What a Healthy Meal Plan Actually Looks Like

“New year, new me.” Does this sound familiar? Not surprisingly, getting healthy ranks high on the list of popular New Year’s resolutions. Many of us plan to eat healthier and exercise more. Not to sound like a negative Nancy, but if the Februaries of the past are any indication, many of us will not succeed.

Why is it so hard to keep those resolutions?  More specifically, why is it so hard to eat healthier? One reason might be that we skip a crucial step by not first defining what we want. When it comes to following a healthy meal plan, what do we really mean? And how do we know what healthier meals look like?

Define Your “Healthy” and Your Healthy Meal Plan

Some people describe being healthy as simply not being sick. Others feel being healthy means operating at your absolute best — physically, emotionally, spiritually and socially. Not to mention the countless other definitions that exist in between. There is no one-size-fits-all answer for what it means to be healthy.

The same is true for your healthy meal plan. Just because that green smoothie energizes your best friend in the morning, that doesn’t mean it’s the best option for you. What if you hate green beverages? Take a moment to consider your own definition of healthy, and follow the steps below to craft your own healthy meal plan.

Step 1: Make sure it’s actually healthy. So much misinformation exists about what’s healthy and what isn’t. To make matters worse, it’s difficult to know what to believe when the science seems to change all the time. Fortunately, many things haven’t changed. It’s a good idea to eat a variety of whole, minimally processed foods as often as you can. For example: apples are better for you than apple juice and pork loin trumps bologna. Choose plenty of plant-based foods as well. These include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains. Incorporate nutritious protein sources from plants and/or animals like tofu, fresh meats, chicken, seafood and dairy or suitable substitutes. Finally, don’t forget about fat. Avocados and olive oil are great plant-based sources of unsaturated fats while saturated fats from animal sources or coconut oil provide other benefits (in moderation).

Side-note: It is impossible to create one healthy meal plan that works for everyone. For example, a weightlifter requires a different balance of proteins, fats and carbohydrates than a long-distance runner. Those who avoid dairy need to take care to incorporate other foods that contain calcium and vitamin D. Use the steps below to help you craft your own healthy meal plan, but you may want a professional opinion to make sure you’re on the right track.

Step 2: Find better ways to enjoy your favorite foods. If your favorite foods aren’t on your healthy list, some small changes might make the difference. For example, you may not think of potatoes as healthy, but I have some good news for all you spud fans out there. Despite being high in carbohydrates, potatoes are packed with essential vitamins and minerals, and they even contain some protein and fiber. The problem isn’t the potato, but what we add to it. Include potatoes, but eat them roasted with spices and olive oil, boiled in broth as part of a hearty soup or baked and topped with veggies, salsa, cheese or chili. Potatoes are only one example of many healthy foods you can include. The point is that you are much more likely to approach your plan with enthusiasm (and stick to it) if you include your favorite foods.

Step 3: Make it realistic and easy(ier) to follow. Are you really going to make that new stir-fry after you finish a 12-hour day and trudge to the kitchen famished and exhausted? If the answer is yes, carry on. If not, make sure you have some ingredients on hand to throw together quick meals on those busy days. Just because you spend more time preparing and cooking a dish, that doesn’t mean you’re getting a healthier meal. Healthy can mean using your leftover chicken to make a quick chicken salad lettuce wrap or sandwich on whole grain bread. Healthy can also mean adding extra veggies to a frozen pizza. Save elaborate dishes for days when you have more time to cook and simple ones for when you’re not in the mood.

Step 4: Bend, but don’t break. One day the inevitable will happen. You will pack the perfect lunch and forget it at home on the counter. This, and moments like it, will make you feel like quitting. Instead, find opportunities to be flexible without completely giving in. Rather than thinking, “I’ve ruined my plan, it doesn’t matter what I do now,” ask yourself how to adapt and stay on track. Maybe you can identify a few light options at a restaurant near your workplace. Perhaps you can keep some pre-packaged salad kits in the fridge at work because you know you’re guaranteed to forget your lunch at least once a week. Finding your groove takes time, but each setback can be an opportunity to practice self-compassion, resourcefulness and self-improvement.

Knowing what a healthy meal plan actually looks like can be challenging, but not impossible. Use the steps above to create a realistic, balanced plan that makes you proud.

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