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Jeannie Marshall, a certified fitness nutrition specialist, holds coconut milk and ricotta cheese, two items people can use in healthy recipes that add some of the richness of higher fat cheeses and dairy products, but without the higher calories. The Fort Sill Commissary stocks a variety of healthy foods for shoppers.

FORT SILL, Okla. (17 Jan. 2013) -- Jeannie Marshall's healthy eating ideas turns to main courses that forego boxed meals and don't break the bank account.

Marshall, a certified fitness nutrition specialist and professional body builder, recommends for those interested in eating healthy meals to "think outside the box."

Whatever shoppers need they will likely find it at the Fort Sill Commissary. Best of all, if the commissary doesn't carry a particular product, the staff has a program for shopper suggestions.

"Look at ingredients of most prepackaged foods and a lot of people would have a hard time pronouncing many of the items listed," she said. "Instead of something to eat, the list looks like a chemistry experiment."

If that isn't enough to subdue an appetite, consider the nutritional value based on a serving size that is a half or one cup, either an amount Marshall doesn't believe is accurate for most people.

"Most men, especially Soldiers, who worked hard all day have bigger appetites," she said. "While a boxed meal may claim it can provide five servings, one Soldier normally would eat at least two."

Instead, a bit of planning and time to shop for individual ingredients can form the building blocks of a nutritious and satisfying dinner. As for what shoppers should look for, Marshall has a simple rule she lives by.

"If it's something that can spoil, it's good to eat because it's natural. In contrast, a boxed meal can sit for a decade and be fine, but does that meal contribute to a person's health?" she asked.

Because many shoppers begin meal planning around a meat item, knowing a good serving size can help save time and money when shopping. Marshall recommends men on average should eat about 5-8 ounces of protein, women about 4-6 ounces. She said the serving size should be about the size of a person's palm, although that can vary depending on the density of the protein source.

One popular brand name boxed dinner offers diners chicken with broccoli, pasta and cheese. For those people buying those items separate, she recommends chicken breasts which tend to be a lower fat meat. Most prepackaged cheeses consists of high fat and sodium levels. Lower fat cheese options are available such as Parmesan or ricotta.

Like the less healthy prepackaged cheeses, pasta, the next boxed meal ingredient, doesn't fare well either. It often consists of processed white flower.

"When I see regular semolina pasta, I see a nutrient void product that provides a lot of calories, but the quality of those calories isn't that great," she said.

Marshall recommends families consider whole wheat, quinoa or brown rice pasta. Each product offers better nutrition along with increased fiber.

For those open to looking far beyond the box, she said sweet potatoes, spaghetti squash or zucchini may also be used as an alternative to heavily processed pasta.

Most boxed meals will set a family back about $4 at checkout. Though shopping time increases to buy individual items, Marshall said those items can make enough for a family of four to eat two meals with leftovers for a Soldier's lunch.

She said a bit of meal planning can help families switch to healthier alternatives without tying up lots of time each night cooking.

Marshall does most of her cooking on a weekend morning or afternoon for the upcoming week and does it in a way that it doesn't take up too much time. She prefers to cook extra, such as baking 10 sweet potatoes, put a few in the fridge and freeze the rest. Then, as the week progresses, move frozen potatoes to the refrigerator to thaw and eat.

The same technique works for meats as long as those for later in the week are cooked then promptly frozen.

"During the week I pull out a couple servings of meat, heat them up with some fresh vegetables and serve dinner in under 30 minutes," she said.

She said another option is to cook a meal, such as a chicken dinner, and turn the leftovers into soup or a stir fry. Another monday-saving option is to pack leftovers in weekday work lunches, instead of purchasing a meal at a restaurant.

Beyond the convenience of meal preparation, Marshall recommends people consider if a meal contributes or detracts from their health. She began her decision to eat healthy about eight years ago shortly after the birth of her daughter and death of her father to cancer.

"Those moments made me more reflective of my own health and that of my daughter," she said.

Looking back, she realizes her diet, did include boxed meals and knew she could improve it.

"I'm always thinking of the health legacy I'm leaving for my family, because parents model behaviors their children will adopt themselves," she said. "I'd rather give my children the tools of how to live healthier lives."

For more information, Marshall maintains a Facebook page under the name Jeannie St. Amour and answers questions on fitness, diet and nutrition.

Page last updated Thu January 17th, 2013 at 00:00