Bust Out of a Food Rut

Why learning to mix up diet and food-prep techniques can help clients stick to their weight loss goals.

By Matthew Kadey, MS, RD
Jan 22, 2014

While it’s a good idea to have a handful of go-to meals we can rely on in a time crunch, preparing the same repasts week after week as if on autopilot can bring on a serious case of food burnout.

It may start with an appetite for easy, quick and reliable-to-prepare meals, or it may result from a food restriction brought on by a desire to shed weight. In any case, clients who become blasé about mealtime can be tempted by nutritionally corrupt food as they try to bring more pleasure back to eating—a scenario that can sabotage weight loss efforts or fitness goals.

Since it’s almost always healthier (and cheaper!) for people to prepare most of their own meals at home, it’s important to develop a game plan that keeps meal-time exciting and ensures that a diet derailing food rut doesn’t set in. Take the blahs out of eating by using these methods to reinvigorate a bored palate.

Usher in the New

As the old saw goes, “Variety is the spice of life.” And this is particularly true of the foods we toss into our grocery cart and slap on the dinner plate. Simply put, consuming a narrow range of overdone staples all the time will sour anyone’s interest in a healthy diet. That can lure people back to poor foods, like greasy pizza, and rekindle an urge to make surreptitious midnight Dairy Queen runs for the sake of change.

Our palates are designed to appreciate culinary variety, and our senses can be more completely satisfied when we enjoy a wider diversity of novel textures, colors and flavors. Improved food variety makes it much less likely for people to feel deprived when following a calorie-controlled diet for healthy weight management.

Furthermore, eating the same handful of edibles every day makes us less likely to obtain a full arsenal of nutrients. A diet rich in variety—Swiss chard or collard greens instead of just romaine; faro, amaranth and teff instead of only rice— provides a much broader range of the necessary vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and amino acids needed for good health and optimal fitness gains. Some nutritionists also believe that dietary diversity may lessen food intolerances by reducing the constant stimulation of the body’s digestive and immune system from staples such as wheat and soy.

Picture the Irresistible

Not sure what to do with teff or a pomelo? Consider spending some quality Web time surfing for new recipe ideas on gastronomic visual-potluck websites like these:

For all the kitchen inspiration you can stomach, go to www.foodgawker.com. Search for a particular ingredient and click on any one of a huge collection of standout food photos—you’ll then be whisked to a page of mouthwatering recipes. For instance, a search for quinoa calls up a tasty-looking recipe for quinoa avocado spring rolls. Just keep in mind that not all the recipes are wonderfully healthy, so forage for ones with an abundance of nutrient-rich whole foods.

Get Your Passport to Flavor

Stepping outside a supermarket comfort zone and strolling through an ethnic food market can encourage experimentation in the kitchen and provide a dazzling assault on the taste buds. Several varieties of ethnic cuisine such as Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, North African, Mediterranean and Latin have a number of pantry staples such as zaatar and soba noodles that can instantly enliven a stale diet.

Best of all, many of these items deliver significant health perks. Case in point: Mexican chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, which features dry-smoked jalapeños packed in a lively red sauce and infuses dishes with smoky heat and capsaicin, a phytochemical that gives chili peppers their fiery kick. Research suggests that consuming more capsaicin may aid in weight management, potentially by revving up metabolism and reducing appetite (Ludy, Moore & Mattes 2012; Ludy & Mattes 2011; Whiting, Derbyshire & Tiwari 2012).

Japanese miso, a savory paste made from fermented soybeans, can breathe new life into soups and salad dressing. A study published in the journal Nutrition Research suggests that fermented soy products can help slash the risk of developing type 2 diabetes (Kwon et al. 2010). Readily available in Indian markets is tamarind pulp, which bolsters dietary levels of B vitamins, potassium and magnesium. A large 2013 Harvard study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that higher intakes of magnesium can cut heart-disease risk by up to 30% (Del Gobbo et al. 2013). Tamarind pulp adds a nice touch of tangy sweetness to glazes, soups, vinaigrettes and chutneys. Again, don’t hesitate to go online for help making good use of these “new” ingredients.

Suffering from wanderlust? The next time a vacation is in the works, consider choosing a destination with a strong culinary culture. Think Thailand, France or India. You will come home rested and ready to whip up inspiring new dishes.

Change Your Style

As with food choices, using the same cooking methods all the time can drive us into a rut. Mixing up styles can add new flavor and texture to a regular menu rotation.

Always pan-fry chicken? Try poaching it. Want to coax out more flavor and better texture from inexpensive cuts of meat? Braise them instead. Always roast veggies? Throw them on a grill. Wishing you could make truly moist and delicate fish? Try steaming fillets in parchment paper packets (en papillote, in French parlance). Also, consider treating yourself to a new kitchen gadget like an immersion blender, cast-iron skillet or pizza stone to get those creative juices flowing.

Making meal prep more fun gets your clients more interested in their healthy-eating plans. If you don’t know a mandolin from a mandoline, be sure to mine cookbooks, live cooking demonstrations and food blogs for all the necessary tips and tricks needed to master these exciting cooking techniques. Sous vide, anyone?

Learn From the Pros

Cities and towns across the nation are sprouting cooking classes that can turn average cooks and stove-a-phobes into seemingly culinary geniuses. This is an ideal way to learn diferent cooking skills and become aware of new foods and what to do with them in the kitchen. It’s also a place to meet new foodie friends who can keep home cooking exciting.

When searching out a cooking class, it’s important to choose one with a healthy theme, such as salad makeovers or whole grains. Some chefs who instruct classes can be too liberal with cream and butter. Community colleges, university extension programs and even churches can be great places to locate low-cost classes.

Gather a Crowd

Hosting a monthly potluck is an excellent way to fuel your drive to eat better and shake your taste buds out of a coma. There’s nothing like trying to impress friends and family to inspire you to put together an interesting new dish. You can also give these gatherings a nutritious theme—such as winter soups, tropical fruits or low-sugar desserts. Best of all, potlucks provide an opportunity to gather new recipes from other cooks. Keep in mind it’s best to test-run recipes before serving them to guests.

Hug a Farmer

Stoke your fire for culinary creativity by frequenting a farmers’ market for your weekly grocery haul. More often than not, there is something new and exciting to discover on those wood-hewn tables. All you need is a willing palate. Many times, the farmers who grow the orange cauliflower and Honeycrisp apples can suggest ways to make them shine in the kitchen. Besides, much of what is available is harvested at peak ripeness and doesn’t suffer from the nutritional losses that may occur when supermarket fare travels great distances from farm to store and sits on shelves for days. To find a farmers’ market close to home, check out www.local harvest.org and search in your zip code.

Taste the Season

Why eat imported asparagus in February or butternut squash during a July heat wave? Eating with the seasons is almost always cheaper, healthier and far more delicious. It also adds variety to a humdrum diet, since seasonal eating frequently changes what gets dropped in that shopping basket.

Learn when certain items are in season and then focus on using them in fun and enticing new ways. During the winter months, for example, use nutty-tasting spaghetti squash as a whimsical replacement for regular spaghetti. Embrace hearty root vegetables by caramelizing them in the oven. Winter fruits like citrus are abundant in the vitamin C we need to boost immunity. Chop up some blood oranges and toss with Greek yogurt for a healthy snack. When spring blooms, think green in the form of peas, asparagus and tender spinach.

Joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program can also force you to get creative with new seasonal foods, since you’re never really sure what will show up in the weekly box. With a CSA, you buy “shares” of a local farm. The return on your investment is a bounty of fresh, seasonal produce from the farm every week or two. Sometimes a CSA also includes dairy and meat items.

Slow Down

How often do we shovel food in our mouths while driving, watching television or working at the office? This habit disconnects us further from the food we eat. By taking the time to appreciate the flavors and textures that different foods provide, you’ll garner a whole new excitement for mealtime.

Slowing down the pace of eating may help in the battle of bulge as well A study in the journal Appetite discovered that people who chewed each bite of their midday meal for at least 30 seconds consumed half as many snacks later in the day as people who ate at a more furious pace (Higgs & Jones 2013). The researchers surmised that chewing at more of a snail’s pace may delay hunger signals.

Also, consider livening up the kitchen and dining area at home in simple ways to reduce the urge to speed-eat. For example, place flowers or ornamental gourds on the table; play your favorite music in the background during meal prep; and put out healthy appetizers before the main meal.

Update the Usual Suspects

It’s not always necessary to rustle up brand-new recipes to break out of the food blahs. Instead, you can take recipes you’re accustomed to and make them over with new ingredients. For example, if you typically serve pasta with meat sauce, consider serving pasta with steamed mussels instead. Make over meatloaf to include half beef and half mushrooms. Swap out deli turkey in your lunch sandwich with smoked salmon. Making just a few updates to your usual recipes can really help in sending that food rut packing. Happy cooking!

Mixing It Up At Mealtime

Branch out of a comfort zone and rediscover a will to eat well with some of these tasty food switch-ups.

Instead of Try
beef bison
peanut butter almond butter
brown rice black rice
cowÔÇÖs milk goatÔÇÖs milk
potatoes rutabagas
apples kiwis
salmon arctic char
spaghetti spaghetti squash

For most people, itÔÇÖs best to branch out gradually, starting with one new itemÔÇösuch as a fruit, vegetable or meatÔÇöeach week. Over time, a whole host of new favorites will be discovered. Supermarkets and farmersÔÇÖ markets are increasingly providing a wider range of choices to help people eat more adventurously.

Amaranth-Hemp Porridge With Blueberry Compote

Similar to quinoa, amaranth is an Ancient South American grain that is gluten-free and brimming in nutrients. When it cooks, amaranth releases much of its starch to produce a gelatinous consistency. This makes it a perfect candidate for a tasty alternative to oatmeal.

With more protein than other seeds, such as flax or chia, hemp seeds (also called hemp hearts) are a worthwhile addition to a healthy diet. Best of all, they have a marvelous nutty flavor that elevates breakfast porridge, salads, yogurt and soups. Leftover porridge can be reheated on the stovetop with some additional milk or water. The blueberry compote can be made up to 4 days in advance.

Shopping tip. Amaranth and hemp seeds can be found at most natural food stores. Or you can source amaranth online from www.bobsredmill.com and hemp hearts from www.manitoba harvest.com.

  • 1 C amaranth
  • 1 C low-fat milk or unsweetened almond milk
  • 1 T cinnamon, divided
  • 1Ôüä2 T ginger powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 C water
  • 2 C fresh or frozen blueberries
  • 1Ôêò3 C water
  • 2 T pure maple syrup or honey
  • 1/2 almond extract
  • 2 t cornstarch
  • 1 T water
  • 1/3 C hemp seeds (hemp hearts)

Key: C = cup, T = tablespoon; t = teaspoon

Place amaranth, milk, 1Ôüä2 tablespoon cinnamon, ginger powder, pinch of salt and 2 cups water in medium-sized saucepan. Bring to boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 25 minutes, or until amaranth is tender and texture is similar to that of cream of wheat. Stir more often during last 5 minutes of cooking to prevent clumping and excessive sputtering.

To make compote, place blueberries, 1Ôêò3 cup water, maple syrup, remaining cinnamon and almond extract in medium-sized saucepan. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Dissolve cornstarch in 1 tablespoon water, stir into blueberry mixture, and heat 1 minute, or until thickened.

Place amaranth in serving bowls, and top with blueberry compote and hemp seeds. Serves four.

Per serving: 333 calories; 17 g protein; 8 g fat (1 g saturated); 58 g carbs; 6 g fiber; 30 mg sodium.

Black-Rice Salmon Salad

This deconstructed sushi adds a burst of color to mealtime and is sure to help out anyone bored with mundane salads. Antioxidant-rich Chinese black rice (also called Forbidden Rice) makes a stunning addition to mealtime, while nori and miso add a shot of umami, the much-buzzed-about fifth taste. If youÔÇÖre bored with salmon, consider substituting arctic char, which is considered a sustainable seafood option and is also rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fats.

Shopping tip. Nori, black rice, edamame and miso can be found at Asian markets and in many health food stores. Black rice can also be purchased at www.lotusfoods.com.

  • 1 C black rice
  • 1 3Ôüä4 C water
  • 1 C frozen, shelled edamame
  • 1 large carrot, sliced into matchsticks
  • 1 C thinly sliced radish
  • 1 mango, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 2 scallions (green onions), thinly sliced
  • 1Ôêò3 C orange juice
  • 1 T yellow or white miso paste
  • 1 T rice vinegar
  • 1 T sesame oil
  • 2 t minced fresh ginger
  • 1Ôüä4 t red chili flakes
  • 1 pound salmon fillets, preferably skinless
  • 1Ôüä2 t salt
  • 5 C water
  • 1 avocado, diced
  • 2 nori sheets, crumbled
  • 1 T sesame seeds

In medium-sized saucepan, combine rice with 13Ôüä4 cups water. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer covered for 30 minutes or until tender. Set aside for 5 minutes and fluff with fork.

Prepare edamame according to package directions.

In large bowl, toss together black rice, edamame, carrot, radish, mango, red pepper and scallions. Place orange juice, miso, rice vinegar, sesame oil, ginger and red chili flakes in blender container and blend until smooth. Toss dressing with rice mixture.

Place salmon, salt and 5 cups water in large saucepan. Bring to very slight simmerand cook for about 8 minutes, or until fish is cooked through. Adjust heat as needed during cooking to maintain only a mild simmer. Remove fish with slotted spoon and gently break apart flesh with fork.

Place rice salad on serving plates and top with fish, avocado, nori and sesame seeds. Serves four.

Per serving: 459 calories; 27 g protein; 25 g fat (5 g saturated); 35 g carbs; 8 g fiber; 201 mg sodium.

Spaghetti Squash With Chipotle Meat Sauce

This riff on spaghetti with meat sauce is lighter in calories, thanks to a stealth swap of regular noodles for squash ones. To make the dish even more of a standout, consider splurging on ground bison. A 2013 study published in Nutrition Research found that eating bison results in less of a rise in blood triglycerides, inflammation and other heart-disease risk factors than eating beef does (McDaniel et al. 2013). Differences in rearing methods and nutrition profile may explain why. Smoky chipotles pack a punch, so if serving anyone averse to spicy food, you can cut back to using a single one.

Shopping tip. Canned chipotle chili peppers can be found in the Latin section of most grocery stores.

  • 2 medium-sized spaghetti squash
  • 3 t grapeseed oil or canola oil, divided
  • 1 yellow onion
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 mango, diced
  • 1 medium-sized eggplant, diced
  • 2 C chopped mushrooms
  • 1 pound extra-lean ground beef or ground bison
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 T tomato paste, preferably salt-free
  • 2 chipotle chili peppers in adobo sauce, minced
  • 2 t dried oregano
  • 1 t cumin powder
  • 1Ôüä4 t black pepper
  • 1Ôüä4 t salt
  • 1Ôüä4 cup roughly chopped fresh basil
  • 1Ôüä4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Slice spaghetti squash in half lengthwise, scoop out seeds and brush flesh with 1 teaspoon oil. Place squash halves on baking sheet, cut sides down, and cook until tender, about 40 minutes. Scrape out flesh into strands with tines of fork. Squash can also be prepared in microwave by placing halves flesh-side down in microwave-safe container and heating on high for about 10 minutes, or until tender.

Heat remaining oil in saucepan or large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook until softened, about 4 minutes. Add garlic, red bell pepper, eggplant and mushrooms; cook until vegetables have softened, about 3 minutes. Remove vegetables from pan and place ground meat in skillet. Cook until no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Return vegetables to pan along with crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, chipotle chili peppers, oregano, cumin, pepper and salt. Simmer mixture for 10 minutes. Stir in basil.

Serve squash topped with meat sauce and Parmesan. Serves four.

Per serving: 466 calories; 35 protein; 14 g fat (5 g saturated); 57 g carbs; 8 g fiber; 518 mg sodium.


References

Del Gobbo, L.C., et al. 2013. Circulating and dietary mag- nesium and risk of cardiovascular disease: A systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 98 (1), 160-73.

Higgs, S., & Jones, A. 2013. Prolonged chewing at lunch decreases later snack intake. Appetite, 62, 91-95.

Kwon, D.Y., et al. 2010. Antidiabetic effects of fermented soybean products on type 2 diabetes. Nutrition Research, 30 (1), 1-13.

Ludy, M.J., & Mattes, R.D. 2011. The effects of hedonically acceptable red pepper doses on thermogenesis and appetite. Physiology & Behavior, 102 (3-4), 251-58.

Ludy, M.J., Moore, G.E., & Mattes, R.D. 2012. The effects of capsaicin and capsiate on energy balance: Critical review and meta-analyses of studies in humans. Chemical Senses, 37 (2), 103-21.

McDaniel, J., et al. 2013. Bison meat has a lower atherogenic risk than beef in healthy men. Nutrition Research, 33 (4), 293-302.

Whiting, S., Derbyshire, E., & Tiwari, B.K. 2012. Capsaicinoids and capsinoids. A potential role for weight management? A systematic review of the evidence. Appetite, 59 (2), 341-48.

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Matthew Kadey, MS, RD

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