Monday, August 5, 2013

Meal plans vs. planning meals

I don't write meal plans.  Sure, you can find many a nutritionist who will gladly tell you what, when, and how much to eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, but I'm not one of them.  I believe that prescribing meal plans violates personal boundaries, and while they may work to improve eating or promote weight loss in the short term, they are not sustainable, and inevitably lead to dieting backlash in the form of overeating.  Instead, I believe that people should eat when they are hungry, (rather than when a meal plan tells them to), stop when they are full (versus eating a prescribed portion size), and eat what is appealing and satisfying to them in that moment (as opposed to what someone else says you "should" be eating).

However, unless you have a personal chef at your disposal at all times to indulge your every whim (let's just think for a moment about how fantastic that would be...ahhh...okay, fantasy over), it's quite difficult to eat in a balanced and non-chaotic fashion without doing a little planning.  Which is why I think it's absolutely fine and healthy (both physically and psychologically) to do some pre-planning when it comes to meals and snacks.  When you find yourself feeling those first signs of hunger, having some options in mind beforehand will help you to eat in a more controlled, less chaotic manner, and will likely put your mind at ease as well.

I've also come to the conclusion that, after 2 years of advanced education in nutrition, the single-most valuable piece of advise I can give someone who is looking to improve their eating is this...(drum roll please)...cook for yourself as much as possible!  As I've mentioned before, eating packaged and processed foods is not optimal for your health, and constantly eating out isn't ideal either.  You have to remember that people in the restaurant business want to make their food taste as rich and decadent as possible to insure repeat customers, so they will invariably add more sugar, salt, and fat to the foods they prepare than you ever would if cooking for yourself.  Don't get me wrong...I love eating out just as much as the next person!  And I eat out probably at least once per week.  But, I also try to cook for myself as much as possible, and have ingredients available in my home that make last minute meal preparation do-able.  That way I don't find myself browsing through takeout menus when hunger strikes.

Lately I've discovered a fantastic and super simple way to have a key ingredient available to make various different delicious and healthful meals for me and my family: Crockpot Shredded Chicken. I prepare this chicken in the morning or afternoon, and it's ready for that night's dinner, with enough left over for at least another two meals afterwards.  Here's the recipe:

Crockpot Shredded Chicken

Found on

4 organic, boneless skinless chicken breasts
1/2 cup chicken broth (to make life easier, I freeze 1/2 cup portions so they're ready to go)
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp dried oregano

Place chicken in slow cooker.  Sprinkle chicken breasts with all the spices.  Add chicken broth.  Cover and cook on low for 4-6 hours.  Shred chicken with two forks.

The combo of the spices really gives a nice flavor to the chicken, and having this on hand in the refrigerator (or frozen, if you don't think you'll use it all within a few days) gives you lots of easy meal options-- sandwiches, quesadillas, salads, as well as many other recipes that call for shredded chicken.  I've made some seriously kick-ass salads with this chicken (and that's coming from someone who's not really a big salad fan!).  For the salads, I also buy pre-washed greens (lately I've been using a lot of arugula), some yummy nuts and dried cranberries as toppings, and I also pre-chop various veggies (cucumbers, bell peppers, carrots, etc) and have them stored in glassware in the refrigerator, so I basically have a salad bar ready to go!

Below is one recipe I used the shredded chicken in the other night.  This is a bit more work than a salad, but it's not too bad, and it comes out really tasty.  It's actually a recipe I've made before, but had previously bought rotisserie chickens to do it, which are (a) hard to find organic (which is a priority to me, especially when purchasing meat and poultry), (b) more difficult to shred, because of those pesky bones, and (3) most definitely more expensive, since you're paying a premium for the service of having the store cook the chicken for you.  Anyway, here's the recipe:

Roasted Chicken-Artichoke Calzones

Found in Cooking Light magazine

1 (14-ounce) can artichoke hearts, drained and finely chopped
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
2 cups thinly sliced fresh spinach leaves
1 1/4 cups (5 ounces) shredded sharp provolone (I used a shredded 4-cheese blend from Trader Joe's which consisted of parmesan, asiago, fontina, and provolone)
1 cup shredded cooked chicken breast (about 5 ounces)
1 tsp olive oil
2 tsp cornmeal
1 (13.8) oz can refrigerated pizza crust dough

1. Preheat over to 425.
2. Pat artichokes dry with paper towels (I skipped this step, and just strained them whole in a colander before chopping...didn't seem to be an issue at all).  Combine artichokes, salt, pepper, and garlic in a large bowl.  Add spinach, cheese, and chicken; toss gently to combine.
3. Brush oil over a baking sheet; sprinkle with cornmeal.  Unroll dough onto prepared baking sheet; cut into 6 equal portions. Cover and let rest for 5 minutes.  Pat each portion into a 6 x 5-inch rectangle.  Spoon 2/3 cup spinach mixture into center of each dough portion.  Fold one corner of each dough portion over spinach mixture to form a triangle.  Press edges together with fingers to seal.  Bake at 425 for 12 minutes or until golden.

This recipe makes 6 servings, and can easily be reheated for lunch or dinner the next day (I put them in for 5 minutes at 450 and they reheated perfectly.  I chose to do this over the microwave because I didn't want them to get soggy).  We served them with marinara sauce for dipping, and a little side salad.  The folding of the dough can be a little annoying, but remember that the shape of the calzones doesn't have to be perfect...mine certainly weren't!

Anyone else have any tips for simplifying at-home meal preparation?  What ingredients do you always have on hand for last minute meals or snacks?  Please share below in the comments section.  I'm always looking for new ideas!