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Intuitive Eating: Anatomy of a meal and a snack

October 3, 2014

Ever feel like you’re at the mercy of a vending machine when it comes grabbing lunch? Wonder if the drive-thru is your only option for ‘fast food?’ Or, consider anything besides food left in the break room as breakfast?

You’re not alone. Most of us eat on the fly—some days we can’t avoid it. I often hear from my clients that it’s hard to figure out what to eat in our go-go-go culture. The key question is, how do I create meals and snacks that balance taste, nutrition, convenience, and self-care.

The answer is simple: set an intention to plan ahead. Just as you manage your schedule around work and family, having some plan or intention for breakfast, lunch or dinner, helps you have choices other than being stuck with foods left out in the work break room -- these foods may taste good and let’s balance that with how you feel (sleepy, run-down, and irritable because fundamentally you’re not fed well!).

Anatomy of a Meal = Vegetable or Fruit + Fat + Protein + Carbohydrate

My experience tells me that people generally do well if they eat three meals a day, with one or two or three snacks (there can be variation from person to person and day to day with number of snacks needed). What makes a meal is simple: A vegetable or fruit + fat + protein + carbohydrate.

An example of a simple, quick meal—black beans with salsa, cheese and avocado and a side of fruit or yogurt—fits the bill. So does this: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with veggies and dip. Both take no time at all; you can put these ingredients in a lunch bag or to-go container and voila! You’ve got a great meal! Also there’s no need to be gourmet or complicated with food. I adore the pre-prepared foods at our local Portland grocery stores and rely on them often for quick meals.

(A word about the carbohydrates, not the most popular now, yet they are the human body’s preferred source of fuel. When carbohydrates are digested, they turn into glucose, and your brain uses glucose to the tune of 300-500 calories per day! There are many carb options to fit your needs. Try beans or lentils, legumes, peas, quinoa, pasta, winter squash. Yogurt and fruit are good sources, too.)

This vegetable or fruit + fat + protein + carbohydrate meal equation follows a Mediterranean eating style, a type of eating that has the most scientific evidence supporting overall optimal health over any other eating style. It’s been shown that people who live in cultures along the Mediterranean have the best health and are happy thanks in large part to their diet, which consists of carbs, olive oil and lots of fruits and vegetables.

What I LOVE about Mediterranean style eating is that taste and flexibility are paramount. They are not counting calories, fat or carb grams in Spain or Italy or France. Let’s follow suit—throw away the rigid diet plans and take on taste, flexibility and prioritizing food/eating to its rightful importance!

Anatomy of a Snack = Carb Choice + Protein or a Fat

I wholeheartedly endorse snacks because people feel better (as in energized, focused, relaxed) if they don’t go longer than 5 waking hours without eating a meal or snack. So if you eat lunch at Noon and dinner at 7:30 PM, that’s more than 7 hours between meals! Consider eating a snack at 3 or 4 pm. This can help you arrive at dinner with gentle hunger instead of an overwhelming, could-eat-the-kitchen-sink hunger.

Snacks can set you up for success in so many ways. I recommend snacks based on individual assessment and most people need at least 1-3 snacks per day. Some examples of snacks that work well include:

  • Apple + string cheese
  • Berries + handful or two of nuts
  • Yogurt with handful of nuts or granola
  • Sliced veggies + hummus
  • Handfuls of nuts and dried fruit
  • Pita with tuna salad
  • Corn tortillas + cheese + salsa
  • Avocado + salsa + toast or corn tortilla

In Sum: Plan Ahead and Be Flexible with Food

First and foremost it’s important to be flexible with food—don’t get bogged down with calorie counts or do’s and don’ts. Just remember, most of us need 3 meals and 1-3 snacks per day. Another important tip, you don’t need to strive for perfection in your eating, just do your best! People can get discouraged if they feel less than perfect in their mind’s eye with eating, which may lead to frustration and giving up all together. Find a middle ground, and you’ll do well.