So, you forgot to eat lunch again because you got slammed at work or you missed dinner because you were rushing to your favourite yoga class. Skipping a few meals is no biggie, right? Wrong, says Brianna Meghawache, a registered dietitian with Whole Foods Nutrition Coaching in Edmonton.
For starters, missing meals means that you’re probably missing out on key vitamins, minerals and fibre. That’s especially true if you’re just loading up on snacks in between because they don’t tend to be as nutritionally complete, especially if you’re reaching for high-sugar and high-carb grab-and-go options. What’s more, when you skip meals frequently, your metabolic rate slows down, which means that you’re burning fewer calories at rest, setting you up for weight gain. Avoiding breakfast, lunch or dinner on a regular basis can also lead to increased feelings of anxiety and stress (hello, hangry emotions!) because your blood sugar is in constant flux. You may also be more likely to overeat when you do nosh because you’re so famished.
Maybe you’re skipping one of your three square meals intentionally, looking for some of the much-touted health benefits of intermittent fasting (an eating cycle that includes periods of fasting for between 12 and 36 hours), such as lower cholesterol levels, better blood sugar control and boosted brain health? This style of eating does have proven pluses. A systemic review published in Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology in 2015 looked at 40 different studies and concluded that intermittent fasting can be an effective way to lose weight. But it has to be done right. It’s worth talking to a dietitian with experience in intermittent fasting before you begin so that they can run through your individual health status and any potential problems you might encounter with this regimen.
If you are not following an intermittent fasting program and missing out on meals due to poor planning or bad habits, don’t worry: We’ve got a fix for that. Follow these strategies to start eating on the regular for good.
1. Begin your day with a banana.
“I encourage people who skip breakfast to start their day with fruit,” says Meghawache. Fruit is simple, easily digested and won’t feel heavy in your stomach. A bowl of mixed berries or some sliced banana or melon is a good place to start, she says. After a while, you can begin adding more foods to your morning meal, such as nut butter, oatmeal and boiled eggs, to make it more complete. “Work your way up to foods that need more chewing, are rich in fibre and are slower to digest,” she says.
What about a fruit-and-veggie-packed protein smoothie? “I would consider it a temporary fix to get you into the breakfast routine,” says Meghawache. Breakfast shakes empty out of your stomach faster, so they may not be as satiating. Plus, they can be easily chugged on the go, which doesn’t set you up for a more mindful approach that a reformed meal skipper should adopt. “For the long term, I encourage people to have something that takes time to eat so that they can sit down and really set time aside for the breakfast ritual,” she says.
2. Make meals a habit.
“Set a meal and snack schedule, where you’re eating around roughly the same time every day,” says registered dietitan and family nutrition expert Sarah Remmer. That way, your body can learn to self-regulate over time. Even though you’re eating on a schedule, Remmer recommends really tuning into what your body is telling you. “Pay attention to your hunger cues by eating when you feel slightly hungry and stopping when you’re comfortably full,” she says. You can always adjust your schedule to eat earlier or later and a bit more or less as you get used to noshing at regular intervals.
3. Focus on superfoods.
Making every meal count is especially important if you’re missing one here or there. Breakfast, lunch and dinner should be nutrient dense and satiating. Remmer recommends focusing on high-protein sources (such as meat, fish, beans, lentils and dairy foods), as well as a variety of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats (such as nuts, seeds and avocado) and whole grains. You want to ensure that you’re getting enough vitamins, minerals, protein and fibre over the course of the day.
It might take more planning and focus at first, but eventually your habits will shift and your body will begin to know what it needs, says Meghawache. “Your body will just recognize that it’s being well fed and will better regulate your appetite,” she says. You may even stop reaching for those convenience foods that you’re trying to avoid in the mid-afternoon or evening because your body is being properly nourished. “Some people notice reduced cravings because they feel a little bit better,” she says.
4. Get on the batch-cooking bandwagon.
Cooking for the week has a number of advantages: It saves precious minutes at time-crunched mealtimes, takes the guesswork out of menu planning and ensures that you have no excuse to bail on a healthy meal.
You can get creative and whip up a homemade tomato sauce to use in a variety of ways, such as over vegetable “noodles,” a meatball sandwich or even a homemade pizza. You could also roast a large chicken, steam a pot of quinoa or grill a big batch of vegetables to use in lunches and dinners throughout the week. “I encourage people to start with whatever they find most challenging, either protein, starch or vegetables,” says Meghawache. Then you can use that as the base for your meals. If you’ve made more than enough for the week, freeze it. It’s helpful to have frozen leftovers that you can reach for when life gets really busy.
If a lack of cooking know-how or creativity in the kitchen is holding you back, you probably just need a little guidance. Remmer recommends compiling some simple recipes you can call on regularly. “Have a list of 10 easy, go-to meals that you can make in 30 minutes,” says Remmer. One-pot burrito bowls, roasted squash mac and cheese and clean-out-the-fridge fried rice are a few of her faves.
When it comes to making changes to your meal planning and cooking, the key to success is baby steps – or bites, says Meghawache. “Start with just two small changes that you’re more than confident you can achieve, or try one or two new recipes,” she says. “Keeping things simple when you’re starting a new habit is very important.”