The season of good intentions and new gym memberships — otherwise known as January — seems so long ago now. Spring break can’t come soon enough. And somewhere in between, your plan to eat better and cook more at home has hit a wall, if it got off the ground at all.
You’re not alone, says registered dietitian Amari Thomsen.
“A lot of people, when they start the new year, have a laundry list of things to change, whether it’s to lose weight or drink more water or cook more, and it’s just not feasible to flip a switch in your life and make all those things happen on day one, January 1,” said Thomsen, owner of Eat Chic Chicago, a nutrition consulting practice.
It’s not for lack of trying. Intent on meeting these self-imposed if overly ambitious nutrition goals, people “think they need to go out and fill their fridge with all these expensive ingredients,” said health coach and natural foods chef Amanda Skrip.
You know what happens next. You get busy, the organic kale turns slimy and you end up throwing it all out and ordering takeout.
But it’s never too late to head back to the kitchen. The key is to shift from all-or-nothing to a more cumulative approach. “It’s about forming habits, which takes time,” said Thomsen.
Don’t wing it
Take a few minutes to think of your schedule for the week, then write out meals for certain days, based on what you know is realistic for you.
“It helps set expectations and I think it goes a long way if you’re feeding a family,” said Thomsen.
No one’s expecting you to try out for Masterchef. Save the complicated, show-off dishes for dinner parties and holidays.
“Find three or four recipes that you can make that don’t require research and new techniques,” said Skrip, who teaches cooking classes at Whole Foods Market.
Thomsen writes her meals on a white board on her fridge, but there are plenty of meal-planning apps that can also create your grocery list with a few taps. Once you’ve mapped out your meals, pick a day to buy the groceries you need.
Divvy it up
It’s time- and cost-effective to buy and cook by the bulk and batch, and it makes meal-planning that much easier.
“Most people’s plans to cook healthier tend to come with more time spent in the kitchen, and usually time’s not something you have, so anything you can do to save time will help get you there,” said Thomsen.
Whole cuts are typically cheaper per pound than steaks, chops and fillets. Portion them at home into freezer bags to pull out later. Do the same with big batches of stews or soups that you cook, and you’ve got future dinners in the can or, rather, bag.
“I’ll pack a bunch of snack baggies full of nuts and fruits and dried garbanzo beans and then throw them in the cupboard. You can take them to go, put them in the kids’ lunchboxes,” said Thomsen.
Yes, yes, you know you should eat more vegetables. But here’s a more specific and useful bit of advice: “At every meal, aim for having three different colors on your plate. White and brown don’t count,” said Thomsen. While you’re thinking numbers, three to four ounces — what fits in the palm of your hand — is a good rule-of-thumb for a serving of meat.
And about those vegetables: Don’t dismiss frozen vegetables, which are affordable, packed at peak harvest and store well. “You don’t have to worry about spoilage,” Skrip said.
Skrip also is a fan of clamshells of greens such as arugula or baby spinach, which you can use to bulk up stews, sandwiches and even store-bought and takeout meals.
Few foods provide as much bang for your buck as beans and other legumes. They’re a great source of protein and fiber, versatile and cheap, especially the dried varieties (head for the bulk bins at your grocery store).
Canned or dried, beans will last up to two years in the pantry. Skrip suggests looking for canned brands with little to no added salt or other additives.
A big pot of beans can be a meal in itself or the base for hearty stews and other dishes, such as sautéed with those greens in your fridge and topped with a fried egg.
Go vegan, even for a day
There are numerous health and environmental benefits to following a vegan diet, but if an entirely plant-based diet isn’t appealing or feasible, what about in small, Meatless Monday-type doses?
“Most people, regardless of how they eat, can benefit from adding more [plant-based] recipes and foods to their repertoire,” said Skrip.
Chia and hemp seeds are powerhouse, not to mention trendy, ingredients full of fiber, omega-3s and protein, and they go a long way in smoothies and puddings or sprinkled over salads. Chia seeds thicken soups and dressings. Mixed with water, they can replace eggs in baking.
And look to other cultures for inspiration. In Chinese stir-fries, meat is used minimally as an accent; vegetables are the main player. Mediterranean dishes emphasize vegetables, grains, nuts and beans—and if you’ve stocked up on beans, might as well use them.
This soup, from health coach Amanda Skrip, is rich and creamy thanks to protein-rich red lentils. Freeze in portions for future meals.
Hearty Cauliflower Soup with Red Lentils + Kale
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 large head of cauliflower, cut into florets
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
4 to 6 cups water or stock (more as needed)
1½ cups red lentils
3 carrots, peeled and chopped into rounds
1 bunch lacinato kale, stems removed and torn into pieces
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss cauliflower with 1 tablespoon olive oil and a pinch of salt. Roast on a large baking sheet for 40-50 minutes, until golden and caramelized. Set aside.
Meanwhile, heat remaining tablespoon oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and crushed red pepper flakes; stir. Add water and lentils, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add carrots. Let cook until thick and lentils are soft, about 30 minutes. Add water to thin as necessary.
Add in roasted cauliflower and kale. Stir until kale wilts and soup is combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Who says you have to give up treats? These, from registered dietitian Amari Thomsen, are low in sugar and full of fiber and unsaturated fats (the good kind). Play around with almonds or peanuts instead of pecans.
No-Bake Maple Cinnamon Pecan Bars
Makes 30 bars
4 cups rolled oats
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
6 cups pecan halves
1/2 cup maple syrup
In a blender or food processor, pulse rolled oats until roughly chopped (but not ground into flour). Transfer to a large mixing bowl and stir in cinnamon and salt.
In a large skillet, toast pecans over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes until fragrant. Transfer 4 cups of pecans to blender or food processor and let cool. Meanwhile, chop remaining 2 cups of pecans. Blend the cooled pecans until smooth, pausing occasionally to scrape down the sides and push the mixture toward the blade.
Add pecan butter to the oat mixture. Add maple syrup and stir until well-combined and no dry oats remain. Fold in chopped pecans. Line a 9-by-13-inch pan with parchment paper. Press mixture evenly into pan. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Slice into squares. Store in fridge or at room temperature.
Janet Rausa Fuller is a local freelance writer.