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Break Out of Your Food Rut!

5 Ways to Make Happier Meals

-- By Bryn Mooth, SparkPeople Contributor

What's for dinner? What are you eating for breakfast or lunch tomorrow?

If you aren't feeling excited about your meals, or if your kids are complaining about eating chicken again, you may be in a food rut.
 
It happens easily; between work obligations, social plans, and kids' soccer practices, we tend to fall back on easy-to-prepare staple meals that don’t require much thought or effort. And for some of us, cooking doesn’t come easily or isn’t a pleasure, so we rely on a handful of recipes we can confidently prepare.
 
While it's wonderful to have a few go-to meals you can rely on in a pinch, it can get old when you rely on the same meals too often. And that lack of excitement about what's on your plate could lead you to reach for additional snacks or sweets to bring more pleasure back to your eating—which can be a problem if you're trying to manage your weight or eat healthier.
 
We recently asked SparkPeople members if they were stuck in a diet rut, and we were surprised by how many people replied. Member CHOUBROU summed it up this way: ''The food rut is my biggest problem! I fall into it because eating the same go-to meals is convenient and easy. But eventually I get tired of eating the same thing, and that leads me to the temptation of eating out more, eating more frozen/processed meals, etc.''
 
SparkPeople member KALENSMOMMY5 asked for help: ''One of the main reasons I fall off the healthy eating wagon is that I get caught in a major food rut! As I am a full-time working single mom to a toddler, I have very limited time to cook, so I end up buying the same grab-and-go foods week after week. The unhealthy choices start to look more and more attractive as I get more bored with my standard foods. Help would be much appreciated!''
 
Lots of folks told us they’ve hit the wall, cooking-wise. What’s more, they shared great advice on how you can break boring food habits, no matter what causes them.
 
5 Signs You're Stuck in a Food Rut (and What to Do about It)
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Sign #1: You Don’t Enjoy Cooking
For many folks, getting dinner on the table is a chore, not a pleasure. If you don’t love to cook, or you’re not confident in your culinary skills, then it's normal to feel like you're in a food rut for awhile—at least until you develop a few basic meals that you can prepare quickly and easily. Here’s how:

  • First, think about what you enjoy eating. Sandwiches? Burritos? Breakfast for dinner? Salads? Consider how you can make those into healthy dinner options.
     
  • Settle on three to five things you like, and find simple recipes for those meals. SparkRecipes is a great resource for quick and healthy meal ideas.
     
  • Get comfortable with the basics. Once you’ve mastered an essential technique like sautéing boneless chicken breasts, then you can move on to experiment with different sauces or add-ins to change things up over time and prevent yourself from getting bored.
     
  • Accept that you don’t love to cook, but don’t let that be your excuse for not eating healthy. If you master a few basic recipes, you’ll gain confidence—and you’ll be making a commitment to yourself.
Sign #2: You’re On Auto-Pilot
Even accomplished home cooks tend to get stuck in a rut preparing the same go-to dinners over and over. Katie, a mother of two, posted: ''[My son] calls me on my food ruts—I know I've got problems when my garbage disposal of a kid complains about what I'm cooking.''
 
Like many folks who commented on our question about food habits, Katie says she refers to cooking magazines (her favorite is Food and Wine) for inspiration when she’s stuck in a routine. Cooking Light magazine and the books ''Cook This, Not That'' by David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding, and ''Fast Food My Way'' by Chef Jacques Pepin were also recommended as great resources for quick and healthy meals.
 
David posted about different ways to find culinary inspiration: ''I realize [I’m in a food rut] when I’m on auto-pilot preparing a meal that usually gives me joy to cook. I break it up by shopping somewhere new for groceries, or getting a new cooking gadget, or sharpening my knives or getting a new spice.''
 
A simple strategy for busting out of the auto-pilot cooking rut is to find alternate ways to prepare those go-to meals—in particular, look to different ethnic cuisines for interesting takes on your standards. If spaghetti with meat sauce is in your repertoire, try linguine with spicy shrimp sauce instead. Not feeling that leftover chicken? Turn it into something new, like a tostada. Sometimes simply swapping a few ingredients within a go-to recipe can give you a whole new flavor and make your meals interesting again. Same with sides: If you're always steaming broccoli or brown rice, experiment with other healthy veggies or whole grains such as whole-wheat couscous, millet or quinoa instead.
 
Sign #3: You Always Eat the Same Meals
This food rut often shows up at the start of the day, when we’re so busy getting out the door that we neglect a healthy breakfast, or we choose convenience foods over healthy ones. SparkPeople member LINDSAYHENNIGAN commented that she found herself eating high-fiber breakfast cereal every day: ''I got too focused on how much fiber they added, and failed to notice the 40 grams of sugar I was consuming each morning. My trainer caught it, and switched me over to bread with 2 or less grams of sugar with peanut butter, and I feel so much better.''
 
SparkPeople member FLUTTEROFSTARS, a vegetarian, shared a bunch of great ideas she enjoys to start her day: ''I’m fighting to get out of my food rut! I’ve been 'Sparking' for two months now, and have come up with several winning mini-meals.'' Some of her favorites include:
  • Salad with Morningstar veggie crumbles and low-fat cheddar cheese
  • Omelets with frozen vegetable blend
  • Greek yogurt with strawberries and flaxseed
  • The ''one-minute microwave muffin'' recipes for breakfast sandwiches from SparkRecipes
We all go through busy periods in our lives—a hectic few weeks at work, an extra-busy sports season—and getting a healthy dinner on the table every evening is even more challenging. Creating a weekly meal plan and then shopping for all the ingredients you’ll need helps avoid the food rut. When you know in the morning what you’re making for dinner that night, you can avoid grabbing quick and not-so-healthy items on that emergency trip to the grocery.  And planning dinners that can be repurposed into lunches avoids brown-bag boredom. <pagebreak>
 
Sign #4: You’re Bored with Brown Bagging
We’ll congratulate you for committing to bringing a healthy lunch instead of heading to the nearest fast food joint. But the contents of your brown bag need an overhaul if you’re stuck in the PB&J or turkey sandwich routine day in and day out.
 
Turning dinner into lunch is a great way to vary your midday meal, especially if you plan ahead and prepare extra food in the evening for the next day’s (or week’s) lunchbox. A dinner of grilled steak and veggies can become a lunchtime salad, and a pasta supper easily transforms into a chilled pasta salad a day later.
 
SparkPeople member FELIFISH26 posted: ''I usually eat the same boring thing for lunch (half a turkey sandwich on sandwich thin bread, cottage cheese, low-fat chips). BLAH, right?! After awhile your taste buds start to get used to it all, and I could probably be eating cardboard and not know the difference!'' She solved her lunch dilemma by combining some cooked chicken from dinner the night before with fresh pico de gallo that she made with chopped tomato, onion and cilantro. New lunch idea: chicken tacos.
 
Sign #5: You’re Stuck on ''Diet-Safe'' Foods
Several SparkPeople members commented that their commitment to weight loss means they have a limited number of meal options that meet their calorie limits. Member STACYD16 wrote, ''I do believe that I'm in a food rut. I eat the same things daily because I know their caloric contents. I do have a cheat day about once a week that I really enjoy—and I thought that would throw me off, but it has really helped. I realized my issue is more portion control vs. the actual foods that I eat.''
 
While eating within a calorie range can be a challenge, portion control can help. You can also search for specific recipes within a certain calorie range by using the Advanced Search on SparkRecipes.com. So if you want slow-cooker dinners that contain fewer than 400 calories, simply edit your search options and voila! You'll be surprised just how many delicious and easy meals you can find within your calorie range for any meal.
 
When All Else Fails: Embrace the Rut
Here’s one final strategy for breaking out of your food rut—know that you’ll get into one. Steve posted about exactly that: ''Another thing I'll do is the mid-week ‘king's food’ omelet—where, no matter what, I'll cook an omelet using the leftovers of previous meals. This does two things: It creates interesting flavors with combos I’d normally never think of, and it motivates me to cook good stuff early in the week because it's potential omelet fodder.''
 
Just as you can't expect perfection when it comes to eating within your calorie range, losing two pounds per week, or exercising as much as you'd like, you can't expect to be perfect in the kitchen, either—or to love every bite you eat. Accept that we all go through ruts with our food. But instead of allowing it to throw you off track, use it as a sign to change things up and find creative ways to make your food fun and delicious again. And remember, this (food rut) too, shall pass!
 
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