6 Tips for Boosting Variety in Your Meal Plan
As a dietitian, my first job (a long time ago) was with the Visiting Nurse Association of Indianapolis. One of my visits was with a slim, elderly gentleman, Jesse G., who lived in a one-room walk-up apartment. He had recently been released from a hospital after having been diagnosed with diabetes. After talking for a few minutes, I asked if anyone had given him information about what to eat. He pulled out a dog-eared sheet of paper that included an exchange-type meal pattern and one sample day of meals. I asked him how he liked the meal pattern. "Fine," he replied, "but I'm getting a little tired of eating the same foods every day." Yes, he'd been eating the same exact foods and in the same amounts that were on that sample page every single day—what nutrition researchers call a constant diet!
Like Jesse, do you have a habit of eating mostly the same foods every day? If you think about what you eat during a week, do you find that you stick to the same few foods most of the time? The same juice or cereal or toast for breakfast, the same sandwich for lunch? While there's no guideline about how many different foods a person should eat each day or week, a customary recommendation is to eat a wide variety. In fact, the latest U.S. dietary guidelines recommend:
- Eating a variety of vegetables, especially dark-green, red, and orange vegetables and beans and peas.
- Choosing a variety of protein foods, which include seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.
While there's no specific quantity recommended as enough variety, fewer than 10 different foods in a day is probably not enough variety; 40 to 60 different foods in a week could be considered good variety.
Why More Variety?
As Jesse said, eating mostly the same foods every day can get boring.
Within each food group, not all foods have the same mix of nutrients, and consumption of several nutrients (potassium, dietary fiber, calcium, and vitamin D) is low enough in the United States to be a health concern for both adults and children. Using a greater variety of foods within each food group (such as vegetables—both starchy and nonstarchy—fruits, whole grains, milk products, and oils) should provide over time a mix of nutrients to meet an individual's needs.
How to Boost Variety
If you find yourself in a rut, here is a hint: Make a resolution to try at least one new food or recipe each week. Where can you find them?
- Wander your grocery store aisles. Does a different or unusual fresh fruit or vegetable look good? Find out more about it (how to use it, its nutritional content, etc.). Kale comes in a number of varieties. Have you tried even one of them?
- Ask a friend, neighbor, or colleague with a different ethnic or regional background to provide ideas and share a recipe or two.
- Check out the ethnic aisle of your favorite grocery.
- Take your plate for a virtual road trip. Have you tried mango, papaya, or okra from the South, sea scallops from New England, wild rice from the Upper Midwest, soybeans from the heartland, specialty grains such as amaranth and millet from the northern Great Plains, or whole fresh artichokes from California?
- Eat globally. Are there superstores in your area geared toward foods from around the world? What an education it is to go down each aisle (Korean, Indian, Peruvian, etc.) or to check out the vast world of fresh fruit and vegetables (lemongrass, bitter melon, dragon fruit, and so on). Also seek and make recipes that are hallmarks of certain cultures. For example, feijoada, a stew of beans and pork, is a typical Portuguese and Brazilian dish.
- A caution, though: Any new food or recipe you try should be "healthy"—including fruits (without added sugars), vegetables (without added fats or excess sodium), and grains (without added fat and focusing on whole grains).
However you decide to increase variety, bon appétit!