Why is it that despite so many interesting foods in the world, we sometimes fall into a dietary rut? My family recognized how busy we all are and our health was suffering. We constantly passed each other coming and going, rarely joined together for a meal, and the grocery list was non existent. I found myself stopping at the grocery sporadically picking up what I could remember, and noticed I was buying the same things. For busy working families, lapsing into a boring menu routine may be due to a lack of time, planning, or know-how. Unfortunately, a lack of variety and a reliance on convenience foods come with unappetizing pitfalls.
The risks of a dietary rut
Eating the same foods frequently deprives you of the flavors and textures that make meals adventures and help you be a healthy eater. It also limits nutrient intake. “You need a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. In order to get them, you need to eat different types of fresh foods every day,” says Teresa Fung, adjunct professor in the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Those nutrients should come from fresh vegetables and fruits, lean proteins, legumes (beans and lentils), nuts and seeds, healthy fats (avocados, olive oil), and low-fat dairy products.
Relying on prepackaged food or takeout meals can subject you to unhealthy ingredients like refined carbohydrates; saturated or trans fats; high amounts of salt; and lots of calories, preservatives, and additives. An unhealthy diet is associated with an increased risk for many chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and cancer.
Easy ways to bust the dietary rut
Fortunately, breaking out of a dietary rut isn’t hard.
- Get variety elsewhere. A lot of grocery stores have a good number of healthy, prepared foods, and you can pay by the ounce. Prepare the protein at home (like fish or chicken) and buying the side dishes — vegetables, whole grains, or salads — to bring home. Make it something you wouldn’t normally eat.
- Be adventurous. Try something unusual at least every other week. Make it yourself or get it from a restaurant. Caution: focus on vegetables or protein, and avoid anything with a lot of butter or cream. Need ideas? Pick a country and look up traditional dishes and recipes on the Internet.
- Try a subscription meal kit. You choose the menu on a website, and the premeasured, fresh ingredients arrive at your door. Go for something with lots of vegetables and whole grains, and a chunk of protein. There are many meal kit services. Two of the biggest are Hello Fresh and Blue Apron. Prices per person, per meal, range from $10 to $12.
- Cook in batches. Cook once or twice a week and eat leftovers in between. Make a large entree (like white bean soup), broil several chicken breasts, or cook a few side dishes (like brown rice, quinoa, or cooked spinach) that can be eaten throughout the week. It’s easier to cook 14 carrots in one day than two carrots per day for seven days in a row.
- Get your kids in on it. They’ll be more inclined to eat it if they helped prepare it.
A few more tips
We finally realized that the key to variety in our family meals was planning and shared responsibility. Now, in about half an hour on the weekend, we come up with healthy, interesting menus and shopping lists for the week.
We take turns or work together making dinner, and we batch-cook a lot of meals.
We recognized our challenges and agreed to try making changes, together. I’m not the only one planning meals and grocery shopping, we agreed to eat together at least once per week and get back on the health track!