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By Rosemary Weaver, MPH, RDN, LDN, NCH Registered Dietitian
We can all agree that 2020 was a rough year. Now that we’ve launched into 2021, you might be thinking your diet and exercise habits could use an overhaul. But rather than try a radical approach, why not try a gentler, more sustainable approach to improving your habits? This year, consider “growing” one new habit at a time – taking “baby steps” to better nutrition.
Start with the first “baby step” on this list, “hydrate healthier” and work on it for at least several weeks. Strive to continue that hydration habit and then move on to the next “baby step” of your choice. Likewise, practice that step until it starts to feel comfortable and then move on to the next one. These small, step-wise changes will potentially lead to significant improvements in diet balance, body weight, blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels and blood pressure management.
Baby step: Hydrate healthier. Hydration is important because the body is composed mostly of water, and the proper balance between water and electrolytes in our bodies determines how most of our systems function. Water is your “friend” if weight loss is your goal, and water is the best beverage for hydration. Unless your physician directs you otherwise, plan to drink at least 48-64 ounces of water per day. Fill in the rest of your body’s fluid needs with moderate amounts of coffee, tea, milk or sparkling water. Avoid juice in excess – opt for nutrient-dense whole fruit instead. Soda and diet soda are non-nutritive, and regular soda adds unhealthy calories that come exclusively from added sugar. Do yourself a favor and aim to extinguish – or greatly decrease – your soda habit. Instead, obtain a water bottle that holds 48-64 ounces or shows ounces consumed and track your water for the day, aiming to consistently achieve your water goal. A glass of water consumed 15 minutes before a meal can help with mealtime portion regulation. Don’t care for the taste of plain water? Add a small wedge of fruit, cucumber or mint to infuse your water with flavor.
Baby step: Boost your day with breakfast. Kick any high sugar, high fat, high salt breakfast items to the curb. Reset breakfast by always including protein for satiety and complex carbs for fiber, vitamins and the benefit of sustained energy. Make your own breakfast sandwich with an egg, reduced fat cheese and a whole grain English muffin or whole grain tortilla or wrap. Instead of the typical bowl of cereal with just a little milk, try mixing some whole grain cereal and fruit into a protein-packed Greek yogurt. Enjoy a black-bean breakfast burrito or a bowl of oatmeal with fruit, a tablespoon of nut butter and a bit of whey protein mixed in. Or try the recipe for Mini Frittatas at the end of this article. Pair these with a piece of whole grain toast and fruit, and your “nutritional day” is off to a great start.
Baby step: Embrace (a little more) plant-based eating. Vegetables, beans, whole grains and lentils are all great stand-ins for meat that can be cost-effective and better for your overall health. Plan to eat a plant-based meal at least one night per week, such as black bean burritos, vegetarian chili or hummus pita sandwiches. It’s easy to start making it a habit by assigning a specific day of the week to make it happen, such as “Meatless Monday.” Look to various cuisines for interesting plant-based fare. Or, try this simple slow cooker solution: throw in veggies, herbs, vegetable broth, canned tomatoes, whole grains like farro, brown rice or barley and dried beans – set the slow cooker on high for four hours or low for eight hours for a meatless meal that’s ready when you are. As other options, try out a plant-based burger, plant-based meatballs with pasta or a tofu stir-fry.
Baby step: Plan good snacks that you portion-control or pack to go. Stop mindless grazing on low-nutrient density snacks like chips, cookies, candy and other indulgences. It’s important to eat regular meals and absolutely appropriate to work in a healthy snack or two. In fact, it’s really a good idea to do that whenever the expanse between meals is extending beyond 3.5-5 hours. Your body will benefit from the nutrition boost good snacks provide, and you will manage eating better at the next meal. Aim to include some fiber-rich carbohydrate and protein. Keep fruits and veggies washed, cut up and at eye level in your fridge. Pair them with a protein: nut butter, hummus or pureed beans with spices, low-fat cottage cheese or string cheese. Or, add fresh fruit to low-fat Greek yogurt. Choose about three cups of low-fat popcorn with an ounce of string cheese. Enjoy a hard-boiled egg, some roasted chickpeas, water-packed tuna or sardines with some whole wheat or quinoa crackers. Vow to consume other tempting snacks less frequently and only in single-serving, portion-controlled allotments. If you can’t seem to manage that, don’t even bring these foods home from the grocery store.
Baby step: Cook at least one meal at home daily. By cooking at home, you can control portions, ingredients and food cost. Potentially, this helps limit unhealthy solid fats, sodium and empty-calorie extras. You can also cook ahead to provide multiple meals – lunches or dinners to be enjoyed later in the week. Online subscription meal kits are available that can save shopping and cooking prep time, which works for some people, but these plans can be pricey. You don’t need a lot of extra time, money or advanced cooking skills to put together healthy, balanced meals that meet the dietary guidelines at home. With a combination of your grocery store’s frozen protein entree and veggie items, fresh veggies and fruit along with simple pantry staple options, it’s not difficult to assemble a healthy meal. Follow the MyPlate method: target your plate to contain about one quarter protein, one half vegetables, and one quarter whole grain or starchy vegetable. Use heart-healthy fats, such as olive or canola oil, in moderation and include low-fat milk for kids. For simple recipe ideas that follow these recommendations, visit myplate.gov.
Baby step: Replace some alcohol with self-care. Alcohol consumption ramped up for a considerable number of adults this past year. Too many calories from alcohol lead to weight gain and, in excess, alcohol consumption contributes to health risk. Replace that second (or even the first) glass of wine or “quarantini” with some type of self-care: a hot bath or shower, a video chat with a friend, a brisk walk or simply an earlier bedtime. Getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night assists with both weight management and stress management.
So there you have it: six baby steps toward improving your nutrition in 2021. Take the first step today.
Here’s a recipe for a tasty, protein-rich breakfast item you can whip up on the weekend and then freeze and use as needed.
Ellie Krieger’s Mini Frittatas (recipe courtesy of Mindful by Sodexo)
Mini egg frittata with asparagus, mushrooms, leeks and parmesan cheese
Prep time: five to eight minutes
Cook time: 18 to 20 minutes
Yield: six servings
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium leek, white part only, chopped (2 cups)
1 bunch asparagus (1 pound), sliced on the bias into ½-inch pieces (2 cups)
6 medium white button mushrooms, sliced (4 ounces)
7 large eggs or 1 ¾ cup low cholesterol egg products
¼ cup 1% low-fat milk
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray a muffin pan with cooking spray.
Heat the oil in a medium skillet over a medium heat. Add the leek, asparagus and mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have softened, about 6 minutes. Allow to cool slightly.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk the eggs and milk together. Stir in the Parmesan cheese, the cooked vegetables, salt and pepper.
Distribute the mixture evenly into the muffin pan. Bake until set in the center, 18-20 minutes.
One serving = two warm or room-temperature frittatas.
After the frittatas have completely cooled, wrap individually in plastic wrap then add to a freezer zip-top bag. Freeze for up to 2 months. To reheat, remove the plastic wrap, and then wrap in a damp paper towel and microwave in 20-second increments until warm.