There is so much information out there today about nutrition, and it seems that we’re being told to change how and what we eat at every turn. Low fat. High fiber. Gluten-free. Vegan. Protein-rich. Minimally processed. Organic. Smoothies. Plant-based. Dairy-free. (I can NOT give up cheese. Don’t even ask.)
Even just within each food group – dairy, for example. Should we drink fat free milk? Full fat milk? Soy milk? Almond milk? It’s overwhelming. What do we take in and what do we let roll off?
The meals I put on the table today are far different than they were five years ago. Along with beef or chicken and a canned or creamy vegetable, there was always some sort of white starch on the plate, be it rice, rolls, French bread or potatoes. I grew up in a small Wisconsin town in a large Irish Catholic family, and my husband grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota, and that was just how we ate. It was reasonably cost effective, filling and quick to the table. Hamburger Helper? Loved it. Green beans with cream of mushroom soup? A staple. Rice-A-Roni? You betcha.
Today, the plate looks much different at our family table, and while we’ve made many changes to our diet, the two biggest differences are the reduction of both processed foods and white starches. But those changes did not happen overnight. The years when dinner was often processed chicken nuggets, frozen bagged French fries, and brightly colored yogurt in tubes are still fresh in my memory.
If these meals are sounding familiar, and you’re wondering where to begin with those healthy long-term changes, I have a few pieces of advice. First and foremost, make your changes gradually. In business it’s often wisest to make several changes at once, rather than spread the change out over time. Rip off the bandage and move on, as they say. But that usually doesn’t work when it comes to dietary changes for you our your family.
Remember, our goal here is long term, sustainable changes, not a two-month crash diet.
So what to change first? In my family, I got rid of the empty starches. Once you let go of the idea that every dinner has to have a bread, rice or pasta element, you have lots more room for lean proteins, fruits and veggies. And often, these replacements have high nutrient density and water content, making them every bit as filling as the starches.
We didn’t go cold turkey on the starches, though. Initially the sides changed from white to brown. First the breads, then the pasta, then the rice. It took a little while to find a whole wheat pasta that we all found palatable, but we did. If you have a skillet meal that really needs to be served on something, or just need another side, try quinoa. It’s pronounced KEEN-wah, and it’s a wonderfully nutty grain that’s easy to cook (two parts water to one part quinoa, and cook it just like quick rice), and is a complete protein. In 3.5 ounces uncooked, you’ll find 14 grams of protein. Add some broth or seasoning to the water and you have a nice filling side with a great protein boost.
Now how about those processed foods. You’ve heard the advice to shop only from the outside edges of the grocery store, right? It really does work. You’ll find produce, meats, dairy, bakery (remember, whole wheat bread) – just about everything you need. Skip the inside aisles and you’ll skip the foods with the highest amounts of artificial ingredients. Boxed side dishes. Salad dressings with tons of unpronounceable ingredients. Canned foods with tons of additives. Cereals that are colors not found in nature. And, of course, the snacks, chips and soda aisles.
Is everything on the edge of the store good for you? Nope, there’s always the exception. But challenge yourself. Next time you go to the grocery store, try skipping the inside aisles as much as possible. (You’ll have to go down the aisle that has the quinoa though, now that you can’t wait to try it.) Instead of making a packaged noodle or rice mix with rolls to go with your grilled chicken, put out a bowl of cherries, cantaloupe slices and some roasted broccoli. (Chop the broccoli into florets, spread on a cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and roast at 425 degrees for about 12 minutes. Much tastier than the frozen stuff.)
Again, take things in small steps. I remember thinking, “OK, this month we are going to replace dinner breads and rolls with fruit.” The next month, I’d try to cut back on foods with artificial coloring. The next month, foods with high fructose corn syrup or other artificial sweeteners were on the chopping block.
Of course, there are still some processed things in my pantry – I really do love those green beans with cream of mushroom soup. And sometimes you just have to have a big white crusty loaf of bread smothered in butter and garlic salt with your (whole wheat) spaghetti and jar of Prego. And there is a jar of Nutella sitting next to the organic peanut butter. But on the whole, the meals on our table are far healthier, have lots more fruits and veggies, and have far less processed and empty calorie foods than they did five years ago. And everybody at our table feels healthy and satisfied.
At least for now – next month we start smoothies.
Sarah Heins is the franchise owner of Jazzercise in Fort Mill.