One of the common requests I get from patients is: “I need a meal plan.”
I have mixed feelings about these meal plans.
Generally, as part of an initial assessment, I will help you come up with some breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack options that fit in with personal food preferences, schedules and nutritional requirements. I think this can be helpful for most people because it allows them to have a picture of what a day in the life of a healthy eater should look like. But don’t take it too literally; be flexible, and do the best you can.
In thinking up meal ideas for individual plans, I usually teach the MyPlate. You know you’ve seen this: half your plate veggies, one quarter starch, one quarter protein. It’s that simple. Keep that in mind as a template and the possibilities are endless. If you stock your pantry with the basic staples and your fridge and freezer with fresh and frozen produce, you will always have a quick and easy meal at your fingertips. It does not have to involve complex recipes or pricey food. And no, produce does not have to be expensive.
Let me explain further with an illustration from my trip to Stop and Shop this morning. Here is what I bought:
Yes, that’s right, it’s all from produce. And no, it doesn’t look like a meal. Because my pantry is well stocked right now, I simply needed to zip into the store with a hand basket and pick out some fresh fruits and vegetables. No plan other than the bananas, salad greens and Chris’s requested cream for coffee. I like looking around and gravitating towards whatever looks good or is a good price.
- Look for sales. That monstrosity of a strawberry container was on sale for $3.99, usually $6.99. Not organic, and I know strawberries are on the dirty dozen list, but what can I say… when I see a bargain I get weak. Pesticides and all, it’s still a better choice than 99% of what is available in the aisles.
- Get greens. I went with the large tub of organic spring mix because at my house we eat a LOT of salad. I prefer to not buy things in plastic containers, but all that was available in the fresh section was some sad, limp romaine. For $6.99 you really can make a lot of salads; I’m telling you they really pack it in there.
- Buy some of your favorite veggies for steaming, grilling or roasting in the oven. Today I got broccoli (on sale!) and portabello mushrooms for steaming. My two favs.
- Choose a couple of fruits. Bananas are one of my staples and I was down to one at home. Apples, oranges, grapefruits, kiwi, grapes– get what’s on sale and/or what you love to eat. Put them out on the counter where you will see them if you are the type to stash them in your produce drawer and then forget they ever existed unless it’s too late. Peel grapefruit and oranges the night before or wash a cup of grapes and pack them in a container to take to work for a snack.
- Don’t forget some salad toppings. I usually buy the big bags of carrots, peel and shred several up in my food processor at once, and then store them in a glass container in the fridge to add to salads for the week. Do the same with cucumbers, broccoli florets, cauliflower, tomatoes, onions, peppers, mushrooms, etc. It’s like there is a little salad bar in my fridge and come dinner time I pull out all the containers and make a great salad. Avocado is delicious on a salad– but don’t cut that up ahead of time because they go bad quickly.
- Scope out the reduced-price rack. Sadly it was nowhere to be found today. But– I have had serious scores on it in the past. These days the overripe bananas are hard to come by but when I see them I get excited. I get a lot and then get them into my freezer for banana soft serve.
All that food for $27.61! All that food, sure but how do you make meals with it you ask? It’s just fruits and veggies– but keep in mind– that is what should comprise half of your plate. Here is where the “don’t over-think it” part comes in.
Just mix and match the things you like. Get your grain cooking on the stove or potatoes/sweet potatoes in the oven, or heat up leftovers in the fridge if you have them. Determine which veggies you have that need to be eaten up and get them cooking. If you are a meat-lover, cook up some sort of dead animal you may have in the fridge or freezer. Or, better yet stick with the plants and add some kind of beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu or fake-meat type product to your meal. Use those fake-meats sparingly– they are majorly processed– not something you find in nature. As for the beans and lentils– canned are fine but you can make your own from dried. Cook a big batch and keep a few days worth in the fridge and freeze the rest. Nuts, nut butters and seeds can be quickly and easily whipped up into deeee-licious dressings and sauces in just minutes.
Still confused how to plan a meal? I’ll give you several examples of what I mean:
- steamed broccoli florets and mushrooms with quinoa and peanut sauce
- steamed spinach with a baked sweet potato and tahini-balsamic dressing
- large salad with mixed greens, tomatoes, avocado, carrots, black beans, and salsa
- a few slices of frozen pizza (get a healthy one! vegan! whole grain crust!) with large bowl of steamed kale and creamy red pepper sauce
- whole wheat tortilla stuffed with hummus, sun-dried tomatoes, and alfalfa sprouts
- oatmeal topped with strawberries, blueberries, and walnuts
- roasted asparagus, brown rice, and tofu with chili sauce
- grilled zucchini, mushrooms, and peppers served over whole wheat pasta with tomato sauce and seitan
- steamed brussesls sprouts, wild rice, and white beans drizzled with teriyaki sauce
- nachos!- baked corn chips topped with refried beans, salsa, guacamole, and cheeze sauce served with a large side of green beans
- peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat bread with baby carrots
- collard green roll-ups filled with almond pate and shredded carrots
- baked butternut squash, a bowl of lentil soup, and a few whole grain crackers
- steamed collard greens and buckwheat with cashew gravy
I could go on for days but do you get the idea? I don’t know how to teach it any simpler. It’s almost as if once you get a grasp of the concept you just go on intuition. Some of the above may sound good to you, some maybe not. Quite possibly the foods just aren’t what you are used to or perhaps they are in combinations that you have never tried. It’s definitely not your typical meal plan of chicken, baked potato and salad. If you need to, plan your meals out the day before or even the week before. As long as you have the foods in the house it’s merely a matter of deciding what you are in the mood for.
The above meal ideas are ridiculously no-fuss as well as astonishing healthy. This can only mean one thing: you deserve dessert. A healthy dessert of course so that you can remain on your path to living a wholesome, nutrient-rich life. Don’t over-think it. Just eat real food.