one not-so-simple rule for all healthy eating

Many many years ago, I was talking with a friend about cooking and food, and she said, "You know what the key to good cooking is? Fresh, quality ingredients." At the time, I didn't know what she meant, but I learned that she was right.

Of course there can be techniques and all manner of specialized knowledge involved in cooking, which I know very little about. And there's experimentation and good recipe advice. Cooking is an evolving process and can always be improved. But the key to solid, basic cooking is using fresh, quality ingredients. Start there, pay attention, and you almost can't go wrong. It's the cornerstone of the whole process.

Recently I realized that healthy eating has a cornerstone, too, one key concept from which everything flows: advanced planning.

You can't eat healthfully without planning in advance. The more you can plan ahead, the more you can control what you eat. The more last-minute and spontaneous your eating, the less healthy it will be.

This applies to whatever manner of healthy eating you're trying to achieve, whether it's cutting down on sodium, fat, white sugar, or processed food, eating less meat, eating more vegetables, or anything else. It all comes down to planning. There are probably exceptions to this, but it's as close to an infallible rule as you'll find.

Here's one small example from my own life. Healthy breakfasts are an ongoing challenge for me. One healthy breakfast that I like is scrambling egg whites with some veggies. If I'm going to eat that once or twice a week, I have to remember to put frozen egg whites and the vegetables I want on the shopping list, thaw the egg whites in advance, and - this is the key - cut up the vegetables and put them in containers in the fridge in advance. Without that, it doesn't happen.

In the morning, after I take Tala out, have my coffee and check my email, I'm hungry, and I'm anxious to start my day. If I have to chop onions, wash and slice mushrooms, and wash and slice bell peppers, this healthy breakfast is not gonna happen. But at another time, maybe when I'm taking a break or already preparing some other food, if I run an onion through the food processor, slice a whole container of mushrooms, and dice a whole bell pepper, then put them in separate containers in the refrigerator... then in the morning, everything is there when I need it. The actual cooking takes only a few minutes.

Not only does this encourage me to eat the better breakfast, it's also much more efficient, since the onion, shrooms and pepper will stay fresh for around two weeks. In fact, it was while I was throwing some already-chopped onions into the skillet, so pleased with myself for having organized this yummy breakfast, that I thought of writing this post.

[You can create an exception to the Advanced Planning Rule if you can afford to buy salads already prepared, lettuce already washed (a mainstay in our home), or vegetables already washed and cut up. This can be very helpful, but still requires some advance planning, as these won't stay fresh as long as whole vegetables.]

To people who are natural planners, the idea that healthy eating requires advanced planning may seem incredibly obvious. But to people who are not naturally inclined to plan ahead or who are resistant to planning, or both, it can be a major obstacle.

If you're accustomed to a lifestyle where you shop weekly with a list, make dinner at home most nights, bring your lunch to work, then planning ahead is so ingrained in your life, you may barely think about it, even though it's something you do all the time.

If your schedule is erratic, or you're constantly pressed for time, if you generally don't think about food until you're hungry, if you have the means to frequently dine out, or any combination of these, planning ahead may seem impossible or undesirable. But you may not realize how much that spontaneity is preventing you from having healthier eating habits.

For many of us, the movement from no or minimal planning to a greater degree of planning occurred with age. In general, young adults plan less, eat more convenience food, are less concerned with nutrition or economizing. But learning how to plan ahead doesn't necessarily come naturally with age. I know lots of people my age who find it very difficult. I'll bet many planners, like me, have partners whose response to "What do you want to do for dinner tonight?" is "I don't know, I can't think that far ahead."

I've learned not to ask, just to plan. I take responsibility for planning dinners for the week - which nights we'll be home, what we have in the house already, what we need to buy - because I don't like what happens when I don't. I like efficiency. Even though I'm not the one doing the shopping, I hate needing multiple trips to the same store that could have been avoided with better planning, or going out to dinner not because we want to, but because there's nothing in the house to eat. Plus, our budget is so tight these days; unplanned dinners out create budget havoc.

Flexibility is important. Sometimes when you have a bad or crazy day, the best thing you can do for yourself is to say, "Let's make this chicken tomorrow night, let's get Chinese food tonight." But on a regular basis, if you "can't think that far ahead" to dinner, chances are good that you'll spend more money and eat less healthfully than you would have if you had planned. No matter how many restaurants include healthy choices on their menus, most people end up eating more and less healthfully in restaurants than they do at home.

If this is an issue for you, like any new habits, you might try starting small: make one change, live with it a while, let it take root as a habit, before adding in another change. If bringing your lunch to work is a stumbling block that you'd like to get past, maybe aim for bringing lunch one day a week. See how that works, then add a second day.

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