We often hear that the path to better health is through diet, exercise and eliminating bad habits. But what we don’t hear is that these changes in behavior can also have a positive impact on the health of our community. Living a healthy lifestyle not only benefits you and your family, but helps your neighbors as well—especially when you include them in your group activities. Making daily health-conscious choices and engaging in a greater variety of activities can influence change beyond your front door by setting a positive example for others. Healthy behavior is contagious.

The convenience of unhealthy choices

Despite our society’s advances in technology, Americans are working longer hours; as a result, in order to save time in other areas of our lives, we have adopted some unhealthy choices that seem attractive and more convenient. For example, in our busy day-to-day lives, it is easier to pick up fast food at the drive-through restaurant than to make a healthy dinner at home. When we hit that mid-afternoon slump, grabbing a can of soda or candy bar from the vending machine at work provides a quick pick-me-up…and a lot of empty calories. Unfortunately, all of this “convenience” is creating a culture of poor food choices that is having a negative impact on the health of our population.

Minor changes can mean much healthier choices

Let’s break these examples down and explore what small changes can be made to facilitate healthier choices. The changes we make do not have to be major alterations to what we currently do, and they don’t have to be made all at once. Making minor adjustments to everyday routines over a period of time can make a big difference in our quality of life.*

When it comes to making better choices in the food that we eat, we are often overcome with dread at the mention of the word “diet.” We are all familiar with fad diets, and the “magic pill” infomercials, but these gimmicks do not lead to long-term health and wellness—there are no quick fixes when it comes to e.g., weight loss or lowering blood pressure. However, small changes can be made to our everyday routine to make healthier eating easy and convenient regardless of your budget.

Making the most of “prep day”

One idea for changing your eating habits is to set aside one day a week for “prep day.” Your prep day is the day when you make your shopping list, gather all your groceries and plan the meals to be prepared for the week. By doing all or most of the heavy lifting in one day (many people choose Sunday for this purpose), you free up time during the rest of the week so that when you come home at the end of a long day at work, all that is required is (in some cases) reheating. There are numerous websites and blog pages dedicated to creative meal ideas and recipes with easy-to-follow instructions and simple ingredients. Examples include: Meal Prep on FleekThirty Handmade Days,  and Beach Body on Demand.  Facebook followers can find additional recipes at Tasty, Cooking Light, and Goodful.

Meal kits can be an option

For people with disposable income, internet access, and/or a small household, there are a number of online food services that send meal kits, with fresh and healthy ingredients, directly to your door. For example, Blue Apron offers meal plans for a two-person household from $47.95 per week for two recipes and $59.94 per week for three recipes, as well as family plans for larger households starting at $69.92 for two recipes, $104.88 for three, and $139.84 for four recipes. Another option is Home Chef, which offers a “Classic Plan” that costs $9.95 per serving, and provides free shipping on all orders over $45. Home Chef also offers multiple meal plans so you have more control over what you order and how much it costs. Hello Fresh is another option that offers a “Classic Box” that feeds two to four people for $9.99 per serving, with the choice of three or four recipes, or a “Family Box” that serves four or more for $8.74 per serving with two or three recipes per week.

All of these services offer balanced meals and easy-to-follow instructions on how to prepare them, which in most cases, requires less than an hour from prep to finish.

Finding ways to snack healthier

As for the afternoon pick-me-up/beverage, we all know that water is the healthiest drink for you. However, not everyone enjoys the taste of plain water and would rather indulge in the bubbly sweetness of a soda. I am not suggesting you quit soda “cold turkey”, but I do recommend that you try to reduce the number of sugary beverages you drink. For example, replace one or two of your daily sodas with carbonated or flat water and add frozen fruit to the bottle. Fruit adds extra flavor, and carbonated water can satisfy your need for those magic bubbles.

The “prep day” can be useful here too. You can make a week’s worth of fresh and healthy snacks to get you through that midday slump and keep you feeling full and energized without the sugar crash of soda or junk food. Again, there are many websites and apps that can help you find healthy snacks that taste so good that you might be surprised at how nutritious they are. The key to succeeding at healthy eating is to be prepared. Preparing meals in advance frees up time later in the week, when you might not have the time or energy to cook; a pre-determined menu removes the question of “what’s for dinner tonight;” and bringing snacks from home increases the likelihood that you will resist unhealthy temptations and helps with portion control.

Keeping a food diary

Another great way to make healthier choices is to write down everything you eat and drink each day. This will give you a greater awareness of what and how much you eat in a day, and may generate ideas for how to swap certain foods with healthier options. Keeping a written record also reveals what time of the day you tend to eat the most.

Join the conversation

These are just a few suggestions on how to improve your health and make an impact on the health of your community. Not everyone can afford to use food delivery services, has access to the internet to research meal ideas, or access to reliable transportation for prep days. Do you have ideas you would like to share about ways to help your community adopt healthy meal changes? Please comment below and let’s begin a conversation. Stay tuned for our next post sharing some simple ideas on ways to get your body moving.

*This post provides examples of websites and services, but the 1889 Jefferson Center for Population Health is in no way promoting or endorsing any specific service or company.