1. Planning the Family Menu

Planning meals for yourself usually means planning meals for the whole family. The best way to make sure you and your family eat a healthy diet is to plan ahead. Plan menus for the week, and make sure you have all the foods necessary to carry out your plan. Planning ahead can help deter haphazard eating, which can lead to overeating or eating the wrong foods, and it helps you to stock your kitchen with the right ingredients.

Good menu planning is based on the right balance of foods. That means using the food groups and making sure you get enough of what you need at each meal to reach your goal for the day. Plan to eat five to six small meals throughout the day. This helps to keep your energy levels stable from meal to meal and gives you more opportunities to fit in all the food groups that you need.

Benefits of Planning Ahead

There are many benefits to planning ahead that can help both your nutritional intake as well as your busy lifestyle. Dinner can be a much less hectic event when you know what the menu will be in advance. By planning ahead, you can make meal preparation less time-consuming, and your family will probably tend to eat together more frequently. Planning ahead also sends you to the grocery store with a list, which can help you to avoid impulse purchases at the grocery store (and thus saving you some money!). When you plan meals, you don’t tend to eat out or order out as much, which can be costly to both your pocketbook and your daily food intake.

Build some flexibility into your weekly menu plan in case things don’t go as planned, which can happen at any time! Once you plan a week of menus, keep them around and recycle them down the road.

Steps to Easy Meal Planning

Menu planning does not have to be a complicated task. A small investment of your time can reap great rewards. Menu plans can save you money by cutting out the need for last-minute trips to the grocery store. Most important, planning ahead helps conserve your most valuable resource: your energy. You don’t need to plan for the next month; just plan for the next week. Keep staple foods on hand for healthy breakfasts and snacks, and then decide on a few lunches that you can eat a few times during the week. That leaves you with just seven simple dinners to plan.

Think of dishes that can be used for leftovers the next night—for instance, a pan of lasagna is sure to last you a few nights. Do your meal planning on the days that your local grocery store ads come out; this can help give you ideas for dinners for the week and will let you know which foods are on special. To come up with some ideas of meals to prepare, get out your favorite recipes or cookbooks, and see what you already have on hand. Plan meals according to your and your family’s schedule, for instance, by saving the roast for a lazy Sunday and preparing a homemade pizza on the day when the kids have soccer and you work late.

2. Mastering Low-Fat Cooking

While planning your meals, think healthy. The methods that you use to prepare your meals can make a big difference in the amount of calories, total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol content they contain. With a few simple changes and tips to cooking methods, you can cook “leaner” and still have great-tasting dishes. Use cooking methods that require little fat, such as braising, broiling, grilling, pan-broiling, poaching, roasting, simmering, steaming, stewing, and stir-frying. Simply trimming visible fat and skin from poultry) before cooking can cut fat significantly. If you leave the skin on while cooking, remove it before eating.

Other tips include running ground meat in hot water after browning and then draining to rinse off excess fat. You can also pat the meat with a paper towel or drain on a paper towel to remove excess fat. For meat that has little to no fat, try using marinades such as teriyaki sauce, orange juice, lime juice, lemon juice, tomato juice, defatted broth, or low-fat yogurt. Add fresh herbs and other spices, such as garlic powder, to marinades for more flavors. Did you ever notice that fat collects on top of stew, soups, chili, or other casserole dishes? Chill these dishes overnight, and the fat will rise to the top, making it easy for you to skim off. If you are not afraid to experiment, use half meat and half tofu, tempeh, or legumes to lower the fat in recipes and increase fiber. Stock your kitchen with nonstick saucepans, skillets, and baking pans so you can sauté and bake without adding additional fat. If you need to, use a nonstick cooking spray along with defatted broth, water, juice, or cooking wine to replace cooking oil and prevent sticking.

Grilling can be a great low-fat cooking method, but it does have a few downsides. Recent research has indicated that potential carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) may be present in grilled foods. To make grilled food safer, do not char meats or vegetables, use a low to medium heat, reduce time on the grill by baking or microwaving foods first, and avoid eating the blackened parts of grilled foods.

3. Healthy-Up Your Recipes

In addition to using healthier cooking techniques, swapping ingredients in your recipes for leaner ones can healthy-up your meals. Small changes within a recipe can make big difference in the nutritional outcome. You may need to use less of an ingredient, substitute an ingredient, add a new ingredient, or completely leave something out. It will take some trial and error to get your recipes to your liking, but the extra effort will be well worth it.

Take a look at your recipes before you get started, and think about what individual ingredients may contribute to a dish that’s higher in fat, cholesterol, calories, or sodium. Decide which ingredients can be substituted or reduced as well as added for additional nutritional value. Adding shredded carrots or zucchini to your lasagna, for example, can add a load of extra vitamins, minerals, and fiber to your dish. Make changes to your recipes gradually by changing one or two ingredients at a time each time you make it.

Use some of these substitutions to cut fat and calories while cooking or baking:

• Use fat-free or low-fat milk instead of whole milk.

• Use low-fat yogurt, ½ cup cottage cheese blended with 1½ teaspoon lemon juice, or light or fat-free sour cream instead of regular sour cream.

• Use evaporated fat-free milk or fat-free half-and-half instead of cream.

• Use 3 tablespoons cocoa powder plus 1 tablespoon oil instead of 1 ounce unsweetened baking chocolate.

• Use low-fat cottage cheese or low-fat or nonfat ricotta cheese instead of regular ricotta cheese.

• Use chocolate sauce instead of fudge sauce.

• Use nonfat or low-fat plain yogurt or reduced-fat mayonnaise instead of regular mayonnaise.

• Use pureed fruits such as applesauce to replace anywhere from a third to half of the fat in recipes.

• For pies and other desserts, use a graham-cracker crumb crust instead of a higher-fat pastry shell.

• Use pureed cooked vegetables instead of cream, egg yolks, or roux to thicken sauces and soups.

4. Sensible Snacking

Choosing healthy snacks is as important as the healthy meals that you plan. Healthy snacks can help you add those extra calories and nutrients you need during pregnancy as well as give you a boost of energy when you need it and take the edge off hunger in between meals. Contrary to popular belief, snacking can be part of a healthful eating plan. To keep blood sugar levels under control, it is ideal to go no longer than three or four hours between meals. The key to sensible snacking is the type and amount of food that you choose. Mindless snacking or nibbling on high-fat, high-calorie foods can lead to trouble in the form of unwanted and empty calories as well as loads of fat and sugar.

To make snacking a healthy part of your diet, choose snacks that are lower in fat and rich in nutrients. Make snacks count, instead of thinking of them as an “extra.” Eat snacks well ahead of mealtime, and eat smaller portions of your snacks as opposed to big ones. Also, plan your snacks ahead of time. Good snack ideas include the following:

• Half a whole-wheat bagel or an apple topped with peanut butter

• Celery stalks with low-fat cream cheese

• Low-fat fruited yogurt topped with low-fat granola cereal

• Low-fat cottage cheese topped with fresh fruit

• Fresh fruit

• Light microwave popcorn (for extra flavor, toss with a small amount of low-fat Parmesan cheese or garlic powder)

• Pita bread stuffed with fresh veggies and low-fat ranch dressing

• Low-fat string cheese and crackers

• Raisins and rice cakes

These are only a few ideas! Use your creativity, and choose foods that you like.

Can eating more than three times a day be part of a healthy diet?

Yes. For women who are pregnant or for anybody who enjoys a healthy lifestyle, eating several small meals during the day can fit nicely into a healthy eating pattern. It can help you to fit in those extra calories and food group servings without having to eat large meals all at once, which can be difficult for women who may be having a problem with nausea or morning sickness.

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