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Mealtime Blueprint: 5 simple strategies

People often ask me, "what do you eat?" if a my diet is a magical collection of secret recipes and quirky hacks. It's assumed that my approach to nutrition is somehow different than that which is promoted to the masses. Do I have covert culinary skills that I keep close to my chest? Is there a secret meal planning method privy only to dietitians? Do I have a fairy godmother who waves her wand and presents a wholesome, balanced meal at my very whim?

Hardly. In fact, I generally think my nutrition approach is so basic and mundane that it's not worth sharing. But as has been pointed out by numerous friends, some of my basic tactics are the ones that many people seek. Somedays I wish I could bibbidi-bobbidi-boo my way to a 5-star nutrition plan but let's be real: I'm human just like all of you. I shop at the same grocery stores, I have cravings and my schedule can get the best of me at times. MFMG looks forward to those days when he can slyly suggest, "pizza?" knowing I'm more likely to concede. ;-)

Healthful eating isn't synonymous with perfection. In fact, compromise and balance equates to health in a variety of ways, not just physical. Anyone who has worked with me can attest to my emphasis on individuation and a healthful relationship with food and eating. This also includes being kind to oneself when the best-laid plans blow up in your face, presenting popcorn and an IPA for dinner (it happens).

Following are five of my most reliable approaches to optimal fueling even on the most hectic days.

1. Every balanced meal starts with at least 3 of the 5 main food groups and always includes a fruit or veggie. Examples would be a veggie scramble with whole grain toast for breakfast. Or one of my favorites for dinner: salmon with veggie and starch. We eat salmon weekly at our house because it's an easy-to-prepare nutrition powerhouse.

My method: squeeze fresh lemon on the filet, then sprinkle with seasoning (I became a loyal Maurer's user after receiving it as a wedding gift). Cook at 425 for approx 20-30 min, depending on thickness. The trick is to check it early in the cooking, less you do something dastardly like overcook your fish. Poke a fork in the thick part of the filet and gently pull the flesh apart. If it separates easily down into the filet it's done. Whip up a veggie and some kind of starch while the fish is cooking and voila! Dinner is served.

2. Use your microwave. It is quick and brainless and makes life easier. Reheating leftovers is a given. But many people are surprised when I tell them I do the majority of my veggie cooking in the microwave. It's super simple: wash and trim said veggie, toss it in a glass dish with a lid and throw a few tablespoons of water in there. Zap it on high for 4-5 min depending on your microwave and the desired doneness. I've prepared broccoli, asparagus, green beans, cauliflower, carrots and even baby potatoes this way. You can add some flavor by tossing them in olive oil and seasoning before or after cooking. My chosen method for baking a sweet potato also is done in the microwave: wrap the whole thing, skin and all, in a damp paper towel and proceed with cooking.

3. Kick-ass salads. We go through a lot of salad in this house. It's almost a necessity with dinners during the summer months and salads make for an excellent vehicle for a boatload of nutrition. For me, building a salad is a systematic approach. My strategy is to load the bowl with as much color as I can. Then add crunch with nuts, seeds, celery, carrots or sesame sticks (get creative here). Flavor comes from herbs, dried fruit/veg, cheese, nutritional yeast and dressing. Top with a protein (meat and poultry is obvious but this is an excellent opportunity to incorporate legumes as well). Now you've got a meal that satisfies the first strategy discussed above: 3 food groups.

4. Flavor shortcuts. I make a collard green recipe that is so painfully easy I feel weird even calling it a recipe. But Matt would be severely disappointed if I didn't share it, especially since it is one of his favorites (and I'm talking out of EVERYTHING I make!) This method works with various greens like Swiss chard and beet greens as well. Wash, trim and chop your greens. Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet. Add sliced onion and sauté until just beginning to caramelize. Add the greens, stirring and cooking until they turn bright and begin to wilt. Add about 1/2 cup red wine to the pan and 1/3 packet of onion soup mix (can also use au jus or Braggs liquid aminos). Stir and cook another 8-10 min or until greens are softened and dark green (don't turn them to brown mush!) Sprinkle with sunflower seeds prior to serving.

This is an example of using a packaged convenience food to impart flavor on a really powerful nutrient package. Let's face it- if we all had hours on end to make our own seasoning mixes it would be wonderful. But cutting corners once in a while is completely allowed, and even encouraged if it means the difference between eating well or not. Other examples of this are using salad dressings as meat marinades, using salsa in taco/enchilada filling, mixing a packet of instant flavored oatmeal with 1/4 cup plain rolled oats, or utilizing prepared pesto and pasta sauces. One more secret weapon: rotisserie chicken from the deli.

5. Bulk cooking. Each week I make a batch of food that can serve multiple meals. Some of my faves are chili/soup, enchiladas, tacos, red lentil curry (I've used this recipe as inspiration, then modify it as I like), stir fry and bulk salads without the dressing (they keep surprisingly long if you wait to dress them just before serving.) I cook big pots of beans, portion them into baggies and freeze for later recipes. If I have leftover soup and we've grown tired of it, in the freezer it goes. Quinoa, barley, brown rice and any other grain can easily be cooked in large batches and then stored in the fridge to add nutritious carbs, fiber and protein to any meal. In the same spirit, batch-process your veggies while you're at it. Wash and cut them, portion them out and they're neatly poised to make wholesome, quick meals for the week ahead.

These five simple approaches really comprise about 90% of my daily fueling strategy. It's no secret that preparing food at home increases the quality of nutrition and provides the best value for your money. This next week, I challenge you to spend a little more time in your own kitchen to concoct a nourishing meal. Think of it as a way of showing gratitude for all of your body's hard work by fueling it with high-octane fuel...and a little love.

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