Following a brain-healthy diet is not hard to do. All you need to do is decide what foods go on your plate, and when you have chosen well, the nutrients essential for preserving cognitive function, will do their part.
The good thing about this way of eating is that you do not need to worry about counting calories or grams of specific nutrients (unless you have a disease such as diabetes).
The Essentials of Meal Planning
One of the best tools everyone single one of us can do to enhance our overall health is to plan our meals. Anyone who flies by the seat of their pants with no idea of what to have for dinner whenever 5pm rolls around, likely will resort to fast food as the answer. Convenient, yes, but night after night of picking up dinner at a drive-thru window is no friend to your health, particularly your brain health.
Meal planning may sound old-fashioned but it has become more in- fashion as an excellent means of eating a balanced diet and for meeting your nutritional needs. And what every seasoned meal planner will tell you, meal planning also saves you time and money.
When you take some time to plan meals for the week, you already know what your meals will look like and what foods you need to buy. A good spin-off of meal planning is taking your grocery list with you when buying food which automatically reduces impulse purchases.
Meal Planning Basics
This is where the fun begins and yes, meal planning can be fun and enjoyable. Whether you are a Martha Stewart or Julia Child in the kitchen or more of a beginner, planning meals can be as simple or elaborate as you want. Here’s how to start:
- Ask your family to suggest meal ideas.
- For inspiration, flip through cookbooks or check out recipe websites.There are even sample menus and menu-planning apps online.
Meal Planning to Maximize Brain Health
- Home cooking doesn’t have to be elaborate. Focus on a handful of recipes that you can rotate through for most of your meals.
- Cooking from scratch can get healthy meals on the table but so can taking shortcuts. For instance, pair home- cooked foods with healthy store-bought staples to save on time without compromising on nutrition. Think pasta with marinara sauce in a jar, soup with canned beans, or pre-chopped spinach and rotisserie chicken with pre-washed greens.
- Most people who practice meal planning only plan their main meal each day. If dinner is the main meal for your family, then plan 5-7 dinner meals for the week. Or, if you have more time, you can plan breakfast, lunch and dinner for as many days a week as you want.
- Plan a week of meals at a time. Start with the entrée or main dish and include side dishes to go along with it.
- Once your menu ideas are filled in, create a shopping list of the ingredients you’ll need.
- Coordinate your meal planning with other activities and meetings you have throughout each week. Check your calendar to decide which nights you will only have time to reheat leftovers.
- To keep meal planning entertaining and rewarding, think seasonal. What fresh produce is available at certain times of the year? Is it salad weather or soup season?
- Mix things up by planning meatless meals or trying out new recipes and old favorites.
- Keep a visual in your mind of what each meal will look like on your plate. Are there sufficient colors and textures or is everything you planned bland and uninteresting ?
- Planning meals around themes helps make the planning process flow. For example, maybe Monday nights are always pasta night and Thursday nights are always fish night. Or, one night can be designated “cook’s choice.” Use that night to clean out your refrigerator by making a stir- fry, omelets, or chef salad.
- The nice thing about meal planning is that you can recycle your plans.
- Most of all learn to be flexible. Even your best thought out plans can get disrupted as no meal plan is set in stone.
One of the best ways to keep your meal planning organized is to download or create a meal plan template.
Download the Printable Meal Planning Template
I’ve created a printable meal planning template to give you a good example of how to create a brain-healthy foods menu for one week for you and your family. It also includes a monthly calendar, grocery list, and serving size guide to help you choose the best brain-healthy foods for your meals.
You can click this link to download the guide.
How to Eyeball the Perfect Portion Size of Food
It’s one thing to know how to meal plan but it’s also wise to know what a proper portion size of food should look like. Portion distortion, mainly due to huge restaurant portion sizes distorting our view of what a normal amount of food should be, has been a problem for decades.
Included in the meal planning template above is a table showing types of food and how to use visuals keeping your portions sizes reasonable to enhance your health.
When it comes to estimating portions, visual cues help. When filling your plate, picture these items to remind you of proper serving sizes:
- Vegetables (raw leafy vegetables, 2 cups; cooked leafy vegetables or other vegetables, 1⁄2 cup): For one cup – A tennis ball, For 1⁄2 cup – Half of a tennis ball
- Fruit (dried fruit, 1⁄4 cup, fresh or frozen, 1⁄2 cup): For 1⁄4 cup – A ping pong ball or a large egg, For 1⁄2 cup – Half of a tennis ball
- Grains (pasta, rice, cereal, cooked grains, 1⁄2 cup): Half of a tennis ball
- Nuts – (1⁄4 cup): Shot glass, Medium egg
- Beans – (1⁄2 cup): Half of a tennis ball
- Protein (meat, fish, poultry, 3 ounces): Smartphone, Palm of your hand (no fingers), Deck of cards
- All oils – (1 tablespoon): The size of one thumb where it bends to the tip
- Cheese – (1 ounce): A pair of dice
- Milk, yogurt – (1 cup): A tennis ball
Stocking a Brain-Healthy Kitchen
To feed your brain what it needs for improved cognitive functioning, brain-enhancing foods need to be on hand in your kitchen. What you buy at the grocery store, bring home, and then store in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer, will be the base of what you have to work with so choose wisely. When nourishing, healthy foods are already on hand, it takes out much of the guesswork and uncertainty of what to have for meals. Here is a good start of foods to have available:
In Your Cupboards and Pantry
- Vegetables – Canned vegetables such as green beans, corn, and tomatoes (whole, diced, crushed, pureed, or made into a paste)
- Fruit – Canned fruit (unsweetened or packed with water or own juice) such as peaches, pears, apricots, and applesauce
- Beans – Canned or dried beans – such as black, butter, cannellini, chickpeas, fava, great northern, kidney, lima, navy, pinto, red, and white; also soybeans, peas, and lentils
- Nuts – Almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, peanuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts
- Seeds – Chia, flaxseed, pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds
- Fish – Canned tuna, salmon, anchovy, sardines, and herring
- Oils – Extra-virgin olive oil, canola, corn, cottonseed, grapeseed, peanut, safflower, sesame, soybean, sunflower, and walnut.
- Whole grains – Amaranth, barley, buckwheat, brown and wild rice, bulgur, corn, farro, freekeh, kamut berries, kaniwa, millet, oats, popcorn, quinoa, rye, sorghum, spelt, teff, triticale, and wheat berries.
In Your Freezer
- Vegetables – Broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, corn, edamame, green beans, kale, peas, and spinach
- Fruit – Blueberries, raspberries, mangoes, strawberries (unsweetened), and tart cherries
- Nuts – Nuts can go rancid quickly due to their high oil content. It’s recommended to store nuts in the freezer if you don’t plan on using them right away. To freeze peanuts, walnuts, almonds, pecans, cashews, macadamia nuts, and hazelnuts, wrap well in plastic, then place in a resealable freezer bag.
- Meat – Have on hand lean red meat, poultry without the skin and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids
All fish, poultry and red meat not being used right away should be stored in the freezer
In Your Refrigerator
- Vegetables – Artichokes, asparagus, beets, green beans, bell peppers, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cut vegetables, herbs, mushrooms, peas, radishes, sprouts, summer squashes, sweet corn, and all leafy greens.
Fruit – All berries, apples, apricots, figs, grapes, and any cut fruit.
Certain vegetables are best kept out of the refrigerator including onions, potatoes, garlic, and tomatoes. Refrigeration can damage the quality of their taste of these vegetables when cooked due to the changes that occur in the composition of the carbohydrate they contain.
As long as these vegetables are whole and freshly harvested or picked up at the grocery store, they shouldn’t go into the refrigerator as they may also need more time to ripen. However, once these particular vegetables have been cut, then store in the refrigerator for food safety.
To properly store onions and garlic, place in separate mesh bags, a wire basket or a crate allowing air circulation, in a cool, dry location such as a basement (32 to 40 degrees Fahreneheit). Potatoes are best kept in a well-ventilated container and stored in a dry location away from sunlight at temperatures between 45 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Ripe tomatoes should be kept at room temperature away from sunlight.
Here are a few recipes from my book, The Nourished Brain, to get you started with healthy meal-planning:
- Chia Seed Blueberry Banana Muffins – Moist, not too sweet, a nice blend of two fruits, and an interesting “crunch” courtesy of the chia seeds, this muffin has it all. Better yet, it provides several brain-boosting nutrients making this muffin a nutrient dense addition to any meal or snack.
- Walnut Crusted Chicken Tenders – Who would guess that chicken and walnuts is quite the nutrition-powered combo? Poultry provides high-quality protein as well as iron, zinc, and vitamin B12 essential for brain health. Walnuts are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, giving both a brain and heart boost. The walnut- based coating adds richness to this light breading keeping the chicken moist and delicious.
- Mediterranean Salmon – For anyone who may be intimidated to cook fish, here is a fearless recipe making it super easy. Not only will you be fixing a delicious, gourmet meal but it’s a dinner that can be on your table in just 20 minutes. As you eat this flavor-filled salmon, you can also enjoy knowing you’re getting a great source of monounsaturated fat and brain-boosting omega- 3 fatty acids.
- Veggie Scrambled Eggs and Cheese – Looking for something different besides cold cereal or toast? Here’s a breakfast that has it all – protein, veggies and a side of fruit. This quick, easy, and filling start to your day is a delicious way to nourish your brain. Breakfast can be a difficult meal to get in veggies but this recipe makes it super easy.
Want the latest on brain health and food science?
Click here to download a sample chapter of Cheryl’s book, The Nourished Brain, and get a free printable meal-planning guide so you can start eating your way to a healthier brain today.
About the Author
Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD
Cheryl Mussatto is a Kansas based registered dietitian offering nutrition education services to individuals and groups.
Cheryl currently is a nutrition contributor of “Eat Well to Be Well” for The Osage County Herald-Chronicle. She also writes several weekly nutrition/health articles as a blog contributor for world renowned surgeon Dr. David B. Samadi. Cheryl also works as a clinical dietitian at an endocrinology clinic and teaches part-time as an adjunct professor for Allen Community College.