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Peanut sauce tofu is a healthy meal you can plan, and that you'll want to eat mindfully to make sure you enjoy.

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Many people swear by diligent meal planning efforts and dedicate themselves to it religiously each week. I was recently contacted by a local California newspaper to discuss meal planning for an article addressing just that. I started thinking about how to position myself as an expert meal planner … THE expert meal planner. I rehearsed what to say to establish myself as an authority on the subject amongst so many actual experts, not to mention numerous apps and weekly boxed food subscriptions.

Routines can be great for people who thrive on rituals and habitual behavior. Waking up at the same time each morning and going to bed at the same time each evening is said to be a step in the healthiest direction for our bodies. Consistency is key for the healthy among us. Being able to depend on a certain menu and having prepared food with us throughout the day is also beneficial. Not only are we armed with healthy foods, but we don’t fall into the depths of despair and thus low blood sugar, where we grab for anything within arm’s reach to boost our dangerously low glucose levels (hello candy bowl).

As I continued to prepare this meal prep interview, I began to identify my actual position on the subject. While it has always been my recommendation to make a bigger serving of a healthy meal in order to cook once and eat twice, how does unflinching commitment to our daily menu and take-to-work meals affect our mental health, not to mention our social life? If it makes us uncomfortable, if it makes us have FOMO (fear of missing out) just where do we draw the (waist)line?

Let’s say we spend time on a Sunday making delicious, carefully portioned quinoa veggie bowls with chicken to take to work with us each day during the next week. We are ready to carpe diem on Monday and, like starting any new diet or regime, we approach it with gusto. If we find ourselves hungrier on Tuesday, do we allow ourselves to eat something more or do we force ourselves into deprivation by limiting ourselves to our plan? What about if Wednesday is Kathy’s birthday lunch at work? Do we allow ourselves the flexibility to join our compatriots for a social activity, or are we stuck sharing our office with our lonely little bowl whilst our colleagues party down with cupcakes?

The idea behind meal prep and meal planning was actually found to be beneficial for our health. Leave it to Canada to conduct a study about how meal planning affects people’s well-being and mental health. It was found that those who allowed time to meal plan spent 48 minutes on average preparing a meal and felt less stressed and less like they had too little extra time. They reported higher levels of mental health and happiness as well.

There seem to be two different areas in which to plan meals. Nightly dinner meals where we shop once (not each day, which is a huge time saver) and daily take-to-work meal planning. I personally have realized the detriment that lack of planning for dinner creates when, at 5 o’clock promptly, both children burst into hunger pang-sponsored tears. Preparation is crucial for nightly dinners, but flexibility is important as well, because once we feel restricted and in a nutritional cage, it may be game over for healthy eating.

Sadly, we have all experienced the melancholy created by a lack of social activities thanks to COVID. As a nation, we are the saddest we’ve ever been as a result of our crippled social lives. To me, that’s one reason why it’s important to be flexible so that if plans change at the last minute, we can be part of them and not chained to our nightly menu.

A new you in ’22As we start this new year, I would be surprised if there were one person among us who hadn’t sworn at the strike of midnight Jan. 1 to do a little something new with their diet or exercise habits. Restricting our foods can lead to overeating and choosing the not-so-right things to eat. It depends on each of our personalities and our relationship with food, but if restriction isn’t for you, be sure to add some add some flexibility into your daily routine.

Many experienced meal planning resources have brought up the containers in which we pack our carefully planned lunches. Steer clear from BPA-containing plastics which can sabotage our efforts to be healthier by infusing our meal with chemicals as we reheat it in the microwave.

Eat defensivelyAs a crucial part of our strategy, we need to plan for when the plans go out the window. Wasn’t it Lennon who said “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans?” I said that to my husband the night before we found out about our first child after we had just discussed how he was planning a very, very long timeline to having children.

Even the best plans fail. So, if we are stuck somewhere and our beautifully planned meal is either already in our belly, or is back at the office and out of reach, we need to have stuff available. I travel with almonds in my car console at all times … just in case. In the office, try keeping string cheese sticks and single serving hummus cups and veggies, if possible.

The best meal plans not only sponsor variety, but allow for schedule changes as well. Listen to your body. If you’re into something other than what you’ve planned for dinner or toted to work with you, be OK with it, within reason. Your body may be craving something it needs. Restriction, deprivation and implementing willpower to force ourselves to do exactly what we aren’t feeling is a blueprint for disaster.

Plan for thisIn spite of our best laid plans, it’s easy to get caught up in conversation, especially in social settings. Keep in mind that it’s best to drink water not only before sitting down to eat (and drink) but during the meal as well. This helps us to get perfectly full without overeating. (Have you ever eaten without drinking water only to gulp down liquid after your meal because you’re thirsty? How full do you feel?).

Keep in mind that it takes 20 minutes for our brain and gut to make the connection that we’re full. It doesn’t matter if we’ve eaten the right amount for a meal or way too much, it will take 20 minutes to register as satisfied. Eat good quality fat to feel satiated. Fat is what brings the taste to our taste buds and it makes us be sated and full.

As a kid, I used to go to an amazing chiropractor in Guilford at the Woodcock Clinic. He was extremely intuitive and worked with magical skill. I was about 10 at the time Dr. Bob unsolicitedly suggested that I put my fork down on the plate to rest between bites at each meal. We had never eaten together, yet somehow he knew that this would behoove me.

We all do it. We formulate a lovely bite of food piled high on our fork. Expertly balanced, our implement soars through gravity as we escort it to our mouth, where we immediately commence the digestion process by crushing it with each bite. This is literally the first step of digestion. Without pause, we are at it again, artfully swooping in with our fork, scooping our next bite to get ready to once again fill our gaping mouth. What would happen if we stopped fiddling with our fork for a minute before we filled it again? Is it possible to give it a rest and concentrate on chewing?

This is mindful eating, and it’s the one part of the plan that we can control.

Prepping the next great thing is human nature. If we get a promotion, we are elated, but soon thereafter, we angle for the better position. This is what we are designed to do. We have a bite. It tastes good, but we need to get ready for our next bite, which will surely taste as good, if not better. My 16-month-old son sets himself up for the next bite by grunting repeatedly and pointing to the toast he so eagerly wants more of. Even while his mouth is full.

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Peanut Sauce Tofu

Ingredients

3 tablespoons peanut butter (natural — the kind you have to stir)

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon sesame oil

½ cup chicken broth

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon fresh ginger

1 package extra firm tofu

Green onion — for garnish

Sesame seeds — for garnish

Method

Preheat oven to 425° F.

Combine all ingredients except tofu and heat over a warm burner. Whisk until smooth.

Take cubed, dried tofu and lay on parchment paper lined baking sheet.

Brush liberally with peanut sauce. Bake for 10 minutes and flip. Apply sauce and bake for another 7 to 8 minutes.

Broil for two minutes or until crispy. Serve with garnishes!

Katharine A. Jameson, a certified nutrition counselor who grew up in Williamsville and Townshend, writes about food and health for Vermont News & Media. For more tricks, tips and hacks, find her on Instagram: @foodforthoughtwithkat