If you’re struggling to eat heart healthy foods on a regular basis, you know it’s much easier said than done. As with any lifestyle change, it’s important to set yourself up for success. First, that means you need to take note of the changes that are hardest to stick to and why it’s difficult.
For many people, busy schedules and inconvenience are the two big factors keeping them from sticking to a healthier diet. Maybe it’s easier to just go out for lunch or even skip lunch during a busy work day. Or maybe your family is really in the thick of it with practices and activities, making dinner a challenge to prepare.
When time is short, it’s too easy to reach for convenience foods. Whether that means processed, packaged foods or fast food, these options are probably harming your health – specifically, your heart health.
Meal prep is a game changer for many people stuck in this situation. Yes, it may seem time consuming and intimidating at first, but it really doesn’t need to be complicated. Meal prep will save you time and money in the long run, with the added bonus of major benefits for your health. Learning this skill is key to setting yourself up for success. Meal prep makes heart healthy foods available even on your busiest days and eliminates the temptation to eat out or reach for processed, sodium-laden foods.
Here are some tips to set yourself up for success by meal prepping heart healthy meals.
Start with a lean protein
Lean meat, poultry, fish and eggs are the best protein options for heart healthy meals. Choose poultry without skin, as it has less fat. Also be sure to prepare your protein in a healthy way. Avoid frying or using a lot of salt. Instead, bake or grill the meat you choose and experiment with a variety of herbs and spices.
There’s been a debate about red meat as a heart healthy food in the past. However, research showing adverse effects are inconsistent. Newer research suggests that unprocessed red meat likely does not increase risk for cardiovascular disease. However, Americans are still encouraged to eat red meat only occasionally.
It’s a good idea to include plant-based protein options as well. Vegetarian sources of protein are heart healthy foods due to their nutrient density, low fat content and lack of cholesterol. Include plant-based proteins in your heart healthy diet plan like:
- Whole grains
- Nuts and seeds
Plant-based protein can save you time, too. It’s easy to cook them in batches and even freeze them to save time later.
Include whole grains in your heart healthy diet plan
Whole grains are an easy heart healthy food to incorporate into your meal prep plan. If you’re used to eating refined grains like white breads, pastas, or processed crackers and baked goods, this is an easy switch to adopt a heart healthy diet plan.
Include sources of whole grains such as:
- Whole grain bread
- High fiber cereal
- Brown rice
- Whole grain pasta
These foods are all high in fiber and other beneficial nutrients for heart health. If you get burnt out on rice, try quinoa or barley. They’re easy to prepare and offer a rich, nutty flavor.
Load up your heart healthy meal with veggies
A good rule of thumb for your heart healthy diet meal, whether you’re meal prepping or eating out, is to make half of your plate vegetables. Not only does this ensure you’re including vegetables with every meal, but it reduces your chances of overeating other high-calorie foods.
Vegetables add volume and fiber, which fill you up. They also contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that benefit heart health.
Keep it simple when you meal prep vegetables, but also keep it interesting so it tastes good. Roast veggies like green beans, broccoli, sweet potato, or even tomatoes with olive oil and your favorite spices. Don’t be afraid to save time with frozen vegetables. Just avoid options with added sauces, as they’re often high in sodium.
Add flavor with healthy fat
Some types of fat are actually healthy for your heart. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (or PUFAs) like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids have been linked to lower blood pressure, decreased inflammation and decreased lipid levels. Reap the benefits of healthy fats by including foods like these in your heart healthy meals:
- Olive oil
- Canola oil
- Avocado oil
- Seeds (flax seeds, chia seeds, sunflower seeds)
Fish is also an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Foods to avoid
Meal prep is a great step towards a healthy lifestyle, but not all foods are heart healthy foods. Sodium is widely known to be detrimental to heart health. Although it’s necessary for fluid balance in the body, eating too much sodium raises blood pressure. Avoid or limit high-sodium foods such as:
- Canned soup
- Salad dressings and condiments
- Packaged foods like crackers
- Lunch meat
You may also want to limit how much sugar you include in your heart healthy diet recipes. Sugar has been linked to increased risk for cardiovascular disease, as it causes chronic inflammation in the body. Sugar tends to hide in condiments and sauces, so be sure to check the label when you’re shopping! Choose products with no added sugar, or less than 10 grams of sugar total per serving.
Finally, avoid trans fats. This type of fat was created for processing, and it’s extremely harmful to the body – especially the heart. Trans fats are listed on the ingredient label as hydrogenated oils, and they are found in processed foods like baked goods, frozen pizza and margarine.
How to make meal prepping heart healthy meals simple
Plan your meals ahead of time. Choose the meal you’d like to meal prep and start with one or two options for the week. Then, make a grocery list for the ingredients you will need. Grocery shop early and give yourself time to prepare the foods before you start your week.
It’s also a good idea to purchase quality containers for meal prep. Glass containers are durable and microwave-safe.
Keep your kitchen stocked
Don’t spend extra time at the grocery store buying staples each week. These are things like oils, seasonings, frozen vegetables and shelf-stable foods like rice or pasta. Buy these items in bulk so they’re ready each week.
Don’t be afraid of shortcuts
The easier this process is for you, the more likely you are to stick to making these heart healthy meals each week. So use shortcuts! Think about how you can use the small appliances in your kitchen like a slow cooker or pressure cooker.
At the grocery store, stock up on frozen veggies to save yourself time in the kitchen. You can even consider buying pre-cut produce if you don’t mind spending the extra money for convenience.
Start small with meal prep
Meal prep doesn’t have to take up a big chunk of your time to make a big impact on your heart health. Start small, and consider only prepping one or two meals per week to start. If you’re a snacker, maybe start your meal prep journey with simple, heart healthy snack foods like cut veggies or DIY trail mix.
After you achieve your goal of consistently meal prepping on a smaller scale, you’ll feel more confident and meal prep will start to feel routine. Then, move onto preparing more heart healthy meals each week.
Whatever strategy you choose to start, don’t make yourself feel overwhelmed. Meal prep takes time and it is a skill you will develop over time. Keep working on it until it becomes a habit. The time spent will be well worth it.