When I started my study of herbal medicine, the first thing I learned is that herbs are secondary: lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, and stress management form the foundation for wellness. This is a challenge to the modern mindset that there must be a pill-for-my-problem (chances are there is) but to truly create wellness we need to first look at our lifestyle.
Over the years, I have changed much about the way I eat, exercise, and manage stress because I was feeling the effects of not doing so in my earlier years. I have based my changes using current research and more importantly, improvements in how I feel.
Healthy fresh food is more expensive than processed food – which is some kind of twisted reality. This is a primary reason why I grow a portion of my food. The cheapness of processed food eventually becomes an expensive choice as we age: within my own family, I witnessed chronic diseases caused by unhealthy food and lack of exercise lead to a retirement filled with weekly doctor’s appointments, shuffling between various specialists, and purchasing expensive pharmaceuticals.
I have other plans for my retirement! So I began with small changes and continue to improve how I feed my body as I learn more. The tips below are strategies that I currently utilize to keep on the path of wellness and within my homestead budget.
1) Track What You Eat
Keep a food and mood journal for at least a week, including a weekend. Using a paper and pen or computer, record everything and the amounts you eat and drink each day. At the end of the day, count your servings of vegetables, fruits, proteins, and fats and your water intake. Be specific. The journal can provide a lot of insight into your eating habits so the more details the better. One thing I noticed quickly was my perception that I ate a lot of veggies and fruits throughout the day did not match my actual intake. The mind can be a powerful trickster.
In your journal, note any body and mind reactions you have from a specific food: bloat, thirst, headache, gas, brain fog, drowsiness, irritability, satiety, happiness, etc. One of my favorite foods, pizza, now causes heartburn, bloat, and excessive thirst. I still eat it occasionally with less offending toppings but I plan accordingly for the end results.
Lastly, count the number of plant species you eat each day. There is ample research that indicates microbiome health depends on the diversity of plant species you eat.
Review your journal after a week, adding up the number of healthy food servings, the reactions you had, and the diversity of plants you ate. This is where you begin the process of changing your diet.
Tracking your food beyond the initial food journal is a good idea especially when you can see a breakdown of the nutrients that you are eating. An app called cronometer.com is one way to record your food intake. It tracks a variety of vitamins, minerals, fiber, carbohydrates, and fats as well as calories from the food you eat each day.
2) Design Plant-focused Meals
I suspect many of us learned to plan our meals around meat: a starch and a vegetable were side dishes. Plant-focused eating changes that: veggies are the focus (half of your plate), and grains and protein make up the other half. Given the increased costs of meat, this suggestion is not only healthier but more affordable.
I have been watching a video series on microbiome health – our body has many microbiomes but the one in our gut is pivotal to our overall wellness. And one of the key points was a bit astounding: to support the diversity of microbes in our bodies, we need to eat a diversity of plants. The ideal is 40 different plant species per week! Think broadly about plants: not just vegetables and fruits, but herbs, spices, and grains.
Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.Michael Pollan, Best-Selling Author
3) Create a Weekly Meal Plan
My experience confirms that meal plans are key to maintaining a healthy and affordable diet. Have you found yourself staring into an opened refrigerator at 5:30 pm, ravenous and tired, trying to decide what to cook for dinner? Hunger usually wins this staredown; choosing to make a fast food runs, eat refined carb leftovers, or a large container of ice cream for dinner. A weekly meal plan allows you to shop and prep for both meals and snacks.
Between my garden and local growers, I am able to fill two freezers with fruit, vegetables, soups, and broths. I dehydrate a variety of fruits and vegetables and do a bit of canning (not enough) each year. My meal planning starts with an inventory of what I have on hand: this ensures that I use up what I have and keeps my weekly food costs down. With the rise of food prices in the last few months, I have come to appreciate my garden currency. Those higher prices are also motivating me to increase my canning and fermentation tasks.
Planning meals can sometimes be an overwhelming exercise: cookbooks, diet advice, budget considerations, picky partners, super-picky children, and oh-so-many food blogs. I have started using a template for each week and plug in different recipes that include the following ingredients: an abundance of vegetables and fruits including leafy greens, spices, and herbs; healthy proteins; and whole grains. Templates are flexible – the idea is to stay within the week’s plan but I can move the meals around within the week.
Weekly Meal Template
Sunday Soup – Make a big pot of soup, bake/buy a loaf of whole-grain bread, add a vegetable tray with hummus dip. Eat leftovers for lunch during the week or freeze for a future meal.
Meatless Monday – This now-famous idea has many online recipes. Beans, greens, and grains are the go-to ingredients.
Taco Tuesdays – Easy to make with meat, fish, beans, and veggies. Soft whole wheat tortillas are much healthier than those artificially dyed, fried hard taco shells.
Wildcard Wednesdays (dinner out, leftovers, something from the freezer, a big bowl of popcorn
Sheet pan Thursdays – I love sheet pan cooking! Vegetables, protein, and either a glaze or sauce and dinner is ready within an hour or shorter with a one-pan clean-up. There are lots of recipes online.
Fish Friday – I invest in an annual order of frozen Alaskan wild-caught salmon because salmon is an excellent source of Omega 3s. Tuna, cod, and the occasional halibut are also my favorites.
Salad Bowl Saturdays – Also called Buddha bowls, these one-bowl wonders start with a grain and then are topped with cooked and fresh chopped or grated vegetables, and a protein (meat, fish, shrimp, beans, lentils, or tofu), a heavy sprinkle of seeds or chopped nuts and then a drizzle of a vinaigrette dressing. This is a great DIY meal: set up the ingredients and let people build their own bowls. Again, the web is loaded with many recipes.
4) The $4 Onion (Getting the Most Nutritional Bang for your Buck)
On my way back from the airport, I stopped at my local grocery store to pick up an onion, carrots, and celery so I could make a pot of soup the next day. I used the new self-checkout system and was shocked to see my very large organic onion key in at $4. For one onion! I was too tired to question the price so I carried on and went home.
The primary complaint about buying fresh and organic produce is that it is more expensive than buying canned and frozen vegetables. This is mostly true for reasons that make no sense to me – our governments should be subsidizing local growers of vegetables and fruits but that’s another blog post. My local store keeps a good supply of frozen organic chopped spinach, broccoli, corn, and green beans packaged in non-plastic bags. They recently had a half-off sale – I didn’t hesitate to buy what was left.
Frozen vegetables and fruits can actually be more nutritious than produce that traveled 1500 miles and then sits on a shelf for additional days – the entire time it is decaying and losing nutrients. Frozen veggies are usually flash-frozen within hours of harvest. I don’t like the texture or taste of canned vegetables so it’s either fresh or frozen for me.
5) Commit to Weekly Veggie Prep Sessions
In what is a testimony to our access to cheap and abundant food, Americans waste more food than any other nation. Good intentions of eating healthy without a meal plan often result in slimy lettuce, limp carrots, yellowed broccoli, mushy fruit, and the banana that seemed to turn brown overnight. Wasted money and expensive compost ingredients.
Each week devote a couple of hours to washing and cutting vegetables for the week’s meals and store them in sealable containers, in the fridge. The benefit will be realized quickly: grab a bowl of cut veggies and some homemade hummus for lunch, pull together a stir-fry in minutes, steam a vegetable medley for dinner, toss raw veggies onto a salad, etc.
Here’s my list of favorite vegetables to prep and store (not more than a week), depending on the season:
- Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts
- Onions, garlic
- Carrots, celery, peppers
- Kale and other greens
- Winter or summer squash
Eating for your health requires time and effort. Start with a few small changes and see how it impacts your life.