Meal Planning Made Easy

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salmon with veggies

If you don’t have the luxury of eating in a cafeteria with a variety of options each day, it makes sense to plan your meals ahead of time. Doing so will save you time and money. If saving money doesn’t entice you, consider this: eating at home can help you lose weight. A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found the average meal at 360 restaurant dinner meals examined contained 1,200 calories. If you choose to dine at an American, Italian or Chinese restaurant, that meal may cost you a whopping 1,495 calories. Don’t worry, I have no intention of having you replicate the instagram photos from fitness buffs who eat perfectly portioned bland-looking chicken, broccoli and brown rice twice a day, every day. Instead, I am an advocate for taste, variety, and better nutrition. Here are the 4 steps you should take to start planning better-for-you meals ahead of time:

1 – Take Inventory

Go through your cabinets, refrigerator and freezer at least once per month and throw out anything that is past it’s expiration date, freezer burned, molded, and stale or smells bad (smell your cooking oil too and if it doesn’t smell normal, toss it). Half-eaten anything that is more than a day old? Trash. This is also a great time to take inventory of what you have on hand.

2 – Stock Your Kitchen

After taking inventory, decide what you need (sticking to your grocery list will save you from impulse buys you don’t need after looking at your grocery store circular). Essential foods include shelf stable, refrigerator and frozen foods. I like the option of preparing a meal in 5 minutes or less. Frozen and canned items allow me to do this.

Shelf Stable:

  • Beans, lentils and legumes (tip: some lentils can be soaked for just 40 minutes and added to a wide variety of dishes from salads to spouse, stews and grain-based dishes)
  • Bread
  • Canned vegetables, beans, fish and chicken
  • Condiments including chicken, beef or vegetable broth, mustard, hot sauce and any other commonly used condiments
  • Cooking oil – get good quality cooking oil. Pay more for a brand you trust. Olive oil is the most adulterated food on the market so you do get what you pay for.
  • Nutrition bars
  • Nuts, nut butters and seeds (all can be refrigerated; opened nut butters should be refrigerated)
  • Popcorn, whole grain snacks
  • Protein powder
  • Rice, pasta, whole grains, cereals and other similar foods. Grab a few options that you can make in a just a few minutes including couscous. Also, vary your rice, pasta and whole grains – look for black, red or purple rice, bean pastas and more.
  • Soups (boxed, bagged or in cans)
  • Spices & seasonings (including salt and pepper). If you don’t use these regularly get dried spices or refrigerated spices in squeezable tubes.
  • Ziploc bags – these will come in very handy if you travel (always pack food and supplements to go)!

Fresh:

  • Dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese)
  • Eggs (consider egg substitutes for their shelf life)
  • Fresh vegetables and fruits
  • Fish, poultry, meat

Frozen:

  • Fish, poultry, meat
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables

3 – Menu Planning

There are a number of ways you can approach menu planning but one of the easiest ways is to center your meals around the protein rich foods you plan on eating. So for instance, if you choose chicken, lean ground beef and fish, you can center 7 meals on those three proteins. Or, if your week is hectic and you are very busy, you can plan meals around protein-rich foods that take just minutes to prepare such as canned tuna, eggs and rotisserie chicken.

After you pick your protein rich foods, decide on recipes or quick prep meals. You might want to do this by determining what perishable foods you have on hand and need to use. So, let’s say you have mushrooms in the refrigerator and chicken defrosting. If you don’t feel like eating chicken Marsala but you aren’t sure what else you can make with a little flavor, type these words in Google to get other meal ideas “chicken, mushrooms, recipe, quick, easy.” (Also check out Cookinglight.com’s “5 Ingredient Cookbook, Fresh Food Fast”)

After determining which meals you are eating each day of the week, write a shopping list by figuring out any extras you may need to buy and what staple foods you are out of. Be flexible with your list depending on the season and sale prices. Shopping in season often means you will not only get the best looking produce but you will save money too. So for instance, if your recipe calls for sweet potatoes but butternut squash is a steal – go for the squash.  When you make your shopping list, you can do it on an app, in the notes section on your phone, or the old fashioned way with pen and paper. I make mine in the order of the grocery store I am shopping in so I can cross items off one by one without having to scan the entire list to make sure I’m not forgetting something before I move onto the next section of the store.

If the weekly circular tempts you with sugary cereals, cookies and candies on sale, don’t pick it up. You won’t miss out on a bargain because you’ll figure out which healthy foods are on sale when you look for the items on your list – all stores flag these items for you.

Quick sample meal ideas:

  • Rotisserie chicken, 10 minute brown rice (or thawed and microwave brown rice from your freezer), frozen veggies
  • Rotisserie chicken wraps with hummus (spread the hummus on first) and any crunch veggies you desire (shopped carrots, cucumbers etc.)
  • Whole-wheat pasta, spaghetti sauce and frozen turkey meatballs with added veggies such as cooked (or steamed) mushrooms, squash, zucchini
  • Whole wheat pasta, canned tuna, light cream of mushroom soup (either made into a casserole and baked along with frozen peas, ½ cup milk and chopped onions at 400ºF for 20 minutes or you can heat up the soup and mix the ingredients together and eat it.
  • Canned tuna, light mayo, chopped celery and onions for a tuna sandwich.
  • Grilled salmon drizzled with lemon, asparagus and a sweet potato.

4 – Storing and Packing

You can freeze almost any food and reheat it easily. Even brown rice – just cook it, let it cool completely and portion it into zip-loc bags (make sure no air is in the bag) for later. Two important things to remember when freezing foods – freeze them in airtight containers and label them so you know what you made and when it was frozen. The longer you leave food in the freezer the greater the likelihood of texture and taste changes over time (sometimes resulting in freezer burn). Foods that freeze well include:

  • Breads
  • Canned foods (once out of the can of course)
  • Casseroles (keep in mind that mayonnaise and other cream sauces do not freeze well)
  • Egg whites (raw)
  • Grains, cooked
  • Granola (homemade or store bought)
  • Herbs, fresh
  • Nuts, seeds (these should not be kept opened on shelves for long periods of time as they can go rancid)
  • Cheese – some types freeze better than others
  • Fish, poultry, meat (raw meat and poultry freezes better than cooked meat and poultry because of moisture lost during cooking).
  • Fruit, though this must be completely dry and frozen in portions (unless you want it stuck together in big clumps). The texture may change so fresh fruit that is frozen may be best used when blended in shakes.
  • Sauces
  • Soups, stews, stock
  • Yogurt – if you want to eat it frozen. If it defrosts the consistency isn’t so great.

Thaw food in the refrigerator, a microwave or immersed in cold water only (in a leak proof plastic bag submerged in the water that should be changed every 30 minutes), not out on countertops or in kitchen sinks.

Recommended Freezer Storage Time (for quality only, frozen food is safe indefinitely if left frozen).

Food Months
Bacon and Sausage 1 – 2
Casseroles 2 – 3
Egg whites or egg substitutes 12
Frozen dinners 3 – 4
Ham, hotdogs, lunchmeats 1 – 2
Meat, uncooked roasts 4 – 12
Meat, uncooked steaks or chops 4 – 12
Meat, uncooked ground 3 – 4
Meat, cooked 2 – 3
Poultry, uncooked whole 12
Poultry, uncooked parts 9
Poultry, cooked 4
Soups and stews 2 – 3
Wild game, uncooked 8 – 12

See, that wasn’t so tough! Get started planning, preparing and cooking right away. If there are a limited number of dishes you feel comfortable cooking, check out quick and easy cookbooks or resources on line. Each time you try a new recipe you’ll expand your horizons and taste buds and also be able to prepare a wider variety of meals on the fly in the future.

References
USDA. Freezing and Food Safety. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/focus_on_freezing/

 

Pros and Cons of Grain Brain, Wheat Belly and the Paleo Diet

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Diet books are tempting. They tell you the reason you’re overweight, what foods are “toxic” and how to get rid of them while strolling down the yellow brick road to lasting weight loss and good health. But there’s one main issue – many of these books aren’t based on scientific evidence but instead theories that are pulled out of thin air. “But my neighbor lost 50 lbs. following Paleo!” Well your neighbor cut out potato chips, beer and fried food in the process so of course he lost weight. The Paleo diet just gave him a convincing (even if scientifically inaccurate) reason to cut these foods out.

All of these diets have some pros and cons which I expand upon in this TV segment I did for Fox 5 and below the video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQyfQ5hf_Qc&feature=youtu.be

Gluten is a protein formed from other proteins (gliadins and glutenins; any single wheat plant may produce > 100 gliadins and > 50 glutenins) naturally found in wheat foods when wheat flour is mixed with water (the mechanical action of mixing plus the water are necessary). Other proteins that are similar to gluten are found in barley (hordiens) and rye (secalins). Gluten gives dough it’s tough elastic structure and contributes to the light and fluffy texture of baked goods. If it sounds complex, it is but here are the important points:

  • Wheat today doesn’t have more gluten (or create more gluten when mixed with water) than varieties from 70 years ago unless the manufacturer adds vital wheat gluten back to the food itself (J Plant Reg 2012;6(1)).
  • Wheat breeding is complex and focuses on creating varieties of wheat that meet what food makers and consumers are looking for – a flaky pie crust or nice soft wheat bread for instance.
  • Gluten isn’t an easy to digest protein (there are many foods we eat that are not completely broken down) but, this isn’t a problem for most people – only those with celiac disease, wheat allergy and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (which might not be due to gluten alone but instead FODMAPs).

Paleo: What You Need to Know

The Paleo diet is based on one main principle: if we eat like our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived between 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago, before the start of the agricultural revolution, we will avoid modern diseases such as heart disease as well as infections.

This diet is based on grass-produced meats, fish/seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, nuts and seeds and “healthful” oils. Everything else is off limits.

Paleo’s Glaring Oversights:

  • there was no one single Paleo diet – diets varied based on region and time period (check out Christina Warinner’s TED talk on this)
  • In several regions, well over 10,000 years ago and possibly even a few million years ago, people ate grains and legumes.
  • Examination of mummies tells us that all people from this time period had clogged arteries.
  • The fruits, vegetables and meats we have today look nothing like what our ancestors ate (ex: fruit were small, tough and bitter).
  • Our ancestors hunted and gathered food – in other words, their daily lives included physical activity (both strength training which builds muscle and bone and aerobic exercise).

Paleo – What’s Good:

  • The Paleo diet cuts out our top sources of calories in the US including alcohol, desserts and sugar sweetened beverages.
  • It’s loaded with protein which will keep you full for a longer period of time after eating and help you build muscle.
  • Plenty of fruits and vegetables!

Paleo – What’s Bad:

  • No legumes (peas, beans, lentils and peanuts) – legumes are rich in fiber, potassium, magnesium (some), iron (some), antioxidants and more.
  • No grains. Grains provide a good bit of the fiber in the average American diet in addition to folate, other vitamins and antioxidants.
  • No dairy – our top source of bone building calcium and vitamin D. Now, I know what some self proclaimed nutrition experts will say here – people in Africa (or insert other country here) don’t consume much calcium and they don’t have as many cases of osteoporosis as we do in the U.S. Go to Africa, conduct dietary recalls (to see what they are indeed eating) and then follow a group of women around for several days. The women I met from Africa a few years ago were big and strong thanks to farm work (in their particular country the women do all the farming). They walked (far) with buckets of water on their head daily (fantastic way to build bone density in the spine!). I don’t know any females in the U.S. who get near the bone building activity these women are getting on a daily basis. So, this is far from a valid comparison. (SN: I haven’t even bothered to research the incidence of osteoporosis here vs. Africa because I’d be comparing a largely sedentary desk-sitting population to one with different genetics that also gets bone building activity for hours each day).

Diet magic? Follow anything that makes you cut calories and you’ll lose weight. Eat more protein and you’ll tend to lose more fat than muscle.

Are You Getting the Nutrients You Need for Maximum Energy & Good Health?

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Take one quick peek at dietary survey data and you’ll find many Americans don’t consume enough vitamins and minerals through food alone. How does this impact your health? A nutrient deficiency could affect your energy levels, mood, ability to concentrate, structure of your skin, teeth, nails, bones and more. So, how can you be sure you are getting enough of the vitamins and minerals you need for optimal health? First, focus on consuming foods that are particularly rich in the nutrients many Americans fall short on. Secondly, consider taking a multivitamin to make up for any nutrient gaps. But first, here’s a look at the food groups:

To watch my Talk of Alabama TV segment on this topic, click here.

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds contain a wide variety of nutrients including magnesium – which is necessary for a healthy metabolism, good energy and muscle strength – yet many people get very little magnesium in their diet. On average, most women get about ½ of the magnesium they need each day. Nuts & seeds also have zinc for immune system functioning, wound healing, muscle growth and repair and some nuts, like almonds, also contain calcium, which we need for strong bones. If you are worried about the calories in nuts and seeds, stick to the right portion size (about 1/4 cup for nuts) and keep in mind that research shows people who eat nuts regularly tend to weigh less than those who consume nuts infrequently.

A few of my favorites based on nutrient content (including magnesium): pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and Brazil nuts.

Grains

Grains provide approximately 43% of the fiber in an average American diet. Fiber aids digestion, helping prevent constipation and it adds bulk to your diet helping increase feelings of fullness, which makes it easier to control your weight. Whole and enriched grains also naturally contain a wide variety of important vitamins and minerals. For instance, grains provide about 2/3 of the folic acid in an average American diet. Folic acid makes healthy new cells. And, it is a nutrient of concern for women of childbearing age because inadequate folate (folic acid) intake during pregnancy increases one’s risk of having premature and low birth weight babies or babies with certain types of birth defects in the brain or spine. Here in the U.S., grains such as bread, cereal, flour, and pasta are enriched with folic acid (gluten free products might not be enriched).

Beans

Beans count as both a vegetable and protein-rich food. Not only are they packed with fiber but they also contain iron, magnesium and potassium. And diets higher in potassium may help lower blood pressure, especially if you consume too much sodium. Plus potassium supports muscle functioning and higher potassium diets may also decrease risk of kidney stones.

Here are 3 you should focus on based on nutrient content and versatility: black beans, lima beans and white beans.

Seafood

Seafood is another rich source of nutrients. For instance, oysters have more zinc than any other food and more iron than red meat (a 3 oz. serving provides almost half of the daily value for iron). Try canned oysters to save time and money. Canned sardines with the bones are an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D – you need both of these for strong bones. But, chew those bones carefully! And, if you are concerned about mercury (and small children, pregnant and lactating women should consume only low mercury fish), check out this guide from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which categorizes fish based on mercury content.

While eating a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods is the best way to get vitamins and minerals, the reality is that most Americans don’t get enough through food alone, especially those on lower calorie diets or adults over the age of 50. So, consider a multivitamin. Multivitamins are a great solution to fill dietary gaps.

I partnered with Centrum and the Wheat Foods Council for this segment though I wrote the content of this post and the segment based on the latest scientific research.

 

 

Back to School Begins with Breakfast

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When it comes to learning, breakfast may be just as important as taking notes in class and completing assigned homework. A good diet actually changes the brain by creating more brain cells, strengthening communication between cells, and improving blood flow which leads to more glucose and oxygen delivery to the brain. What does this mean for students? A growing body of research shows kids who eat breakfast have:

  • more energy
  • better memory
  • improved problem-solving skills
  • improved mathematics skills
  • better scores on standardized tests

Yet statistics show up to 40% of kids and teens skip this meal. How can you serve a nutritious meal in a hurry? Check out my tips from today’s segment on Channel 8’s Let’s Talk Live

Why Hate Grains?

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I’ve been ISO (that’s in search of) a reason for why so many people shun grains. If you do, please comment and let me know why, I’m open minded, educate me! Many think they shun grains as they command the attention of their friends during their brief table-side sermons about their “clean” diet. Next thing you know they are slapping one of their friend’s hands in shame for diving into the courtesy bread on the table. And then a brief debate ensues: “But it’s whole grain bread!” exclaims the friend, “yes but it contains gluten, that’s bad for your abs” says the nutrition-know-all preacher. The bread-loving friend bows his head in shame and asks the waiter to remove the bread from the table. The debate is over and the preacher has once more sprinkled his holy nutrition wisdom on the common folk.

I love observing people and listening. When I’m out and about I certainly do more of that then talking and it’s part entertainment, part behavioral education.  You see, I need to find out what people think and where they hear their nutrition knowledge so I can “undo” some of the  incorrect things they’ve been told. And when it comes to grains, there are indeed many figure and fitness athletes who avoid most grains except brown rice, quinoa and Ezekiel bread. However, the scenario I see in the general population is much different. They tell me about their ultra healthy diet and how they avoid grains during the week and eat a “clean” low fat diet. But then by the weekend I catch them downing a few beers (made from barley of course) and consuming tortilla chips or other bar food. It is almost as if they’ve adopted the “what happens on the weekends, doesn’t count and I don’t tell my dietitian” philosophy. And yet, these same people are spreading the “grains are garbage” philosophy to their peers.

So I ask, why avoid grains? Where’s the science? And I’m not talking about what my ancestors age 5,000 years ago.  They also exercised a heck of a lot more than we do today so that is a moot point. I don’t know many people running around (notice the exercise part) hunting down their own meat for dinner.

I do believe that cutting out grains works for some people because it is a thought-less process of cutting down on one large food group (no grains means no doughnuts, waffles loaded with butter and syrup or scones). But I think it sends others the very wrong message (ice cream isn’t a grain so I can dig in!). Not to mention that all grains aren’t created equally. Grains as consumed in a Hostess cupcake for instance are very different than a piece of fresh baked rye bread. And, research on barley and rye for instance, indicates that these grains produce a slow, sustained blood glucose response and therefore, they may be a better option than say a baked potato or piece of fruit.

Nutrition requires individual prescriptions and not wide reaching generalities to the masses because everyone’s physiology, training program, individual likes and dislikes (some people can’t live without their beer so I work with them on how they can lose weight but still drink a few brewskies). What works for you may not work for someone else. So please, if you hate grains, great, but don’t shake your finger at your friends or slap their wrist. After all, no one likes the food police.