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Meal-planning help without a dietitian

The road to diet hell is paved with books, all by authors firmly convinced of the inarguable perfection of their own eating plans.

And although detailed, customized menus may not be readily available at little or no cost, specific online examples can highlight what you need to look for in a meal. You'll also find primers on nutrient-dense foods, good versus bad fats, portion sizes and food labels.

Further, sites such as CalorieKing and TheCalorieCounter.com provide nutritional information on thousands of fresh and prepared foods. Look for foods that are not greatly processed and that are high in proteins or other nutrients and low in calories and saturated fats.

And keep in mind that some health insurance plans do cover visits with registered dietitians (individual consultations can be pricey), particularly if prescribed by a physician. They can not only outline daily eating plans, but also offer cooking tips and help you navigate food-laden social occasions. Beware of people who call themselves nutritionists -- anyone can give themselves that title. Registered dietitians have extensive nutrition education and are credentialed.

Suzanne Bogert, a registered dietitian and project director of Network for a Healthy California, suggests this strategy for better nutrition: "When you lay your head on your pillow at night, ask yourself how many fruits and vegetables you ate, are you getting a wide variety of foods in your diet, are you connected with your hunger, and are you active? The 'no' answers are what you need to start working on."

Here are resources to check out:

* EatRight.org , sponsored by the American Dietetic Assn., offers extensive resources under "Food & Nutrition Information," including tips for weight management (a tutorial on whole grains, 25 healthy snacks for kids), different eating plans for high blood pressure (emphasizing fresh fruits and vegetables and low- or nonfat dairy products) and an explanation of the differences among dietary fats.

* MyPyramid.gov , created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, offers more than that trusty food pyramid; there's also a menu planner that allows you to calculate calories and fat and choose foods from various food groups. Choose a food, plug it into the planner, and you'll get a calorie count and be able to see whether you're meeting daily goals. You can also copy meal plans and send them to others.

* Rd411.com , created by Nancy Collins, a past president of the Florida Dietetic Assn., is geared to registered dietitians but has a wealth of practical consumer information about nutrition, obesity and weight control. It even offers sample menus, including ones for before and after your workouts. (For the former, try a banana and a tablespoon of peanut butter; for the latter, consider 8 ounces of orange juice and two slices of bread.)

* The L.A. County Department of Public Health offers booths at several Los Angeles-area farmers markets, including Hollywood and Watts (locations vary, check the site for updated information). Registered dietitians will answer general nutrition or meal-planning questions and dole out sample recipes (vegetable and fish soup, chicken in chipotle sauce) and health information. Some tips are on the website as well.

* Gelson's markets, specifically Jessica Siegel, their registered dietitian whose job entails visiting the chain's markets, where customers can get information about diet and nutrition and receive body fat testing. Siegel also writes a monthly nutrition newsletter that can be accessed free online (this month contains information about the importance of potassium and vitamin D in the diet and how to find the nutrients in foods). She's also available to answer questions via e-mail, also free, at nutrition@gelsons.com . Keep in mind that she'll be out on maternity leave from May through September, although newsletter archives are accessible.

* Local health fairs frequently feature registered dietitians who can answer questions and provide basic nutrition information. Contact your local city government for more information.

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