Optimal eating (or rather, a step in the right direction)

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.

Goal:

How do I quan­tify a suc­cess­ful cook­ing/​eat­ing plan?

Healthy

“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.

Cheap

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.

Quick

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.


The Plan

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.

Breakfasts

Quick and easy is the key here. I typ­i­cally have either

  1. 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).

  2. Bread (of­ten home­made, but what­ever floats your boat) with some peanut but­ter on top, a ba­nana or other fruit item on the side.

  3. (if I have the time) Scram­bled eggs mixed with chopped broc­coli or bell pep­pers, bread, and a piece of fruit.

(also a big glass of wa­ter, which ev­ery­one seems to think is im­por­tant)(also coffee, al­though I’m con­sid­er­ing tran­si­tion­ing to a differ­ent caf­feine source.

Lunch

I have three “batch” meals here (I make enough for 3+lunches, so I cook lunches ~twice a week):

  1. 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, 12 can black olives, 12 can pasta sauce (typ­i­cally I do a dou­ble batch, which lasts me about 4-5 lunches. Your mileage may vary)

  2. Baked yams and bone­less skin­less chicken breasts plus spinach salad or other veg­gies, fruit item

  3. 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).

If I haven’t prepped a batch lunch, I just put salmon and beans on top of spinach, add a lit­tle olive oil, and throw in a slice of bread and a fruit on the side. Alter­nately, PBJ plus veg­gie and fruit.

Dinner

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.

Note that since I only make one batch din­ner per week, those bul­lets are suffi­cient to cover a month (and de­pend­ing on what your tol­er­ance for rep­e­ti­tion is, that might be enough for years).
Some ideas for quick-and-easy din­ners:
  • 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.

Snacks

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).


Implementation

So over the week­end, when I plan my week and go shop­ping, I choose the fol­low­ing:

  1. One batch din­ner to cook (usu­ally I need to buy the stuff for this)

  2. One type of quick-and-easy din­ner to eat for 2-3 nights (of­ten us­ing sta­ples/​lef­tovers I already have)

  3. Two types of batch lunch to make from my list of three.

  4. 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.

  5. 2-3 kinds of fruit items. Think ap­ples, ba­nanas, grapefruit, grapes, or­anges, etc.

  6. Two kinds of pro­tein for post-work­out snacks, cho­sen from: eggs, chicken, salmon

  7. Bread recipes to make 2-3 loaves (which might just be a sin­gle recipe re­peated)

I also make sure I have enough yo­gurt and other break­fast sup­plies to get me through the week. I drink milk with most of my meals at home, so I check my milk sup­ply as well.
Boom! Plan­ning done, shop­ping list prac­ti­cally writes it­self! Once per week I make an small effort on cook­ing a batch din­ner, two or three nights per week I put an ex­tremely min­i­mal effort into quick-and-easy din­ners, two evenings per week I make a batch of lunch foods and maybe prep work­out pro­tein (hard boil eggs or bake chicken breasts), and oth­er­wise my “cook­ing” con­sists of tak­ing things from the fridge and putting them onto a dish (and pos­si­bly microwav­ing).

Conclusions

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.