I often give the advice, “Variety in diet leads to variety in nutrition.”
It makes sense: Each food has a unique nutritional composition, so consuming a variety of foods naturally leads to improved health. Eating different colors and textures, and enjoying different flavor profiles improves your mood, sleep quality, energy levels, overall outlook while supporting healthy iron, vitamin D, B12, and other micronutrients. That same variety can help to decrease CRP (which indicates inflammation) and regulate blood glucose as well.
But recently during a presentation, someone asked, “But how? It seems really intimidating to increase variety.”
Sometimes the simplest statements are the truest.
Not only can we get stuck in a nutritional rut during the best of times, but during these times right now? It’s nearly impossible to take a well-worn habit, one that continues to support you throughout a global crisis, one that anchors you to the shred of sanity you may have left–and upend it for the sake of health.
In these times, when the schools are open, then closed, then open, then closed… When the normal pieces of life we’ve previously depended on have all suddenly become moving targets… When we have gone from being actual human beings in our own right to becoming semi-demoted planets consistently being circled by the satellites that are our children… It can be really difficult to get out of a rut. More so, it can be really difficult to WANT to get out of a nutrition rut.
So here is your guide. This is the How-To you’ve asked for. Take it one step at a time. Remember, the most important side-dish at any meal is your sanity.
Make it Delicious
We are so used to torturing ourselves–overextending ourselves at work or with the kids, punishing ourselves at the gym. I’d love to tell you how to build better boundaries with work and family, but someone would have to tell me first. At the gym, you can certainly find your passion rather than doing an exercise you don’t enjoy.
At the table, things should be delicious. Experiment with seasoning and cooking methods to make it taste great!
You don’t like a pile of raw or steamed broccoli? Try this Garlic Roasted Broccoli instead.
Not interested in sauteed mushrooms? Check out this delicious mushroom gravy, great for leftover turkey or on top of roasted veggies or potatoes.
Herbs and seasonings can really improve a meal. Do you get lost in the spice rack? Take a ride on this link over to The Ultimate Infographic Guide to Spices https://www.cooksmarts.com/articles/ultimate-infographic-guide-spices/.
Add a Plant
Look at each meal as an opportunity to add a plant. This is all about adding, not subtracting. I’m not telling you to toss your Ben & Jerry’s. I’m certainly going to keep enjoying mine. By adding plants rather than removing a food (or entire group of food) from your meal plan, you’ll never feel deprived. Deprivation leads to poor choices.
Some practical ideas for you:
- Add a side of fruit. Any fruit. Really.
- Add a convenience food. They are called “convenience foods” for a reason! They are easy! This could be bagged baby carrots or it could be a new microwaveable side or entree. There are no bonus points awarded for difficulty here.
- A plate of raw, crunchy vegetables goes with almost any meal. And you ca pair it with a delicious and nutritious dip–stay tuned for a ton of recipes.
- Consider how you can add vegetables to your dish, or whether you would rather have them on the side. Would you rather mix chopped spinach into your scrambled eggs? Or would you rather enjoy a side of sauteed spinach with tomatoes and feta?
- Add a side salad. In the Middle East, it’s very common to enjoy a refreshing tomato and cucumber salad on the side of nearly any dish, any time of the day. The simplest version is just finely chopped tomato, cucumber, a pinch of salt, and a squeeze of lemon, but you can try this kicked-up version from Gimme Some Oven.
- Add a smoothie! My personal favorite is just mixing some frozen berries with OJ and a handful of spinach, but check out these veggieful smoothies and see what you think.
Try Something New
This sounds simple, but when you’re juggling life, you might automatically seek the simple. So let’s make this easy.
- Consider your taste and texture preferences. Find something similar, but new. For example, if you’re a fan of the refreshing crunch of celery or Romaine lettuce, give jicama a try! If it’s completely new to you, ask for assistance when picking out your vegetable at the market.
- Bust out the old cookbooks and look for an old family favorite. Resurrect that much-loved casserole from your childhood or dust off the recipe card for Aunt Baila’s Borscht. Time to beet that rut to the curb!
- Go out for dinner with a friend and order a familiar dish and an unfamiliar dish. Share both. If the new dish doesn’t work out for you, you still have the standard favorite!
- Pick out a new food from the supermarket. This might mean going to a market you don’t usually visit–maybe a cultural market that represents a culture different than your own. Ask for advice on how to enjoy that new food. Be sure to have a “safe” or familiar food on the table just in case it doesn’t go as well.
- Got the coupons and weekly circulars for inspiration! There will always be something tasty for less money.
- Join a Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA). This often means you’ll be getting quite a bit of produce that may be unfamiliar, so get ready for an adventure.
- Swap: If you’re into spinach, try swapping it out for a similar, but new, vegetable–like dandelion greens.
- Swap (again): Enlist a friend for this. Both of you make dinner in your own homes. Then swap dinners.
- Dig deep into your background and see if there is a cultural dish that inspires your appetite. Learn something delicious about your heritage!
- Check out a local farm for an opportunity to experience a U-Pick. In the same vein, head over to the local Farmer’s Market and see what’s in season locally. Chat with the farmer about their favorite dishes and cooking methods.
Make a Small Change
Making a small change can make a big difference when you’re trying something new. Or trying to try something new. The concept I’m about to discuss here is called Food Chaining. This is a common approach when helping a child build an adventurous attitude around food. The idea is to build on a previous positive experience by preparing a dish that is similar in taste, temperature, or texture to something already loved.
- Add a spoon of pesto to the side of the pasta dish you love.
- If you like fries, try sweet potato fries or zucchini fries.
- Try adding steamed broccoli florets to your macaroni and cheese.
Dips can be a delicious way to boost your variety. Pair a dip with food that is familiar to you and your family. The benefit is that if your dip comes out a little less tasty than you wanted, you can just choose to not dip again. The rest of the meal remains just as comforting and appetizing as usual. If you do love it, use it as a spread or even a sauce in future meals.
- Hummus: This blog has recipes for both traditional hummus and also spinach pesto hummus!
- Roasted Veggie Dip: This delicious dip is made by pureeing roasted vegetables.
- Easy Guacamole: Or for an even easier option, go buy a tub!
- Tzatziki: This Greek dip is a wonderful side for your crunchy veggie plate, roasted veggies, toasted pita, falafel, or salads.
- Salsa: Pick your favorite homemade or store-bought (low sodium) salsa and add it to eggs, chicken, or veggies!
- Baba ganoush: This smoky eggplant dip is great with veggies or as a spread!
- Black Bean Dip might not be the most beautiful side, but it packs a nutrition and flavor punch!
- Do you like chocolate? Nuts are a great source of nutrition! This Chocolate Cashew Spread… well it’s chocolaty and spready. Need I say more?
- If you’re a fan of nachos, I’ve got you covered. Check out this tasty Vegan Queso–great for the veggie-heads and for us meat-enjoyers too!
- I gave you pesto hummus above, but this more traditional pesto is great as a dip or a spread. You can also use it for pasta or even pizza!
- Beans are a great source of many micronutrients including iron, folate, zinc, and B6 as well as fiber. This White Bean Dip with Herbs will make your tastebuds sing!
The Big Idea
Here is the thing–when we jump into something headfirst, it’s less likely to stick. We are more prone to getting in over our heads and then ditching the whole thing, heading right back to our comfortable rut.
It’s also important to remember that there is no such thing as a “food variety test failure” (thanks for that—and most of this paragraph, Halina Brooke of Recourse Counseling). It’s ok to just not like something. I don’t like olives or mushrooms. Accept yourself as you are, with your trade preferences and dislikes. Even if you find you still never “grew into liking chopped liver” or you just can’t do bitter flavors or okra gives you texture trauma. Self-acceptance and gentleness are the way to go. There are plenty of fish in the sea!
For long-lasting health benefits, do one thing at a time. Commit to doing one thing on this list each week. Or every other week. Any step toward adding variety to your diet will benefit you in mind and body.