Cooking simple meals and planning them ahead of time are among common-sense ways to make the switch to a healthier diet seem more manageable.

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ON NUTRITION

Cooking at home usually produces more nutritious meals than those prepared outside the home, but that’s not always the case. One stumbling block to incorporating more vegetables, whole grains, fish, beans and lentils into meals is the idea that preparing healthful food is harder, or at least more time-consuming, than taking an anything-goes approach.

Do you subscribe to the notion that it’s harder to cook healthfully? If so, the first question I pose is, harder than what?

If you don’t cook much, cooking more will feel harder no matter what you’re cooking. If you cook frequently but your cooking style tends to, say, be heavy on processed foods and light on vegetables and whole grains, then incorporating new ingredients, recipes and possibly cooking techniques will likely feel harder simply because it’s unfamiliar, not because it’s objectively harder. With time and a little persistence, it will feel easier.

Another mental stumbling block is the idea that you need to be a gourmet cook to prepare healthful food. I’ve had patients come into my office with a copy of the latest healthy-diet book, commenting with frustration that, “I followed this plan for about a week, but the recipes were just too hard. I mean, look at this ingredient list.” Usually, I can’t argue with them. I love to cook, but unless it’s the weekend and I’ve got a bit of extra time on my hands, I am likely to balk at more than 10 ingredients. If it’s a weeknight, cut that number in half.

Here are some of my personal tips for making your meals more nutritious without wiping yourself out:

Keep it simple. Cooking need not be a culinary extravaganza. Grill a piece of salmon, toss a green salad with some vinaigrette you made last weekend, reheat and season some leftover brown rice or quinoa, and you have dinner. Simple seasonings like salt, pepper, garlic, mustard, salsa, hot sauce, and spices and herbs elevate basic ingredients with little effort.

Plan for success. Everything feels easier when you have a plan, and cooking is no exception. Asking “What’s for dinner?” as you stand tired and hungry in the crowded grocery store after work will make cooking a nutritious dinner feel harder than it has to be. When you plan meals in advance, you can also be planning for leftovers, as well as time to prepare ingredients that can quickly be incorporated into meals later, such as cooking a batch of beans or whole grains, washing leafy greens, mixing up a vinaigrette and chopping veggies.

Use convenience foods wisely. One benefit of meal planning is that you often get away with spending less time at the grocery store. Another way to spend your valuable time on meal prep instead of wheeling a cart up and down aisles, is to keep a supply of healthful, single-ingredient “convenience” foods on hand. For example, canned tomatoes and beans, jarred capers and olives, frozen berries and broccoli.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. While variety is good from the perspective of taste and nutrition, the reality is that most people operate best when they keep variety curtailed a bit. Develop a small repertoire of meal and snack options, then once that feels solid, branch out when you feel like your new routine is becoming a rut, or when you see a new healthy recipe that catches your fancy.