Diet and nutrition advice tends to get complicated, doesn’t it? Eat this, don’t eat that, drink this, don’t drink that, try this, avoid that – it sometimes seems like trying to eat healthy food and improve your diet just requires too much time and energy.
So for women who are too busy to sort through complicated nutrition information or follow complex eating plans, I’ve pared the advice down to one healthy eating strategy. I call it the 3 x 3 + 1 Rule. If you follow this rule, you’ll end up following many of the complicated nutrition “rules” and improve your diet without even trying. Are you ready for it? Here it is:
The 3 x 3 + 1 Rule – Eat 3 plant foods 3 times a day plus 1 as a snack.
That’s it. If you can’t make any other changes to improve your diet, just make this one – include 3 plant foods – fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, or whole grains – in every meal and eat 1 as a snack. Why? Because that one change can trigger a cascade of positive changes. It will increase the amount of vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients in your diet. And it’s likely to decrease the amount of salt, sugar, calories, and unhealthy fats. How? By replacing low-nutrition foods (e.g., a packaged rice mix for dinner or chips for a snack) with high-nutrition foods (e.g., baked sweet potatoes for dinner or grapes for a snack). (Includes affiliate links)
(The book Fiber Fueled by Dr. Will Bulsiewicz has really helped me understand the role of plant foods in improving our health and figure out practical ways to add more plant foods to my diet. He’s also written a new plant-based cookbook that I haven’t read yet but plan to read soon.)
Now, I said that this strategy is simple, and it is. But I know that it isn’t necessarily easy because, let’s face it, prepping and serving plant foods requires a bit of work. And making sure that you have enough on hand for 3 meals and 1 snack every day requires some planning and effort. But if you want to make a change that pays you back in terms of a healthier diet and better nutrition, I think it’s worth the effort. Here are 5 ways to make the 3 x 3 +1 Rule work for you without driving yourself crazy:
1. Make a menu for the week. Before you go grocery shopping, make a menu plan that works with your family’s schedule for the week. Include all meals and snacks, and write down which fruits, vegetables, legumes, or other plant foods you plan to include with each one. Even if your plan changes during the week, a menu helps to ensure that you’ll have enough healthy foods on hand.
2. Organize your refrigerator. It’s easier to eat fruits and vegetables if you know which ones you have on hand and can grab them easily. Plus, you don’t want them to go to waste! So take a few minutes to clean out and organize all the areas where you store food, then take 10 minutes every weekend to keep them organized. (I did this over the last two weekends, and now I know where everything is in the refrigerator, both freezers, and the pantry! It’s a great feeling, and makes meal planning so much easier.)
3. Keep it simple. Serving fruits, vegetables and other plant foods doesn’t have to be complicated. As a matter of fact (especially with kids), simpler is generally better. So choose the simplest options whenever possible. For example, serve baby carrots, sugar snap peas, grapes, apple slices, orange slices, or bananas as simple sides or snacks. Make roasted vegetables, baked sweet potatoes, or baked winter squash to serve as sides on busy days. Put out a vegetable plate with hummus for an afternoon snack or make it part of an easy dinner, with grilled chicken breasts and brown rice or whole grain pasta. And don’t be afraid to eat the same thing often. For example, I eat Zesty Bean Salad almost every day for lunch – it’s easy to make, filling, and delicious.
4. Wash and cut up fruits and vegetables before you need them. One of the things that keeps busy women from eating and serving more fruits and vegetables is the time it takes to wash and prep them. If it’s 6:00, everyone’s hungry, and the salad vegetables haven’t been washed and cut up, then a salad probably isn’t going to happen. But, if some lettuce, pepper, cucumber and tomatoes have been washed and are ready to go, then quickly putting together a salad becomes an easy dinner option. (And if a simple homemade salad dressing is ready and waiting, even better!)
So take some time on the weekend, or on a less-busy night of the week, and wash and prep the fruits and vegetables you’ll need for the next few days. Get your children involved – talk to them about healthy foods while showing them how to wash and cut up different fruits and vegetables. (This will take more time at first, but can save you time in the long run.) Then package the ones you and your family will need during the week in grab-and-go bags or containers.
5. Stock up on easy options for quick meals. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, your schedule or meal plan falls apart. For those days, to avoid relying on fast food or processed food, keep staples on hand that you can quickly turn into a healthy, plant-focused meal. Things like canned beans, whole wheat spaghetti, hummus, ready-to-serve brown rice, marinara sauce with vegetables, whole wheat wraps, and peanut butter can form the basis of quick, healthy meals on busy days.
Even better, start stocking your freezer with meals you can grab on extra-busy days. Whenever possible, make a double batch of healthy, plant-focused recipes and freeze half. This works well with spaghetti sauce, many soups, and some casseroles. You can also freeze meal ingredients that take a long time to prep or cook, like brown rice or whole wheat pizza dough.
Need more help getting started? Check out Weekly Meal Prep for Busy Women and Quick. Healthy. Delicious. Simple Meal Solutions for Busy Moms and Hungry Families.