You eat in a variety of places – your home, work, restaurants, maybe even your car. For some of these places, you have more control over what choices are available than others. Since high-calorie foods are everywhere, it’s important to take the time to plan ahead to make sure you have healthy options available.
Whether you are cooking for just yourself, one to two people, or a larger group, planning meals is a good place to start improving your food choices. Taking the time to plan a healthy evening meal can help you avoid a less healthful “drive-through” dinner.
To start, grab a pencil and paper and list your favorite meals. It may help to talk to your family or thumb through a favorite cook book. Some of the meals will be healthier than others, but for now, just write them all down.
You might want to use MyPlate Planexternal icon. The plan will show you your daily food group targets — what and how much to eat within your calorie allowance. It can help you plan your upcoming meals to meet your weight goals and suggest ways to improve choices. Download My Food Diary pdf icon[PDF-105KB] to help you track your meals.
Once you’ve planned your meals, make a grocery list. Take some time on your visit to the grocery store to choose lower-calorie ingredients. Here are some ideas that may help:
- Many casseroles and meat sauces use cream soups as a base. Use a low-fat cream soup.
- Substitute a low-fat cheese in casseroles and vegetable sauces. When using sharply flavored cheese, such as cheddar and parmesan, you can usually reduce the amount in a recipe to save calories without sacrificing flavor.
- Try a non-stick cooking spray or a small amount of cooking oil for sautéing instead of frying with solid fat.
- If you’re using ground beef for tacos or meat sauce for spaghetti, look for a lower-fat variety such as ground round or ground sirloin or try using skinless ground turkey breast. Once you’ve browned the meat, drain to remove excess fat.
- Instead of full-fat versions of mayonnaises, butter, and salad dressings, try those that are lower in calories, total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat.
- Check out the frozen food aisles for quick, low-calorie vegetable side dishes. You can find cut green beans, sliced carrots, and other chopped vegetables in the frozen food section. Avoid the ones with added cream, butter, or cheese sauces as these ingredients can add calories. You can steam these vegetables quickly in the microwave.
- In some soups and entrees, you may also be able to add dry beans to extend the recipe and improve the nutritional value. This is easy to do in vegetable-based soups and chili. You can just add a cup of canned white beans, kidney beans, or pinto beans to the recipe. As another example, if you are making enchiladas, rinse a can of black beans and add these to the ground meat.
Research shows that people get full by the amount of food they eat, not the number of calories they take in. You can cut calories in your favorite foods by lowering the amount of fat and or increasing the amount of fiber-rich ingredients, such as vegetables or fruit. Eating fewer calories doesn’t necessarily mean eating less food. To learn more, visit Eat More, Weigh Less? And see How to Use Fruits and Vegetables to Help Manage Your Weight for more information.
At first, you may find you only get a lower calorie meal planned for one or two nights a week. Don’t criticize yourself; you’re making steps in the right direction. Over time, you’ll figure out meal-preparation short-cuts and it will become easier to make healthy family meals a regular occurrence.
For the places where you might grab a snack or have a meal on the go (such as the car or at your desk), make sure you have nutritious snacks available or at home that you can take with you. For example:
- “Grab-and-go” fruits: apples, oranges, bananas, canned fruit without added sugars, and raisins
- Washed and chopped fresh vegetables: celery, carrots, and cucumbers
- Low-fat and fat-free milk products: yogurt without added sugars, milk, and low-fat cheeses
- Whole-grain crackers and breads
- Protein choices such as low-fat deli turkey slices or almonds and other nuts and seeds
Take the time to make a shopping list and re-stock your cabinets and fridge with healthy options. It’s also a good idea to think about stocking your office cabinet or car glove box with healthy shelf-stable treats if these are places where you snack. You’ll find it’s easier to make better choices when you have a good variety of nutritious foods available in the places where you eat.