When I was a young girl, I remember my mother writing a shopping list each week before we went to the market. In hindsight I realize now that she didn't just pull the ingredients randomly out of thin air; she wrote down what she needed based on her meal plan Meal planning feels passe in today's fast-paced world of eating out and taking in prepared meals. 95% of my clients do not have a meal planning practice. When they come to me they are frustrated with the weekly cooking and lost about what to eat. Of all my culinary nutrition tips, tricks and tools, meal planning is the #1 tool I use to help clients succeed in the kitchen and in achieving their health goals. Research has even shown that those who cook their own meals, as opposed to eating out, are happier*.
WHAT IS MEAL PLANNING?
Meal planning is a way to organize the week's meals so that the shopping, prepping, and cooking are less stressful and more manageable. It involves a menu of what to cook, recipes (if necessary), shopping list, and some people write down how to divide up the cooking over the week so that it is not overwhelming. Like any habitual practice, one needs a plan to accomplish the task at hand. Without a meal plan it is easy to waste food, run to the store more often than necessary, derail from a nourishing diet, and forgo cooking altogether. A little time planning each week can solve these problems.
This blog is the first of a three-part series on meal planning. For anyone looking to create more organization and improved quality of their weekly meals, it's important to have a solid place to start from. Have a colorful plant-based list of foods that all of the meals each week will be based around. The list below will give you enough color, variety, and flexibility to choose from seasonally. These staple ingredients are part of a Mediterranean diet, the most well researched diet, showing benefits for many of the chronic diseases the Western world faces today, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, and mental illness. Keep reading to see examples of how to apply the science into a weekly meal plan.
Cherry, beefsteak, sungold, green zebra. Who doesn't like a ripe, juicy tomato in the peak of summer? They seem to pop out all at once in our gardens, CSA baskets, and markets, which is why we eagerly wait all summer for them to appear. There are so many varieties to choose from, each with a distinct taste, scent, and texture. Even the health benefits vary from one variety to another: smaller cherry tomatoes contain higher levels of beta-carotene than the larger beefsteak and field tomatoes.
Across the board, tomatoes are a nutritional powerhouse. The vitamins, minerals, and carotenoids (a type of phytonutrients) can help protect against cancer, maintain healthy skin, maintain blood pressure, and lower blood glucose in diabetics. Let's dive in a little deeper about some of the health supportive effects of tomatoes.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Shunryu Suzuki
In our culture we spend a lot of time talking about WHAT to eat, and not as much focus on the HOW of eating. Watch a baby try new foods for the first time and you can learn so much about eating with a beginner's mind. A beginner's mind is something we are born with and later on rediscover on a more conscious level. It is the mind that lets the knowing self fall back and a more curious and willing self emerge. Here are some insights of the last three weeks introducing new foods to Olive.
Variety is instinctual
Olive is like any other baby in that she fixes her attention on color, which is why I try to prepare foods different in color from one another. One day her spoon has red from beets and the next day there's green from spinach. I've noticed she tires of something after I've given it to her three to four times in a row. Instinctually, we like variety on our plate. Most of us don't live in the wild Amazon with exotic plants all around us to forage. In our industrialized world we tend to eat the same thing day after day, missing out on a variety of fruits and vegetables that provides vital nutrition. Variety in the diet has beneficial upstream effects. For example, the Harvard-based Nurses Health Study, one of the largest and longest studies to date, showed eating a variety of fruits and vegetables can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke (1). To improve the variety in your diet, try this exercise (I just took part in this with a nutrition practice group): see if you can eat 50 different foods in one week. If you have a smoothie every morning, that's fine, but you can only count the ingredients in it once.
Anyone who has taken a cooking class with me, knows I'm in love with green foods. They are my warrior ingredients whether I'm teaching about detoxification, weight loss, cancer, brain health, or gut health. Recently, I discovered a whole new reason I steer toward eating so many greens. The color green reflects the qualities of LOVE: openness, expansiveness, nurturing, compassion, abundance. The impact of color in our diet and the way it influences our health comes from the work of one of my nutritional sheroes, Dr. Deanna Minich. I'm knee, or I should say heart, deep into her new course Rainbow Food and Supplements. After 15 years studying nutrition she is rocking the way I look at color in our diet. In light of spring, let's look at the color green or what she refers to as our "LOVE system".
Take a minute to reflect on how GREEN foods make you feel.
Think about how you feel when you work in your garden or take a walk in nature. Taking in the color green through your senses fills your heart with peace, and gives you a sense of being alive and in harmony with life. Similarly, eating green foods can have a strong sensation in the heart center. Some people claim that green foods makes them feel more vital. Others, have a hard time consuming green vegetables. There is no right or wrong feeling here. It is simply good information for your relationship with the LOVE system.
"All disease begins in the gut" ~ Hippocrates
The discovery of the microbiome and the functions of all the microbes within our body has been equally as important as the discovery of the human genome. The microbiome protects us against germs, breaks down food to release energy, and produces vitamins. When it comes to supporting gut health, much of the emphasis has been placed on probiotics, the good bacteria known to have specific benefits on the digestive tract.
An imbalance in the good and bad bacteria in the digestive system can show up in a wide array of systemic conditions, including hormonal issues, metabolic dysfunction, depression, cognition, even some cancers. It is recommended we take probiotic supplements, eat yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and sourdough bread to flood the GI tract with good microbes. However, for these bugs to function optimally in our favor, they need to feed on substrates called prebiotics.
Think of prebiotics as fertilizer for our microbiome. They are what probiotics feed on; in fact, we cannot fully digest these dietary fibers without good bacteria. Prebiotics and probiotics live in symbiosis. We need good bacteria to utilize the fiber we get from food and we equally need prebiotics to maintain the balance of good and bad bacteria in the GI tract. Research has shown that in healthy individuals, the more prebiotic foods we eat, the more good bacteria can proliferate, including Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, L. reuteri, bifidobacteria, and certain strains of L. casei or the L. acidophilus-group.1
Most commonly we think of prebiotic foods to include onions, garlic, jerusalem artichokes, asparagus and plantains. But there are many more prebiotic foods to include and enjoy on a daily basis. Think polyphenols, the magical bioactive compounds found in a colorful, plant-rich diet. Polyphenols are found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, and olive oil. Prebiotics also include herbs, cacao, sea vegetables, green tea, raw honey, and colostrum.
The greatest health benefit from including more prebiotic foods is better digestion*. As the gut bacteria metabolizes these undigested fibers, they produce short chain fatty acids (SCFA), which play a critical role in colon health. One of the SCFA's, butyric acid, protects the health of the intestinal lining. Others regulate electrolytes which are important for proper digestions, produce bowel movement, and prevent diarrhea.
This hypothesis, which has been around since the 1940's, was such a game changer in the medical community at the time, that a low-fat, low-cholesterol, and high carbohydrate diet became gospel for preventing and treating high cholesterol and heart disease. But there are many flaws with the diet-heart hypothesis. According to the president, Sylvan Lee Weinberg, of the American College of Cardiology, these recommendations may have lead to the unintended consequences of obesity, lipid abnormalities, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome (1).
Dietary cholesterol and saturated fat are not the enemies
I'll never forget sitting in a nutrition lecture when I was in culinary school and my teacher told us she reversed her high cholesterol by eating 9 eggs a day! How could that be since eggs are high in cholesterol and saturated fats? In fact, research has shown that egg consumption is not associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cardiac mortality in the general population (2). Many studies have emerged since the diet-heart hypothesis that indicate dietary cholesterol has little impact on blood cholesterol levels. About 25% of the population, known as "hyper-responders", show a slight increase in their blood cholesterol levels in response to dietary cholesterol, but even in this group their blood cholesterol levels are not clinically significant.
"People are not born once and for all on the day their mother puts them on to the Earth, but...time and again, life forces them to enter a new world on their own." Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Lying in a hospital bed on the maternity floor in North Central Bronx Hospital, I received a text from a new mom friend I recently met. She wanted to know if "my baby girl was born yet." I replied she "arrived three days prior and, with uncontrolled tears, I texted that I had a c-section." She replied, "Congratulations! Welcome to the C-club." My kneejerk reaction was that this was not a club I wanted to join. I was not supposed to be the 1 in 4 women who have c-sections every year.
"I was not supposed to be the 1 in 4."
When I became pregnant back in January, my plan was to have a homebirth. I was a homebirth. When I was growing up, my mother shared wonderful stories about my birth. You could say home-birthing was in my cellular memory. It was who I was, and aligned with how I tried to live my life: naturally. I envisioned bringing our baby into the world in the comfort of our new home, with little to no medical intervention.
Joan, a 60 year old woman and cancer survivor originally came to me looking for help with weight loss. As you'll read in her account of our time together, we dove into much more than what she was eating.
GATHERING THE STORY
In our initial session I listened to Joan's story and learned that underneath her weight woes, there were much deeper issues to tap into. My priority with whomever is in front of me is to consider the person's whole story, from birth to present day. We spend time looking at the Wheel of Health in order to see what area of living needs the most attention. Then we create a health plan together, rather than place a cookie cutter agenda upon the client. Oftentimes one sees a healthcare provider and the practitioner is focused on the immediate situation, disregarding the lifetime of events that make up who we are as a whole being. Lifestyle Medicine peels back the layers of who we are in order to feed the body vital nutrients that support our physical, mental, and psycho spiritual selves.
THE CALM™ DIFFERENCE
My CALM™ program is an approach in educating and experiencing. The education is about understanding the relationship between the body and inputs from the environment, diet, stress, lifestyle, etc. The experiencing is using various tools (food, movement, mindfulness, communication, affirmations, supplements, oils) to move out of disease and sense greater health from the inside out. I learned Joan is a skilled cook, has an awareness of healthful ingredients, and made clear she did not want to give up the pleasure of food. We created a plan together that included more attention to meal planning, food journaling, exercises in awareness of behavior, and supplementation. Here, she describes what worked from our sessions together.
Most of my clients are surprised to hear that I menu plan every single week. That's right. Even as a pro chef and nutritionist if I want to eat the way that best nourishes my mind and body I follow the same advice I give my clients. In my CALMTM approach to health and healing we discuss the importance of creating a meal plan, a shopping list, and carving out time to cook. The basic principles in every meal plan include: real food, plant-centric, seasonality, a rainbow of color, local (as possible), and variety. Notice, there are no measurements of calories, no over analyzing micro and macro nutrients. Keep to these simple principles and the benefits will come back to you in flavor and health insurance.