Over the past few months I've been working to optimize my life. In this post I describe my attempt to optimize my day-to-day cooking and eating - my goal with this post is to get input and to offer a potential template for people who aren't happy with their current cooking/eating patterns. I'm a) still pretty new to LW, and b) not a nutritionist; I am not claiming that this is optimal, only that it is a step in the right direction for me. I'd love suggestions/advice/feedback.
How do I quantify a successful cooking/eating plan?
"Healthy" is a broad term. I'm not interested in making food a complicated or stressful component of my life - quite the opposite. Healthy means that I feel good, and that I'm providing my body with a good mix of building blocks (carbs, proteins, fats) and nutrients. This means I want most/all meals to include some form of complex carbs, protein, and either fruits or veggies or both. As I'm currently implementing an exercise plan based on the LW advice for optimal exercising, I'm aiming to get ~120 grams of protein per day (.64g/lb bodyweight/day). There seems to be a general consensus that absorption of nutrients from whole foods is a) higher, and b) less dangerous, so when possible I'm trying to make foods from basic components instead of buying pre-processed stuff.
I have a health condition called hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) that makes me cranky/shaky/weak/impatient/foolish/tired when I am hungry, and can be triggered by eating simple sugars. So, for me personally, a healthy diet includes rarely feeling hungry and rarely eating simple sugars (especially on their own - if eaten with other food the effect is much less severe). This also means trying to focus on forms of fruit and complex carbs that have low glycemic indexes (yams are better than baked potatoes, for example). I would guess that these attributes would be valuable for anyone, but for me they are a very high priority.
I'm taking some advice from the "Exos" (formerly Core Performance) fitness program, as described in the book Core performance essentials. One of the suggestions from this that I'm trying to use here (aside from the above complex carb+protein+fruit/veg meal structure) is to "eat the rainbow every day" - that is, mix up the fruits and veggies you eat, ideally getting as many colors per day as possible. I'm also taking advice from the (awesome) LW article on increasing longevity: "eat fish, nuts, eggs, fruit, dark chocolate."
When possible I'm trying to focus on veggies that are particularly nutrient dense - spinach, bok choy, tomatoes, etc. I am (for now) avoiding a few food products that I have heard (but have not yet confirmed!) are linked to potential health issues: tofu, whey proteins. Note that I do not trust my information on the potential risks of these foods, but as neither of these are important to my diet anyways, I have put researching them as a low priority compared to everything else I want to learn.
So to recap: don't stress about it, but try to do complex carbs, proteins (120g/day for me), fruits, and veggies in every meal, avoid sugars where possible (although dark chocolate is good). Fish, nuts and eggs are high priority proteins.
I'm on a fairly limited budget. This means trying to focus on the seasonal fruits and veggies (which are typically cheaper, and as an added bonus are likely healthier than the same fruit/veggie when out of season), aiming for less expensive meats, and not trying to eat organically (probably worth a separate discussion of organic vs not, meat vs not). This also means making my own foods when the price benefit is high and the time cost is low. I often make my own breads, for example (using a breadmaker) - it takes about 10 minutes of my time, directly saves me about 3+ dollars or so compared to an equivalent quality loaf of bread (many breads can be made for ~$.50-1$), plus saves me either the time of shopping multiple times per week to obtain fresh bread or the grossness of eating bread that I've frozen to keep it from molding. Additionally, my budget means that I prefer that my weekly meal plan not depend on eating out or buying pre-made foods.
While I'm on a fairly limited monetary budget, I'm on a very limited time budget. Cooking can be fun for me, but I prefer that my weekly schedule not REQUIRE much time - I can always replace a quick meal with a longer fun one if I feel like it.
My general approach is split my meals between really quick-and-easy (like chickpeas, canned salmon, and olive oil over prewashed spinach with an apple or two on the side) and batch foods where a somewhat longer time investment is split over many nights (like lentil stew in a crockpot).
To keep myself reasonable full I need about 6-7 meals per day: breakfast, snack, lunch, (optional snack depending on schedule), post-workout snack, dinner, snack. These don't all need to be large, but I'm unhappy/unproductive without something for each of those meals, so I might as well make it easy to eat them.
In general I've found the following system to fulfill my criteria of success (healthy, cheap, quick), and it's been much less stressful to have a general plan in place - I can more easily figure out my shopping list, and it's not hard to ensure I always have food ready when I need it.
Quick and easy is the key here. I typically have either
- Yogurt with sunflower seeds and/or nuts, a handful of rolled oats (yes, uncooked, but add a bit of water at the end to make them tolerable), and sometimes some fruit on top. Add honey for sweetener as needed (I typically don't do to hypoglycemia).
- Bread (often homemade, but whatever floats your boat) with some peanut butter on top, a banana or other fruit item on the side.
- (if I have the time) Scrambled eggs mixed with chopped broccoli or bell peppers, bread, and a piece of fruit.
I have three "batch" meals here (I make enough for 3+lunches, so I cook lunches ~twice a week):
- salmon mash plus "spinach salad" (spinach with olive oil and either lemon juice or balsamic vinegar), fruit item. salmon mash is a mix of cooked rice, canned salmon, black olives (for flavor - not sure that they're useful nutritionally), canned black or garbanzo beans, pasta sauce. It sounds disgusting, but I find it pretty decent, and it's very cheap and filling, and super balanced in terms of carbs and proteins. I do proportions of 1 cup rice, 1 large can salmon, 1-2 cans beans, 1/2 can black olives, 1/2 can pasta sauce (typically I do a double batch, which lasts me about 4-5 lunches. Your mileage may vary)
- Baked yams and boneless skinless chicken breasts plus spinach salad or other veggies, fruit item
- pasta salad: pasta, raw chopped broccoli, tomatoes (grape/cherry tomatoes are easiest), chopped bell peppers, sliced ham, olives (for flavor again - not important nutritionally, I think), and some olive oil (you could use Caesar salad dressing if you like more flavor).
I aim to make one batch dinner per week and have it last for 4-5 meals, and then have several quick-and-easy dinners to fill the gap (this also makes it easy to accommodate dinners out or food related social gatherings).
Some ideas for Batch Dinners (crock pots are your friends here):
- Lentil stew, bread, sliced carrots or bell peppers, fruit item (apple, banana, grapefruit, whatever). That lentil soup recipe is ridiculously cheap, healthy, and quite tasty.
- The potato-and-cabbage based rumpledethumps recipe (which freezes very well - make a huge batch and throw half of it in the freezer), plus a meat of some sort, a fruit item and maybe a vegetable something
- Other crock pot soups: chicken tortilla soup, chili, stew. Add a veggie on the side, a fruit item, and maybe a slice of bread.
- Large stirfry (these often take a bit longer than crock pot meals), rice or noodles, fruit on the side.
- Salad made from salad greens, some form of precooked meat (salmon is good), beans, maybe sliced avacado and tomato, maybe sunflower seeds.
- Rice/pasta; scrambled/cooked eggs or baked chicken; munching veggie like carrots, raw broccoli, bell pepper; fruit item. Note on chicken: while there is a reasonably large elapse time from start to finish, your involvement doesn't need to take long. Typically I have a bunch of boneless skinless chicken breasts in the freezer - pull one out, throw it in a ziplock with soy sauce, garlic powder, ginger (or whatever other marinade you prefer), put the ziplock in a bowl of warm water, preheat oven to 370ish. Once chicken is thawed, put in a pan and cook in the oven. Ideally do enough rice/pasta and chicken for several nights.
In general my snacks are super simple: just combine some kind of munching veggie (carrots, bell pepper, raw broccoli, snap peas, etc) with hummus, some fruit item, something protein-y (handful of nuts or sunflower seeds, usually) and (optionally) a slice of bread or other carb source. For whatever snack I have after a workout, I want to make sure there is plenty of protein, so I include either hard boiled eggs, baked chicken, or salmon (on bread).
So over the weekend, when I plan my week and go shopping, I choose the following:
- One batch dinner to cook (usually I need to buy the stuff for this)
- One type of quick-and-easy dinner to eat for 2-3 nights (often using staples/leftovers I already have)
- Two types of batch lunch to make from my list of three.
- 2-3 kinds of munching veggies - enough veggies total to include in ~3 meals per day (so like 6ish carrots per day, or 2 bell peppers, etc). Think carrots, raw broccoli, bell peppers, green beans, sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes, etc.
- 2-3 kinds of fruit items. Think apples, bananas, grapefruit, grapes, oranges, etc.
- Two kinds of protein for post-workout snacks, chosen from: eggs, chicken, salmon
- Bread recipes to make 2-3 loaves (which might just be a single recipe repeated)
I'm still tweaking my system, but it has been a marked improvement from the last-minute scrabbling and suboptimal meals that tended to characterize my eating before this. It's also a big step up in terms of utility from the more elaborate and time-consuming meals I sometimes cooked to compensate for feelings of inadequacy generated by aforementioned scrabbling/suboptimal meals. I tend to feel fairly energetic and healthy, and it's a huge reassurance to me to know that I always have food planned out and typically it's available to me without needing to do any cooking. It appears that it's considerably cheaper, too, although there are several confounding factors that would also drive my grocery bills down (transitioning to not-organic foods, trying to hit sales, etc).
Are there things I'm missing? Suggestions for meals? (note that I'm a bit wary of meal-replacement shakes) Alternative systems that people have found to hit that sweet spot of healthy, quick, and inexpensive? Is this something that might be useful for you?
EDIT: Tuna is high in mercury, and shouldn't be eaten in nearly the quantities I had originally planned. I've replaced canned tuna with canned salmon.