We all live very busy lives – working twelve hour days, running the kids to and from school and practice, hours of housework and yardwork – and the list goes on. And then, after all that, we have to prepare a meal for ourselves and our families. It would be a lot easier to run through the drive thru of a fast food restaurant or to throw a frozen pizza in the oven, but what if we want to give ourselves and our family something healthier? How do we do this without staying up until 10PM just to cook and eat? Keep reading for helpful tips and ideas!
You have probably heard that meal prep is a great way for those with busy schedules to have healthy meals, and if done correctly, that’s absolutely true. Planning meals, making lists, grocery shopping, cooking, and storing the cooked food in easily accessible containers in the fridge are all steps of meal prep and can be done when you have extra time, like on the weekends or a day off during the week.
One key when planning meals is to make sure you are including lean protein and vegetables in each meal and a smart carbohydrate (whole grain or starchy vegetable) and healthy fat with some meals. For example, if you are prepping breakfast, lunch, and dinner, make sure to include a protein and vegetable in all three of those meals and a smart carb and healthy fat in one or two of them, depending on your personal needs. Sticking to appropriate portions is also important during meal prep. One serving of protein is one palm-sized portion for women and two for men. One fist-sized portion of vegetables is an appropriate serving for women, and two fist-sized portions of vegetables are appropriate for men. A serving size of carbohydrates is one cupped hand for women and two for men, while one thumb-sized portion is a serving size of fat for women and two thumb-sized portions for men.
Both shopping and cooking in bulk are important strategies for successful meal prep. While it might take an hour to prepare one evening meal, it won’t take much more time, if any, to prepare five or six evening meals to have throughout the week. Same goes with menu planning and grocery shopping – you’re going to spend the time to do that for one meal, so why not do it for five or six meals to save yourself time during the week?
Separating foods into proper portions after preparing and/or cooking is the next step in successful meal prep. While storing foods in clear, stackable containers isn’t necessary, it is helpful. If you don’t already have containers like this and don’t want to spend the money right now, use what you have, but make sure to label what is in the containers so you know what’s in them without having to pull them out and peek under the lid. Using the same food for different meals is another benefit of meal prep: for example, if you’ve chopped up green peppers for an omelet for breakfast, use the rest of them on a salad for lunch the next day or in fajitas for dinner.
Maybe there is night or two where you know you’ll be really short on time – soups and one-pot meals (like “dump meals” for the Crock-pot) that include protein and vegetables are great for nights like this. If you’re like me and you’re short on time most mornings, breakfasts like overnight oats or pre-baked egg muffins might be perfect for you. Tired of spending money on low-quality fast food for lunch at work? Salad in a jar (throw lettuce or kale, all your favorite veggies, and a tablespoon of dressing into a jar or container with a lid and make sure to give a good shake before eating) or pre-portioned leftovers from the night before are convenient options for a healthy lunch away from home.
Once you find what works for you and get into a routine, meal prep will become second nature. Meal prep is also a great way to get your whole family involved – sitting down to plan meals, shopping, and preparing and cooking food together makes everyone feels included and helps insure the whole family will enjoy the planned meals. It’s also a great way to teach the kiddos cooking skills, proper portions, and the overall importance of healthy eating. Meal prep can be a wonderful time saver and a huge step towards better health, and it can even be fun!
Think positive, stay active, and smile. -A
"Agh! I can’t eat carbs!” This might be what you think when they bring the basket of bread to your table at a restaurant or when you’re at your in-laws for dinner and they’re serving lasagna. And if this is the first thing that pops into your head, you’re not alone. We’ve all heard about low-carb diets and how they are supposed to help us lose weight and be healthier, and while this isn’t untrue, we still need SOME carbs to maintain a healthy balance in our diet. It can be extremely hard for most people to follow a low-carb diet for a significant length of time, so it’s pretty unrealistic to assume you’ll be able to stick with such a diet for the rest of your life. So… are we supposed to eat carbs or not? There isn’t a simple answer to that question, but throughout this blog, I will define what complex and simple carbohydrates are, sources of each, why carbs are important, and how to include them in a healthy, balanced die.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a carbohydrate is, “any of various neutral compounds of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (such as sugars, starches, and celluloses) most of which are formed by green plants and which constitute a major class of animal foods.” Precision Nutrition goes a step further by discussing simple versus complex carbohydrates and their structures. Simple carbohydrates are easily processed in the body because they contain a single sugar group and can’t be broken down any further. Complex carbohydrates have two or more sugar groups linked together and therefore use more energy and take longer for the body to break down.
Simple carbohydrates come from foods made with refined flour and refined sugar, and some examples include white bread, pizza crust, snack cakes, white rice, pretzels, and biscuits. These foods have been highly processed and a lot of their nutritional value has been stripped. They don’t require much energy to be broken down in our bodies which means they don’t keep us satisfied for long. When our diet consists of mainly simple carbohydrate sources, we will likely end up eating more and more often than we would if we were eating complex carbs instead.
Sources of complex carbs include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Complex carbohydrates are a better option for the following reasons: Complex carbs take longer to digest than simple carbohydrates, which helps control blood sugar and keeps us feeling fuller for longer. Complex carbohydrates also provide us with fiber which helps to keep our GI tract healthy and can help control cholesterol levels. Foods that provide complex carbohydrates are also more likely than simple carb sources to provide necessary vitamins and minerals.
Maintaining a diet that includes a healthy balance of complex carbohydrates is important because carbohydrates are the preferred energy source for both the body and the brain. Individuals who exercise intensely on a regular basis require a higher intake of carbs than those who live a sedentary or mostly sedentary lifestyle. If carbohydrate intake is too low in someone who exercises regularly, that person might experience a slowed metabolism and an inability to build muscle. He or she might often feel sluggish and have impaired mood and cognitive function. While adequate carbohydrate intake is necessary, it is important to maintain a diet with an appropriate balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
On average, we need about 130 grams of carbohydrate per day. This of course varies with gender, body type, and activity level. The majority of carbohydrate intake should come from unprocessed or minimally processed fruits and vegetables, although if you exercise regularly at an intense pace, simple carbs may be recommended for post-workout recovery. And, as always, moderation, a healthy balance of macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat), and consuming mostly un- and minimally processed foods are key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Think positive, stay active, and smile. –A
When grocery shopping, most of us probably pay at least some attention to the packaging of the products we buy – reading the front of the package (health claims, front of package labeling, etc.), glancing at the nutrition label on the back or side of the package, and/or reading the ingredients list. Maybe we’re only buying those products because of the fancy packaging or because of the intriguing health claims on the package. Maybe we are planning to buy the product but we choose one brand over the other because the packaging or health claims are more attractive on that brand. Are we really getting the best buy or best product when we base our decision on packaging and health claims? Are the health claims actually true? What do the health claims actually mean? There are a lot of ways in which food companies get us to buy their food, and believe it or not, these companies aren’t always truthful.
Coloring of packaging and “health” claims are just two ways companies convince you to buy their products. Consumers perceive items in green packaging to be healthier, and brightly colored packaging attracts more attention. Products making claims of providing antioxidants, being gluten free, organic, natural, and/or whole grain also tend to make consumers believe these items are healthier than their counterparts – whether or not they really are. The labels of “natural” and “organic” don’t mean much, as these terms are controlled for some foods but not for others, and foods with these healthy-sounding labels aren’t necessarily healthy foods. Most of the foods labeled with these claims are minimally to highly processed foods that contain added sugar or preservatives. Think about it – when was the last time you saw an apple or a bunch of spinach with labels claiming to be “natural” or “gluten free?”
What may be even more misleading (and infuriating to me) than package colors and health claims are endorsements from the American Heart Association, the American Diabetic Association, and others. Off the top of my head, I can think of two foods that carry the American Heart Association logo, claiming to be “heart healthy foods” – Campbell’s soup and Minute Maid orange juice – both of which are highly processed foods that contain high amounts of sodium and sugar, respectively.
While I have an entire blog post dedicated to it, hidden sugar, or disguised sugar, is another way in which food companies trick consumers. If no “table sugar” is added to a food, it can be labeled as “low-sugar,” but that doesn’t mean the product contains no added sugar. When reading through the ingredients list on a product’s label, you may find corn syrup, anhydrous dextrose, brown sugar, cane crystals, cane sugar, corn sweetener, crystal dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose sweetener, fruit juice concentrates, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, malt syrup, maple syrup, raw sugar, molasses, fructose, lactose, maltose, and/or syrup – these are all alternate names for added sugar.
Unfortunately it is unlikely to see an increase in truthfulness of food packaging anytime soon, so the more you know, the better off you’ll be. It is important to be aware of what is truly in the products you are buying, so ALWAYS read the ingredients list on packaged foods, or better yet, buy fresh, whole foods that have no need for an ingredients list. Choosing mostly unprocessed or minimally processed (nothing or little to nothing added to food found in nature) foods, as well as becoming an informed consumer, will help you avoid marketing ploys and misleading labels. Just remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Think positive, stay active, and smile. -A
Since I started teaching a nutrition course for the organization I volunteer at, it has opened my eyes to how little the average person knows about what food companies are allowed to put in our food and the claims they’re allowed to put on food labels. The participants of the class have been so shocked and put off by all of it, and this blog touches on some ingredients that are allowed in this country but banned in other countries.
There is a long list of foods, additives, hormones, genetically engineered ingredients, etc. that are allowed in the United States even though they are banned in several other countries. I won’t include that entire list, but here are some of the main culprits that showed up on multiple lists during my search.
Fed astaxanthin to make up for insufficient diet. This chemical has not been approved for human consumption.
Has been genetically engineered to reduce virus in plants. Genetic engineering can cause intestinal damage, multiple-organ damage, tumors, birth defects, and premature death
Food dyes (Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40):
Can cause hyperactivity in children. Can increase allergy and cancer risks.
Arsenic-laced chicken and water:
Can trigger cancer and heart disease
Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) found in soft drinks and bread/Potassium bromate in bread:
Overexposure has been linked to memory loss and nerve disorders (no conclusive studies). Can lead to iodine deficiency, skin rashes, acne, loss of appetite, fatigue, and cardiac arrhythmias. Also used as a flame retardant/Linked to kidney and nervous system damage, thyroid and GI problems, and cancer
Azodicarbonamide (ADA) found in cereal and bread:
Potential carcinogen linked to disease. Also found in yoga mats.
Olestra found in low-fat chips and other foods:
Linked to gastrointestinal disease in children and severe diarrhea in adults. Increases appetite and weight gain. Malabsorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K (fat-soluble vitamins)
Synthetic growth hormones rBGH and rBST in milk and beef:
Health problems and birth defects in cows. Products from hormone-receiving cows do not have to be labeled as such. Increase risk for colorectal, prostate, and breast cancer. The only way to avoid consuming these hormones is to look for “rBGH free” or “no rBGH”
Levels in meat not tested in US. Known to affect cardiovascular system and may be responsible for hyperactivity, chromosomal changes, and behavioral changes
Carcinogenic preservatives (BHA and BHT) found in cereal, mixed nuts, gum, butter spread, meat, dehydrated potatoes, beer, and others:
May cause cancer (BHA), triggering of allergies (BHA), hyperactivity (BHA), and organ system toxicity (BHT)
Even protein powder is at risk for containing harmful ingredients. My best friend recently sent me a link to the results of a recent study which tested popular protein powders for heavy metals and toxins. It was found that protein powders made from plant proteins contained higher levels of heavy metals, pesticides, and BPA than those made from whey and egg. Those made with plant protein contained twice as much lead and “measurably higher” amounts of other toxins. For more information about this study, please follow the “Consumer Reports” link at the bottom of the page.
While more is being done to ban harmful chemicals, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), hormones, dyes, and preservatives in our food (and beauty/skin care products), this country has a LONG way to go. If this angers you as much as it does me, it might be worth your time to research ways in which you can help get these harmful materials banned from food and beauty products in this country (petitions, donating funds, etc.). It is important to do your research on the foods you’re consuming and the products you’re using. ALWAYS read food labels, and buy local and organic when possible.
Think positive, stay active, and smile. -A