New Year’s Resolution: Healthy Meal Planning
New Year’s resolution time is upon us! For many us, this includes making promises to ourselves to be healthy this year—to eat healthier and make a stronger commitment to our health and our family’s health. But for most of us, as the year moves along, and we become more and more busy and ‘distracted’ with the ongoing stressful events of lives, we lose focus on ourselves and our health. It can feel like we’re slowly sinking into an old pattern that repeats itself every year. The key to shifting this pattern is finding an easy routine to help us plan for our weekly healthy meals.
There are several steps to consider before the actual weekly shopping expedition:
- What types of foods and flavors do you and your family enjoy? Are you meat eaters? Do you like fish? What types of flavor profiles? Asian, Indian, middle eastern?
- When do you have the most free time? In the evening after the kids have gone to bed or maybe on a weekend morning?
- Are you on your own in this process or can your partner or another family member help out?
- Are you cooking just for yourself or for you and your family?
Initial Planning Considerations
Here are some things that are helpful to consider before you shop:
1. Keep it simple! As we start to feel more accomplished in this meal planning process, we can get more creative in our cooking. Initially, it is much easier to be successful with ‘ongoing’ healthy meal planning if we create simple and delicious meals. To create a simple meal, let’s imagine an empty dinner plate. Here are the dinner plate percentages for an optimally healthy meal that will help us feel energetic and revitalized:
- 25% natural meat (grass-fed beef; natural and hormone-free poultry; wild fish; natural lamb or other game meat such as bison; natural eggs)—the amount of protein on your plate should equate to the size of your palm or a deck of cards—about 3-4 ounces.
- 50% diverse multicolored vegetables—cooked and/or raw is great (you can vary the colors throughout the day and week!)
- 25% starchy root vegetables such as sweet potatoes or winter squash like acorn squash, spaghetti squash, rutabaga, and so on.
- Healthy Fats!!! 1-2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil; avocado, nuts and seeds. These fats are essential for a healthy brain, cardiovascular system, and so much more.
2. Let’s consider some examples of this type of dinner plate:
- Roasted chicken with sautéed kale and ginger with roasted peeled/chopped sweet potatoes
- Wild salmon with roasted broccoli and pureed butternut squash with cinnamon
- Grass-fed steak with steamed green beans and roasted multi-colored potatoes
3. Be sure to cook extra food for dinner to provide you with leftovers for lunch. This makes your meal planning so much easier. If you are cooking for yourself, the leftovers will provide you with lunches and dinners. You can also repurpose the leftovers for the following dinner. For example:
- You could take left over roasted chicken and make chicken soup with mixed vegetables such as carrots, celery, parsnips.
- You could make chicken or turkey salad and add in the leftover roasted potatoes and some chopped celery.
- If you have leftover meat or fish, you could make a salad and top it with the protein and then create a homemade salad dressing with tahini and lemon juice and some gluten free soy sauce or Bragg’s aminos.
- You could take leftover grilled salmon and make a salmon salad with it by adding chopped celery and celery salt and mayonnaise.
4. An optimal healthy diet is rich in anti-inflammatory foods which means foods that do not induce inflammation in the body such as diverse vegetables, natural protein, and healthy fats. When eating an anti-inflammatory diet for greater health, it is important to avoid inflammatory foods such as gluten, processed dairy, refined sugar, and overly processed foods. The easiest anti-inflammatory diet includes many diverse and multicolored vegetables, natural protein, starchy veggies such as root vegetables like sweet potatoes, and healthy fats such as nuts and seeds and extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil. Being gluten free can be helpful, but often, avoiding a food like gluten causes us to search for replacements that can be overly processed like store bought gluten free snacks. Ideally, avoiding grain as a main focus of a meal and reserving it as an accessory to ‘some’ meals such as using gluten free whole grains like brown rice or quinoa as a side dish will help us with achieving optimal health.
Weekly Meal Planning: Let’s get organized
To start the meal planning process, it is very helpful to have a piece of blank paper in front of you and mark out the meals for the week including breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You may find that you only need to plan out the weekday meals depending on whether you tend to eat out over the weekend, or maybe you and your family tend to eat in all week. Draw out the grid and leave an empty box to write in for each meal of each day that you are preparing for. As you become successful with this process over the course of a few months and it becomes second nature, you will depend less and less on this grid. Being more rigid with this process in the beginning will support you in your success.
As you view the grid, consider how many dinners worth of proteins and veggies and starchy veggies you will need. Lunches usually don’t need to be counted because leftovers will usually count for lunches. As for breakfast, you may use some of the leftover protein for breakfast but mostly, it will also be a separate category. If you are cooking for you and your family, you may consider that you need a separate protein, vegetable and starchy vegetable for each dinner meal. For example, if you are cooking at home for 5 dinners (Monday through Friday), you will need 5 separate proteins, 5 separate groups of vegetables, and 5 groups of starchy veggies. This largely depends on what is available at the grocery store. You may choose to alternate between beef and poultry and fish for the various dinners.
For natural protein, here are some examples:
Monday: Split breast Chicken
Tuesday: Wild Salmon
Wednesday: Grass-fed steak
Thursday: Turkey Tenderloin
Friday: Grass-fed stew beef
For vegetables, you will need to see what is available and fresh at the store, but here are some examples:
Tuesday: Green Beans
Wednesday: Brussel Sprouts
Friday: Zucchini and yellow squash
For starchy veggies, here are some examples:
Monday: Spaghetti squash
Tuesday: Sweet potatoes
Wednesday: Mixed multicolored potatoes
Thursday: Acorn squash
For fats, you can use any of these options to integrate into your meals: Extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil or avocado oil to cook with or mix into your prepared dishes. Avocadoes such as guacamole, nuts and seeds to mix into prepared dishes, or cook with them; such as pistachios encrusted wild salmon or sunflower seeds mixed into cooked kale or sesame seeds tossed with roasted broccoli and avocado oil and lemon juice.
Let’s Get Started
Initially, this process may seem awkward. But overtime, if you stick to the simplicity of meal preparation, the process will start to feel more and more innate. The key to long-term success with maintaining a healthy diet throughout the year is to be prepared. For all of us, there will be nights where we just don’t have time to cook because of a late meeting or some other type of obligation. In these instances, utilize the slow cooker. There are thousands of slow cooker recipes online. The key to a tasty slow cooker meal is some basic preparation that can be done in the morning before you leave (for example, searing the meat before you place it in the slow cooker to lock in the juices). Surfing the web is always fun during our free time to find unique and creative recipes, but remember that keeping it simple in the beginning is always easier for long-term success. The most important thing to remember is to keep your food fresh.
As you start to feel successful with this process and it becomes easier, you can get more creative and make soups and other complete dishes. Here are some examples of creative dinner meals that include all the categories:
- Chicken soup with onions, carrots, celery, parsnips, and rutabaga.
- Grass-fed beef meatballs with zucchini noodles or spaghetti squash or bean noodles (‘Explore Asian’ and ‘Tolerant’ are two fantastic companies that make delicious pasta noodles made out of lentils and other types of beans). Make marinara sauce with chopped carrots and celery and onions. You can make the sauce chunky or use a blender or ‘wand’ to create a finer sauce to ‘hide the veggies’.
- Split pea soup with small bone-in grass-fed steak or natural ham hock and chopped carrots and onions and parsnips.
- Beef stew with carrots, onions, celery, multicolored potatoes, green beans, and peas.
- Chunky turkey and veggie and mixed bean soup.
Depending on what you find at the store by way of veggies, natural protein and starchy veggies, you can fill in the grid. If you have a partner to support you, you can make a grocery list of some essentials that you know the store will have and then empty categories to fill, such as “5 veggies” and “5 natural proteins” (give examples to partner such as grass-fed beef, chicken wings, turkey tenderloin, wild salmon; and also give portion sizes so they buy the right amount for each meal to have enough for dinner and additional for leftovers).
Once you have all the food bought and put away, you can complete the grid and have it as a reference on the fridge for meal preparation throughout the week. This planning process is essential to keep us organized and successful.
Don’t Forget Leftovers for Lunch!
Lunches are very important to provide us with sustenance throughout the day. By lunch time, we’re often ravenous and searching for food. Having a protein rich meal can carry us through the day. The key to successful lunch preparation is cooking enough dinner to have leftovers for lunch. Here are some examples for lunch meals:
- Salad with multi-colored veggies and leftover protein from last night’s dinner (examples: sliced steak, chopped chicken or turkey, wild salmon, hardboiled eggs). You can add some chopped nuts and seeds for added fats and protein as well as a homemade salad dressing such as fresh lemon juice/extra virgin olive oil/sea salt/cracked pepper/paprika; tahini/lemon juice/gluten free soy sauce or Bragg’s aminos; Dijon mustard/local honey/fresh lemon juice.
- Repurpose leftover roasted chicken or turkey or wild salmon and make a salad by mixing chopped leftover protein with chopped celery and mayonnaise and sea salt/cracked pepper. You can also mix in some leftover roasted potatoes for an added flavor boost.
- Make a sandwich. Layer leftover protein with lettuce, veggies, and gluten free bread. For a grain-free option, you can take leftover protein and veggies and wrap them in collard greens. For an added flavor boost, you can spread tahini sauce or humus on the inside of the wrap or sandwich.
Do I Have Time for Breakfast?
Growing research is showing that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. This is because this meal is what carries us through the bulk of our busy day. To feel strong and energetic throughout our day, it is important to have a solid breakfast rich with protein and other nutrients. Here are some great options for a healthy breakfast that will feel like a boost:
- Morning shake: 1 cup coconut milk or nut milk or water; 1 cup veggies (can use cucumber, greens such as kale or spinach, celery, zucchini, carrots, etc.); 1 cup frozen or fresh fruit like mixed berries or frozen mango or banana; 1-2 tablespoons of nut or seed butter like almond butter or sunbutter for healthy fats and protein; and you can also use a protein powder like pea protein to increase the protein content of the shake. To make the shake more interesting, you can also include raw cocoa powder, a little local honey, fresh flax meal.
- Natural eggs (any way) with veggies such as omelet or scramble with spinach or kale; or fresh eggs with chopped cucumber/tomato/avocado with olive oil and lemon juice drizzled over the veggies and sea salt/cracked pepper.
- Turkey or chicken or grass-fed beef or natural pork sausage with some sautéed greens on the side.
- Grain-free granola with nuts and seeds and coconut milk and fresh fruit.
- Yogurt with fresh fruit and nuts and seeds (if you are avoiding dairy, there are some wonderful yogurt options available such as coconut yogurt, hemp yogurt, almond milk yogurt.
What about Snacks?
For many of us, there is no way that we could get through the day on just breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The key to maintaining a ‘long-term’ healthy diet is to plan your snacks as well. Make sure to pack 2-3 snacks for the day to include in your day’s ‘food bag’. Here are some ideas for snack packing:
- Fresh fruit is always a great snack option. Fruit carries a multitude of nutrients to support our health and provide us with energy to accomplish everything we need to do in our day. Consider packing a couple of small clementines or slicing an apple and including some nut butter for dipping.
- Nuts and seeds: Consider on the weekend or when you have some free time to make a big bag of trail mix or mixed nuts and seeds. That way, in the morning or the night before, you can pack a smaller snack bag from this larger one. You can include nuts, seeds, and dried fruit. You can even include some coconut flakes for added healthy fats!
- Terry Walters, our local superstar, cookbook author and clean food expert from Simsbury CT (author of ‘Clean Food’, ‘Clean Start’, and ‘Eat Clean Live Well’), created a no-bake bar recipe that is fantastic. It’s also very user friendly. Essentially, you mix in a large bowl any nuts, seeds such as pumpkin seeds/sunflower seeds/sesame seeds/chia seeds, chopped dried fruit, and even ingredients like flax meal or raw cocoa powder. Then, pour some maple syrup or other natural sweetener over the mixture until it appears wet and then mix it together to coat the mixture with the sweetener. Add some nut or seed butter and fold the mixture together until it holds. Next, you layer a casserole dish with parchment paper, add the mixture into the dish and then add another layer of parchment paper over the mixture. Lastly, you use the top piece of parchment paper to push the mixture down into the corners of the dish into a flat layer. Once this is completed, you place the dish in the fridge for several hours or overnight and then slice it into snack sized pieces. This makes an awesome energy-packed snack for the day that provides us with awesome nutrients and fiber and protein!
- Cut avocado and fresh tomato tossed with fresh lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, pepper, and paprika. If you work during the day, and there’s a small kitchen for you to prepare you lunch, you can pack the whole avocado and tomato and make the ‘dressing’ mixture at home—that way, at work you can take a few minutes to chop the avocado and tomato and pour the mixture over it.
- Jerky!!! Today, there are so many wonderful options for natural jerky, including chicken and turkey, grass-fed beef, and natural pork. Many of these companies have created mixtures of jerky with veggies and fruit to create a more powerful nutrient punch for the day.
Dr. Ayelet Connell, PhD, PT, IMT, C is the President and owner of Integrative Wellness & Physical Therapy in Bloomfield, CT, a wellness center offering Physical Therapy, Integrative Manual Therapy, Chiropractic, Acupuncture, and nutritional wellness. Ayelet is a natural health expert and has written and published many articles on the subject. She is a Physical Therapist and Certified Integrative Manual Therapist and has taught courses all over the world in Holistic Physical Therapy. Ayelet is also a local of this community and has been living in the Greater Hartford area for many years, where she integrates a healthy lifestyle at home with her wonderful family.