Sensible Nutrition for the Single Professional

by Jodi Hawkins, The Southern Health, 16 Oct 2006

Ask anyone who works for a living how much time they have to focus on healthy eating and chances are the answer will end in dietary disaster.

Single professionals, in particular, may find it harder to meet their own nutritional needs through grocery shopping or cooking than their married counterparts. That's because many working individuals who live alone rarely place healthy eating high on their priority lists, especially when time is limited and there's no one else to consider their nutritional welfare at home or help in preparing meals.

Many times eating habits will narrow down to fast food, chronic snacking, or skipping meals altogether. But since scientific research continues to prove how an increasing number of illnesses can be prevented by following healthier eating styles, it's important to know how to incorporate them into the time-crunched daily agendas of single professionals.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the proportion of households consisting of one person living alone increased from 17 percent in 1970 to 26 percent in 2005. Administrative professional, Blanche Goebel of Herrin, falls into this category.

As a single person who works full time, she finds that healthy eating isn't always easy. "I don't get in all the vegetables I should be eating," says Goebel. "I find myself eating sandwiches without vegetables most of the time. I eat fresh fruit in season, but as a single person I only purchase small amounts."

Goebel explains that cooking for herself alone also comes with its own set of dilemmas, which is why she rarely does it. "When I do cook, I find that I don't always have all the ingredients in the recipe," she says.

"I don't always purchase an ingredient that has an expiration date of one week because I live by myself and I won't be able to consume the remainder of the product in that one week. The same goes for buying eggs. A recipe may call for one egg, but because of the expiration date I sometimes throw out 11 eggs. I find it difficult to cook for one person; therefore I don't always eat healthy," admits Goebel.

Her situation is not at all uncommon among single, working people, but there are ways to improve it.

Dr. Virginia Steiner of the Alternative Health Care and Injury Center in Marion discusses her own methods of dealing with similar predicaments. "Because of my busy schedule, I have minimal time to devote to food preparation. I rely a great deal on whole foods, fruits, vegetables, lean meat and fish, preferably organically grown."

"Using what nature provides drastically cuts down on meal preparation," explains Steiner. "For instance, what is easier: eating an apple? Or peeling it, sugaring it, preheating your oven, and baking it for a prescribed amount of time?"

"I usually choose chicken or fish and grill it in large quantities," says Steiner. "Doing this provides me with several things and only requires me to deal with clean up and preparation once."

Nuts are another great example of an already prepared, no-fuss food, that are an excellent source of nutrition. For this reason, Steiner often keeps a supply of them for snacking. "I take food with me to my office and try to eat five or six times per day," she says.

"This schedule of eating keeps my blood sugar steady and eliminates hunger pain. I usually buy quantities of apples, grapes, pears, and other whole fruits. I do the same with vegetables," Steiner adds.

Thelma Malone, county extension director of the University of Illinois Extension in Williamson County feels that healthful eating is made less complicated by reading nutrition labels. She explains why keeping an eye on labels is so important.

"A gram of fat has two and a half times the number of calories in it as a gram of carbohydrate or protein, so if it's a really high fat food then you're going to have a whole lot more calories and you may not be getting any more nutrition in it," she says.

Kyle Deere, a health educator in Carbondale adds this suggestion for label readers, "Look for items that have a daily value less than five percent of all fats and sodium and 20 percent or higher for nutrients you need such as calcium."

Deere also advises single consumers to buy frozen bags of fruit because they won't spoil as quickly and can be added as a quick, healthy side item.

There's good news for those who prefer to dine out frequently, rather than preparing meals at home. The number of nutritious options in restaurants has increased considerably from what they were years ago. "Look at how many restaurants now have things like fruit or chicken that's not fried," says Malone.

While some fast food restaurants now offer healthier side item substitutes that replace the once traditional order of french fries, it's still important to be aware of the fat and calories within those items.

For example, salads are an excellent, low calorie choice. However, there are plenty of ways a 35-calorie side salad could easily increase to over 300 by adding certain dressings alone, not to mention high fat toppings like cheese and bacon.

Not all condiments are created equal, which is why it's so beneficial to learn the nutritional values of all options before making any selection. Many fast food restaurants have nutritional information for consumers, available on request.

Taking advantage of this option is a great way to do some healthy eating homework before taking in too many unwanted calories.

For square meals, think Pyramid

Every five years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services publishes a set of dietary guidelines to aid Americans in eating better.

The current guidelines, published in 2005, included these three general statements:

- Make smart choices from every food group

- Find a balance between food and physical activity

- Get the most nutrition out of your calories

In addition, the USDA has developed a tool to help us eat better by showing us how to make smart choices from every food group. This helpful program can be found online at Users can get a thorough assessment of their own food intake and physical activity levels; thus making health related goals much easier to attain.

Planning is key in nutrition for all

The majority of working people with families also find themselves without much time to devote to more healthful ways of shopping and cooking. Yet, while time is a rarity to these hurried folks, it is possible to combine nourishing meals into a stretched schedule.

Many experts agree that planning is one way for working people to healthfully feed their families even if they are on a tight schedule.

Melissa Fay Banz is a dietitian with the Southern Illinois Dietetic Association. She explains, "When you spend most of your weekdays working and/or running around it leaves little time to put a good dinner on the table at the end of the day. If you plan your meals during the weekends, when you have a little more time, then you can put these meals on the table the rest of the week within 30 minutes or less."

Banz also works with the Healthy Futures Initiative of Anna, which is a group that identifies childhood as an opportunity to develop good eating habits and physical activity patterns that will last a lifetime.

"Plan at least three meals for the week, planning on leftovers for the other days," advises Banz. "Make casseroles or crock-pot meals that can be thrown in the oven when you get home or cook on low all day while you are working. Prepare what you can ahead during the weekend or the night before. Balance what you make from scratch with what you use frozen or pre-made."

Thelma Malone, county extension director of the University of Illinois Extension in Williamson County agrees with Banz's suggestions for leftovers. While many people don't like the idea of eating leftovers, Malone says it can be made much easier by simply changing their mindsets.

"Think of leftovers as 'planned-overs' by cooking main dishes in larger quantities for future use," says Malone.

Because the main course is usually what takes the most time to prepare, she notes that thinner cuts of meat will cook faster than thicker cuts. Unknowingly expanding serving sizes of food is what some experts call "portion distortion" and it's easy to do. Therefore, cooking meat in thinner sliced varieties would reduce preparation time as well as the consumption of more than the ideal three-ounce serving size.

University of Illinois Extension registered dietitian and extension educator, Martha Winter concurs with the idea that planning is key to preparing healthy meals with limited time. "A few years back, a 'Restaurants and Institutions' survey found that about 70 percent of the adult population doesn't decide what to eat at night until 4 p.m. or later," notes Winter, who works at the Mount Vernon Extension Center.

"The best way to ease this 'dinner dilemma' is to plan meals like some people plan clothing purchases," she says. "Consider the person who rapidly mixes and matches a few clothing items into dozens of different outfits. Perform that same trick in your kitchen. Plan several days of menus that focus on basic food groups that quickly assemble into an assortment of different and delicious meals."