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  • Mary Meals

  • Mary Flynn, PhD, RD, LDN, research dietitian at The Miriam Hospital, shares her survival guide for healthy holiday eating.

    Try a Mary Meal at home:

    The Miriam's Mary Meals are based on the work of Mary Flynn, PhD, RD, LDN. Mary has worked as a research dietitian at The Miriam Hospital since 1984. Her main research interest is in how food will affect health. 

    The Mary Meals are made with ingredients that studies have shown will reduce risk factors for chronic diseases. The meals are calorie controlled and contain extra virgin olive oil, at least 2 servings of healthy vegetables, 2-3 servings of starch which will be whole grains and/or legumes (beans), whenever possible.

    What makes a Mary Meal?

    Portion control

    Eating out often leads to weight gain as portions tend to be large in restaurants. The meals will contain approximately 500 to 600 calories, which is sufficient lunch calories for most people. The calories for a serving of the entrée will be listed. If you need more calories, include a salad with salad dressing, a piece of fruit or a bowl of soup.

    Dietary fat in the form of extra virgin olive oil

    A meal that contains fat keeps you from getting hungry soon after the meal. Olive oil is a fat that will contribute to both the health benefits and the taste of the meal. Extra virgin olive oil has been shown to decrease blood pressure, fasting insulin and glucose, decrease oxidation and decrease inflammation, all risk factors for heart disease and some cancers. The health benefits of olive oil start at about 2 tablespoons per day, which will be the approximate amount in each meal.

    Dietary fat also helps to absorb carotenoids, which are found in dark vegetables. Carotenoids have been shown to help decrease the risk of cancer. Extra virgin olive oil also makes vegetables taste better than when they are steamed or boiled. Fat in a meal delays the time until you get hungry. When you eat a meal that is low in fat, you will be hungry soon after the meal. Hunger between meals can lead to eating foods that are not healthy-like desserts and snack foods. By putting a healthy fat like extra virgin olive oil in the meal, you will receive the health benefits of olive oil, plus you should be less likely to be hungry between your meals.

    At least 2 servings of a healthy vegetable

    Each meal will contain at least 2 servings of vegetables. The approximate servings and type of vegetables will be listed. Vegetables, like all plant products, contain phytonutrients. Phytonutrients protect the plant from its surroundings. In humans, phytonutrients have been shown to have properties that could explain why diets high in plant products have been related to better health. Phytonutrients have been shown to decrease oxidation and inflammation, and help to stop cancers from starting or spreading and many other health promoting properties.

    One of the families of phytonutrients is the carotenoids. Carotenoids give deep color to plant products, so the darker the vegetable, the higher the carotenoid content. Carotenoids work in ways that decrease cancer risk, but carotenoids need fat to be absorbed. Dark vegetables will be used as often as possible and cooked in the olive oil to maximize their absorption. A serving of vegetables is ½ cup. For the best health, vegetables should be eaten as often as possible and at least 4 servings each day.

    Only 2 to 3 servings of starch

    Starch foods, one of the carbohydrate food groups, are healthy, but easy to overeat. By keeping the starch to 2-3 servings, the calories are controlled.

    Whole grains

    Whole grains are starch foods that are not refined, such as brown rice and foods made with whole wheat flour. Whenever possible, a Mary Meal will use whole grains, such as whole wheat pasta, brown rice and whole grain breads. The servings of starch and the type of starch will be listed. Whole grains have been associated with lower body weight and less weight gain over time. Whole grains can slow absorption of carbohydrate, so blood glucose levels rise slower.

    Legumes (beans)

    Legumes include black, cannelloni, garbanzo (ceci) and kidney beans and lentils. Legumes are a very healthy vegetable protein and are high in fiber. Legumes contain fiber and phytonutrients that help to decrease heart disease and certain cancers.