjoy cooking, you will inevitably find yourself with a pantry full of partially opened items, and even a few unopened (or, even duplicate!) ones, that need to be used up in time to avoid waste. Then there are the freezer meals, partial meals, or ingredients that need to be consumed before freezer burn sets in. And don’t forget all those condiments in the fridge. All when you’d rather just find something easier in the interest of time (and energy)!

Okay, maybe it’s not so simple after all! But the end goals are these:

  1. Use up whatever food you have to create some semblance of a healthy meal your family will eat before it goes to waste.
  2. If you’re moving, gift only a few leftover condiments and bottles of alcohol to your neighbors when you’re driving away to your new destination.

If you’re moving, whether it’s with the military or for any other reason–you know how it feels to be under the gun with a countdown of days to get this done! Cooking down can be stressful: you’re busy, cooking with restricted ingredients requires time and energy, and no one likes to waste. But it can also be immensely satisfying when you simultaneously solve the problems of 1) what’s for dinner and 2) how to use up food items. Everyone wants to creatively solve two problems at once and pat themselves on the back! And write things on your “to do” list just to check them off! No? Just me?

For me, when we are moving, cooking down has the added bonus of providing the satisfaction of doing two puzzles at once. One puzzle is hard enough: creatively feeding your family on the foods you have in your pantry and freezer. The other puzzle makes it extra challenging: making your pantry items last, forecasting how much you should use, without having to buy a whole new container, until the last day in your house. Ahh, no wonder it’s so rewarding when you can pull it off, it’s like having a freaking superpower! Just me again?? Hmmm…

But frankly, I’m not the best at it–cooking down and stockpiling healthy options are mutually exclusive, my friends. So, it’s not my superpower and I continually aspire to achieve this level of organization and efficiency on a regular basis. That’s why I enlisted the help of some fellow dietitians and some fellow military spouses, both of whom I consider to be experts on the subject, and they have contributed their great ideas below. 

So, what about you? Are you ready to join me and play the “cooking down game”? Don’t worry, there are no rules, and there are only winners; either you win, or your neighbors win when you share your food (as ingredients or prepared meals) with them!

Tips for Cooking Down:

  1. Don’t delay, “cook down” regularly! Whether you’re moving or not, make it a regular habit to use up what you have. Use a particular item as inspiration for a meal each week. Some people do Taco Tuesday; how about Wasteless Wednesday?! Savannah Thaler, a military spouse and RDN at Savvy Wellness and Health says, “Every week before I meal plan I check out my refrigerator, freezer and pantry to see what items I should really try to use up. Often, this includes frozen meats, pasta, canned vegetables/beans and uncooked grains. Then, I plan at least one meal that week that uses one of those ingredients.”
  2. Use online resources to spark creativity and try new things.  Tracey Linneweber, a military spouse and RD of www.traceylinneweber.com says, “I’m doing this right now! I always like the new recipes I come up with or try. Some become keepers.”  But don’t stress or feel the need to innovate. Pinterest is my best friend when I want new ideas. Arielle “Dani” Lebovitz, a military spouse and RDN at www.experiencedeliciousnow.com, recommends www.supercook.com. She says, “You enter the ingredients you have on hand and it provides recipes based on those items. I may not use the recipes, but it always provides great ideas.”
  3. Stay (or regularly get) organized. A well-organized pantry and freezer doesn’t let you forget what you have on hand. Further, it saves time when you can look at a glance and see what you have. And it puts the “easy” in easy, real food. I use a grease pencil to mark my fridge and freezer leftovers. Frozen items look way different than they did when fresh–an observation I’ve learned the hard way, when I’ve forgotten to mark something and let it defrost for dinner. Talk about mystery meat. Clear containers, like mason jars, work well for storing things in the freezer, fridge or pantry so you can keep it in the forefront.
  4. Take inventory before you shop for more. About once a month I do a survey of what I have in my freezer and make a list that I keep on the fridge to refer to when I’m looking for ideas for meal planning. I can look at the list to find an easy leftover meal in the freezer, or a main dish ingredient I can use when shopping time is limited, or a quick side or two that may go with a rotisserie chicken. I try to remember to look in the pantry before shopping for staples, too. But again, I’m not always the best at this.
  5. Keep a shopping list for essential grocery items as you run out of things. It helps to make a weekly shopping list while you’re meal planning. To make this easier, Maria Adams, RDN at Halsa Nutrition, created a free, downloadable Complete Meal Plan and Shopping List TemplateI’m a little old fashioned, I use a dry erase board on the fridge, but you could even use a note in your phone or even an app. (I do keep my recipes in Evernote, so I have access while in the store.)  I like the dry erase method because even my kids write down what we need as they use the last of it. Sometimes if I’m in a hurry, I’ll snap a picture of it and take it to the store. (Although usually I like to write it down in order of the store aisles! Aiming for efficiency again…and why I am loyal to only a few stores!) If you only need a small amount of an ingredient (grains, nuts, seeds, etc.) to make a recipe work, try a grocery that offers bulk items. These stores (like Whole Foods) may be more expensive at times for most items, but when you only need a small amount of something, it may be worth it not to have leftovers.
  6. Invite friends for a “Clean Out the Fridge” Potluck Meal. Doesn’t sound too appetizing, unless you have foodie friends like I do! Then it becomes a creative, inspiring theme to work around. And it doesn’t have to be potluck and can even be fancy! Alison Moxon, a milspouse and dietitian in training says, “One of my friends hosts a cocktail party just before they move each time and serves creative canapes made from all the leftover food and uses up her drinks cabinet at the same time!”
  7. Get your kids to help. Either have them search Pinterest for recipes and/or actually do the hands-on food prep. Getting them involved may add creativity, free up some of your precious time, and make them more likely to eat what they’ve cooked themselves. Of course, left to their own devices (pun intended), my kids usually want to bake treats, so the trick is balancing those treats with healthy meals.
  8. Donate to a food bank. It’s never wasted food or money when you donate unopened nonperishable foods to a local food bank and help your community.

Now here’s to putting my money where your mouth is…if you want help cooking down, feel free to list a real-food ingredient (or two or three) you have on hand in the comments and in my reply I will give you a recipe idea to use it up!

The Neighborhood Harvest: Easy Real Food, Delivered!

I love easy real food. And I love to eat local.  So, it won’t be surprising to learn I am a huge fan of The Neighborhood Harvest in Suffolk, VA. In fact, I love them so much as a registered dietitian and a customer, I approached them about blogging about their products and am NOT receiving any free product or compensation for doing so. That’s “organic” love, am I right? I simply want to share with you this revolutionary company that is making local, sustainably grown, safe, nutritious real food as easy as it can be.

10 Reasons I Love The Neighborhood Harvest:

  1. The Neighborhood Harvest is a local company. I love supporting my community.
  2. The farmers are following “better than organic practices” to grow their greens, tomatoes and cucumbers. This means that although they haven’t been technically certified “organic” by the government (it’s costly to get certified and the products would also have to cost more), they are still following sustainable and eco-friendly farming techniques. Their eggs are also pasture raised, with chickens allowed to roam freely feeding naturally on insects, which is better than cage free or even free-range.
  3. The freshness of the greens is unmatched. They are picked and the next day they are delivered. So, they last a week (or more on the rare occasion I haven’t eaten them up in a few days.)
  4. The nutrient content is superior to store bought. Due to their freshness, these vegetables are at their peak nutrient density when I eat them. Every little bit helps!
  5. Subscribing to a rotating box gives me a variety of greens that I wouldn’t have otherwise bought at a store. This provides a variety of nutrients and makes for more interesting meals. Truthfully, I’d never even bought micro greens before they were included in my subscription! They are not sprouts, but not full grown plants either; in short, they are tiny nutrient powerhouses and they add texture and flavor to my salads.
  6. I don’t have to wash the greens. They are grown hydroponically (in water), so without dirt, and in a greenhouse without exposure to acid rain. This may well be my favorite reason to subscribe to The Neighborhood Harvest! This makes it SO EASY to quickly make a salad in as much time as opening a bag of lettuce, but they are safer than bagged lettuce and they don’t wilt with washing before I even add salad dressing.
  7. I don’t have to cook the greens. This also makes using them SO EASY. All the greens I’ve received are tender and can be eaten raw, which preserves their nutrition and simplifies my meal planning. Some, like bok choy or tatsoi (like spinach), can be stir fried or added to a soup or stew, but it’s not necessary, so I like the simplicity and convenience.
  8. A weekly subscription for delivery makes it easier to complete my meal planning and enforces healthy eating habits. I have a standing date with my salad bowl (which I also kinda love, it’s olive wood from Italy) 4 or 5 times per week, which is a great way to make eating more vegetables a healthy habit. There’s a whole science to building habits, the Neighborhood Harvest helps make them healthy ones! Here’s what my simple salad looks like. And for the record, it was the very first recipe I blogged about because it is that important to me!
  9. They are priced comparably to organic greens in grocery stores (although I think the delivery convenience makes a subscription to The Neighborhood Harvest worth it even if they’re slightly more than some sale prices you can find.) The weekly boxes start at $11. I buy the large box for $17 for my family of 5.
  10. The Neighborhood Harvest’s customer service is fantastic. They stand by their products. The freshness is guaranteed. They offer incentives to customers who spread the word to friends. They support the local community with donations and discounts.

In summary, IMHO, they are a good, principled company, which is hard to find and I simply want to support them. Watch this video to learn more about the farming techniques and the quality products you’re getting at The Neighborhood Harvest. If you’re interested in a subscription, go to The Neighborhood Harvest website–and please tell them I sent you, if you’d like!

If you’re not in Hampton Roads, VA… I’m curious (I’ve been overseas too long): are there similar local companies like The Neighborhood Harvest near you? Is this type of produce delivery the norm or the exception? I’d love to hear about your local food options!

Sugar: What You Should Know

Sugar is always making it into the news—and into products on grocery store shelves.  It, apparently like sex, sells. As a result, we are bombarded with conflicting and even controversial information about sugar every day. We love it, and at the same time, we hate it. One minute dietitians (RDs) are telling us “everything in moderation.”  How can we not love that–permission to eat what tastes good? The next minute, we hear how Americans should banish sugar from our lives forever.  And oh, how we hate that! Sugar is the ultimate love-hate relationship! What gives? Sugar tastes so good. How could it be so bad?

Well, let’s discuss all things sugar. In this post, I will do the following:

We Are Simply Eating Too Much Sugar
American women eat an average of 15 teaspoons of sugar each day, while men eat 21 teaspoons (it likely differs because men eat more, in general).1 Children eat an even higher percentage of added sugar than adults each day, and surprisingly, the majority of sugar is coming from store-bought foods eaten at home.2 These numbers are likely significantly lower than actual intakes, because they are estimates from 24 hr recalls, which are notoriously unreliable. Yet, even these numbers far surpass any current recommended limits (see chart), which I believe could even be falsely high due to sugar industry lobbyists influencing them. After all, a 20-ounce soda alone provides a day’s worth of sugar (about 15 teaspoons of sugar) according to all these current guidelines. I’d say soda companies have a vested interest in the science and policies of sugar, wouldn’t you?

Most concerning is the fact that people haven’t always eaten sugar in these proportions. In fact, for the great majority of human history, before sugar and flour became easily refined and cheap during the industrial revolution, we ate far less sugar and carbohydrate.  Americans have increased our sugar intake more than 40-fold since the American Revolution!6

Not everyone agrees on the cause, but all researchers agree that people grow fatter and sicker after adopting the “Western” diet and/or lifestyle. This has occurred in many populations around the globe, and it seems to happen within only two generations. Many argue that we grow fatter and sicker because of increased total calories, which have no doubt increased over time. But even if refined sugar and flour aren’t specifically to blame  (although many experts, including me, would argue that they are), it’s hard to argue that these excess calories are coming from anything other than refined sugar and flour. Yes, some increased calories are coming from the fat in our ice cream and other processed foods, but we probably wouldn’t be eating these foods if they didn’t have the added sugar.

Since the beginning of the low-fat diet craze that started in the early 1980’s, added sugar, and carbohydrate intake in general, has dramatically increased (food companies had to replace the fat with something) and so have many diseases.32  It appears that many chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and cancer are negatively associated with sugar intake.6-31

Soda often takes the brunt of the blame for added sugar intake because 1) Americans drink a lot of it, and 2) there are very few foods that are pure sugar like soda is, which makes it easier to identify and study than the various types of sugar in other mixed-nutrient foods. 6-31   I’m not a soda fan, but soda does not appear to be any worse than any other source of added sugar. The problem is it all adds up. Sometimes certain sugars are described as “better” than others. Particularly, there has been a lot of misguided focus on high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as the “worst” added sugar, and honey, agave or maple syrup are often described as “better.” The bottom line is this: existing research shows (and in my opinion future research will continue to show) excess sugar of any kind appears to be harmful to your health—which is the first compelling reason we should limit all types of sugar–and FYI, sugar has 50+ names.

  1.  Sugar is Linked to Many Diseases

This is my first point deliberately—it’s actually many related points. Just look at this long list of diseases associated with sugar. It’s shocking, and I promise I don’t mean to scare you as much as educate you. But frankly, I find it a little scary. The good news: eating less sugar may improve your health!

  • Sugar provides excess calories and increases levels of the hormone insulin, which promotes fat storage and leads to obesity.
  • Chronically elevated levels of insulin are linked to insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome, all of which increase your risk for heart disease.
  • Sugar contributes to increases in blood levels of circulating fatty acids (dyslipidemia), which increases your risk for fatty liver disease and heart disease.
  • Sugar also contributes to hypertension, which may increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and renal failure.
  • Chronically elevated levels of blood glucose and insulin levels are linked to cancer, including endometrial, esophageal, pancreatic, kidney, gallbladder, breast and colon cancer.
  • Chronically elevated levels of blood glucose and insulin levels are also linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

Further, there is research linking nearly all of these “Western” diseases with each other. Obese people are more likely to develop diabetes. People with diabetes are at higher risk for heart disease. Cancer occurs more frequently in people who have diabetes and obesity.  Alzheimer’s has been dubbed “type 3 diabetes” by many researchers.30  Is sugar part of the connection? It is not completely clear. It is very complicated and difficult to study to be sure what is causing the associations. And your genetics most certainly play a part. But let’s discuss what happens in your body when you eat sugar.

Of course, as you know, there are different types of sugar. But when they are metabolized, many break down into varying amounts of glucose and fructose in the body. The body handles both of of these differently.

Glucose enters the blood stream, increases your blood sugar, and your pancreas pumps out the hormone insulin to escort the glucose into the cells, where it can be used for energy. To be clear, insulin itself is not the problem. In fact, you can’t live without insulin; it is just the catalyst for increased fat storage in response to excess sugar intake.  Some glucose is used directly for energy, some  is stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver, and some is converted and stored as fat. So, a high sugar diet may lead to obesity, which then puts you at increased risk for metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

Many types of added sugar, including HFCS, white table sugar (sucrose), honey, maple syrup and agave also break down into about half fructose and half glucose. Fructose is the natural sugar found in fruits, and it should be noted it would be difficult to get too much by eating fruit alone.  But when you eat unnatural amounts of fructose from various sources of added sugar, fructose can be converted into fat directly in the liver, and this process also produces uric acid, which can lead to gout and possibly hypertension. So, a high sugar diet may also increase your risk of gout,  hypertension, and dyslipidemia, which further contributes to metabolic syndrome, obesity, diabetes, and fatty liver disease.

The metabolic pathways that occur when we eat various types of sugar are also thought to cause inflammation, especially when you have abdominal fat, which may be part of the process by which sugar is linked to certain diseases, especially cardiovascular disease.31 More research is needed, but the arrow is pointing in the right direction: cutting out all forms of added sugar and refined grains (which break down and are metabolized much like sugar) and eating mostly easy, real food can only help.

  1. Sugar Provides No Essential Nutrients

Excuse me for restating the obvious—but you do not need sugar, and it takes the place of more nutritious real foods.  This is the second reason I urge you to limit your sugar intake. It provides energy (that is, calories, usually in excess of what you need), but no other nutrients. That’s what we RDs mean by “empty calories.” Yes, we have been saying this for yeeeeears. But please don’t gloss over it—it’s what I like to call a “common sense verification of science.”  In other words, does the science make sense?  Well, yes, indeed, it does. There’s never been a research study or a dietary guideline that has suggested we need to eat any amount of refined sugar regularly. (I know, right? Duh. And it’s crazy to say “never” and “research” in the same sentence.)

If you want to get even more technical, carbohydrates from foods are not exactly necessary either. There are “essential amino acids” (protein) and “essential fatty acids” (fats) that our bodies cannot make, so we need to eat them from foods. But your body is technically able to make the carbohydrate it needs, specifically glucose from protein or even from glycerol, which is released in fatty acid metabolism.33 And your brain is able to function quite well on mostly ketones, which are produced when you burn fat for energy (hence, the popular “keto” diet.)  Of course, that’s another post…or several!  But I digress. For most people, this discussion is moot because our food supply provides more than enough carbohydrates for our bodies…even if you’re eating mostly real foods, which is the best way to get your carbohydrates because then you also get beneficial nutrients and phytochemicals that only whole foods provide.

Are you with me so far? We are eating too much sugar, it negatively affects your health, and it provides nothing your body needs. Still need another reason to lower your sugar intake?

  1. Sugar May Be Addictive

It is not my intent to minimize how hard it is to cut out sugar—it does take some getting used to. It even requires some will power.  But that might be putting it mildly, for some people. Although it’s controversial, some scientists suggest sugar may be addictive.34-36 Addiction or not, the jury is out, but sugar tends to lead to continued cravings for some people. If you’re one of them and you’ve ever tried cutting it out, you know the feeling. Sugar hovers in your forethought, almost haunting you, even after you’ve eaten a meal and should feel satiated. Maybe you need that piece of chocolate after your meal? You’re used to that feeling of satisfaction that serotonin triggers in your brain after you eat sugar.  We are learning more and more that our gut hormones are also intricately involved in appetite, satiety and sugar metabolism. Some people can have a little sugar and be fine. Some people can even have a lot. Some people find it easier to try to avoid sugar because even having a little leaves them wanting more and more. I suspect there’s something in that, beyond just will power.

However, as hard as it is to avoid sugar—both due to its prevalence in our food supply and the possibility it may be addictive—the cravings can be overcome with time, the right mindset—and by sticking with real foods. The body is able to adjust to lower sugar intake in a few weeks, and it gets easier, so don’t give up and give it enough time!

Sugar: Putting the Science into Real-Life Perspective

To summarize this evidence-based perspective and put it into practical terms, I will ask you the very questions I consider when deciding what to eat and feed my family:

  1. What if you have genes that are prone to obesity? Or diabetes? Or heart disease? Or cancer? Or Alzheimer’s? In other words, you may not know you have these genes, but what if these health problems run in your family, and therefore, you might also be more susceptible to them?

and

  1. What if our food supply is providing too much refined carbohydrate and sugar, often in hidden places, so that it’s nearly impossible to eat within the recommended guidelines (if you’re not purposely trying to avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates)? (Or worse still, what if the guidelines aren’t low enough for optimal health, even if you are eating within the recommendations?)

and

  1. What if sugar and/or refined carbohydrates may be addictive?

Add together these very real (evidence-based, although not all conclusive as of yet) possibilities and ask yourself this final question:

Do you want to be a slave to the high-sugar, highly-refined processed foods you eat, so that eating them makes you crave more and sabotages your health?

I, for one, don’t. So, I choose easy, real food. Every. Single. Day. And I personally find that once you limit sugar, it’s easier to eat for your health and most surprisingly, it’s equally satisfying. Do I deviate sometimes? Yes. I just got back from a week at Walt Disney World. I still tried to limit my carbohydrates to mostly real foods, but I had some dessert foods. You know how moderation makes me cringe, but that’s my kind of moderation–a very small portion of one or two of my favorites when I’m on vacation once or twice a year!

Real Food: a Work Around?

You know how I love simplicity. And real food. And most importantly–life itself (hence the extreme value I place on health.) So, while we are continually waiting for more conclusive research, I do not believe you need to count grams of sugar or carbohydrates. The simplest way to limit sugar is to choose real, unprocessed, whole foods.  Added sugars are not going away from our food supply. And public health policies or guidelines are not going to dramatically change anytime soon either. (Well, the Nutrition Facts Label is, but you can read what I think about that here.)  Rather, I see it as a “work around” to these fundamental problems if you choose to be mindful of your body and intentional with real-food fuel.  The quantity and the quality of the carbohydrates you eat will be vastly improved when you choose real, whole foods and you will drastically cut added sugars.

You might worry it will take lot of time looking for sugar in products, researching healthier options, and cooking from scratch. But I would argue lowering my sugar intake has even simplified my life. I share here How Slashing Sugar Can Simplify Life.

Final Thoughts

Slashing sugar (and refined carbohydrates) in your diet can be a big adjustment, I realize. We are surrounded by foods not fit for healthy lifestyles. But choosing better food doesn’t have to be complicated or a negative experience of deprivation. You are changing your health for the better, going back to the basics and simplifying your life, and enjoying foods as nature intended them. With the right mindset about food (which science shows you have control over, so think positively…more on that later), I believe it can be a very rewarding experience. Don’t aim for perfection, but aim for improvement with consistent healthy habits. You can retrain your brain and your body. You have nothing to lose–except possibly some excess weight and/or some health risk–giving it a try.

Start with these Tips for Slashing Sugar. I’d love to hear how it goes for you…please share your comments and tips if you’ve been trying to cut out sugar!

References

30 Eating Habits of Healthy and Happy Families

Have you heard? March is National Nutrition Month!  Nothing is dearer to my heart than the topic of family nutrition, which I practice morning, noon and night on my four most important clients! So, I’d like to celebrate National Nutrition Month with you by offering this calendar of 30 eating habits of healthy and happy families.

I hope these practices help you incorporate more easy, real food into your lives. I use the word practice very deliberately; wander a little and embrace that you will not be able to achieve perfection. But when these practices become habits, I believe they can help you minimize time spent preparing healthy food, and maximize time spent making meaningful memories with your family. But that happens over time–and only if you start somewhere. What are you willing to start doing for your family’s health this month? As always, feel free to share your ideas as a comment to help others!

Click to download a printable calendar.

“Moderation” Makes Me Cringe

A while ago now, I read yet another nutrition-related news article that stated “moderation” was key–and I cringed. Then it hit me, I am a moderation-hating registered dietitian (RD). You will no longer hear me use the word “moderation” or worse, the phrase “everything in moderation.” You heard that right. Hear me out…

I used to preach “everything in moderation” as much as the next nutritionist. Especially when friends or acquaintances asked me on the fly for nutrition advice. Or when I addressed a group of people and couldn’t delve into individual specifics. I walked a line; I wanted to promote a balanced and sustainable way of eating, while not giving too much bad news. And I also towed the line with my fellow RDs; moderation was our mantra. However, recently I have become frustrated with the ambiguity and the political correctness of the “moderation” philosophy, which is geared toward the masses and therefore, grossly oversimplified.

I can see how this phrase came to be. Unfortunately, I think nutrition experts (like me), food industry, government, and consumers are all partly responsible for this ill-defined, mass-communicated, often ineffective approach to eating. But the fact that moderation has gotten out of hand as a philosophy is as much my fault as anyone else’s. As a nutrition expert, I now believe it is negligent telling people they can eat everything in “moderation” knowing it’s likely not specific enough to help them improve their health.

But in all honestly, one of the reasons I haven’t been posting (besides a busy life) is because I have been hesitant to say it. Afraid of turning people off immediately and not getting through to help them. Afraid of taking a stand when science may disprove me in the future. And I honestly think even our political climate lately has affected me so very personally, so that I have been generally afraid of voicing an opinion. Eeek. How meek of me…

Am I a middle-child peace keeper having a mild mid-life crisis? Maybe, but the bottom line is this: I’m over it. (Until the next one.) And recipe posts are not all I have to share (although it is my pleasure to offer this practical information since I’m doing it for my family anyway). That said, I can’t make any promises about posting a certain number of times a week, although more frequently than once every five months should be doable. Ha. Blogging on my own terms…ah.

Back to my main point…in our defense, sometimes we nutrition experts have engaged in the moderation conversation when it’s not the right time or place (in a group or in public), when what we really need is more time together to make individualized changes that you can live with to improve your health. But I now think it’s more harmful than helpful to give a cursory spiel of moderation even in these situations.

The way I see it, suggesting moderation for the masses can actually hinder individual behavior change. For example, sometimes during an individual counseling session— just when I think we have made progress together, forming some specific behavior change goals—I hear my moderation philosophy echoed back to me. At this point, it is as clear as a door slamming in my face that the conversation is being shut down. (We all do that sometimes, don’t we? Sabotage ourselves before we begin when we are not ready to make changes.) But when this happens, I am only half as frustrated as the people who later realize that eating in moderation hasn’t helped them achieve their food-related goals. I can only imagine how devastated they must feel, blaming me or themselves, or both. And the viscous cycle of weight-loss efforts and failures continues…

Just look around to see how moderation fails us with weight loss. Some people eat moderately and are not overweight. Some people eat moderately and are overweight. Some people do not eat moderately, and are not overweight. And yes, some people do not eat moderately and are overweight. Clearly, “eating in moderation” isn’t effective for everyone. It’s not simply a matter of increasing physical activity. There are many overweight marathon runners. And I strongly believe achieving a healthy weight is not only a matter of will power either. Obese people have different genes that are making it harder to be thin than people who are not obese. Weight control for overweight or obese people is an uphill battle that is definitely an injustice, yet deserves no judgment—only useful tools. And “eating in moderation” is simply not specific enough to be one of them.

I think the moderation philosophy also came into being because we haven’t wanted to negatively talk about certain foods. We don’t want to take away your eating pleasure by stigmatizing “bad” foods. Eating should be enjoyable! But what you may not realize (I didn’t for a while) is that certain food industry lobbyists go to great lengths to make sure government directed guidelines don’t identify and/or quantify “bad” foods. You could say I’m cynical (BTW, I think that’s when you know you’re getting old, when everything is a conspiracy!) but this really happens. So, we nutrition experts have been left frequently hoping we all have a “sixth sense” that helps us figure out how to balance mostly healthy foods with a few treats now and then, because that seemed reasonable. But it’s not reasonable or helpful.

Much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, I care enough to spend my priceless free time saying this (among other things): there are indeed “bad” foods. While we might disagree on some, most unbiased experts can’t deny sugar-containing foods are among the worst. So, we’ll start there. Foods containing the refined white stuff we know as sucrose, the syrups (corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup) and all of the 50+ other names for sugar (cane sugar, brown sugar, and even honey, maple syrup, agave, etc.) are not healthy when eaten in excessand they almost always are eaten in excess if you’re not purposefully avoiding them.

Sorry, but there’s no sugar-coating it. And even though it may make me a nutrition extremist, I have to take a strong stance against sugar (all types)—and even a high carbohydrate diet (more on that later)—because I feel you should know it’s a serious health hazard. And it’s not just in regards to people who are overweight or obese. Sugar is linked to many different diseases—which means you might want to read on whether your weight is in a healthy range or not.

To be clear, I am not trying to take away your eating pleasure. Anyone who knows me knows I believe eating should be truly enjoyable! But I also firmly believe eating whatever your body craves is not the only way to enjoy eating.  Changing your mindset, “resetting your body” with easy, real foods, and focusing on many positive and social eating behaviors (shopping at local farmers’ markets, cooking with friends, eating as a family, etc.) will allow you to enjoy foods in a simpler, more meaningful way. I passionately believe (and there is some evidence to support this belief) “there is something in” these social connections we make while eating. And living overseas, especially in Italy, made it even more apparent that we are often lacking those connections in our American culture.

Who doesn’t crave simplicity and meaningful social connections in this often crazy, fast-paced, disconnected lifestyle we live? I think it’s a great start to eat easy, real food at your next snack or meal. Stay tuned for more on all of these themes, starting with more thoughts and data on sugar.

 

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count My Kitchen Tools…

Anyone who knows me has heard me admit that I have hoarding tendencies. (Think: cans of pumpkin from the commissary while living overseas. And then there’s my pottery “collection”…)

But anyone who admits this can’t possibly be a real hoarder. Or so I tell myself!  I just think most people have these tendencies, if for no other reason than it takes effort and energy to go through our stuff to keep it from collecting right under our noses. And if you’re busy enjoying life, working hard, raising children, etc., who has time for sorting through stuff on a daily basis to discard or organize it? Or even weekly? Are you with me???

Truth be told, I guess I could be a real hoarder if the Navy didn’t force me to come to terms with my stuff every two to four years, sifting and purging before each move. (And again immediately after the move, why does this always happen???) I have learned to keep up with it in some ways. I keep a donation bag in the corner and collect things around the house until full, and then I donate it, and start another bag. But there’s still a ton to do right before a move. Fortunately, we are still about two years out from another move.

Nevertheless, I just started reading The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo and I’m totally on board–I’m ready to part with things that don’t “bring me joy.” While deep down I don’t believe any items truly bring joy, I buy into this “parting with material things” as part of my ongoing spiritual pursuit for serenity through living a more simple, grateful life. I am drawn to “the more of less”–even when I don’t always live by example. With food, with stuff, with everything. Kind of “new age” for me, I know.

That said…moving or not, there are some things that will never ever end up in the donation bag. Most things in my kitchen–especially these top 10 beloved kitchen tools. Most of these are nothing short of life changing! How is that possible, you may ask? Well, they add unparalleled quality, freshness, and flavor in my cooking. More importantly, they simplify my life, and allow me to cook easy, real, whole foods for my family, which brings me great joy. And this is one key way I show my family how much I love them–thrice daily. To be more precise, these tools are not exactly beloved, but my family they serve is, so I value them greatly.

Put simply, it would be more difficult to cook for my beloved family without these useful kitchen tools. At the very least–I think they can help you cook easy, real food, too! Here they are:

Kitchen Tool Estimated Cost (On Amazon) How We Use It

How Often We Use It (Days Per Week)

1. Misto spray bottle for olive oil  $7 I love olive oil; living in Italy only increased my fondness for it. I don’t like aerosol Pam, so I use this pump spray bottle with my favorite olive oil to grease pans, and spray fresh vegetables or fruits before grilling or roasting. Even when I bake (rarely), it doesn’t impart a flavor.

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2. Nordic Ware Aluminum jelly roll sheets (recommend 2 or 3 of them)  $13 each Most of our dinners include roasted (or grilled) vegetables. I use these pans to roast all vegetables (zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, etc.). I add olive oil and salt, sometimes garlic, and bake for about 25 minutes at 400. B also makes bacon on the weekends in the oven with these (and cleanup is easy if you soak with hot water for 5 minutes before washing.)

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3. Oxo Garlic press  $12 We love garlic. I sometimes add it to recipes that don’t call for it and I almost always press it, even when recipes call for minced.

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4. Gas Grill (not pictured above)  Varies I LOVE a gas grill, because simple meats and vegetables tastes good grilled and it’s easy clean up. But I mostly love it because B’s so good at it, so he takes care of dinner on grilling nights. Win, win!

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5. Citrus juicer  $20 I frequently use fresh lemons and limes in recipes, usually as marinades, salad dressings, or guacamole but sometimes in B’s low-sugar mojitos! It tastes better than store bought juice and is a breeze to squeeze with a stainless steel hand-held juicer.

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6. Bovado Vegetable peeler  $7 You just have to have a peeler, for peeling the tough skins of some vegetables, such as butternut squash, sweet potatoes, the outer stringy part of celery, etc. I love these stainless steel ones B’s mom first gave me when we just married.

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7. Lodge Cast iron skillet with lid $50 for both At least twice a week, we use a full-size cast-iron pan for scrambled eggs with vegetables mixed in (tomatoes, peppers, avocados, etc.) Other times, when the weather doesn’t allow for grilling, we use it for cooking chicken with my seasoning salt, or turkey burgers, etc. Of course it comes in handy for quick and crispy quesadillas for the kids with leftover chicken and cheese.

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8. Oxo Hand held cheese grater  $8 Most of us (but not all) love parmesan cheese, especially after living in Italy. This hand-held grater makes it easy for some of us to add cheese at the table to roasted vegetables (zucchini, butternut squash, etc.) for extra flavor.

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9. Crockpot Slow Cooker   (6 Qt+ for families)  Varies I am very picky when it comes to slow cooker meals, which is why I only use it about 2 times per week. But I love the convenience of slow cooking and how it frees up dinnertime for paying more attention to my kids when they are home from school. I avoid “easy” recipes that use store-bought processed ingredients. I use easy, real food ingredients. And I prefer to take a few minutes in the AM to brown the meat in most cases beforehand, which gives a more browned flavor and less of a “boiled” texture.

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10. Paderno Spiralizer (3 blade)  $30+ We love “spaghetti” zoodles, even the kids. If the sauce is good, they don’t seem to miss the pasta. I use them in Italian dishes, or Asian noodle dishes. I’ve also used other blades to make baked apple chips and spiral baked sweet potato fries as a treat.

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