You will hear me say this over and over again: when you eat better and live better, you can feel better. It doesn’t need to be complicated. It can truly start with simple changes.
One very important key to eating better is to cook your meals at home. When you cook at home, you can control what ingredients go into your food, how it’s prepared, and the portion sizes. It’s also more cost-effective!
When you eat at restaurants, you have no idea what added ingredients are in your dishes. Often, restaurants will use cheap vegetable oils, which can lead to inflammation and so much more (read my series on dietary fats to learn more). More often than not, most of the plate is filled with starches like potatoes, rice, and bread, because it’s cheap. And the portion sizes are typically huge!
If you eat pre-made packaged food, like frozen dinners, meals in a can, etc., pay attention to the ingredients list. You may be surprised how much sugar is added, along with preservatives, chemicals, and flavour enhancers. Typically sugar, fat, and salt are added to prepared meals, as this trifecta in just the right concentration, called the “Bliss point” will stimulate reward receptors in the brain, triggering a rush of feel-good hormones like dopamine. This Bliss point activation leaves us craving more and more. We tend to overeat that product, and will tend to seek out more in the future!
When you cook food yourself, you can control the quality and quantity of ingredients you put in your dishes. This is a great way to reduce the amount of added sugars in your meals and increase the quantity of nutrient-dense foods - meaning foods with high concentrations of nutrients like vitamins and minerals.
The opposite of nutrient-dense foods are foods with empty calories, meaning foods with high concentrations of calories but little to no nutrients. Packaged and ultra-processed foods more often than not fall into the empty calorie category. If you want to eat better to feel better, it is best to avoid these empty calories as much as possible, and focus on whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods.
A great rule of thumb is to fill your plate as much as you can with quality protein and non-starchy vegetables. These foods will provide the best quantity of nutrients compared to the caloric density. Protein is required for so many processes in the body including muscle preservation, and is the most satiating macronutrient of the three (protein, fat, carbohydrates), meaning it will help keep you feeling full for the longest period of time. Non-starchy vegetables also contain many nutrients along with fibre and water, which can cause expansion in your stomach, which will help to lower grelin levels. Ghrelin is a hormone that tells your brain you are hungry (it's called the "hunger hormone"). When you eat and your stomach expands, grhelin levels start to lower, thereby reducing your feeling of hunger.
Also, making your plate predominantly quality protein and non-starchy vegetables, you are keeping the glycemic index of your meal low, which will help to keep insulin levels more balanced. One of the best things you can do for yourself is to make diet and life habit choices that will help to keep blood sugar and insulin levels as balanced as possible.
[bctt tweet="If you want to eat better to feel better, it is best to avoid empty calories as much as possible, and focus on whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods."]
Many people find with their busy lifestyles that cooking at home can be difficult. It can be easy to order take-out or buy pre-prepared meals at the grocery store. However, purchasing convenience foods it turns out, will only save us on average about 15 minutes compared to cooking our own meals. We need to factor in the time it takes to go to the restaurant to pick up the food, or the time it takes to pre-heat the oven, take the food out of the packaging, and wait for the food to be cooked.
Are those 15 minutes you saved worth not feeling your best? This could be a perspective to consider. There are some meal planning and preparation tricks that you can do to make cooking at home a simple and quick process. Here are some of my favourite!
If you’re not sure where to start with planning your meals, you can make it easy by taking stock of what is in your kitchen. Take note of everything in your pantry and refrigerator, write it down, and see what meals you can make from those ingredients.
Think about what meals you would like to make, and figure out which ones you can make ahead of time. Plan to make large quantities to provide leftovers, and freeze portions! This will help to provide variety, as you can then pull out frozen portions in the future and mix your meals up a bit.
Plan to shop
Make a list ahead of time of the additional ingredients you require. This will prevent you from wandering around the store aimlessly and getting tempted by those pre-prepared packed processed foods! It is also a very good idea not to go grocery shopping hungry! If you are satiated, you will be less tempted by the junk that abundantly lines those grocery store aisles.
Plan a Prep day
It can be extremely helpful to plan a couple of hours one day a week to prep food and batch cook. Chop all your veggies and store them in airtight containers. Cook a few dishes that you can freeze and eat as leftovers during the week. Casseroles, roast chicken or roast beef, and chili are great options. Making a huge pan of roasted vegetables in the oven can be very helpful. They freeze well so you can save some for future weeks.
On prep day, an additional strategy which can be helpful is to then separate some of your batch cooking and place them in small portable containers for lunches. That way all you have to do is grab-and-go in the morning.
You can also batch cook breakfast! Mini crustless quiches in muffin tins are super simple and they also freeze well. Making breakfast sausage rounds ahead of time is also a great way to get a good dose of protein in the morning, and you can control what ingredients are going into them! Store-bought sausages can often contain many added ingredients, including sugar, bread crumbs, preservatives, and more.
This is a great tool you can use so that your food cooks while you work! You can prep all of your ingredients ahead of time on prep day and keep them in an airtight container. Then, the night before or in the morning, place all of the ingredients in the slow cooker and turn it on. When you get home, your meal with be warm and ready! Make a big enough batch to provide leftovers and you’re golden!
Did you know you can cook everything on one pan in the oven? There are many recipes out there for something called sheet-pan cooking. Place your veggies and meat or fish all on the same pan, drizzle with a little olive oil and maybe some spices, and pop it in the oven! It doesn’t have to be complicated, and it can be delicious.
Get some help
If you’re feeling lost and you don’t know where to start when it comes to meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking. A meal planning program may be helpful. My personal favourite is Real Plans.
With this program, you can choose which way of eating you prefer (for example, paleo, keto, AIP, low FODMAP, food allergies, traditional, etc), and you can choose any additional foods you wish to exclude or include in the recipes. You can also choose which days during the week you want to cook and which days you don’t. Also, you can indicate the number of people you are cooking for, and the program will adjust the recipes accordingly.
Then, you get a weekly meal plan with delicious recipes that have easy to follow instructions, and a detailed grocery shopping list so that you know exactly what ingredients you need for the week. For some people, this can make all the difference! You can learn more here if you think this could be helpful.
Preparing your food yourself is a very helpful thing you can do to eat better. When you eat better, you can feel better. Cooking at home will help you to control what ingredients go into your meals. You can avoid that Bliss point trifecta if you prepare your own food, which can help you to avoid the tendency to overeat because your reward center in your brain was triggered by the chemical mix of sugars, fat, salt, and flavour enhancers that you just ingested.
Cooking yourself can also help you increase the nutrient density of your diet, reducing the number of empty calories you consume, and improving the ratio of vitamins and minerals that you take in. This is the key to help you feel better.
These are just a few suggestions to help you plan and prepare meals at home. Try them out and see what you think. Sometimes, we need to make changes one step at a time, and that’s ok. Try out one idea at a time, or one meal at a time, and see how you do. The more you practice, the easier it will become.
Fill out the form below if you would like to have some easy recipes (for free!) as a starting point. You will receive a collection of free sheet-pan and crockpot recipes to get you started! I hope they help!