You can spend hours on meal planning. You flip through 3 magazines and 5 Pinterest boards looking for inspiration. Hmm... that looks good, but I don't have 3 hours to prep it. Maybe this Pin-worthy snack? Well, if I can find this ingredient I've never heard of, then maybe. Oh, that slow cooker meal seems tasty. Is it healthy?
Whew! And you haven't even picked anything yet! Maybe defaulting to sandwiches for lunch and a few takeout meals for supper is easier. But you know it's not good for your health. And cooking isn't so bad...it can even be fun when the end result works out ok.
You just need a meal plan you can actually execute. And with a little practice, creating a weekly meal plan takes as little as 10-20 minutes. I'll show you how, with the simple 3-step process I run through every week. Why?
Your kitchen will be restocked before you run out of food.
Save time at the grocery store: shopping is easier and faster with a list.
Save money at the grocery store by not buying foods that later get tossed.
Have the foods you want to eat, ready when you want or need to eat them.
Eat healthier, merely by eating more basic and home-prepared foods.
Save money on prepared foods you buy because you've run out of time.
Step 1: Get Ready
Review your week ahead.
How many meals & snacks do you actually have to prepare for?
This may vary from week to week! Check your calendar for celebrations, travel, and dinner plans with friends or family. Will you have visitors over during a mealtime (and need to prepare more) or will some of your family members will be away for meals this week? Try to scale your ambitions accordingly.
Which day(s) will you make time to cook?
I have clients who cook dinner just once or twice a week, typically making much more than they'll eat that day. For others, it's more interesting and sustainable to make a different easy meal each day, with perhaps one more complicated meal occasionally. Of course, if there are other responsible adults or teens in your home, it's reasonable to share the chore of cooking between you.
When will you need to pack food to go?
If you'll be away from home for several hours, maybe you want to have a shelf-stable snack option with you. If you'll be packing lunches, do they need to be eaten cold, or will you have access to a microwave? Keep these realities in mind when choosing meals & snacks for the week ahead.
Check the fridge and pantry.
Before making any more decisions, check what you already have on hand. You may want to plan to use up a few things before they go bad, like that fresh vegetable you bought with good intentions, or the last few single-serving yogurts. Other ingredients might inspire you. For example, "Oh, yeah, it's been a while since I made my famous roasted vegetable lasagna."
The purpose of this step is to get inspired, and to avoid busting your budget on duplicate foods or foods that end up in the garbage.
Step 2: Start your lists.
You'll make two lists - one of meals & snacks, and a grocery list.
Meal & Snack List
Inspired by a tour of your kitchen, start by jotting down foods, recipes, or full meals you think you might want to eat in the upcoming week. What can you do with what you already have?
Pro tip: Divide your meal & snack list into categories based on the part of the day, and effort required to prep the meal. My usual categories are:
Dinners to Cook
Quick & Easy Lunch or Supper
I deliberately plan for only the Dinners to Cook to require much effort. For the rest of the day, planned extras (leftovers) or meals that are easy to assemble often works best.
When you checked your fridge and pantry, you may have noticed that one or more of your staple foods is running low, or you're out entirely. Add these staples onto your grocery list.
(What's a staple food? Any food that you eat very often, and like to keep on hand. For a lot of Canadians, staple foods include fresh foods like eggs, milk, bread, bananas, and maybe a container of mixed salad greens. Staple foods are also dry goods you keep in the pantry in case you'll need them, like flour, oats, spices, canned tomato products, tuna, and canned or dried beans).
Second, add ingredients you'll need to make anything already on your meal & snack list.
Step 3: Finish the Lists
Round out the Plan
Remember the shape of your week - when you'll need fast options and when you'll cook. Then, considering your highest-effort meals first, ...
Round out the meal: (Balance) Do I need to add a source of protein, a vegetable or two, or a whole grain choice to what I already have planned?
Round out the week: (Variety) If you already have several meals planned with one source of protein, or one kind of vegetable or starch, choose different options for the rest of the week's meals. Is there at least one meal featuring beans & lentils? How about fish or other seafood? Can you find ways to include vegetables that are deep green, red/orange, white/brown, and other colors?
Round out the effort: Once you've hit your limit on meals you're willing to personally cook, switch to planning easier options for the rest of the week. For me, that means planning to personally cook 2-3 dinners, delegate cooking one night a week to my husband, and have plenty of planned extras and easy-assembly meals in between cooking sessions. So,
Will cooking dinner also allow you to take planed extras for lunch, or do you need a separate meal? Add to your meal list and grocery list accordingly.
What two or three easy breakfasts would you like to have this week? Remember to round out breakfast with a few different types of food, too.
Finally, consider snacks.
Remember what you already have on hand, or plan to buy for meals. Would any of it be appropriate for an easy, healthy snack? If so, add the idea to a snack section of your meal list. Then round out that section according to your needs. Do you need something light right before dinner? Some fruit or cut vegetables might do. Or do you need something more substantial to tide you over between activities? If so, consider including something rich in protein.
Look over your meal & snack plan again, and jot down the ingredients you'll need to make that plan happen. This is a good time to pull out your recipe books and double-check the ingredient list of any recipe you don't know by heart.
I tend to make a very messy grocery list to start. If you did, too, it can help to re-write it with foods organised by areas of the store.
Now, put your plan into action. Go grocery shopping as usual (or use a delivery service), and you'll have everything you need to make healthy meals you enjoy.
Next week, or whenever you start to run low on supplies, repeat the process. Here it is, summarized:
I promise, it really can be quite simple. It just takes practice to get good (and fast) at this, like any skill worth building. And combined with mindful eating, you have an even more powerful set of tools for eating well.
Struggling to start? Want some support? I help people with knowing their nutritional needs, planning healthy meals (without taking forever to cook), and other awesome eating & lifestyle skills. I'll even provide some sample weekly meal plans based on my favourite healthy foods to get you started. Get in touch: email@example.com, or by visiting eatwellnutrition.ca.
I had the privilege recently to work with a local chef to benefit food banks across the country. Downloads of each recipe, of the full cookbook, or purchases of Catelli pasta at Co-Op stores in April & May 2017 help support the food bank.Here's our recipe: Gluten-Free Penne with Spinach and BeansIt's delicious and quite flexible. You might choose a different pasta, or adjust the ratio of pasta to sauce to better meet your needs & tastes (I like more sauce, less pasta!)And video! Watch Chef Leo make the recipe while I chat with CTV's morning show hosts. This was pretty fun, and for a good cause.
Another recipe developed by a chef & dietitian team, Creamy Tuna Broccoli Pasta Bake sounds delicious and nutritious as well. Really, almost all of them do. I'd have to try pumpkin sauce to see if I liked it.
Grilling is great, isn't it? You get outside to cook and eat, taste a little char on your food, and can often delegate the cleanup. Let me show you how I BBQ for great taste and nutrition:
Step 1: Gather your ingredients
Protein & Veggies
Burgers are an easy default when grilling, but lately I've been choosing marinated chicken for my BBQ meals. It's nice to spread out your red meat consumption (if you choose to have any), and marinating adds flavour while helping reduce some of the risk that grilling might produce some cancer-causing compounds. Don't worry, the risk is small - about the same as using your microwave.
And of course I can't suggest a healthy lunch or dinner meal without including plenty of vegetables. A salad would work well, but if you're going to be using the BBQ, so why not grill some veggies, too? Here's what you'll need for the BBQ:
Chicken (boneless & skinless)
A lemon & fresh or dried oregano, for marinating the chicken
Peppers (any color)
Any other vegetable you'd like to grill
Optional fruit to grill for dessert: Pineapple, or fresh peaches
Grain/Starch & Healthy Fat
To round out the meal with a grain or starch component and some healthy fat, you could do a pita & tzatziki, or a 5-grain salad. Today, let's toss everything together in a bowl with some pasta and pesto. Ingredients:
Whole grain whole wheat pasta
Prepared pesto (basil or red pepper)
Step 2: PrepChicken: Squeeze lemon over the chicken, and sprinkle with oregano. Allow to marinate at room temperature for up to 30 minutes as you preheat the grill, or up to overnight in the fridge.
Veggies: Slice zucchini the long way, about 3 times, to form several thick slabs. Leave tomato, peppers, and mushrooms whole. If mushrooms are small, consider threading them onto skewers.Step 3: CookStovetop: Prepare pasta according to package directions.
Grill: Place chicken and vegetables directly on a preheated grill. Turn once or twice as you keep the heat moderate, and watch grill marks develop. Remove chicken to a clean plate as soon as it's cooked through, about 15-25 minutes depending on thickness. Vegetables should soften. Bell peppers begin to collapse (turn less-cooked parts towards the heat when you turn), and tomatoes split their skin. Remove the peppers from the heat, allow to cool slightly, then remove the stem and seeds from the peppers.Step 4: Assemble & Eat!
Toss pasta with a spoonful of pesto for each serving, and top with chicken and veggies (whole or chopped). Enjoy!
Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours to enjoy as a cold pasta salad within the next 3-4 days.
So I was at Regina's Farmer's Market recently, and found a new flour, made of red lentils. I've used lentils for soups and curries quite a bit, but haven't baked with them much. (It's possible with whole lentils that are freshly cooked or canned, too. See lentil.ca for recipes.)
Compared to typical grains like wheat, lentils are much higher in two key nutrients, fiber and protein. In fact, in a cup of dry lentils (the closest comparison available), there is 58g of fiber and 50g of protein. Enriched all-purpose flour, in contrast, contains just 3 or 4g of fiber and 13g protein per cup. Lentils also have white flour - even enriched white flour, with some vitamins & minerals added back in - beat when it comes to iron and B-vitamins like folate. Cup of dry lentils = 80% of your daily value for iron, and 230%DV for folate. Regular flour has less than half that.
So, while I love whole grains, including whole grain whole wheat flour for baking, lentil flour has it beat in the nutritional comparison. Only question now is: how does it taste?
Lentil Peanut Butter Cookies with Chocolate Chips
Oh-so-tasty! Be careful not to overcook these, and they'll be soft and chewy and feature all the flavours you expect from a peanut butter cookie.
1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. Mix together:
1/2 cup red lentil flour (or other flour you have on hand)
1/2 cup peanut butter (creamy preferred)
1/2 cup Splenda brown sugar blend (or 1 cup white or brown sugar)
1/2 cup chocolate chips (optional)
1 tsp vanilla extract
3. Scoop heaping teaspoons of batter into clean hands, and form into balls, flattening to cookie shape. I got about 15, plus a little extra batter to taste raw (not recommended if you are at all prone to food borne illness).
4. Bake about 10 minutes. Cookies are done when they appear puffed, and the bottoms are starting to turn color, but the tops remain quite pale.
5. Allow to cool, then enjoy!
This is a healthy-ish dessert item that's all about the pleasure of eating a little something sweet. If you're hungry or need specific nutrients, please look elsewhere.
Each cookie contains about 120 calories, 6g of mostly-healthy fat, almost no sodium (50mg, 2%), but some potassium (170g, 4%), carbs comparable to a piece of bread or medium apple (17g), a little fiber (2g), and yes, some sugar (10g, about 2.5tsp), plus a little protein (4-5g). Key vitamin present is folate, at about 10% of daily requirements. If you choose to make this, though, please tell me it's not for the folate. :)
I hate to admit it, but until this month, I'd never been to Regina's Farmer's Market.
It seemed like a good idea. I enjoy fresh, seasonal produce, and supporting local farmers. But with markets generally open only on Saturday morning, I made excuses, thinking:
"I'd rather sleep in." "I have to work out, and can't do both."
"Weekends are for relaxing and socializing, not work."
"If I go late in the morning, all the good stuff will be gone."
"It's so early in Spring, what farmer has fresh food to sell?"
Well, it was worth it. Even in early April, the Farmer's Market completely filled the Shriner's Hall - the main area upstairs as well as taking over more space downstairs, with many, many quality vendors. Here's what I came away with:
Bored of the same old foods? Visit Regina's Farmer's Market!
1. A bag of gorgeous mixed greens from Floating Gardens. Nine dollars seemed pricy, but the fresh, clean leaves are really packed in there, and you can make at least 9-10 salads from that one bag. Fresh herbs were also on offer.
2. A bottle of Mango Cranberry Kombucha, a fermented tea drink by Crave Kombucha. I'd tried a ginger-flavoured kombucha from another brand before, and didn't care for it. This one is better, with extra sweetness from fruit juice working to cut down on the slight bite of the fermentation by-products. If you can't tell, I'm personally on the fence about drinking this stuff regularly. There's certainly health benefits, though.
3. Red Lentil Flour from a lovely man who grows lentils, peas, spelt, and other grains in the province. I try to include beans, peas, and lentils in my meals several times a week, and was excited to try including lentils in baking, too. (If you have fresh or canned lentils, there's recipes at lentils.ca.) I made peanut butter chocolate cookies with the lentil flour, and they turned out great.
4. Crunchy Peas, in Sea Salt and Lime, and Smoky BBQ flavours, from Zak Organics. These are such a perfect little snack! At first glance, I thought they were roasted chickpeas, which are so tasty. But these peas turned out great, too. Crunchy, perfectly flavoured, and nicely portioned. There's a couple more flavours I might try next time.
Did I miss anything? One of my predictions was right... a few vendors had sold out within the first hour or two. But there was still plenty of good food to enjoy.
Some vendors I walked right by, including the bakers, crafters, preservers, and cookie-makers, but a couple more whole-food vendors caught my eye, especially the fresh garlic and local beef. And I'll be sure to be back in the height of summer for fresh tomatoes and beets and other surprises.
Starter Salad: mixed greens with sliced radish. I added a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette before devouring this plateful of freshness.
Been to the UofR campus lately? If you're like me, you may have noticed the wide variety of food and beverage offerings ... from pizza and coke to a fresh salad bar, sushi, and more.
Today, let me show you what I'd pick for a healthier snack from one of my favourite spots on campus, Common Ground coffee house. Located in the Riddell Centre, the Common Ground coffee house is located next to several other food service options, including Tim Horton's. But their selections are significantly more varied that what you'll find at Tim's.
Instead of just breakfast sandwiches and parfaits, Common Ground offers a variety of whole and cut fresh fruit, as well as tarts, granola bars, and muffins.
Whole fresh fruit is great for rounding out breakfast, or as a cheap and easy snack.
And if you're willing to pay a little more, these on the go containers pack a variety of flavours in bite-sized pieces.
Of course, baking is also on display. For some reason, whoever made or ordered these think we need two tarts at a time. Um, pass! These little sugar bombs might taste good every once in a while, but won't give you the energy needed to get trough a morning or afternoon.
Sorry about the dark photos, by the way.
Below, brownies about 4x the size of normal. Typical for a coffeeshop, and not a healthy pick (usually).
Now here's an interesting option. Banana bread must be healthier than a brownie, right? Well, sure, a little. But it's basically cake. You're allowed to have cake for breakfast if you'd like, but I wouldn't call it healthy. And again, the portions are quite large for a sweet dessert.
Missed packing a lunch? No problem. Like many other venues on campus, Common Ground has sandwiches and meal kits. Sandwiches are basic, but some do come with whole grain bread. Recommended, especially if you pair with veggies.
These roll-ups are a bit of a nutritional disaster, with a large number of highly-processed products (processed red meat, white flour tortilla, packaged Oreo cookies) paired with a little fresh vegetables to try to balance it out a little. Not recommended.
Here's two of my favourite grab and go containers for lunch, because these healthy & tasty foods can be hard to find. Below on the left, a standard little raw vegetable collections is slightly more interesting with the inclusion of red and green peppers. More variety means you're more likely to try a bite of each food, and therefore end up eating more veggies by the end of the meal.
And on the right, a cup or so of marinated chickpeas, a cheap and healthy vegetarian protein source which also provides slow-digesting carbohydrates to fuel your brain. Super easy to make yourself, but I do recommend trying this version the next time you've forgotten to bring something.
Thirsty? Sure. This is a coffee shop after all. Coffee and sweetened drinks are available, including several versions of iced tea (sweetened, unfortunately). My favourite pick for taste AND good health is one of the many kinds of Tazo tea, served hot. Have a different one each weekday, and it would be more than 2 weeks before you've tried them all.
Bottom line: Healthier foods and beverages are often available at restaurants and coffeeshops. Look for the whole, minimally-processed foods, and experiment to see which taste best to you. And if nothing appeals to you? Pack a lunch next time!
In honour of Nutrition Month, I'm answering some nutrition basics questions, originally posed to me by a high school student interested in using nutrition to fuel his athletic lifestyle. I've arranged the questions by theme. Here's the last few:
6. What kind of foods should you avoid eating?
I like to keep this list short. For good health, you might limit some things, or choose them less often. But avoid entirely? That can be counterproductive. For the general population, I'd start with just these three categories:
- Anything you're allergic to.
- Anything you know you'll find gross (especially if you've already tried it prepared a few different ways).
- Large portions of really unhealthy foods (very sweet, salty, or deep fried) that you don't actually enjoy very much. An example of this category for me is commercially-prepared birthday cake. It just tastes fake.
7. What kind of foods should you eat more of?
Vegetables. Everyone could eat more vegetables. It's almost possible to live on nothing but vegetables. And prepared right, they're genuinely tasty.
Whole grains in place of any refined grains.
Nuts & seeds in place of other sources of fat.
Beans & lentils as one of your high-quality protein sources.
Fish, assuming you're not vegetarian. Especially those high in omega-3 fats and simply prepared (i.e. not battered & deep fried)
8. If there is one bit of advice you could give to someone regarding nutrition/diet what would it be?
For this last question, I'll quote one of my favourite nutrition-related authors, journalist Micheal Pollan. After reading everything he could about nutrition, and interviewing some experts, he summarized all the best advice into his 7-word manifesto: "Eat Food. Mostly plants. Not too much."
Thanks to student Aidan Smithen for asking these questions, and being the inspiration for sharing the answers with you.
Healthier fast food seems like an attractive option to a lot of busy teens and adults. Aidan asks:
Q5: Are the healthier fast food chain restaurants such as Subway, Extreme Pita, Pita Pit, etc. healthy for you? Or are they just as bad as McDonald's?
A: See, that's a trick question. McDonald's has healthier, "better for you" choices, too. People just tend not to choose them. All fast food tends to be high in sodium, and can encourage overeating through large portion sizes. A sub or pita place could be healthier than a burger place because the vegetables are assumed to be part of the meal, and you might be able to get more whole grains and less-processed meats or alternatives. But I wouldn't count on it. Throwing together a few fresh or freshly-prepared items at home is almost always your best bet.
Need ideas? Keep reading, or contact me.
Now we get to Aidan's key question...
Q4: How crucial is it for intense athletes to have a very healthy diet?
A: "Intense athletes" are most likely to have a more challenged immune system due to the intense training. Eating right helps reduce the risk of coming down with colds and other infections. Proper nutrition also supports muscle building, and having the energy to complete the training as well as the rest of your day. A well designed nutrition plan can make a noticeable difference in the athlete's performance (speed, strength, perceived effort, etc), as well as on more everyday things like concentration and memory.
Working out non-competitively, and want to eat better? I'd be happy to help.
Those with more intensive needs might enjoy working with my experienced sport nutrition colleagues, Carla and Thomas, at Level 10 Fitness.
This is part of a short series of posts, inspired by the questions of a high school student interested in eating well for an active lifestyle.
Q3: How often should you be eating and when?
A: It depends. Sorry, I know that's an annoying answer.
Generally, people do well eating balanced meals at least every 4-6 hours. Some prefer to eat small meals and snacks throughout the day, about every 2-3 hours, while others are comfortable with 3 moderate meals, spaced further apart.
And, when we look further into other meal timing options, there's also good reason for some people to attempt intermittent fasting, using protocols like eating for just 8 hours of the day. This is an advanced nutrition strategy that is not right for most people, though.
If I had to give one piece of advice on when to eat, it's this: “Eat when you’re MILDLY hungry, stop when you’re SATISFIED”. Read my extended article on this topic here.