(Updated September 2018.)
Now that the kids are back in school, is anyone else thrilled to get back to regular routines? With ours at five and eight, we decided they were ready for more summer adventures and fewer camps. Six fun but exhausting trips later, I’m craving the comfort of our routines.
September is the perfect time to assess whether your routines make healthy eating easy, freeing you up for the business of life, or whether they could use a tune-up. How are you doing with the following?
- A bedtime routine that gets you 7-9 hours of sleep
- An exercise routine that keeps you active most days of the week
- A weekly meal planning and shopping day
- A weekend meal prep session
- A lunch-packing habit
If you’re regularly doing all of them, high five! If not, which one would make the most difference for you? Focus on that before you tackle the next. Here’s how to make it happen.
1. A nightly bedtime routine.
Are you sleeping the recommended 7-9 hours a night?
Why it matters: Sleep is foundational for good health in general, and eating in particular. Why? When you’re well rested, you’ll have the energy to do everything else on this list, as well as resist the temptations that await you at every turn. In research settings, people tend to eat hundreds of additional calories when sleep-deprived.
How to make it routine: For a lucky few, it’s as simple as shutting down whatever you’re doing and calling it a night. (Do you get busy and forget? Set a reminder on your phone.)
If falling asleep isn’t easy for you, a bedtime routine is critical. What that looks like for you may be unique, but experts generally suggest going to bed and getting up at a regular time, turning off all screens an hour before that and following other sleep hygiene guidelines.
If you need more help: Alberta Health Services offers a free class called “Waking Up to Healthy Sleep” (see their current program guide here). Alternatively, a sleep specialist I’ve worked with recommends the book Say Good Night to Insomnia. If those don’t help, talk to your doctor, and keep working at it until you get a solution. This matters.
2. An exercise routine.
The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines suggest adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more, in addition to two days a week of strength training. But anything is much better than nothing.
Why it matters: Like sleep, exercise offers a host of benefits. But how can it help you eat better? In addition to improving sleep, exercise can put you in the mood to make better food choices, particularly if you eat to soothe your emotions or boost your energy. Just don’t take it as a license to overindulge. You’re probably burning fewer calories than you think.
How to make it routine: Schedule it. Think about what times and days work best for you. Weekdays or weekends? How many days a week? Be realistic.
Consider setting your alarm and doing it first thing in the morning, before the other demands of the day derail you. Not a morning person? Maybe you can become one, as productivity guru Micheal Hyatt outlines in this how-to blog post.
If mornings aren’t going to happen, can you set a regular exercise date with a friend? Can you sign up for a class? Hire a trainer? If you’ve paid for Zumba with your sister Monday nights you’ll have a stake in the ground, around which you can plan the rest of the week.
Whatever you decide to do, put it in your calendar and make it happen.
If you need more help: Did you know that Alberta Health Services offers free supervised group exercise at various centres (such as YMCAs) for people with at least one chronic condition, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or pre-diabetes? Even having a body mass index (BMI) over 30 qualifies you. You just need a doctor’s referral. For more information, see their website.
3. A weekly meal planning and shopping day.
Why it matters: Eating well is grounded in home cooking, and a little planning can help you do it with less time, money, and stress. No more 5pm stops at the grocery store, no more calling for takeout.
How to make it routine: Time to pull out your calendar again. What are good days for you to meal plan and shop? Is weekly best, or would you prefer biweekly or bimonthly? If possible, avoid the weekend, when stores are busy.
As for the meal plan, keep it simple. In my house we usually have the same 2-3 breakfasts and leftovers for lunch, so meal planning just means picking 4-5 main dishes for supper. For best results, start by checking the calendar, fridge, and weather report. You don’t want to make chili when it’s 29 degrees!
To make it easier, Monday is usually meatless, and Friday is pizza, to use up extra vegetables. Would a weekly theme night or two simplify your planning? If you’re still left with too many decisions, maybe you need to try a cycle menu. Identify 10-20 go-to meals and rotate them.
(September 2018 update: Here’s a more detailed description of my meal planning routine.)
If you need more help: Dietitian Vincci Tsui has a couple of more in-depth articles on meal planning and preparation. If you want more help, book a consultation with me. I can share my templates for meal planning and grocery lists, as well as a collection of go-to meals and snacks to start you off.
Alternatively, if you have more money than time, you might want to check out a service like Chefs Plate or Hello Fresh (that last link points to my review). They send you fresh ingredients for several real-food, wholesome meals, and you just cook. I have a client who loves it, although he warns that the meals still take time to prepare.
4. A weekend meal prep session.
Why it matters: If you’re tight for time or low on energy during the week, spending even an hour or two on the weekend can pay big dividends.
How to make it routine: You guessed it, start with your calendar. Some people make a big day of it once a month, some prefer a smaller weekly session. I cook a little extra both weekend mornings, before we get busy with other things.
Then check with family and friends to see if anyone wants to join you. How about your spouse or kids? (Great life skill teaching opportunity.) Or is this your time to listen to music or catch up on Netflix? Either way, make it fun!
What to do? Try one or more of the following:
- A batch of chili or soup. Freeze what you don’t use in single serving containers. One of our staples is this Slow Cooker Quinoa Chicken Chili.
- A whole-grain and/or bean salad. A favourite of ours: Julie Van Rosendaal’s Lentil & Barley Salad.
- A grab-and-go snack like granola bars or muffins. You can make them with more whole grains and less sugar than store-bought. Try these Oh She Glows Feel Good Hearty Granola Bars.
- A pile of pre-chopped vegetables. Roast them if you like, for easy addition to scrambled eggs, pasta, or wraps. (See 7 Ways to Ensure Your Oven Roasted Vegetables Turn out Perfectly.)
- Extra servings of lean meat or chicken, to help you get protein at lunch without having to rely on processed meat.
- Individual portions of yogurt, cheese, milk, nuts, and other snacks. Move them from wallet and planet-friendly big packages to reusable individual containers. You are now ready to be a lunch-making ninja.
5. A Lunch-Packing Habit
Why it matters: Yours is almost guaranteed to be healthier than a restaurant meal. Even virtuous-sounding restaurant food is typically higher in calories and sodium, and there’s rarely a whole grain in sight.
How to make it routine: Again, figure out what works for your schedule. I (force myself to) do it right after supper, so leftovers can go straight into lunch containers. Trust me, I’d rather relax, but it feels great when it’s done. Can family members be recruited to help with this? Another good life skill for kids.
Once leftovers are packed up, check to make sure lunch has a good protein source or two, a couple of fruits and/or vegetables, and a whole grain. If not, this is where your weekend meal prep pays off.
Still coming up short? Here are a few other lunch-packing staples you can keep on hand:
- Mini-cans of tuna
- Individually wrapped cheeses (eg. Babybel)
- Canned chickpeas or black beans
- Whole-grain crackers (eg. Triscuits or Ryvita)
- Mandarin oranges
- Frozen fruit
- Cherry tomatoes
- Snap peas
- Peanut butter and a banana in a whole-grain wrap.
- Finally, if you’re still not managing to pack lunch five days a week, stock up on a few healthier frozen meals. They may not be perfect, but they’re much, much better than restaurant fare. Try Blue Menu (available at Superstore) or Luvo (available at Community Natural Foods).
Rather than try to remember these ideas in the (tired) moment, create a list of your family’s favourites and post in the kitchen. It will make grocery list and lunch making a cinch.
Okay, as usual, I’ve packed a ton of ideas into this post. Doing them all might seem overwhelming, so if you have a long ways to go, start with the one routine that will make the most impact.
Ultimately, you’ll end up with more time to do what you like because you aren’t tired and scrambling around all disorganized. Say goodbye to last-minute stress and hello to wellness.
What are your foundational routines for better eating and good health? Come on over to the Facebook page and share.