Humans gravitate toward the familiar. When it comes to diet, we take comfort in familiar meals: tried-and-true recipes the whole family will eat, one-pot dishes we can easily prepare, or meals we know we have the ingredients on hand to make. The problem is that when we get stuck in a food rut, we miss out on a wider range of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants. Studies have shown that consuming a more diverse diet may be associated with a lower risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and depression—and there may even be cognitive benefits for older adults.
To help you add variety, here are five common food ruts you may find you fall into—and some suggestions on how to pull yourself out.
Being present for the people around you isn’t the only benefit of this change of focus. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, mindfulness can also reduce stress, which in turn is good for your physical health. It can boost your attention span, regulate emotion and help you better manage negative experiences.
If you’re tired of chicken…
There’s really nothing wrong with having chicken five nights a week. It’s nutritious and an excellent source of protein, selenium and B vitamins. But eating it day after day can lead to meal fatigue. Always opting for chicken instead of fish, for example, may set you up to miss out on nutritional benefits like omega-3 fatty acids in trout, selenium in halibut and vitamin D in salmon.
Try this: If chicken in on the menu for dinner, switch it up at lunch. Choosing a different protein-rich food, such as fish, edamame or lentils, at other meals is a great way to reduce the monotony in your diet.
If you want to eat less red meat…
Unlike red meat, plant-based proteins deliver plenty of disease-fighting phytochemicals and filling fibre. And they’re nutrient-dense too. But you don’t have to seek out new and complicated recipes to eat a more plant-forward diet. For one meal a week, simply swap out a meat-based protein for a plant-based one to diversify the protein sources you’re consuming.
Try this: If you’re having tacos, substitute black beans or pinto beans for ground meat. On Sundays, make a batch of lentil or chickpea salad for quick and nutritious weekday lunches.
If bread is your weakness…
It can be really easy to have a piece of toast with peanut butter for breakfast and a sandwich or wrap for lunch. And while whole grain bread is better for you than refined white bread, you should be diversifying the type of grains in your diet, too.
Try this: For a quick breakfast make overnight oats. For lunch make a whole grain bowl using leftover brown rice, farro or freekeh from the previous night’s dinner; add vegetables and shelled edamame for your protein.
If your go-to snack is a protein bar…
Protein bars are great when you need a quick, portable snack. But many of them are highly processed and ultimately not as nutritious as whole foods like whole fruit or a handful of nuts.
Try this: Swap out one of your daily snacks for a whole food. Keep a stash of nuts and dried apricots in your car, a bowl of apples on your desk, or make a fruit smoothie in the morning that you can take with you for a midday break.
If you eat too many salads…
Don’t get me wrong. Green salads are nutritious. But if your go-to vegetable is lettuce (or baby spinach), you’re missing some colours of the rainbow and, as a result, beneficial phytochemicals. Leafy greens like kale, rapini and Swiss chard contain lutein, which is important for eye health and may also have brain benefits. Orange vegetables like sweet potatoes, butternut squash and carrots are loaded with beta-carotene, a phytochemical associated with protection from cardiovascular disease. And cruciferous vegetables—broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and bok choy—provide glucosinolates, compounds thought to have anti-cancer properties. Finally, include cooked vegetables on your menu too. The heat of cooking breaks down cell walls in plants and makes more minerals and antioxidants available for your body to absorb.
Try this: Swap out some of your salads for a veggie stir-fry, roasted ratatouille, grilled vegetables or, in cooler weather, a hearty vegetable soup.
Today’s fast-paced lifestyle means you might not make time to meal plan, which can set you up to fall into a food rut. Dig yourself out of monotony by starting small. Challenge yourself to adopt even one of these changes and you may surprise yourself with how much more you enjoy your meals.