Making Meals Healthy
A breast cancer diagnosis puts a lot of stress on your body and mind. Treatments, surgeries and medicines along with countless appointments may make you feel sick and tired. Good nutrition may help ease some side effects and can help keep your body healthy as it recovers both during treatments and after treatment ends. But even if you want to eat better, healthy food choices can seem difficult to make.
With help and the right information, making healthy food choices can actually be quite simple and save you money and time. As with any changes to your daily habits, it’s easier if you start with a plan. Here are some tips and information for healthier eating. Don’t feel you have to do everything right now. Start with a few easy changes. Try to make one new change every week or two, and after a few weeks you’ll find you’re eating much healthier than you were before.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a tool called MyPlate which shows how the five main food groups would make up a healthy meal.
Different foods have nutrients your body needs to work at its best. Dairy products, for example, have calcium and protein. Meats and fish are full of protein and good fats and fruits and vegetables have a mix of important vitamins and minerals. Your body needs all of these – vitamins, protein, fats and minerals – to be healthy.
No single food item gives you all the nutrients to live and be healthy, so you should eat a variety of foods each day and throughout the week. Some foods are more available in certain seasons, so use this natural change in the fresh food available to you to get lots of variety in your meals.
The focus of your diet should be on plant-based foods like vegetables, grains and fruits. Fruits and vegetables should take up half of your plate, with a little more vegetables than fruits. You should include as many grains (foods made from wheat, cornmeal, rice, oats, etc.) as vegetables. Protein, the category that includes meat, fish, eggs and beans, should make up a little less than a fourth of your plate. Dairy, which includes milk, yogurt and cheese, is an even smaller share of the meal.
Within the groups for fruits, grains and vegetables different foods provide different benefits. If you have a banana every day as your main fruit serving, you can miss the benefits of citrus fruits like oranges, which are higher in Vitamin C.
Vegetables, for another example, can be split into smaller groups with their own mix of nutrients. You don’t have to get vegetables from every subgroup into every meal, but over the course of a week or so you should try to eat some vegetables from each type including
- dark greens (spinach, broccoli, kale, collard greens, etc.)
- red and orange vegetables (red peppers, sweet potato, carrots, tomatoes, etc.)
- starchy vegetables (potatoes, green peas, corn, etc.)
- other (cauliflower, celery, mushrooms, onions, etc.)
You may have heard people talking about “whole foods,” or maybe your doctor recommended that you eat more of them. But what is a “whole food”?
Whole foods are food items that are either fresh or that have been changed as little as possible by the companies that package them. For example, fresh vegetables from the produce section at the grocery store are whole foods. Most often whole foods are the front, back and side aisles of the store and include fresh vegetables, basic cuts of meat, fish and some dairy products. Frozen vegetables and fruits are also considered whole foods as long as they haven’t been packaged in a sauce or had sugar or salt added to them.
Flash-frozen or canned foods last longer and can be a better deal than fresh items, but watch out for extra processing and added ingredients. Flash-freezing is a process some companies use to freeze foods rapidly, which helps lock in their nutrients. Look for sales and stock up your pantry and freezer.
- Frozen vegetables should include only vegetables. Avoid cheese and butter sauces.
- Canned vegetables often have added salt to help preserve them. Read labels and look for no or low sodium options. You can rinse them before use to cut down salt even more.
- Fruits should be canned in their own juices. Watch for added syrups and sugars.
- Most frozen fruits have no added salt, sugar or chemicals, but read the labels to be sure.
- Think seasonal for fresh foods. Buy from the fresh vegetable section of your grocery store, or, if you have farm stands or farmers’ markets near you, consider going for good, in-season produce. Buy frozen for off-season items.
- Beans and peas can usually be found frozen, dried or canned. Beans are a healthy and cheap alternative to meat in the protein group and most of them provide a good source of fiber to help with constipation.
Don’t worry if you can’t make major changes to your diet right away. It may take a lot of small changes to find a plan you can stick to. There are many ways to eat healthier, but you do not have to do them all. You can make small changes to be healthier while staying comfortable.
You might try swapping some of your favorite foods for healthier choices that are similar. If potatoes are a favorite side dish at your home try baking them instead of cooking them with oil or butter, or try using sweet potatoes sometimes instead of white potatoes. Instead of snacking on cookies, try keeping some fruit or plain nuts around. In recipes, use plain Greek yogurt instead of sour cream. It has the same flavor and benefits but also more protein and other nutrients.
Many grain products like bread and pasta are sold in whole grain versions. Whole grain foods keep some of the nutrients that are lost when grains are refined for products like white bread. A simple switch of brown rice for white rice or whole grain pasta for regular can add nutrition to your diet without a major change to your habits.
Some recipes you use now may have room for healthy foods to be added. You can easily make morning eggs into an omelet with healthy additions like spinach, mushrooms, peppers or onions. Peppers and onions also make good additions to your home fries or roasted potatoes.
Pre-made meals are available everywhere, from fast food restaurants to microwave meals and frozen dinners. You may like them because they are easier and quicker than making meals fresh, and they may even be presented as healthy options. But many prepared meals come with added sugar and salt, breading, sauces or juices that add calories and flavor but little or no nutrition. Eating these kinds of meals is OK every once in a while, but relying on them too much can mean you’re eating more salt, fat or sugar than your body needs.
Rather than look for a frozen meal, look for frozen proteins, vegetables and grains separately. This will help your money go farther and allow you to cook a larger dish that you can separate into smaller meals to have over a few days.
Some grocery stores and food companies have started services that make fresh meals you can pick up or have delivered to your home. These meals can be fresh or frozen. Often you can find something that fits your personal tastes, whether that means foods that support certain diets (like vegetarian or gluten-free), avoiding any food allergies, or just avoiding foods you do not like. Look for options available in your area.
Prepared meal services are also a great suggestion to give people who ask you how they can help you balance your everyday life with cancer treatment. Many allow you to select your preferences online or in-store so your loved ones can make sure you are getting foods you want. If cost is a concern, ask a social worker or nurse navigator about local charities that provide free or low cost meals for people of any age with cancer in your community.
Making fresh meals at home is the best way to control what goes in your food. This can be tough, but there are ways to make it easier. See our page on healthy shopping and cooking tips to learn more.