It takes a lot of free time to prepare healthy meals for dinner every night – or so we tell ourselves. It’s true that a good healthy meal requires a certain amount of planning – but half the work is in knowing which foods you need.
The United States Department of Agriculture sets out guidelines for which nutrients to eat and which to avoid. It says we could all do with more fiber, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A, C, D, E, and K. We should all avoid sugar, calories, cholesterol, saturated fats, and trans fats.
The problem with these guidelines is we don’t eat nutrients, we eat food. Knowing which foods contain more of the good nutrients and which contain more of the bad nutrients can be confusing.
Knowing what makes a healthy meal makes it easy to prepare healthy meals. If you know what qualifies as a healthy food, then time constraints become less of an issue. Healthy eating can be simple as simple as putting blueberries in your breakfast muffin instead of chocolate chips, spreading hummus on your sandwich instead of cream cheese, or snacking on popcorn instead of a donut (yes, popcorn is healthy!).
As a general rule, whole, unprocessed foods are better than processed food. Foods produced in factories might contain good nutrients, but they are also likelier to contain the things we should avoid, such as sugar and cholesterol.
In our society, there is a lot of focus on curing sickness but very little focus on preventing disease. The truth is, healthy eating is the single most important factor in staying healthy (although it’s also important to get exercise and sleep and to not be stressed). You know how they say “You are what you eat”? It’s true.
Of course, eating healthy doesn’t mean having to avoid burgers, fries, or soft drinks altogether. You don’t have to go the extremes to stay healthy, but a good, balanced diet that contains more healthy foods and fewer healthy foods is a good idea no matter you age, height, or weight.
Thousands of studies are published every year on the nutritional properties of various foods. In researching for his New York Times best-seller “How Not to Die”, Dr. Michael Greger and his team scanned all the top nutrition and medical journals and came up with the following list of 10 healthiest foods.
#1. Beans: This covers a variety of beans and legumes, including black beans, black-eyed peas, split peas, garbanzo beans, lentils, and soya beans. Many cultures around the world understand how healthy and tasty beans can be. The English enjoy baked beans, the Japanese and eat miso soup (made from soya beans), and Americans have taken to spreading hummus on their whole-grain bagels.
#2. Berries: Whether you like blackberries, blueberries, cherries, strawberries, raspberries, or cranberries, this food group is packed full of antioxidants that protect you from illness. Incorporating berries into your diet is easy; just add a few to your muffin or yogurt and you’re done for the day.
#3. Other fruits: There’s something for everyone in the fruit world, from common fruits like apples, bananas, and oranges, to summer fruits like dates, figs, peaches, and pineapple. The 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study found that the greatest risk factor for death was not eating enough fruit. The good news is fruit can be more than a snack. Many fruits can be baked, poached, grilled, dried, or added to your drink.
#4. Cruciferous vegetables: This group of green-leaf vegetables includes arugula, pak choi, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and radishes. All these veggies prevent DNA damage and reduce the risk of cancer. You’ll find these vegetables in healthy food recipes for dinner or you can just add them yourself. Cruciferous vegetables are great as a side dish, salad, or entrée, or can be added to smoothies.
#5. Other greens: Long before your mom told you to eat your greens, George Washington was doing the same. In 1777 he encouraged his troops to forage for wild greens, saying, “The health of the Army cannot be preserved… without a due portion of the vegetable diet.” Dark leafy greens like spinach and swiss chard are good healthy meal prep foods.
#6. Other veggies: Life’s boring if you only eat greens. It’s a good thing that there are dozens of other vegetables out there, including tomato, mushrooms, sweet potato, yams, peppers, squash, asparagus, beetroots, carrots, and zucchini… as well as garlic and onion. If you’re not using garlic and onion in your meals, you’re not living life to the full.
#7. Flaxseeds: This food is so special it gets its own place on the list. Flaxseeds have been proven to protect against breast cancer, prostate cancer, and high blood pressure. You can buy grinded flaxseeds in bulk at your local health store for just a few dollars. You can add them to your oatmeal, muffin, yogurt, soup, or salad, or sprinkle them on whatever you’re about to pop in the oven.
#8. Nuts and seeds: This is a diverse group comprising almonds, cashews, pecans, walnuts, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and more. A handful of nuts five days a week can increase your life span by two years, according to one medical study. Nuts are one of the simplest healthy meal prep foods. Sprinkle them over your soup or salad or put out a bowl when friends come over.
#9. Herbs and spices: We all like herbs and spices, but who knew they were so healthy! This group includes common ingredients like pepper, basil, parsley, cilantro, cinnamon, and vanilla, and exotic ones like turmeric, lemongrass, cardamom, fenugreek, and saffron. Add rosemary to whatever you’re about to put in the oven for an extra-healthy meal.
#10. Wholegrains: These are grains that haven’t been refined, and they are associated with lower risk of several diseases. Wholegrains include oats, barley, quinoa, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta… and popcorn! That’s right, popcorn is a super healthy food (it’s the butter and salt most people spread all over it that isn’t good for you).
It’s easy to come up with healthy meal ideas based on the ingredients listed above. Here are examples of good healthy meals to eat throughout the day.
Breakfast – Yogurt and a Wholegrain Muffin: It takes less than a minute to put some yogurt in a bowl, add some, and sprinkle it with flax seeds. As for the muffin… there are plenty of places to find good ones with raspberries or blueberries inside.
Morning snack – Wholegrain Sesame Seed Bagel with Hummus: For a morning snack, grab a wholegrain bagel with seeds and add a healthy bean-based spread such as hummus (which is made from garbanzo beans).
Lunch – Soup and Salad: The great thing about soups is they can be made of virtually anything. Whether it’s barley, zucchini, sweet potato, there are plenty of healthy things you can pop in your soup. As for salads, there are plenty of choices in the produce section of your local grocery store.
With lunch – Smoothie: Smoothies are a great way of incorporating multiple healthy foods into your diet without having to compromise on taste. Fruit smoothies taste even better with leafy greens.
Afternoon Snack – Nuts and Seeds: For a light snack, grab a handful of nuts and seeds. If you feel like something sweet, there are plenty of great chocolate brands that incorporate things like almonds and walnuts.
Dinner – Three-Bean Chilli: The great thing about chilli is there are so many different recipes for it. You could have it with your favorite meat or on its own – the choice is yours. Our favorite chilli recipe contains black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, tomato, green chilies, garlic, oregano, and cumin. That’s beans, vegetables, herbs, and spices all in the one dish.
Eating fast food every day probably isn’t a good idea, but there’s no reason to give it up altogether. McDonalds was one of the first chains to realize the importance of healthy fast food options when it added salads to its menus.
Zucchini and sweet potato fries (from Nutrisystem)
The healthiest fast food incorporates at least one of the foods we mentioned above. Examples of healthy fast food meals include sweet potato fries or pancakes with berries.
Certain types of cuisines are more geared toward healthy foods than other. For example, most Mexican and Indian dishes contain some type of beans or spices.
If you really don’t have time to prepare food, the good news is you don’t have to. Meal delivery companies have become popular in recent years. With a meal plan, you get fresh ingredients delivered to your door along with healthy food recipes for dinner that take just 15 to 30 minutes to make.