When people find out that I am a Registered Dietitian, they always ask me for ‘healthy meal plans’ to help with weight loss and make them healthier overnight. The truth is – dietitians do not have a magic diet plan in their back pockets but they do have an expertise to guide individuals towards creating a healthy meal plan that works for them and their families. Healthy meal planning involves incorporating more wholesome ingredients and less prepackaged foods into our everyday meals. It is not about following a fad diet and depriving yourself of foods that you enjoy. One of my goals as a dietitian is to help teach individuals how to make a healthy meal plan that works for them rather than me dictating what they should eat on a daily basis. Our eating habits are deeply rooted into our food likes/dislikes, cultural/religious beliefs, dietary restrictions/allergies, and lifestyle factors such as budget, time, cooking skills etc. Therefore, there is no one diet plan that fits all.
Healthy meal planning requires a conscious effort and small, gradual changes from everyone in the family. There is an overwhelming amount of information about nutrition in the media which sometimes could be a distraction towards your healthy meal planning – be wary of your sources and stay far away from fad diets. Healthy meal planning isn’t about an overnight pantry makeover and spending a fortune on fancy kitchen equipment – it is simply about learning how to create delicious, nutrient rich meals for your better health. One of the keys to success is planning meals ahead of time. Instead of waiting till the last minute to decide what to eat, plan your meals at least a week in advance. This reduces the likelihood of eating out, thus saving unnecessary calories and money. Below are some tips to keep in mind while planning your meals in advance:
Raid your pantry and freezer: While planning your meals, be mindful of ingredients that are already available in your freezer and pantry and choose recipes utilizing those ingredients first.
Make a grocery list: Instead of aimlessly wandering the aisles of grocery stores, make a list and stick to it. Spend more time shopping on the perimeter where they have fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy, and meat. Limit to just 1-2 processed foods such as cookies, chips, and sugary beverages and gradually stop it altogether.
Save recipes: Spend 30 minutes of your time every week browsing recipes from healthy websites such as EatingWell and Cooking Light to make your meal planning easier.
Spend time in the kitchen: If you are committed to living a healthier life with nutritious food – you have to start spending time in the kitchen. Start small and slow even if it means boiling eggs or assembling a peanut butter sandwich.
What does a healthy meal plan look like? Healthy meal plan is a very subjective and will vary greatly from one person to another but these are some basics to keep in mind in order to plan a healthy meal.
Start your day with breakfast: A healthy breakfast consists of carbohydrates for energy, protein for muscle health and fiber for healthy digestion which will also help you to stay full longer. For example: a slice of 100% whole wheat bread with natural peanut butter and banana slices alongside a glass of skim milk. Eating nutritious breakfast in the morning helps prevent overeating and snacking later in the day.
Understand portion size vs. serving size: While the terms serving and portion often are used interchangeably, they actually mean different things. A “serving” is the amount of food recommended in consumer education materials such as MyPlate. A “portion” is the amount of a food you choose to eat at any one time — which may be more or less than a serving. In order to decide healthful choices, understand what and how much you are eating because most people eat and drink more when served larger portions even without realizing it.
Be mindful of your plate : One easy way is to eat in line with the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines that emphasizes on filling ½ of your plate with fruits and vegetables, no more than ¼ of your plate with whole grains/legumes, and the remaining 1/4 of the plate with a palm sized lean protein. Supplement your plate with a serving of low-fat or skim dairy products such as yogurt or milk. Replace your sugary beverages such as juice, soda, or sweet tea with water to save on calories and unnecessary sugar.
Stock up on healthy snacks: Snacking can be part of a healthy meal plan if done in moderation by making healthy choices. Snacking between meals helps manage hunger, provide energy and prevents bingeing during your next meal. For most people, 200 calories or less is ideal and pair carbohydrates and protein together for quick energy release and to help keep you full longer. Some of the examples include nuts & dried fruits apple slices with string cheese or peanut butter, and high fiber cereal with skim milk.
Pack your lunch: Taking a healthy lunch to work is one of the simplest ways to trim your waistline and budget because you have more control over your portion size and ingredients. When packing your lunch, choose meals with a combination of lean protein and fiber from whole grains, beans, nuts, vegetables and/or fruit to provide you the most satisfying and nutritious foods that will keep you feeling full until dinner. Try to make extra food for dinner so that you will have leftovers to bring for lunch the next day.
Healthy convenience food: While unprocessed, fresh ingredients are the best, I suggest stocking up on few healthy convenience food in order to whip up quick meals on the go. Some examples include: canned beans (low sodium), frozen vegetables (with no sauce or seasonings), soups – low sodium and non-condensed variety that uses only natural ingredients, tuna fish packed in water, low-fat yogurt (check labels for calories and sugar), and instant brown rice.
Batch cooking: Try to prepare and cook most of your meals and snacks for the entire week (or at least 2-3 meals if you are new to cooking) on 1 day out of the week. You will need to devote 1-2 hours once a week in the kitchen which will not only save time but help you stay in track with your health goals. Soups/stews, hard boiled eggs, cooked chicken, chopped fruits and vegetables, and baked goods such as muffins, quick breads are some great examples.
Eat together with your family: When families sit down and eat together, children are more likely to eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer junk foods. Eating together is a wholesome experience for the family to model good behavior and eat meals on a structured schedule together.
Sample 5-day Healthy Meal Plan
|Monday||Oatmeal Fruit||Spring green salad with hard boiled eggs and vinaigrette||Grilled Chicken Roasted Vegetables Quinoa||Cheese string with crackers|
|Tuesday||Scrambled eggs 100% whole wheat toast Fruit||Leftover from Monday Dinner||Black Bean Quesadilla with Guacamole Side Salad||Trail mix|
|Wednesday||Smoothie||Leftover from Tuesday Dinner||Homemade Chicken Noodle soup Spring green salad Fruit||Hummus with carrots|
|Thursday||Oatmeal Fruit||Leftover from Wednesday Dinner||Baked salmon Brown rice Steamed vegetables||Banana with peanut butter|
|Friday||Veggie Omelet||Chickpea and Lentil Salad||Chicken Stir fry||Low-fat cottage cheese with pineapples|