I have been slowly performing a complete overhaul of my diet over the course of the last year. I've been actively increasing my vegetable intake, I've been carefully crafting more meals at home, and all along the way I have been choosing options that take up as little time as possible.
That is one of the biggest issues for people who have become acclimated to the high-speed lifestyle allowed by eating out. You never have to worry your pretty little head about timing, or preparation, or cleanup, NO! You simply walk in, receive food, consume food, walk out.
Eventually, one's social life grows adapted to this. It ultimately becomes a chore to eat. You don't want to eat, you want to do other things. The timing calculations that we perform to determine trips to and from work, whether we say yes or no to an impromptu night at the movies, or whether we consider hanging out to even be an option in any setting, all of them become dependent on the assumption that food will take very little time.
The state of our economy makes the 1950's Golden Age ideal of dinner on the table every night nearly an impossibility. Very few households have a single income anymore, meaning that very few households have their own, private chef in the form of a stay-at-home parent. At-home gourmet food is basically impossible except for those who treat cooking as a hobby or passion. This state of affairs might help to explain the rise of food porn, celebrity chefs, and FoodNetwork.
So we are left with at-home meals that impinge upon our lives, an imposition toward which business society is becoming increasingly antagonistic, or restaurant meals that cost a lot and absolutely destroy our waistlines. This is not a tenable situation. We must either, as a nation, accept radically different dietary standards, or change the direction of our economy.
Faced with this reality, I have spent the last year trying to find a happy medium. I want healthy foods that I can prepare in under thirty minutes. I don't really consider money since simply shooting for health and speed results in reduced cost. That is unless you frequent pre-made meals from the store or fast food joints. But as I discovered, even the oft-cited bastions of poor diet like Wal-Mart can be treasure troves of healthy food, just so long as you know where to look.
Tip #1: Buy frozen vegetables.
Target especially has an enormous selection of store-brand vegetable mixes that are surprisingly tasty. The vegetables used are of good quality, and if you prepare them carefully, they end up being fantastic. It is unfortunate that nearly all of the pre-made mixes use either palm oil or hydrogenated oils of some type or another, but the amounts used are small, and I think that the benefits of increased vegetables in the diet outweigh any amount of trans-fats ingested.
That criticism only applies to the mixes, of course. The raw vegetables are just that, raw. They are the very embodiment of health in an easy-use package. They microwave in minutes, go well in groups, and can be kicked up a notch with herbs and spices.
Canned vegetables are useful if you don't have the freezer space, and a great option for canned beans of all shapes and sizes. The only problem with canned veggies is the salt content. They, and by they I mean the secret alien overlords, frequently can veggies in salt as both a flavor enhancer and also a preservative. Give canned vegetables a wash under cold water before cooking or serving them to get rid of most of the salt.
Other than that, you should be storing enough frozen vegetables to require a small chest freezer in your basement. They are cheap, can be prepared lightning-quick, and provide a panoply of flavors for your enjoyment. The final great thing is that frozen vegetables are available at Wal-Marts and Targets across the country.
Tip #2: Buy meat and freeze it.
Meat is fantastically healthy for you, just so long as you take it easy. A solid pound of ground beef every day is not the best course towards full-body health. But used in moderation, it is protein-dense, filling, and lower-calorie than a large serving of bread or pasta. For example, a 6oz steak contains about 300 calories. A flour burrito tortilla, just the tortilla, is 220 calories.
There are huge advantages not just associated with price or health. Restaurants will frequently use lower-quality meat with a higher fat content. When buying for the home, you can seek out the highest quality beef, pork, and chicken. Remember, always shoot for the leanest ground beef that you find; look for light, evenly distributed marbling of fat in steaks; and always buy chicken that has a deep, golden color to it. Avoid the pale chicken because it has a wildly higher fat content than the high-quality stuff. A good starting point is Purdue. It's not the best, but it's far from the worst. If you have a Trader Joe's nearby, they have excellent chicken. Buy your Purdue at Wal-Mart to get it for hilariously cheap. I'm talking $3 per pound.
Target maintains a great selection of pre-frozen fish steaks: tilapia, salmon, cod, and others are all available under their Market Pantry and Archer Farms brands. With these, you can maintain a constant selection of over a dozen meats, all ready to be cooked in under 30 minutes.
If you choose to buy in bulk and freeze like I do, you can regain much of the good texture from using unfrozen meat by thawing and cooking slowly. But since the goal of this is to be fast, a boneless chicken breast thaws in five minutes or less in a microwave, then cooks on a cast iron pan in about 15 minutes. You can always cover it in herbs and spices, olive oil, throw in some fresh veggies, and broil it in that same pan for about 25 minutes. That will result in better texture. If cooking meat quickly on a hot iron skillet, set the temperature high and flip the meat frequently; every 2-4 minutes or so.
Maintaining a collection of various meats and frozen veggies, when combined, results in a nearly limitless variety of meals. Meat is your friend.
Tip #3: Maintain a massive spice cabinet.
Herbs and spices are essentially zero-calorie. They are free flavor. Use them on your veggies. Use them on your meat. You will discover that when using actual flavor, you become much more sensitive to salt levels in your food. Salt is fantastic as a flavor enhancer, meaning that it is best in extreme moderation.
Tip #4: Learn to love sandwiches.
I do not snack very much. If I am feeling a little peckish, I have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Or I have a deli sandwich. They are utterly fantastic little meals that you can easily get under 400 calories and come loaded with flavor. The complex mix of ingredients is also more likely to fill you up and provide better fuel for a longer time. Finally, make your sandwiches with high-fiber bread to get 50% or more of your daily value for fiber. Just remember to avoid mayo or any form of liquid calories like dressing. These can push a sandwich into gut-busting calorie territory very quickly and it's hard to measure and regulate the amount applied.
Tip #5: Add Metamucil to everything.
It was previously called FiberSure, but it is now called Metamucil Clear & Natural. It is a powder, it contains 50/50 soluble and insoluble fiber, and it dissolves in anything. You could dissolve half-a-cup of this into a glass of milk and barely notice it.
Tip #6: Don't worry about calories from the stuff that Grandma would like.
By this, I mean the things that frequently get hated on for being high calorie but have been staples of the American diet for a hundred years. Whole milk? There is no evidence that it causes weight gain, and there is a small amount of evidence to indicate that it's better for you than 1% or skim.
I think the focus on these things come from dieticians desperately trying to find anything and everything in the environment that could be causing the weight gain that we see in the population. As such, they say to avoid juice, milk, and even fruit! Ignore this advice. If you are fat, you are not fat from orange juice, milk, and eggs. You are fat from snacking, pre-packaged foods, and eating out too often.
There is an extensive proviso to this tip, though.
<history-lesson style="entertainment: low;">
After World War
II, the biggest problems that we as a society had weren't nutrition or
weight, but calories. Many people simply were not getting enough. Hunger
remained an extensive problem in Europe into the 1960's.
response to this was to get calorie counts up as quickly as possible,
and that meant cheap food and processed food. Remember, at this point,
the idea of being deficient in specific nutrients was a relatively new
idea, since up until that point, people either had enough food or they
didn't. Those were the only states in which people found themselves. As such, the medical literature was primarily knowledgeable about the effects of a total lack of food.
Thus, we saw the rise of brands like Wonder Bread and such childhood staples as Twinkies, Fritos, and Eggo waffles. It's tasty. It's cheap. And it's loaded with calories. Just what a growing population needs!
Unfortunately, it wasn't. We actually needed much more. Before that, our diets of farm-grown produce, mom-made bread and dough, and whatever meat we could raise made for a rather complete meal. After that, the things we weren't even thinking about started making their absence known.
Fiber was one of the biggest issues. Afflictions like IBS, diverticulitis, and constipation were nearly unheard of before the end of World War II. After the war, calories went up, fiber took a dive, and these new illnesses suddenly rose in prominence.
So while Grandma generally had good judgment, the post WWII era, which will forever be the Grandma generation, also had underlying values that are incompatible with today's dietary environment. It's not hard to find out which bits of Grandma's wisdom are no longer up to snuff. All you have to do is hit up Wikipedia.
Tip #7: Avoid eating out.
And when you do, count calories. The calorie count in foods from restaurants is almost always stratospheric. Sometimes, this is simply because they know that people like large servings and thus happily oblige. Other times, it is because they do not want to use high-quality ingredients and instead use lots of salt, sugar, and high-fat meats to make the food taste good.
Funny enough, the foods that you get at the oft-maligned fast food joints are usually not terrible as regards calories. They are not great fuel, in that the nutrient make-up of anything that you buy is going to be rather simple, but it's hard to get a fast food meal above 1,000 calories without chugging soda. For example, a Double Cheeseburger and large fries from McDonald's is only 940 calories.
You will also be amazed by how much money that you save doing this. As an exercise to provide further motivation to continue, while you are preparing your food, think about where you would have gone or what food you would have ordered, price it out, and tally it all up. If you eat out frequently, your monthly savings could be in the hundreds of dollars, while the food you are eating is undoubtedly superior fuel.
For example, McDonald's meals usually ring-up at about $5. For an at-home power meal, 2/3 lb of Wal-Mart Purdue chicken is $2. Two packs of Green Giant frozen vegetable mixes is $2.60. Add in $0.20 worth of herbs and spices and the at-home meal costs less than even McDonald's. The price difference is only amplified when you consider that most states tax prepared foods but not raw materials.
Tip #8: Find tasty drinks.
Water can get so boring. Zero-calorie sweetened drinks all taste like ass, and they can apparently make things worse. And while I consider milk to be an amazing drink, I think I would start to hate it if I had to drink more than a glass or two per day.
There are lots of flavored drinks out there that you can safely drink. I positively guzzle V8. I have no history of heart issues, so the salt doesn't concern me. Moreover, an entire bottle only equals about 100% my daily value. Orange juice is somewhat high in calories, so you may not want to drink it all day, every day. Also, the acid would just start to hurt. But again, OJ is something that Grandma would love.
Tea and coffee are wonderful, wonderful, drinks. Caffeine is being shown to have a broad array of positive physiological benefits, and both coffee and tea have unique benefits with yet-unknown mechanisms. A little sugar, honey, or milk and you have a delicious drink that's low in calories and big in benefits.
Drinks that you cannot safely drink are the non-refrigerated juices. They are almost always juice "cocktails," of super-sweetened water and a smattering of actual juice. These are little better than soda.
Tip #9: Force yourself to eat things that you don't like.
Your body is an incredible machine. It does much more than simply digest your food, it actually "decides" which foods taste good.
Have you ever found yourself craving a particular food? It happens to everyone. One day, for seemingly no reason, you can't get enough oranges. This is because something inside of oranges is needed by your body and your body "remembers" that those nutrients were paired with that particular taste. As such, from somewhere deep inside the unconscious parts of your brain, a signal is sent up to the conscious part of your brain to find 1000 CC's of oranges, stat.
This is why the recent discoveries that artificial sweeteners make people gain weight makes perfect sense. Your body tastes sweet and gears up in anticipation of sugar, because some mechanism in your body associated the two things. When it doesn't get that, the whole system is thrown out of whack.
You can use this mechanism to your advantage. By taking foods that you know are loaded with nutrients but you do not usually like, and forcing yourself to eat them will allow your body to associate that flavor with the burst of good stuff. As a result, you will begin to like these foods and can integrate them into your diet.
This does have a few limits. For example, some people are able to taste a level of bitterness in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli that others cannot. No matter how much you eat these vegetables, for some people, children especially, they will always taste bad.
Tip #10: Explore and expand your diet.
Studies show that people who like many types of food are thinner. This seems obvious. If all you like are hamburgers and chicken wings, losing weight isn't going to be an easy endeavor for you. Explore, for Pete's sake!
Tip #11: Find healthy snacks.
Assuming that you do not have access to a Super Wal-Mart, your Wally World will likely have an enormous snack section. Use it. The snacks are always cheapest there and they have identical selections of crackers, nuts, jerky,
For example, Planter's Nut*rition line of nut mixes are excellent snacks that are filling and loaded with good stuff. Nowhere else on Earth are they as cheap as at Wal-Mart.
Tip #12: Don't let yourself get hungry.
Being hungry is the hiiiiighwaaaaay tooo the danger zone. It's an oft-repeated humorous story, when someone who is hungry walks into a store and leaves with $297 worth of crap that they never intended on buying because everything looked so good.
This same story applies to your kitchen. If you wait long enough that you are very hungry, making sure to not snack or wait until a good meal is prepared will require willpower, which we cannot abide. The goal is to want this food. Time your meals. All of the above tips make preparing a real meal quick and simple. You can walk into the kitchen and have good food, good fuel, nearly as quickly as opening up some prepackaged bar. Only if you wait until you are hungry will the risk of failure arise.
I hope that this has been of some use. Changing your diet for the better is shockingly easy. It requires little self control or "willpower," it doesn't cost more to eat healthy, and you provide your body the fuel that it needs to do stuff. Your energy levels will rise, you'll feel better, truly, all of life will be better because the machine that carries you through it is running more efficiently.
What you need is the desire. After I tell you all of this, you may decide that the pleasure of eating cheesecake twice a day is greater than the pleasure of having a lean, mean, machine as your body. I derive pleasure from the latter, you from the former, and that is entirely alright. I am absolutely not applying a value judgment to either lifestyle. I am saying that I have found pleasure in my dietary life. I do not completely restrict myself from snacks, but I desire to rarely eat them because I would rather consume better fuel. If you do not desire the same thing, this is not for you, and you will fail if you attempt it.
That is the only kink in my plan. If you do not desire it, then you simply don't desire it. I could show you all of the evidence in the world; one cannot choose to want something. He or she simply does. If the idea of viewing your body as a machine, and thus providing it the best fuel possible, is appealing to you, I think that you should try this.