Taking the full measure of life

Learning to eat healthfully (and sticking to it)

January 7th, 2008 · 10 Comments

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“Easy healthy meal plan,” “weekly weight loss meal plan,” “post-holiday meal plan”: since about December 28th, I’ve been getting a lot of hits from people who are searching for meal plans for healthy eating. For those of you who have decided that, once and for all, you’re going to adopt some healthy habits this year dammit, and you’re going to start with food, I say this: Wonderful!

As someone who has made some major adjustments towards health over time, I’d like to offer you these food-related suggestions as support:


1. Spice your food well. When you’re cutting back on fried foods, cheese, butter, cream, saturated fat, etc., you’ve got a put in a bit of effort to make your food exciting otherwise. If you aren’t used to cooking at home and don’t have a lot of spices in your kitchen, then buy a few, even if the cost of it pains you a bit. If you live in a large city, start googling or calling local health foods stores, and you may find a place that sells dried spices in bulk so you can try a little without committing to a more expensive bottle. Unless you are one of those rare souls who can’t stand spices and seasonings, I would suggest that you start experimenting with these basics:

Garlic: with a bit of salt, it will make a boring set of steamed veggies crave-worthy. Buy it fresh. I’d suggest a garlic press for easy garlic crushing (you put in the garlic with the skin on, even); I’m addicted to mine.

Lemon, orange, and other citrus: we’re talking both the fresh juice and the rind, grated on the smallest hole of your box grater or on a microplane grater. Punches up vegetables (pairs well with garlic) and meats. Makes basic desserts have more kick.

Smoked paprika: the in-vogue spice of 2006. Makes vegetarian protein dishes have a richer flavor. Adds depth to stews, soups, etc. Has a nice, well, smoky flavor. I like to use a good bit–1 tsp. to 1 T. or more in a recipe.

Cinnamon: it can serve many purposes, but it definitely can make nearly any breakfast-style food or sweet baked good better.

Basil: it’s better fresh, in my opinion, but it’s fun even dry. Adds a nice punch of flavor particularly to dishes that involve tomato or eggs. And anything Italian, of course. Since only a few key recipes (like pesto) use a lot of basil, I keep a windowsill basil plant that offers me inexpensive bits of basil year-round.

Ginger: it will become a staple of your cooking if you enjoy baked goods, Asian food, salads, fruits, or anything else with a slightly pungent kick.

Onions/green onions/chives/shallots: these aromatics often go into the pan or pot at the beginning of the cooking process. Just the smell of these alone cooking can make someone in the next room say, “Mmmm, what are you making?” and think of a complete meal–with just a bit of them cooking in the bottom of the pan and the meal far from complete! One of these serves as the starter for nearly every meal I make.

Lawry’s Seasoning Salt: this is my personal preference for salt with a flavorful kick. Of course, Americans should typically be consuming less salt than we are–but I think if we are giving up unhealthy patterns and learning new ways to cook, we have to make sure we keep ourselves satisfied in the process. So use a little salt, not a lot, and then see how stuff tastes to you. Trying to go cold turkey might just leave you miserable.

Mrs. Dash: again, this is a personal preference. I put Mrs. Dash garlic and herbs into foods or on foods when I want a general spice flavor–like on roasted potatoes, or in a vegetable soup. Yum. It’s gluten-free, for those of us who have to care about such things, and it’s an easy way to get a good spice mix with little effort or expense.

Chocolate: yes, chocolate. Add just a small amount of semi-sweet chocolate to your tomato-based Latin American dishes like chili, enchilada sauce, etc., and you will get a rich, deep flavor without too many additional calories. Try a 1 oz. addition of chocolate for 4 servings of food. For an example recipe, check out the excellent Moosewood chili. Of course, chocolate is a very satisfying addition to healthy desserts, as well; a drizzle of melted chocolate over a piece of fruit is heavenly.

Cayenne: if you like your food–nearly any food–spicy, add a bit of cayenne. Start with a small amount (1/2 tsp. for a recipe for four, for example); you can always add more, but you can’t take back what you have added. If you don’t like spicy food, focus on other flavorings.

Curry powder: you do often get what you pay for with a curry powder; because curry powders consist of varying levels of up to 20 spices, a cheaper curry powder may just have less of the good stuff. However, even cheap curry powder can make a meal much more interesting. Curry powder instantly gives a meal an Indian flavor; it needs to be mixed in well and is a great addition to pureed or long-sauteed vegetables, vegetable soups (particularly pureed soups), and chicken/tuna/egg/tofu salad.

Readers: what are your favorite basic spices and seasonings? What types of recipes or foods are those spices and seasonings best in?

For a five-day meal plan that looks like it packs a lot of flavor in a healthy package, check out this link. (The only caveat I have about that plan is that labor-intensive, or even labor-moderate, breakfasts don’t work for many of us unless we are off work. We need light-labor breakfasts.)

2. I’ve mentioned this several times and don’t want to be a record that skips too often, but if you focus on filling 1/2 to 2/3 of your plate with vegetables that are seasoned well but are not covered in a high-calorie, high-fat sauce, you’ll set yourself up for success. And it’s easy to see, on your plate each night, whether you’ve done well that day or need to work on it a little. (Using visualization about this issue certainly helps me with healthy meal planning.)

3. Eat enough protein. Every person has to find this balance for himself/herself; I know people who munch on veggies and fruits all day who never eat much protein, and they are fine. I know others who find they need 2-3 servings of protein a day to feel satisfied. Technically speaking, we have an average need for protein of about the size of a deck of cards per day. However, protein is very filling, and it can be moderate in calories, so make sure you get enough for yourself, starting with your breakfast. Experiment to find your balance. Please note that I didn’t suggest that you eat three chicken breasts per day, though; consumption of meat (even the one deck-of-cards serving a day, some studies show) will increase your risk of a variety of cancers, along with other ailments like heart disease, and the more you eat of it, the more you increase your risk. None of us want you to go through that stuff. Vegetarian protein from sources like nuts and beans can be awesome ways to fill up. Later this week, I’ll share the protein-rich, vegetarian breakfast that helped me lose weight and stay full the first six months of last year.

4. If you’re trying to cut out fast food, which is oh-so-tempting when you’ve come to rely on it or reward yourself with it, you probably need some reinforcement on this goal. Go to your local library’s website or your favorite bookseller’s website right now (yes, really now–you might forget later), and order yourself Fast Food Nation (the book, not the movie, though the movie may help if you are very visual) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Then read through them. If you’re lucky, you’ll find them as fascinating as I did. (If you really don’t like to read very much, you could get Chew On This instead of Fast Food Nation; from what I understand, Chew On This is the high school version of Fast Food Nation‘s info.) But whether or not you find the books all-engrossing reading, you will learn what it is you’re putting in your mouth: abused animals raised in horrifying, unnatural conditions (google an undercover turkey, chicken, or cow factory farm video if you want visuals); cow shit (literally–U.S. ground beef is allowed to have a certain amount of cow feces in it) responsible for the bulk of e. coli infections; fries doused in unholy chemicals; corn syrup that, in its production process, is helping destroy the environment and that, in its finished form, is helping break down your body. I’m not trying to depress you; I’m trying to keep you from putting that nasty crap in your mouth. Read the books, and when you crave the fast food or drive/walk past it, pick the facts from those books that you find most poignant, and concentrate on them while you keep on moving by. Then go home and make yourself a tasty meal of whole foods.

5. Eat a bit of fat. A lot of heavy recipes can be successfully lightened, and a lot of high-fat recipes have little nutritional value. But a small-to-moderate dose of fat in your food makes it more flavorful (the fat molecules carry the flavorings to the bits of food) and more satisfying. Unsuprisingly, vegetable/fruit fats are much better for you than saturated ones and (the worst) partially hydrogenated ones.

6. As you’re trying to find your balance between getting healthy and indulging yourself, and as you’re trying to cut out the unhealthy foods you have been consuming (possibly in large quantities), your tastebuds are going to take a little while to adjust. Try to be patient with yourself and be understanding of your body trying to get used to your new lifestyle. Right now, you may be cravingCravingCRAVING some McDonald’s fries (there is a biological basis for craving fattening foods, after all), and you may be driving yourself crazy with it. Later, when you have done this for a while, you will crave healthier foods at least part of the time. You’ll probably be amazed when it first happens, but it will come with time. So don’t fret that you will always be in food purgatory if you are now.

7. That said, many of us find that trying to go cold turkey off unhealthy foods doesn’t work; eventually, we just give up on our health quest when we try to avoid all the old foods entirely. Something I have learned to help keep myself in check may also help you: pair a scaled-back version of a food from your previous, less healthy life with a food from your happier, healthier life. For example, I might make myself a(n organic, pastured) hamburger, but I’ll load it up with veggie toppings and use a whole-grain (gf now) bun, and I’ll serve it with baked sweet potato fries and steamed broccoli instead of regular fries. I’ll offer up other examples of this type of pairing later in the week.

8. Make sure you have some really simple meals that you can make for yourself at home when you are too worn out/sick/etc. to spend time in front of the stove. If you have nothing in your house that requires little effort, if you’re like me, there will be some nights you will see that as an excuse to go out to eat. If you know you can heat up that boxed soup and make a sandwich to go with it, maybe you’ll just save yourself some calories and money and stay in.

9. This is the other skipping record thing for me (sorry for those of you who’ve read it 12 times lately), but it won’t hurt anyone (or at least, me) to hear it again: forgive yourself for your eating mistakes. Forgive yourself like you would (or like I hope you would) forgive your child or your spouse or your best friend for a mistake. And then move on. We all mess up sometimes, and if we don’t forgive ourselves, we’re setting ourselves up for further frustration. Even if your mess-up lasts a while, there were probably some strong things tugging you off your healthy path: a sick child, an overload of work, a bad break-up (or its opposite, new love), an emotionally challenging time of month or year. You’re still a good person; you’re not lacking will power. You are just fallible, as we all are. And when that event passes or becomes bearable, you still have the potential to climb back on the path and prove to yourself that you’re capable of this healthy eating thing.

I leave for vacation on Wednesday morning(!), but I have pictures of foods and recipes that have never appeared on Aprovechar–things that have helped me with getting healthier in the last year (some of them from before I knew all my medical food restrictions)–that will be featured in posts while I’m gone. And I may also blog some from Seattle and Vancouver while we’re out there.

Tags: meal planning · quick meals

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Grumpy Chair // Jan 7, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    Great helpful post Sally. I had to print it for my folder.

    I used to use the pre-chopped garlic in a jar, but recently started using fresh garlic instead. What a big difference.

  • 2 thebell // Jan 7, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    Hi Sally – great suggestions. My favorite high-impact spice right now is chili. I’ve been using it for practically all protein sources. I’m also a big fan of rosemary, as it tends to make both sweets and savories more enticing when that smell fills the kitchen. . . btw, I’m a newcomer to the blog, and I just wanted to say that I love it!

  • 3 Terri // Jan 7, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    What a wonderful post to read right before I go find some dinner! I, like so many others, am embarking on healthier habits in the new year. Mainly I’m starting on exercise, as my eating habits aren’t terrible from previous attempts to fix that. After that gets underway, I’ll revamp my eating again. Hurray for weight loss and healthier living!

  • 4 Marianne // Jan 8, 2008 at 10:26 am

    Great post, Sally.

    I think #9 should be #1, though! It’s something that we all struggle with, I think, acknowledging that we’re not perfect and learning to be okay with it.

  • 5 marta // Jan 8, 2008 at 11:16 am

    Sally, BRAVO! What a great post!

  • 6 Jenn // Jan 8, 2008 at 6:38 pm

    Have a WONDERFUL trip!

  • 7 Ricki // Jan 8, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    Well, you’ve pretty much summed up all the key rules for healthy eating that we learned in nutrition school! Wonderful advice.

    Hope you have a fantastic vacation. I hear that both destinations are terrific in their own ways (and Vancouver is the “alternative eating” capital of Canada, which should serve you well!)

  • 8 Annie // Jan 9, 2008 at 7:55 am

    Simply wonderful post and very helpful!! A movie/documentary that really helped me give up McDonald’s, et al., for good and get a bit nauseated even driving by one was “Super Size Me.” I will be stopping by my local bookseller to pick up a copy of Fast Food Nation. Thanks for the suggestion!

  • 9 glutenfreeforgood // Jan 9, 2008 at 9:18 pm

    Also “The Food Revolution” by John Robbins, heir (almost, he gave it all up for this cause) to the Baskin Robbins fortune. It’s every bit as eye-opening as “Fast Food Nation” — maybe more so. He’s on a mission to help people change their lives by changing what they eat. Interesting book. Right now I’m reading “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan. Much lighter reading, but still a strong message.

    Nice post, Sally!

  • 10 Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie & Dijon Avocado Salad (A Healthy, Easy, High-Veggie Meal) // Jan 10, 2008 at 9:06 am

    […] I wanted to boost the flavor quotient. As you can see, I used the staple aromatics I mentioned in a recent post to keep this healthy and make it more flavorful. This meal was a big hit with my friends. […]

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