If you’ve had a heart attack, stent, or surgery, getting a “heart-healthy” meal plan can seem like a the ultimate solution. “Just give me a plan and I’ll follow it,” is a request I’ve heard countless times.
After a life-threatening health scare, people are understandably motivated and may go hunting for advice online or in the library. But a cookie-cutter meal plan seldom works for long, due to these five problems:
1. 21 recipes!?!
Seriously. Who can cook from a recipe three meals a day, seven days a week?
But meal plans like that are out there. I won’t name names, except to say that the Cookspiration menu planning tool from Dietitians of Canada does this. I mention it because as the name would suggest, it’s a great place for recipe inspiration. But as a realistic meal plan, not so much.
If your heart event was recent, chances are you feel exhausted and overwhelmed. There’s a handful of medications to adjust to, and a host of medical appointments. Plus you’re still processing what’s happened to you.
Even planning and buying food for seven recipes in a week is a lot to ask! What happens if one night you’re tired? What if you don’t feel like eating that when the day comes?
I suggest planning no more than 2-5 main meals for a week, depending on how comfortable you are with cooking.
What happens on the other nights? First, plan a couple of “pantry meals” (like these) – simple dishes where every ingredient comes from the pantry, freezer, or something in the fridge that won’t go to waste if you don’t use it this week. You might make them, but no problem if not.
Or you might put together something with leftovers – sometimes it’s hard to predict how much will be eaten when you cook so leave some flexibility for that.
Or you might decide to go out! Restaurant eating isn’t usually ideal for heart health, but we have to be realistic in terms of the habits and preferences you’re used to. Maybe your journey towards heart-healthier eating involves eating out once a week instead of three or four times a week.
2. Prescribed amounts
If you’ve followed various diets before, you’ve seen this. It’s the “x number of almonds,” “1/2 cup of…” designed to restrict you to a certain number of calories, which may help you lose weight initially, but is likely to ultimately leave you feeling ravenous and ultimately discouraged when you regain the weight.
You’re the best judge of how much your body needs. Don’t think so? Doubting that after a health scare or weight gain? Certainly there are some things we can do to self-regulate better, like consuming most of our food as solids vs liquids, but really, you know better than some distant “expert” how hungry you are.
If you’re feeling at a loss about how much to eat, think in terms of proportions, aiming for something like the 1/2-plate veggies and fruit, 1/4-plate each of protein foods and whole grains we see so often now.
But even that is just a guide. Sometimes you will feel like more or less of a certain thing and that’s okay!
Speaking of which, you also don’t need…
When people envision a meal plan after years of disorganized eating, there seems to be this pressure to make it perfect.
Instead, I like how this 3-week sample meal plan from Canada’s Heart & Stroke Foundation includes things like store-bought rotisserie chicken, sandwich night (on a Friday), and ideas for “make your own take out” nights.
If you’ve had a heart event or related diagnosis, you may want to get on the straight and narrow in the kitchen. “No more fast food ever again!”
But starting with where you are can make it more sustainable. Your current eating habits are likely working for you at some level. (Convenience, budget, enjoyment?)
Making small, sustainable changes to your current routine is likely to last longer than a wholesale change based on “perfect” eating plan. If the meal plan isn’t realistic for you, it’s more likely to crash and burn.
If you’re currently ordering takeout most nights of the week, perhaps your meal plan is just picking and shopping for one or two dishes. If they’re already favourites, maybe you do a double batch so you can benefit from leftovers.
4. More than one or two new (or complex) recipes
So many recipes, so little time! Do you do this? I get all excited and collect recipes like mad. My recipe collection is up to 1100 recipes! (Thankfully they’re digital now and my favourites are tagged so I can easily find them.)
But if you pick even three or four new recipes and buy the ingredients, there’s a good chance some will go to waste or languish in the back of the fridge after your week gets busy and you decide to just go with something easier.
After a heart event you might want to take control where you can, which includes the kitchen, but most people don’t have the capacity or the time to be planning, shopping, and cooking for hours.
Build your meal plan around your tried and true favourites – what I call the “go-to list.” Maybe your favourites don’t fit with your new heart-healthy vision, but is there some way you can tweak it? More veggies? Less salt? Whole instead of refined grains? Chicken instead of sausages?
In addition, planning some meals you can make without a recipe is ideal, depending on your comfort level in the kitchen.
If you have lots of time and/or you’re a confident cook, go to town, but for most of us, just one or two new recipes will save your time and mental energy for all that other heart-related stuff you have on your plate now.
5. Meals someone else chose
Often people in cardiac rehab say things like “What should I eat?” “Am I allowed to have that?” Understandable, but we don’t have rules like that. There is actually a lot of flexibility in heart-healthy eating!
We’re looking for more cooking, less ultra-processed and restaurant food. More veggies and fruit of course, as well as whole grains, nuts, seeds, and plant-based protein foods like lentils, beans, and tofu. Healthier fats like olive oil and avocado, less butter and coconut oil.
But as for the details, factor in what you and your family like! If you want to go 100% plant-based (vegan), you can, but you certainly don’t have to. If you prefer more meat you can do that (although including lots of plant-based food still makes sense). If you like fish, great, make a point of including it. If not, no worries. You get the idea.
Clearly the best person to create your meal plan is YOU! A dietitian can help reassure you with understanding the science around food and health, and counsel you around changing lifelong habits, but you know your preferences, your body, your family, and what’s realistic for you. You’re the expert of what matters most.
So what should be in my post heart event meal plan?
A meal plan is just deciding in advance what you’re going to eat! It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.
Having a meal plan helps with making changes to your eating habits, if you want to. It can help you manage food costs, save time, and reduce stress (especially at about 6pm).
To do that, you just need to think about 1-2 breakfast ideas, 1-2 lunches (in addition to leftovers), and 1-2 healthy snacks. Those can even stay the same every week if you want meal planning to be really simple.
Then you just get to choose those 2-5 main meals, as well as a couple of pantry meals if that works for you. (Or just go to the store more often!)
Before you start you might want to have a look in the fridge to see what needs to eaten, and a look at your calendar, but nonetheless, easy right?