March is National Nutrition Month—a time to refocus our attention and energies on good eating habits, regular exercise and the myriad ways that food and nutrition impact our health and overall wellbeing. Created by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (the world’s largest organization of nutrition professionals), National Nutrition Month (NNM) has taken place every March since 1980. Around the U.S. you may see more nutrition coverage in the media and notice NNM activities taking place at your workplace, local hospitals, schools, or grocery stores. You can find out more about NNM and how Registered Dietitians and Dietetic Technicians can help guide you to a more nutritious life at the Academy website. We’ve put together a list of 10 healthy eating tips just for NNM, and of course, don’t forget that following the Guiding Stars is always an easy way to help you make healthful diet choices.
1. Vary your protein with vegetable-based options.
Plant-based proteins such as grains, lentils, nuts, beans, legumes, soy, hemp, rice, and peas are rich in a variety of micronutrients, as well as phytonutrients and antioxidants. Unlike animal protein, vegetable-based proteins won’t increase the saturated fat and cholesterol in your diet and are a sustainable choice too (which we can all feel good about!) Look for the Certified Plant Based logo to locate products rich in vegetable protein, but remember to check the nutrition facts panel also to ensure the product matches your broader health goals.
Tip: Be sure to rinse your lentils before adding them to this hearty chili to ensure there isn’t any debris or little stones among them.
2. Crank up the color.
A colorful plate of food is a more healthful plate of food. Why? Color is a sign of variety in food selection, and the wider variety of colorful foods in your diet, the greater your intake of nutrients and health-promoting phytonutrients. Also, since we’re primarily talking fruits and vegetables that are brightly colored, aiming to “eat the rainbow” is a way to ensure that you’ve got plenty of produce in your meals. And did you know that when foods are at their brightest colors, they are also at their peak of ripeness and nutrition as well? Load your meals with fruits and veggies that provide red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, and white colors daily and you’ll be well on your way to a better diet that is also visually pleasing (and tasty)! Emphasizing in-season and local produce is a great way to get more color in your diet, but in some areas of the country, variety dwindles during the winter. Make up for this by exploring some new-to-you produce (bok choy, jicama, or rutabaga anyone?), and keep in mind that frozen or canned produce can augment the color in your meals.
Tip: Remember that dried produce options such as dried fruit, beans, peas and legumes add color, fiber and nutrients to your plate, too. Keep some of these options handy in your pantry.
3. Bring balance to your plate.
When your food intake is balanced, you are more assured of getting an adequate intake of nutrients and calories. Having a balanced plate can mean several things—balance in terms of portions of foods, balance between food groups (eating a variety of foods), balance within food groups (not only eating just one type of fruit, for example), and balance in terms of caloric intake (eating the right amount of calories for your body). The Dietary Guidelines for Americans has a great tool for helping you choose an appropriate balance of foods and getting them in the best portion sizes for your needs.
Tip: Make half your plate (or bowl) fruits and vegetables. Choosing a vegetarian entree or produce-based side dish will go a long way toward improving your diet and balancing your plate.
4. Hydrate for health.
Although we tend to forget about hydration when it’s not hot outside, our bodies need adequate water no matter what time of year it is. Hydration is important for both physical functioning—our digestion, nutrient absorption, circulation, and many aspects of metabolism—but also for our mental functioning. Water truly is our most essential nutrient. Drinking water is always the best way to hydrate, but other liquids, such as juices, teas, and milks count as well (even those containing caffeine, contrary to what you may have heard).
Tip: Increasing your intake of watery foods can also boost your hydration level. Foods such as melons, lettuces, and citrus fruits are among the best sources of water. Go one further by using these foods in smoothies and homemade ice-pops.
5. Go for grains.
Nutrition packed, versatile grains are enjoying their time in the spotlight. Rich in micronutrients, protein, and fiber, grains are finding their way into every meal of the day, including snacks and desserts. While it may take some time to cook grains, they are easy to make ahead and freeze. There are also many products available in today’s market to make it easy to enjoy grains in minutes.
Tip: Many whole grains, like brown rice, come in "instant" or "minute" versions that have been partially cooked and dehydrated to make coking at home speedy.
6. Save on salt with fresh herbs.
Skimping on salt is a good way to help control sodium intake, but you shouldn’t have to sacrifice flavor. Fresh herbs provide a flavor and color boost that can really make lower-sodium dishes shine. They also have nutrition merits of their own—they’re packed with vitamins and healthy phytonutrients. Pairing meat-based entrees with fresh herbs for roasting or grilling is a good place to start. Dips, sauces, and condiments are notoriously high in sodium yet are easily made at home with less salt and more herbs for fresher flavor.
Tip: For fresh herbs at the ready, grow them on your windowsill or store soft-stemmed cut herbs standing up in the refrigerator in a cup with an inch of water (pop a plastic baggie over the tops of the herbs). For woody-stemmed herbs, wrap them in a damp paper towel and place in a plastic bag.
7. Go petite with desserts.
It is possible to make room for dessert. While we may understand that dessert can’t be an everyday occasion, it’s inevitable that it will show up at your next book club meeting, work event, or other gathering. When you plan for it, a small dessert can be part of a day that doesn’t overdo it. You can take this a step further with nutritious ingredients like whole grain flours, fruit, cocoa powder, or even beans or vegetables. Just keep an eye on the oven and adjust cooking time to make mini muffins or cupcakes.
Tip: Don’t be afraid to add some spice to the cupcakes above to create an unexpected flavor blend. If you don’t have time to roast beets and prefer not to use canned, try looking for pre-cooked beets in your prepared produce section.
8. Make your snacks count.
Plan your snacks the same why you plan your meals and you are far more likely to meet your daily nutrition goals, stay ahead of hunger, and have a nutritionally balanced day. Whether creating a balanced snack for yourself, or looking for a high quality granola bar, there are many options that can easily fit within your day. Avoid snacks that are high in added sugar as well as those that are low in protein, fiber or heart healthy fat. The bottomline is that a snack should have the nutrition you need to bridge you from one meal to the other. While it may seem like a handful of pretzels or low-calorie bar is a good option to control calories, it may actually lead to more calories when it leaves you hungry.
Tip: The sugar in this recipe mostly comes from dates, and therefore isn’t added sugar but naturally occurring. While it’s important to recognize that this sugar can still increase blood sugar, this balanced bar also offers substantial protein and heart healthy fat.
9. Plan and prep ahead.
One of the healthiest habits we can adopt and maintain is a commitment to planning and preparing our meals ahead of time. The benefits of planning meals are numerous and include everything from staying within caloric needs and controlling hunger to making the most of your food budget by decreasing waste and increasing the likelihood that you’ll use the food you have on hand. Find the meal planning strategy that works best for you and your family based on your schedule, the day you prefer to shop and when you have time to do a bit of meal prep.
Tip: Meal planning made easy! Follow this recipe guide and shopping list for a week’s worth of family friendly healthy meals.
10. Follow the Guiding Stars.
Purchasing healthful food is an important part of eating well. As a tool to help guide healthful grocery shopping, the Guiding Stars program provides an easy way for consumers to compare products within food categories. The Guiding Stars algorithm gives stars to foods that contain more “good stuff” and less of the things that many of us are trying to avoid or minimize in our diets. So, star-earning foods have more vitamins, minerals, fiber, whole grains and omega-3 fats, and lower amounts of saturated and trans fats, sodium, artificial colors and added sugar. So be on the lookout for the Guiding Stars on shelf tags and signage around the store; choose more of the 2- and 3-star foods and you’ll easily be on your way to a more healthful cart of food!
Tip: You can also improve the balance of your nutrition by choosing recipes from the Guiding Stars database and checking the star-rating of your favorite brands online.