Happy National Nutrition Month, everybody!
National Nutrition Month is celebrated nationally every March, with a theme set by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This year’s theme “Eat Right, Bite by Bite” encourages us to take small, actionable steps toward eating in a healthier way overall. By focusing on what we can eat, rather than what we should avoid, we take back the joy of eating for good nutrition. This month, focus on making changes a little bit (or bite!) at a time.
Week 1: Vary your Diet
If have a dog or cat at home, you most likely feed them the same food at the same time on a daily basis. If you’re like me, maybe you wonder if they get a little sad about eating the same thing when there are so many food and flavor combinations out there… While our animals are probably just grateful for being fed, us humans tend to have an opportunity to choose our foods. So, choose variety! Eating a variety of foods from each food group helps us get all the nutrients we need, keeps our meals interesting, and aligns with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
One way to vary your diet is by ensuring that you eat foods from the five food groups for most meals if possible. Fruits, vegetables, grains, protein (including plant-based protein) and dairy contribute to a balanced diet. Even within each food group, aim for variety. Different colored fruits and vegetables contain different vitamins and minerals, and different vitamins and minerals have different functions in the body! Similarly, varying your protein can help increase your omega-3 fat intake when we eat certain fish, increase fiber intake when we eat beans and nuts, and decrease saturated fats by not always eating fatty cuts of meat.
Week 2: Plan your meals
As the old adage goes: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Not knowing what your meals are for the week can lead us down a path of less-than-healthy food choices. Picture this: you run out the door in the morning with no meal plan. You stop by your local coffee place and get a pastry and a coffee to hold you over. Lunch comes around, and the only thing near you is fast food. Too many calories and too much sodium later, you get back to the office. If hunger strikes again, you might reach for the quickest vending machine snack and/or soda before your ride home. Bad traffic, a long day at work, and no meal plan lead you to making another quick and easy food choice home that may be less than ideal.
Now picture this alternate scenario: on one of your not-so-busy nights, you write out a list of the main courses for your week. You plan some side dishes, a couple of vegetable options, your favorite fruit or whichever are on sale, and some breakfast staples. Maybe you feel adventurous and prepare a few servings of oatmeal for breakfast, or use your reusable containers to scoop out a couple of servings of yogurt when you return from your grocery trip. You top each with your favorite dried fruit/nut combination, and in the morning you’re already ready to go. Maybe you did this on a relatively easy night, and while you prepared your breakfast you turned on the oven and roasted a few vegetables and some lean meats, or even steamed veggies in your microwave while you boiled a few eggs. Now, all it takes is a few extra minutes each day to pack yourself a breakfast, a lunch, throw in a fruit for snacks, and you’re off to a much better week as it relates to food (and saved some money, too).
Week 3: Learn skills to create tasty meals!
They say you can’t learn to cook by watching cooking programs… and that may be true to an extent. Perhaps your favorite cooking show helps you learn about different flavor combinations, what not to do (don’t open the oven!), or the flavor profiles of certain cuisines. Perhaps you follow a more traditional approach to cooking, and learn from a class or by closely following a recipe. Or perhaps you entrust another person in the household with all the cooking. The truth is, learning simple cooking techniques can boost your confidence level for creating meals at home.
At our UF/IFAS Extension office, we offer some basic cooking classes in a series called “Cook Smart, Eat Smart.” Our affordable programs help participants walk away feeling confident in their food safety, knife skills, baking, roasting, steaming, stir-frying and overall cooking level. If you’re nearby, you could join us for our next series and try it out yourself. If you’re a more experienced cook, you could join in for the fun, the experience, and to try some new recipes to make at home.
Week 4: Consult a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)
For the general population, a visit to www.choosemyplate.gov can help get you on the right track to eating well for life. However, many of us still struggle with food, making the right choice, or knowing what to do but not feeling inspired to do it. Even more, there are some of us who suffer from chronic diseases like obesity, high blood pressure, pre-diabetes or diabetes, kidney problems, etc. Regardless of where you are on the spectrum, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) can work with you individually to achieve your goals. An RDN is someone who studied nutrition at the college and/or graduate level, completed a minimum of 1,200 of supervised clinical nutrition practice to solidify their expertise, passed a national examination and maintains continuing education units on a regular basis. Check with your insurance, and ask your doctor for a referral to an RDN if you feel you need it.
Food should fuel you, and empower you to be the best version of yourself you can be. Fad diets, “influencers,” and other unreliable sources of information harm our perception of food and our health in the process. At UF/IFAS Extension statewide we strive to provide accurate, research-based information to all of our clients. In certain counties, like right here in Orange County, you can rest assured that the information you receive is not only science based, but also delivered by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with additional nutrition expertise.
So this month, aim to Eat Right, Bite by Bite. Vary your foods every day, plan your meals each week, learn skills to create tasty meals, and consult with an RDN if needed. Happy National Nutrition Month, and happy eating!