Cook as much of your own food as possible, made at home from a fresh, minimally processed and diverse range of ingredients, and eat enough of it to feel full.
Nutrition experts constantly advise those who are confused about healthy eating to go back to basics — and that opening line is more or less what back to basicsmeans.
Journalist Michael Pollan famously put it even more simply: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
However you boil it down, it’s hardly groundbreaking advice. Everyone knows the fundamentals of healthy eating: lots of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and beans and lentils; modest amounts of unprocessed meat and seafood, eggs, and dairy; and a bit of junk food to make life fun.
Yet most of us don’t eat as well as we know we should. Data suggests the average Australian misses her fruit and vegetable target. She’s short on essential nutrients, such as fibre. And she downs too much junk.
Poor food literacy is part of the reason for poor diet choices, but it’s not the only reason. I’ve written about health and nutrition for years, and interviewed many of Australia’s leading dietitians and food scientists — yet I don’t eat as varied a range of plant foods as I should. I sometimes find myself at the bottom of a chocolate wrapper or pizza box. And there are a hundred other ways I know my diet is under par.
The fact is, healthy eating is simple in theory but very challenging in practice. But there are strategies that make going back to basics as basic as possible.
Make time for the basics
The number one reason Australians cite for not exercising enough is a lack of time and energy — which is also the likely reason for our nutrition shortcomings.
“Cooking from scratch requires somebody to be home or to go to the shop to buy ingredients and be home and cook, and modern couples don’t have that sort of time because both of them are working,” says Catherine Saxelby, a dietitian who has worked in nutrition for more than three decades.
If you’re forever running out of time at the end of the day to prepare a hearty meal at home, the (admittedly not very glamorous) solution is preparation.
“Have a plan in the morning of what you’re going to eat that night, especially if you’ve got children,” says Saxelby, the brains behind the nutrition website Foodwatch. “If you can use a combination of fresh ingredients and something you’ve made ahead then frozen, that’s ideal.”
It’s a smart idea to have a “master plan” of dinner for the week — Saxelby proposes two fish meals, three chicken meals, one meatless meal, and two red meat, beef, lamb or kangaroo meals, depending on your household — but she warns against being too rigid with your planning.
“People’s lives are so changeable now — let’s face it, they’re chaotic,” she says. “You’ll get an invitation to go out to dinner at the last minute and that food you prepared has gone to waste.”
Saxelby suggests building up a “repertoire” of home-cooked meals that require minimal ingredients, are speedy and brainless to prepare, and you like the taste of.
“I think people need at least four,” she says: her repertoire recommendations (which can be made for families, and on a budget) include a stir-fry, an omelette, a toasted sandwich, a pasta bake, and that classic favourite, spaghetti bolognaise.
“I can cook that in my head when it’s 6:30 and I’m tired,” Saxelby says. “I don’t need a recipe. I know I need an onion, some garlic, mince, tomato, and so on. I don’t need to think too much and it becomes relaxing to cook.”
Nowadays there are literally hundreds of recipe books devoted to fast, healthy meals (some of my go-tos include Jamie Oliver and Joe “Body Coach” Wicks), and millions more recipes free online, so there’s no excuse for not finding one you like — and if a kitchen dunderhead like me can cook, so can anyone. (Go here for 9Honey Kitchen’s easy, healthy recipes.)
Meal kits — services such as Hello Fresh and Marley Spoon, that deliver fresh ingredients for you to finish preparing in your kitchen — can be convenient ways to improve your diet, though Saxelby warns their recipes are often complex.
“If you’re exhausted then get home, get the meal out, look at the instructions, and you’ve got two screaming kids who want to be fed, it’s really stressful [to follow a new recipe],” she says. “You don’t want to have to concentrate on a method and figure out what it is you’re trying to do. It’s too much.”
Fad diets promise to make nutrition simple — they don’t
A fad diet is one that dictates rigid, hard-to-follow rules about what you can and can’t eat, typically with promise of fast fat loss. Just cut carbs, or sugar, or dairy, or whatever, and the weight will fall off!
Like most dietitians, Saxelby is no fan of such diets. “I’m not extreme. I’m about moderation and the middle of the road,” she tells Coach. “It sounds boring and old-fashioned!”