Clean Eating Meal Plan on a Budget

For most of us, switching to a healthier diet means changing some deep-seated habits: preparing dishes like mother never made them; spending more time in the fresh vegetable aisle of the supermarket; and keeping balance and nutrition in mind along with taste.

This change doesn’t have to be a chore. It can be a pleasant, even exciting, process as long as we recognize that it is a big change—something that can only be accomplished gradually, not in an instant. Taking the time to examine your present eating patterns can help you decide which changes are most important right now, and which ones can be postponed until you’ve gotten comfortable with the first round of adjustments.

In this overview, you’ll find out how to assess your current eating habits, zero in on healthy changes, and devise a plan that suits your own lifestyle and tastes. It then shows how to put that plan into practice through savvy shopping, healthier cooking, and balanced menu planning.

Step One: Discover What You Really Eat

A food journal is a great way to evaluate your food habits. “Most people who have made successful lifestyle changes have used some form of record keeping,” notes nutritionist Kathryn Parker, RD, of the Women’s Diagnostic Center, Gainsville, Florida. “It’s a great reality check.” While keeping a food journal is the method recommended by many nutritionists, more abbreviated forms of record keeping can work just as well.

The results of a food journal analysis are likely to surprise you. People who fear that their eating habits are deplorable will probably discover they have pockets of healthy tastes and habits to build upon. And those who are sure they’re on the nutrition honor roll may discover that their idea of a “portion” is two or even three times larger than what nutritionists have in mind. People often underestimate their daily intake by as much as 50 percent.

A food journal also helps you see how your eating habits fit into your everyday routine, allowing you to target mutually reinforcing habits for easier change. Research shows that this type of self-monitoring and daily record-keeping does help you modify ingrained behavior.

Any type of notebook, calendar, or computer file that is easy to consult frequently can serve as a food journal. Entries should include:

What you ate
How much you ate
Where you ate
What your motivation for eating was
What else you were doing at the time

It’s important to enter every meal and snack, including such “incidentals” as that bagel and coffee you had at the staff meeting, the two meatballs and chunk of cheese you ate while “test-tasting” the results of a dinner in progress, or even the box of cough drops you finished during the course of the day.

Once you’ve kept a journal for a week, put aside some time to analyze the results. Use the accompanying “Fat, Cholesterol, and Calorie Counter” to calculate your calorie and fat intake for each meal and snack, and then add up your daily counts. This will give a realistic picture of what you currently eat.

Reading through the journal will raise your awareness of the specific foods you favor as well as your overall eating patterns. You will get to know your food cravings, and may find helpful patterns (such as a tendency not to snack in the evening if you’ve had a fruit dessert with dinner). You can then incorporate this knowledge into your meal-planning. For example, if you find you often crave sweets in the late afternoon, you can anticipate your desire and keep healthy substitutes like fruit on hand. Or, if you find that your motivation for eating is often not hunger but to reward yourself for a completed task, you can build this awareness into your plan by finding alternative ways to celebrate. Identifying your particular needs, desires and lifestyle will help you to create an individualized plan for improving your diet.

If the idea of keeping a complete food journal seems too bothersome, there are other ways to assess your daily intake of nutrients. Try focusing on one nutrient each week or month. For example, if you have a high cholesterol level you can record all the saturated fats you eat and then compare this figure with the recommended amount. When you have a good sense of your fat intake and how to adjust it, you can move on to another food group—for example, counting fruit and vegetable intake for a week. Another option is to consult a dietitian for help in assessing your current nutritional status—a method particularly recommended for people with special medical needs and those with long-standing weight-control problems.

Reluctance to assess your current intake may itself signal an important attitude toward food. Many people think that nothing they now eat is nutritionally “good.” They want to wipe the slate clean of all current habits and start over. It’s a good idea to try to overcome this reaction, since virtually everyone has some good eating habits. It’s easier to retain these patterns and plan improvements to be added, instead of totally rejecting all of your favorite meals. On the other hand, resistance may mean that now is not the right time in your life to change your eating habits. A dietetic makeover does involve some work and the food journal is merely the first step. People with serious health problems (such as binge eating) often avoid keeping track of food. If you find that you’re afraid to keep a journal, you might want to consider consulting a professional.

Step Two: Compare the Real and Ideal

Issued by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services in 1992, the Food Pyramid provides the latest daily dietary guidelines for Americans. Use it as a guide to making healthy choices, ones that hopefully lead to a nutritionally balanced diet. The Pyramid is useful as a backdrop to any individualized nutrition plan. The overall recommendations are to:

Eat a variety of foods
Maintain a healthy weight
Go easy on fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol
Eat plenty of vegetables, fruit, and grain products
Use sugars, salt, sodium, and alcohol only in moderation

The Food Pyramid is divided into five food groups. At the bottom is the bread, cereal, rice, and pasta group with a recommended 6 to 11 daily servings. The next level includes the vegetable group (3 to 5 daily servings) and the fruit group (2 to 4 daily servings). Next come 2 to 3 daily servings from the milk, yogurt, and cheese group, and another 2 to 3 servings from the meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nut group. On the top are fats, oils, and sweets (to be used only sparingly).

When comparing your own diet to the Food Pyramid recommendations, first take a global view. Do you eat enough servings of fruit, vegetables, grains, and low-fat dairy products every day? Do you overeat foods from certain groups such as beef, cheese, french fries, or chocolate? Keep in mind that while no foods need to be completely eliminated from a healthy diet, most Americans do need to adjust the amounts they eat from each of the food groups.

Individualizing the Food Pyramid

The paradox in today’s nutrition research is that there are two opposing trends. The first is to search for common nutritional denominators for everyone—symbolized in the Food Pyramid. The second trend is to individualize nutritional needs. Your unique metabolism, health problems, tastes, lifestyle, and stress level may all affect the diet that’s best for you.

The Food Pyramid is based on a 2,000 calorie a day diet that you may need to adjust according to your age, gender, and weight. Young children can eat smaller servings but should have the equivalent of 2 cups of milk per day. Optimal diets for teenagers and adults range between the following levels.

1,600 calories: This level is right for most inactive women and older adults.
2,200 calories: Most children, teenage girls, active women, and inactive men do well at this calorie level. Pregnant and breastfeeding women generally need more.
2,800 calories: For teenage boys, active men, and some very active women this caloric level is appropriate.

The box on “What a Calorie Level Actually Means” shows what you typically should eat to maintain each level.

What’s in a Serving? Serving size does count, and research shows that the average American portion is bigger than ever. A dinner-plate-size serving of pasta in restaurants and many homes equals 2 to 3 helpings of pasta on the Food Pyramid. A jumbo bagel equals 4 servings of bread. The box on “What Counts as a Serving” gives examples of serving sizes from the five food groups.

What A Calorie Level Actually Means

Lower: about 1,600 Moderate: about 2,200 Higher: about 2,800
Bread Group Servings 6 9 11
Vegetable Group Servings 3 4 5
Fruit Group Servings 2 3 4
Milk Group Servings 2-31 2-31 2-31
Meat Group (ounces) 5 6 7
1Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, teenagers, and young adults to age 24 need 3 servings.

 

Adjusting for Activity Levels

Your current activity level profoundly affects your nutritional needs. Someone who cares for active youngsters, cleans house, works in the garden, and usually walks to do errands burns many more calories than one who drives to work and sits at a desk all day. Likewise, someone who exercises for 30 to 60 minutes 3 to 4 times a week has different nutritional needs than a couch potato.

If you tend to lead a sedentary lifestyle, you need to be especially vigilant about your eating habits. Specifically, you need to limit your fat intake and be suspicious of your body’s hunger signals. When a person is active, the body tends to give accurate messages about hunger levels. Sedentary people need to rely more on external guidelines for scheduling meals. An even better approach is to begin to move toward a more active lifestyle. A mild 20-minute walk or light workout will help you get in touch with your internal monitor, as well as increasing your metabolic rate, energy level, and stamina. Physical activity also allows you to eat more and is important in maintaining weight loss.

Active people who engage in physical workouts on a regular basis need to adjust their meal plan accordingly. The most important recommendation is to eat carbohydrate-rich food within 1 to 2 hours of a vigorous workout. Stored energy in muscles, called glycogen, will be replenished by this food. Regular fluid intake before and during each workout is also important to maintain your energy level, since most energy loss during exercise is caused by mild dehydration. For more on exercise and energy, see “Exercise: The Other Half of Weight Control” and “Boosting Energy and Fitness: Which Foods Really Work?”

Factoring in Your Specific Health Concerns

The Food Pyramid is a graphic representation of the basic dietary recommendations that most experts agree will keep your weight in control, provide needed vitamins and minerals, reduce cholesterol, and help you avoid heart disease, high blood pressure, and some cancers.

However, to reach specific health goals you need to modify the standard serving recommendations in the pyramid. If you want to lose weight, for example, you should reduce your intake of fat and sugars though you still need to eat at least the lowest number of recommended servings from each of the five major food groups. Those who seek to gain weight can increase the amounts of food they eat from each of the food groups.

If a high cholesterol level is your concern, cutting your intake of saturated fats is essential. Each of the five food groups should still be part of your daily menus, but substitute low-fat choices for such high-fat items as eggs, butter, salad dressings, oils and shortenings, cheese, ice cream, and other whole-milk by-products. Eating the higher serving recommendation for grains, fruits, and vegetables and the lower limit for lean meats and poultry is also a good strategy.

 

What Counts As A Serving

Breads, Cereals, Rice, and Pasta
1 slice of bread
1/2 cup of cooked rice or pasta
1/2 cup of cooked cereal
1 ounce of ready-to-eat cereal
Vegetables
1/2 cup of chopped raw or cooked vegetables
1 cup of leafy raw vegetables
Fruits
1 piece of fruit or melon wedge
3/4 cup of juice
1/2 cup of canned fruit
1/4 cup of dried fruit
Milk, Yogurt, and Cheese
1 cup of milk or yogurt
1-1/2 to 2 ounces of cheese
Meat, Poultry, Fish, Dry Beans, Eggs, and Nuts
2-1/2 to 3 ounces of cooked lean meat, poultry, or fish
Count 1/2 cup of cooked beans, or 1 egg, or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter as 1 ounce of lean meat (about 1/3 serving)
Source: FDA Consumer

Tailoring Your Menu to Your Lifestyle

Where you eat your food is an important factor when planning a weekly menu. Americans are eating out and ordering more take-out food than ever. The National Restaurant Association predicts that by the year 2010, 50 percent of American food dollars will be spent on food prepared outside the home, up from 44 percent today and 25 percent in 1955. If you are part of this trend, you need to factor that into your plan, rather than trying to change your lifestyle.

Home meals vs. restaurants. Record how many meals you actually prepare at home for a week or two. Afterwards, you can plan your shopping and meals based on a realistic picture of how often you cook. This helps to avoid frustration over spoiled food or the failure of a plan unsuited to your eating habits. Healthy strategies for dining out can be found in “The Secret to Healthy Restaurant Dining”. It’s usually easier, however, to improve your diet if you prepare food more often at home—where you control exactly what ingredients go into your meals. Gradual adjustments more often lead to success. If you find that you actually cook a meal once a week, for example, start by trying to cook twice a week. Or try a cooking class.

Singles and cooking for one. Single people usually have more flexible lifestyles and, therefore, need a flexible meal plan. They favor simple cooking strategies and quickie meals. If you take a few minutes to plan ahead, you can have nutrition at your fingertips. Cook a few meals at once and freeze them, and on those tired or rushed evenings, you’ll have a dinner that just needs to be heated. Prepared microwave meals are also great for singles, but be aware that they should have no more than 10 to 15 grams of fat and no more than 1,000 milligrams of sodium. If you have the right food available, you are likely to save money and eat less fatty foods on the run.

A major issue for singles is the storage of fresh fruits and vegetables. One idea is to shop with a friend and share the vegetables or cook them together. If you’re too busy to peel and chop, buy vegetables from the grocery store salad bar; you’ll lose some vitamins due to previous chopping, but this is still a nutritious choice. If you buy fresh vegetables that don’t last long, use them in the beginning of your week. Purchase others that will keep for a week or more, such as artichokes, beets, cabbage, carrots, and potatoes. Frozen vegetables are very useful for singles and have about the same nutritional value as fresh ones. Choose fruit that will keep well, such as apples, dried fruit, and citrus fruit. If you have a hard time remembering to eat fruit, keep some that doesn’t need to be refrigerated on the table.

Working couples. Meal planning for working couples calls for both communication and independence. Many couples are on different schedules; if that’s true in your case, flexibility is important. Eating with your partner is a good goal, but try to let go of the notion that all meals should be eaten together. If one of you gets home first, it may be better to eat a meal alone than to snack until the other arrives. If your schedules are exactly alike, meal-planning is simpler, but differences may still crop up over food preferences. It’s usually best for everyone to make their own choices, rather than for one person to compromise and be left feeling unsatisfied and resentful.

Even with all these variables, meal-planning is still possible. Try sitting down on Sunday night and discussing what your week’s schedule looks like, when you’ll be able to eat together, and what you want to serve. Based on this, you can create a shopping list and a meal-plan for the week. A little preparation in the morning can go a long way for working couples. If you take out the ingredients or put the water in the pot when the sun rises, then you can come home at night and cook dinner with less thought and effort. Always have staples in the house for quickie meals on those evenings when cooking is out of the question.

Feeding a family. When you’re cooking for a family, it’s almost impossible to change your eating habits without affecting the entire group. Children are likely to provide the biggest challenge, but it’s never too early to start a good nutrition plan for children. This doesn’t mean putting them on the same plan as yourself. Instead, find where the two plans coincide and where flexibility is needed.

Research shows that the silent example is your most powerful tool for teaching children about healthy eating. Don’t refer to “good” or “bad” foods, but rather show your children that there are everyday foods and occasional foods. High-fat foods can be “treats,” whereas healthy foods can be eaten whenever hungry. Snacks are good for children and can be used as part of a regular daily diet. Fixed meal times, however, are the most reliable way to promote healthy eating habits. Nutritious foods are more appetizing when varied and colorful. Always include at least one of a child’s favorite foods. Ask children to help you with the shopping and cooking. This gives you a teaching opportunity and encourages the kids to become involved in meal decisions. Dietitians advise parents to encourage children to develop their own food preferences and plan their own meals. Some suggestions to balance children’s nutrition plans include: whole-grain crackers, fruits, low-fat cheese, mini-pizzas, and vegetable sticks with low-fat dips.

Phases when the child wants the same food over and over are normal. If abnormal eating habits continue for long periods, consult a pediatrician. Teenagers may reject their parents’ eating style; just continue to provide nutritious foods and set a good example. Many children and teens develop food idiosyncrasies which often change as fast as their shoe size if parents stay flexible and avoid criticism. Activity levels also affect children’s dietary requirements. The main contributor to excess weight in childhood is inactivity. Encourage kids to participate in physical activities, games, or sports. When children are active, be sure to provide enough fluids and carbohydrates, including plenty of fruits, vegetables, starches, and grains.

Older People. Aging affects nutritional needs. Metabolism slows down in middle age, resulting in reduced calorie requirements and an increased need for these calories to be packed with nutrients. Food preferences may change, too. Dairy products become harder to digest. More fiber may be needed to promote digestion and relieve constipation. Calcium requirements rise in older women as hormonal changes deplete the body’s supply. Aging also causes signals of thirst to weaken, possibly leading to dehydration and making a regular routine of fluid intake very important.

A good meal plan for seniors must also take into account a potential increase in the need for vitamins and minerals. Heart problems may dictate a low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-salt diet. And some of the numerous medications prescribed for the elderly may conflict with even the best of meal plans. An in-depth look at the nutritional needs of the aged can be found in “Dietary Targets for Your Senior Years”. For more on the conflict between food and drugs, see “Foods to Watch Out for When Taking Medication.”

Step Three: Design a Blueprint for Change

Without rules to serve as guideposts, it’s almost impossible to reach a goal. However, inability to fit a set of arbitrary, unrealistic rules into your lifestyle is one of the most common reasons for a diet plan to fail. This failure often leads to conclusions such as, “If I can’t measure all my portions, I’ll never be healthy” or “since I hate cottage cheese, I’ll never be able to lose weight.” Overemphasis on rules also can lead you to categorize foods as “good” and “bad,” promoting unnecessary feelings of denial and guilt if you cross the line. But while feeling rule-bound can defeat your plan, a complete lack of structure and an “anything goes” approach is also unlikely to work.

Which Rules Are Necessary?

Creating your own rules is the best way to build a strategy you can live by. After you’ve assessed your current eating habits and decided on your goals, you’re ready to write your own rules. As you begin, learn to listen to your body. Cravings often reflect your body’s real needs.

The key to good rule-making is to incorporate the foods you love into your plan. Your rules should fit your lifestyle, too. For example, if you often eat out, make it a rule to dine in restaurants that provide a variety of healthy choices. If you’ve found that you consume too many calories while cooking, make it a rule to keep peeled carrots around for kitchen snacking. You might also ask your partner to “taste-test” your dishes. If being too careful during holiday meals dampens your good time, you can make a rule to be flexible on holidays but to return to your eating plan as soon as possible.

It also helps to formulate rules as steps toward a permanent change. For example, one man wanted to move toward low-fat dairy products, but hated the taste of skim milk in his morning coffee. He decided to keep a small container of Half and Half in the refrigerator to use with coffee, while switching to low-fat yogurt and cheeses to hold down his fat consumption. Months later, when his tastes had changed due to his first diet adjustments, he found he could enjoy his coffee with 2-percent milk.

Remember that it’s not always necessary to sacrifice what you want for what you’re told you need. For example, one woman strongly preferred toast to fruit in the morning. So she simply saved her fruit servings for midday and bedtime snacks.

To maintain a balanced diet, try keeping a mental record of what you’ve eaten that day and what you plan to eat. Don’t set yourself up for failure by making rules that are too ambitious, complex, or difficult to abide by. Remember: if one rule doesn’t work out, you can always replace it with one that does!

Going Step by Step

Try to make the process of changing as rewarding as the results. Be patient. For this change to be real and long lasting, it’s best to go slow. If the process feels unnatural and traumatic, it’s unlikely to succeed. However, if it’s easy and (relatively) pleasant then it may have a chance.

Approach change positively. Regard nutritious eating not as a punishment but as a liberation from all the side effects of unhealthy eating. Stop and appreciate the food you are eating, rather than focusing on what you are not eating. Focus on the benefits you hope to attain, and write them down to refer to in challenging situations. Talk about your accomplishments and allow yourself to feel good about changing.

Line up support. Research shows that supportive relationships are important in changing any habit. Tell others about the changes you’re planning and the reasons you’re making them, and enlist your friends’ support. If possible, find a good role model who has succeeded in making nutritional changes or a support group of people who are facing similar situations.

Reinforce success. For long-term success you need positive reinforcement. A true improvement in health status will promote good feelings that feed on themselves as a constant reinforcement. Concrete rewards are a more tangible way to reinforce success. They can be anything that gives you pleasure, but should not involve food or drink.

A positive mind-set should be a constant reward. At the end of the day, don’t waste time going over in your mind the goals you may not have met. Instead, savor what you did accomplish. Set small, tangible goals that you can reach with every meal—and remember to congratulate yourself for meeting them.

Step Four: Put Your Plan into Action

What’s so important about breakfast? The evidence is quite conclusive that eating this first meal of the day is conducive to health. Breakfast provides the necessary nutrients for productive mornings, and also helps control eating throughout the day. Those who eat breakfast tend to have more nutritious diets, lower cholesterol and fat levels, and fewer excess pounds. Breakfast eaters also have stronger problem solving skills early in the day, are less tired, and eat less at lunch and dinner.

Best Strategies for Breakfast

Here’s some help for those who “never eat breakfast.” If you are one of those people who are never hungry in the morning, try eating a small breakfast every day for 2 weeks. This will give your body time to adjust to a new eating schedule. If you leave home early, try brown bagging your breakfast and eating it later in the morning.

The next best thing to eating breakfast is to compensate for the missed nourishment throughout the day. For example, have fruit as a midday snack. To replace calcium and grain loss, have a bowl of cereal as a nighttime snack.

Ingredients of a healthy breakfast. A balanced, filling, and energizing breakfast should include three major nutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fiber. For most days of the week, high-fiber breads and cereals with fruit and low-fat milk deliver just the right mix.

Keep a variety of fresh fruit, dried fruit, and fruit juice to eat alone or add to dishes. Breads and cereals should be whole or mixed grains. Try to rotate different types of grain throughout the week. For bread toppings, try fat-free jams and jellies or low-fat cottage cheese. Dairy products should be low- or no-fat, including milk, cottage cheese, and yogurt.

Reserve eggs and breakfast meats for weekends or special occasions. For recipes, try mixing fresh eggs with frozen egg substitutes and egg whites to reduce the fat. Switch to lean ham, turkey bacon, lean ground turkey, and Canadian bacon. French toast and pancakes can make healthy breakfasts when cooked in non-stick pans, served without butter, and topped with jam, fruit or syrup, and powdered sugar.

Lunch: Never in the Same Place Twice

Here are ways of solving the lunch dilemma. Some working people who frequently eat lunch in restaurants choose to make it their main meal of the day, but most people eat more lightly at lunch because of habit and time constraints. Bringing food for lunch and snacks from home can save money and help you avoid temptations. If you work at home, constant access to the refrigerator can be a challenge. It’s a good idea to schedule a lunch break, take the phone off the hook, and give yourself time to create and enjoy a satisfying meal.

Ingredients of a healthy lunch. The core of a healthy lunch usually includes soup, sandwich, and salad. You can create endless variations from basic lunch ingredients. Stock up on a wide range of vegetables for salads and sandwiches. Cut enough vegetables for a few days and store them in the refrigerator for easy use. Experiment with different flavored low-fat dips and dressings to liven them up.

Choose lean turkey or ham instead of bologna or salami for lunch meats. Use low-fat cheeses sparingly. Whole grain breads will be more satisfying and nutritious. Try creating different sandwich spreads and fillings made from beans, canned fish, cottage cheese, and tofu. Sardines and canned salmon or tuna (packed in water) are good choices. Broth-based soups are better than cheese- or cream-based soups. Eat low-fat corn chips and pretzels with your sandwich if you wish. Fruit, frozen yogurt, or fig bars make a fine dessert. Use leftovers for easy lunches.

Dinner: Sorting Through the Options

Although dinner possibilities are countless, most Americans cook only 10 to 12 entrées, notes William Castelli, M.D., Director of the well-known Framingham Heart Study. Traditionally, these meals consist of large portions of meat, chicken, or fish, with smaller side dishes of vegetables and grains. Your challenge today is to reverse those ratios and use larger portions of vegetables and grains and smaller helpings of protein. Potatoes, rice, pasta, and breads are becoming entrées, while meats and cheese are becoming side dishes.

For some people, experimenting with new recipes and adjusting old ones for healthier eating turns out to be fun—as long as there’s some time set aside for learning new tricks. Alternating easy meals with more challenging dishes can keep the workload under control. When adjusting recipes, focus on reducing added fat and replacing it with herbs and spices. It may take some trial and error, but it’s a worthwhile project to find a few new recipes for vegetarian meals or dishes that use small amounts of meat or fish that you really enjoy.

Ingredients of a healthy dinner. Planning a week’s worth of dinner entrées will help you shape a varied, nutritious meal plan. A workable framework to create balance could be to base entrées on each of these groups once or twice a week:

Beef or pork once
Chicken or fish twice
Pasta or other grain twice
Vegetables and beans twice

Whatever your main dish, make two to three servings of vegetables part of almost every dinner. To increase the use of vegetables at dinner time, try the following tricks:

Grill vegetables while grilling your meat
Add vegetables to sauce when making pasta
Fill baked potatoes with steamed vegetables
Stir-fry vegetables for quick meals
Use leftover vegetables in salads or soups
Use fresh or poached fruits in salads and for dessert

Between-Meal Snacks

If you are hungry, eat something. Snacks have become such a common part of the American diet that recent studies show our three-meal-a-day lifestyle turning into five meals a day. Eating frequent small meals not only fits many of today’s diverse lifestyles, it may even be healthier. Consequently, snacks take on a more central role in current meal-planning strategies.

Keep healthy choices in the foreground. If the first thing you see when you open the refrigerator is a large chocolate cake, it takes a lot of willpower to look any further for a snack. But if your eye falls on an inviting plate of raw vegetables and dip, you’re likely to go for it. Stocking up on healthy snacks is one of the best ways to ward off temptation. When you leave the house, consider packing healthy food to take along. If you’re a person who likes to munch frequently, accept that fact and prepare for the inevitable. Here are some suggestions for healthy snacking:

Prepare by making dips from fat-free yogurt, sour cream, mayonnaise, or cream cheese; try pureeing canned beans with herbs and spices for a tasty change of pace.
Keep on hand a variety of raw vegetables such as carrots, celery sticks, zucchini, parsnip, cauliflower, or broccoli florets.
Use fat-free tortilla chips, breadsticks, toasted pita bread, and cut-up vegetables for dips.
For crunchy snacks, try pretzels, low-sodium crackers, unbuttered popcorn, graham crackers, and rice cakes.
Satisfy your sweet tooth with fresh and dried fruit. Canned pineapple is particularly satisfying. Hard candies are high in calories but contain no fat and are useful if you can eat them sparingly.
Breads, rolls, and bagels spread with jam or jelly can be healthy, filling snacks.

Stocking the Kitchen

Upgrading the nutritional value of the ingredients you stock in your pantry will automatically make for healthier home cooking. There is no need to restock all at once. As you experiment with different ingredients and run out of items, gradually replace them with healthier alternatives. Here are some suggestions.

Flour: Substitute whole-grain flours (such as whole wheat, buckwheat, rye, and oat flour) for refined flours to provide more fiber as well as B vitamins. Soy flour is also a good source of protein.
Grains: Brown rice is more nutritious than white rice because of its higher fiber content. Interesting quick-cooking grains include Texmati and pecan rice, bulgur, pre-cooked couscous, kasha, and instant polenta.
Vegetable Oils: Safflower, sunflower, and corn oils are high in polyunsaturated fat. Olive, canola, and peanut oils contain monounsaturated fat. Substituting either kind for saturated fats like butter will help to lower your cholesterol level. Avoid palm and coconut oils, which are full of saturated fat.
Legumes: Beans, peas, and lentils are an excellent source of protein and fiber. They also provide B vitamins, iron, and calcium. Legumes are a key element of any low-fat menu plan because they can be used as a meat substitute when combined with a grain.
Condiments: Get rid of high-sodium and high-fat condiments such as Worcestershire, soy, and cream sauces, and regular mayonnaise. Substitute flavored vinegar, tomato paste, lemon juice, and mustard. Stock up on herbs and spices and use them to replace salt.

Navigating the Supermarket

Some people prefer to plan and shop for one or two days at a time; others prefer a big supermarket shopping trip once every week or two. Whatever your approach, health-conscious shopping is the foundation of a healthy diet. A comprehensive shopping list can help you focus. To save time, some people create a master shopping list, make photocopies of it, and then simply check off needed items each week. If you work you may not have the energy to plan ahead, but you can keep a healthy paperback cookbook at work and, at the end of each day, pick out a recipe and get the ingredients on the way home.

Cruising the aisles of a supermarket, chock-full of new products and competing health claims, can be a bit overwhelming. To make shopping less of a chore, simplify and prioritize your goals. The first week you might want to focus on buying low-fat dairy products; the next week you can check for the sodium content in the foods you are purchasing and make low-salt substitutions. Another way to keep it simple is to look for whole foods with no added ingredients. For example, 100 percent fruit juice is a whole food, compared with a fruit drink that may have only 10 percent fruit juice. The closer you get to a whole food, the more nutrients you will consume. Here’s a quick tour of the major departments, with an eye to your healthier choices.

Fresh produce aisle. Fruit is a good low- calorie source of carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins A and C, and potassium. Remember, however, that dried fruit is higher in calories and avocados are high in fat. Most fresh fruit will keep for a week, and some will need to ripen at home. When buying canned or frozen fruit, look for labels that say “unsweetened” or “packed in its own juices.”

Vegetables provide fiber, vitamins A and C, potassium, calcium, and iron. They lose nutrients easily if not cooked properly, however. The fresher the vegetables, the more nutrients; precut and on-sale vegetables tend to be less nutritious. Always check vegetables for soft spots and bruises. Buy canned and frozen vegetables as substitutes for those out of season. Check labels for sodium content and for added cream or cheese sauces that are high in fat and calories.

As interest in healthy eating grows, many new varieties of vegetables and fruits reach the market. Experiment with them and you may find some new favorites.

The meat counter. Poultry and meat are excellent sources of protein, iron and B vitamins. Lean cuts of beef have reduced fat and, ounce for ounce, more nutrients. Eaten with the skin removed, poultry provides the protein with less fat. Since most Americans get too much fat and protein, cutting down on meat, choosing leaner cuts, and removing all visible fat is important for almost everyone. Ask the butcher to help you identify the leanest cuts.

“Prime” cuts usually have the most fat
“Choice” is moderately fat
“Select” is lean meat

Examine meat for visible fat, check the sell-by date, and inspect for damaged packaging. Look for labeling that gives fat-to-lean percentages.

Processed meats are not recommended for people watching calories, cholesterol, sodium, or fat content. If you want processed meats, look for low-fat varieties made from turkey or chicken.

The seafood counter. Fish is a prime source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. Fish is often low in fat; and even when it is fatty, it may contain omega-3 fatty acids that lower your triglyceride levels and reduce the danger of blood clots. Shellfish is being recommended again for its low calories and fat. Avoid dried, salted, and smoked fish if you are watching your sodium. Pickled fish is also high in sodium. Choose water-packed rather than oil-packed tuna to reduce calories and fat as much as possible. Rinsing canned tuna will wash away much of the excess sodium. When buying fish:

Sniff before you buy
Reject prewrapped fish with damaged packaging
When possible, select fish stored unwrapped on ice in glass cases
When buying whole fish make sure there is no yellowing along the cut line
Make certain that fresh lobsters and crabs are alive when purchased
Remember that precooked fresh fish is safe to eat only on the day prepared.

 

What the Health Claims Really Mean

Health claims are proliferating on supermarket packaging. For accurate information, rely on the new, government-mandated nutrition labels rather than manufacturers’ claims. Here are the official definitions of common “health” catch-words.
Low calorie: These products have less than 40 calories a serving, but a “serving” may be tiny. Be sure to check the size.
Reduced calorie: This type of food has at least one-third less calories than comparable products. “Reduced calories” does not mean reduced fat, however.
Light/lite: Don’t assume this means less calories; light/lite can refer to many variables such as color and taste. Read the nutrition label to check the validity of this claim.
Sugar Free/sugarless: These products have no table sugar, fructose, or corn syrup. Check for ingredients that sweeten the product.
Diet/dietetic: Such foods should meet the requirements of low- or reduced-calorie products. If not, look for a clear explanation of why the food is a diet product.
Sodium free/low sodium/reduced sodium: “Sodium free” means no more than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving. “Low sodium” food will not have more than 140 milligrams, and “reduced sodium” will have at least 75 percent less sodium than comparable products.
Low/no cholesterol: “No cholesterol” translates into no more than 2 milligrams of cholesterol per serving. “Low cholesterol” means 20 milligrams or less, and “reduced cholesterol” has 75 percent or less cholesterol than comparable products. Watch out for products that say “no cholesterol” but don’t mention the saturated fat.
Enriched: When flour is processed it loses nutrients. “Enriched” means some have been put back. An enriched product may not be as nutritious as its unprocessed counterpart.
Fortified: To add vitamins and minerals not naturally contained in food is to fortify it. This may be beneficial, but only if you need to make up a deficiency.

 

The dairy case. Eggs provide protein and vitamin A—but also a substantial amount of cholesterol. Check for cracks before buying eggs. When you open them, signs of freshness are that the yolk holds together and the white doesn’t run. Cholesterol-free egg substitutes are available in the frozen-food section.

Milk gives you calcium, protein, B vitamins and vitamins A and D. However, whole milk and hard cheeses are high in saturated fats. In selecting products, look for low-fat and skim milk that is fortified with vitamins A and D; cheese made from skim milk; and low-fat cottage and farmer cheese. When buying milk, choose cartons on the bottom of the display case and get the milk just before you are ready to pay. Substitute nonfat dry milk or 1 percent liquid skim milk for cream, rather than using nondairy substitutes that are high in fat. When buying yogurt, reduce calories by buying fat-free plain yogurt and adding your own fruit and flavorings.

Staples on the shelf. Beans, lentils, peas, peanuts, and soybeans (the legume family) provide protein, fiber, and many essential vitamins and minerals. Legumes may be used as meat substitutes when consumed with a balanced diet. However, some people have trouble digesting legumes. If they are not already part of your diet, introduce them gradually.

To make sure legumes are fresh, look for bright color; cracks or discolorations may mean they are old. Give tofu (bean curd) a try. It’s a high-protein vegetable food that is very low in calories. Use it to supplement other foods; it will take on the flavor of any dish.

White bread, still the most common choice, loses 90% of its fiber during processing. Whole wheat, rye, and multigrain bread provide much more. Bread with 2 or more grams of fiber per slice is a good choice. Always check the sell-by date to ensure freshness.

Cereal, pasta, and rice are also grain products. Cereal is a source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. When selecting cereals check for sugar, sodium, and calorie content. Granola cereals often are high in saturated fat. Read the nutrition label, rather than the packaging advertisements, for information. When reading labels check the serving sizes.

Pasta is a good source of complex carbohydrates, fiber, B vitamins, and iron. While pasta is a low-fat choice in itself, remember that adding a cream sauce can turn it into a high-fat meal. Stick with vegetable-based sauces instead. Rice also provides complex carbohydrates, protein, and sometimes fiber. White rice has little fiber left after processing; brown rice is a better source.

The current dietary rage is to replace saturated animal fats with unsaturated oils. This is a healthy move, but remember that vegetable oils are still 120 calories (per tablespoon) of pure fat, and that coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils do contain saturated fat. Try using small amounts of flavorful oils such as sesame, peanut, and olive oil. Remember that products advertising “100 percent vegetable oil” may still harbor highly saturated fats that can raise cholesterol levels just as much as animal fat. Cholesterol itself never appears in vegetable oil, so don’t be fooled by this manipulative advertising.

 

Outfitting A High-Health Kitchen

Vegetable steamer: This metal insert goes inside cooking pots. It holds vegetables above the water while cooking them with steam. This method preserves more of the nutrients than boiling in water.
Non-stick pans: These are used for sautéing meats and vegetables, frying eggs, and making omelettes with a minimum of butter or oil.
Blender or food processor: Both can mix, puree, chop, slice, and grate foods. Blenders can be used to make nutritious drinks and soups. Food processors will chop and grate vegetables, making the preparation of healthy dishes less time-consuming.
Microwave oven: Because this speedy appliance uses moist heat, there is no need for butter or oil. The faster cooking preserves nutrients and leaves attractive color in fruits and vegetables.
Wok: Available in electric and stove-top models, this bowl-shaped pan is excellent for stir-frying meats and vegetables. Woks work well with little oil and cooks vegetables fast, preserving more nutrients.
Skimmer/strainer: Use this hand tool to remove congealed fat from the tops of casseroles, stews, and soups, thereby reducing fat and calories.
Juicer: This often cumbersome appliance converts fresh fruits and vegetables to juice. Use it to cut down on cost, sugar, and salt of commercial juices, while making fresh juice readily available.
Hot-air popcorn popper: Popping corn without oil or butter keeps calories and fat low. It’s great for late-night snacking.

 

Nutrition-Wise Cooking

The latest cooking utensils make nutritious eating not only easy but quick. But remember that it takes a little time to learn how to use new equipment. Introduce new technology slowly. The box on “Outfitting a High-Health Kitchen” lists some of the best low- and high-tech items.

Often overlooked, food-preparation methods using high-health utensils can make a big difference in the quality of your diet. Use the following techniques to help preserve the nutrients in your food. These methods have the added benefit of reducing time spent in the kitchen.

Lean meats: The best methods for cooking meat and poultry are those that call for little or no addition of fat, and those that allow you to drain off the fat already contained in the meat. These techniques include roasting, broiling, stir-frying, and microwaving.

Roasting and baking use dry heat. Broiling uses high, direct heat. Place the meat on a tray that allows fat to drip away.

Stir-frying is a very hot and fast method that requires little oil. If basting or marinating is necessary, use non-fat substances like lemon juice, vinegar, or wine. Always trim away obvious fat and whitish fat pads from under the skin. Steer away from high-fat cooking methods such as frying and batter frying.

Seafood: Eating fish is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. To preserve this health benefit, cook fish according to the amount of fat it contains. Grill or broil salmon, trout, and other fatty fish; use moist-cooking methods such as poaching to make flounder, haddock, and leaner fish taste better.

Vegetables: How you prepare and cook your vegetables will have dramatic results on their nutritional value. Wash them thoroughly but don’t soak them; water will deplete nutrients. When vegetables are chopped, peeled, and cooked they lose vitamins. Try cooking them whole, or peel and chop just before cooking.

Cut the vegetables evenly so they cook for the same amount of time and, if you plan to freeze them, do it immediately after cooking. The goal is for vegetables to be tender and crisp. The faster they cook the more nutrients you preserve. The least nutritious method is to boil vegetables in large amounts of water. Serve vegetables promptly after cooking.

Beans: For increasing protein, vitamins, and fiber in your diet while keeping salt and fat to a minimum, beans are the answer. Use beans in soups, salads, and casseroles. Rinse them well and remove beans that float and other natural debris. Most require presoaking overnight; put them in a pot of cold water. If you don’t mind the beans breaking up in the water, you can use a quicker method: Place the beans in a saucepan with 2 inches of water and bring to a boil over medium heat. Simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, turn off the heat, cover and let stand for 1 to 2 hours. Remove the residue from the top with a strainer. The skin will crack slightly when the beans are done. To reduce stomach upset and gas, after the beans have soaked drain the water and replace it with fresh water to simmer.

Pasta: Cook pasta until it is tender but still firm. Overcooking will drain it of nutrients. Don’t rinse after cooking unless the recipe specifically calls for it—water washes away nutrients. Remember: cream-based, high-fat sauces counteract the benefits of this low-fat dish.

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