It's 4:00 P.M. Do you know where your (gluten-free) dinner plans are? But if you're one of the millions of people trying to stay gluten free, a spur-of-the-moment meal strategy isn't just regrettable; it can be downright dangerous to your health. Without enough time to make thoughtful menu decisions, you could end up eating something you're better off avoiding—or serving the same "safe but boring" items every day.
Like many healthy life choices, staying on top of your gluten-free eating goals means being proactive and planning ahead. Luckily, it's easier than you think to get started. Here's how.
Cook and Eat Chez You
It's a simple fact: Living gluten free is much easier if you're able to eat more home-cooked meals. It's the best way to make sure you know exactly what goes into your food, and that it's prepared with care. But you don't have to channel Julia Child to be a successful home cook. Track down just a few terrific gluten-free recipes you and everyone in your household loves, and take the time to learn how to cook them well. After a few times you'll have the techniques and ingredients memorized, so you can cook and shop for them regularly without giving them much thought.
Planning a regular meal routine, as many busy families do, can also be a huge time saver. Build dinner themes around your family's favorite dishes, serving them in a regular rotation: Monday might be "Chili night," Tuesday "Breakfast for Dinner," and Friday "[gluten-free] Pizza night," for example. Need inspiration? Click here for some recipes the whole family will love.
Friday, Saturday, Plan-day
Set aside a regular time on the weekend to take stock of the upcoming week. Look at the family calendar: Are there events coming up? Who will be at the table each night—and will you have enough time for a relaxed dinner, or just a quick meal on the go? Knowing the schedule will help you sketch out a rough meal plan for the week, as well as a shopping list. Think about making meals that re-use ingredients throughout the week to reduce waste and stress. Double or even triple up on recipes whenever possible; it takes just as much time to roast two chickens as it does one, after all, and you'll end up with a several meals (say, roast chicken, chicken fajitas, chicken salad, and chicken-rice soup) rather than just one or two. If you've got a "blended" household – some gluten free, others not — consider meals that are adaptable to both types of eaters: say, a Bolognese sauce served with polenta for those who limit gluten, and with traditional pasta for others.
Use your plan-day to shop for and prepare big batches of staple foods that can form the basis of several meals later on, or go into the freezer for easy meal making later. Wash, tear and dry a few heads of lettuce and store in zip-close bags for days of salad fixings; wash and prepare a pot of beans or greens; cook up a batch of gluten-free grain "meal bases" such as rice, polenta quinoa or millet. Hard-boil eggs for grab-and-go-breakfasts and salads. Or, use the time to bake up a batch of gluten-free bread or muffins to have on hand all week.
Think efficiency. If you've got the oven already on for a casserole, you could roast some chopped up potatoes and carrots at the same time and get some side dishes to enjoy a day or two later. Or, if you've used the grill for making steaks, use the still-warm coals to cook up some zucchini, onions or peppers for livening up salads or sandwiches.
Your Time, Your Control
Once you've gotten into the habit of planning your gluten-free eating, you'll experience the energizing boost of feeling in better control of your health—and your time. You'll be taking charge of your environment, rather than just letting the environment happen to you. Here's to all the wonderful places that positive, healthy energy will take you!
Beyond Dinner: A full day of healthy meal planning
It all starts with breakfast. You've probably heard dozens of reasons why you should eat breakfast daily. Just to name a few, regular breakfast eaters tend to eat better diets overall, have healthier body weights, and perform better on tests of memory and learning compared with breakfast skippers. But when you're trying to avoid gluten-containing foods, perhaps the best reason to eat breakfast is that it can help keep your appetite on an even keel throughout the morning, making it easier to stick to your gluten-free eating plans.
Keep your pantry and fridge stocked with easy-to-fix breakfast fare, so you'll be able to put together a tasty, nourishing breakfast even if you're not a "morning person." Best bets are gluten-free cereals, yogurt, eggs, fresh, dried and frozen fruits, gluten-free muffins, waffles or cereal bars. Or, click here for some deliciously easy gluten-free breakfast ideas.
Have a lunch plan. Modern work life rarely leaves us time for a relaxed, leisurely lunch—and rarely enough time to make the umpteen decisions that gathering a gluten-free lunch demands. So get in the habit of going to work with the lunch problem already solved: bring your own lunch as often as you can. You'll save time and money—and stress, since you'll know exactly what you're getting. Try packing some leftovers from last night's meal, a thermos of gluten-free soup, some yogurt and fresh fruit, or hummus and cut up vegetables.
Familiarize yourself with restaurants in your area that offer gluten-free items or "safe" dishes you can enjoy; call ahead and ask, or check out their menu online. Keep a stash of safe "fallback" foods in your workspace, such as gluten-free meal replacement bars, dried fruit or nuts.
Don't forget snacks. Like a good breakfast, planned-for snacks can help keep your appetite under control—and with it, your determination to stick to your healthy eating goals. If you find yourself getting ravenous between meals, a small snack can help tide you over. Try to keep your snacks between 100 and 200 calories, and if possible include a little protein to help keep you satisfied. How about a gluten-free protein bar, some rice crackers with hummus or peanut butter—or a piece of fruit with a few cubes of cheese? Click here for more snack ideas.
Author Joyce Hendley, who holds a Master's in Nutrition, is a freelance health writer and contributing editor at EatingWell magazine.