What do you eat during a typical day?
Even as the plant-based diet for athletes becomes more commonplace, people still ask me this question all the time.
And I like it — it’s an opportunity to explain that you can eat 100% plant-based and really, really healthily … without spending your life in the kitchen or subsisting on trail mix and sprouts (while living in a treehouse, I think).
But I do make food a priority, like it should be. I’m very happy with my version of a healthy, plant-based diet, and I’m happy to share it with you in this post.
A Typical Day on a Plant-Based Diet
I eat according to a few simple guidelines (e.g., until I feel mostly full). My focus is on simplicity and health, and one of the amazing things I’ve found is that over time my palate has adjusted so that simple, healthy food is the food that tastes good.
But there’s another important point here. I’ve set up my diet so that I eat the same types of meals most days until dinnertime, adding variety only within a certain category of foods (like mixing up the fruits or nuts in the smoothie, or choosing different veggies or dressing for the salad).
And what that means is that each day, there are relatively few decisions I have to make around food.
This is important because:
- The fewer food decisions you have to make early in the day, the better the choices you’ll make later (see: decision fatigue), and
- When you know ahead of time the types of meals you’ll eat, you can “engineer” your diet to include exactly what you want and none of what you don’t.
But I should add that what follows is only a “typical” day — this is the stuff I’ve consciously decided to eat on a daily basis. But because I’m a human, I like eating a muffin when my wife bakes them for the kids’ school, or the times when I have leftover (delicious) pasta for lunch instead of my usual salad. I don’t stress a bit about these little indulgences, because know that what I do most of the time is what matters.
With that, here’s what a typical day looks like for me.
6am-9am — Water, tea, or coffee.
Except when I’m actively trying to put on weight or build muscle, I don’t eat anything for the first few hours of the day. Just water and cup of tea or coffee.
I can’t really call myself an intermittent faster, but I do believe that one of the reasons people are overweight is that they don’t give their bodies enough time between meals. So I try to extend the overnight fast as long as I can, by making sure I don’t eat until I’m really hungry each morning. Most of the time, that’s not until 9am or 10am.
This isn’t easy for everyone, but I’d suggest just paying very close attention to your body in the morning — are you actually hungry, or just eating because that’s “what you do” when you wake up?
9am — Smoothie.
My first meal of almost every day is a smoothie. The Perfect Smoothie Formula is the template I use, but not strictly. Over time, and especially since having kids, I’ve learned to appreciate simplicity in the kitchen, and this extends to the daily smoothie. Most days, my smoothie recipe looks like this:
- 2 handfuls of mixed frozen berries — raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, or strawberries (usually I choose two)
- 2-3 very ripe bananas
- 2 handfuls of frozen spinach leaves (or whatever greens we ate for salads last week that I moved to the freezer after they peaked)
- 1/3 cup raw walnuts
- 2 tablespoons flax seeds
- 2-3 cups of water
- DHA/EPA supplement
This makes enough for two giant smoothies, and I can usually count on my wife and kids to drink the one that I don’t. There’s no measuring; I just eyeball the amounts and adjust if something tastes off.
I make the smoothie in my Blendtec, which does a good job of grinding the nuts and seeds at once with everything else. But if you don’t have a Vitamix or Blendtec, you can grind the nuts and seeds into a powder in a coffee grinder, then add that powder to your smoothie.
As for protein powder? I used to add that, along with flax oil or coconut oil, but I’ve shifted heavily towards whole foods and found that I do just fine without any of those supplements. (I do take a DHA/EPA supplement and a vitamin B12 supplement each day, usually in a multivitamin that also includes vitamin D3, zinc, vitamin K2, and iodine. More on supplements here.)
And on that note, no, I don’t think about protein anymore. Or any other macronutrient amounts or ratios, for that matter.
11am — (Sometimes) Whole wheat pita or pancake.
If I’m hungry before lunchtime (and I’m not usually), I eat a whole-wheat pita spread with almond butter, or perhaps throw a small frozen pancake in the toaster (always this recipe, which we make in huge batches and freeze for the kids’ daily breakfast). I don’t usually put anything on the pancake, and think of it almost like bread, but every now and then I drizzle some maple syrup on it. Because, again, that thing about being a human.
12pm — Giant salad with beans and nut-based dressing.
I used to eat dinner leftovers for lunch each day, but as dinnertime has gotten busier with kid activities, I found that too often I was skipping the big salad I used to eat before dinner.
So now I eat it for lunch.
A typical salad for me looks like:
- Half a plate full of romaine or green leaf lettuce (pro tip: skip the clamshell packs and just chop it yourself; it lasts much longer and is cheaper)
- Half a plate full of something more bitter, like dandelion greens, radicchio, or kale (usually, bitter = more nutrients)
- Some cruciferous veggies like red cabbage, radishes, or broccoli
- Whatever else I have around: carrots, celery, tomato, scallions, avocado etc.
- 1 cup of chickpeas (I use different beans sometimes, but I like the texture of chickpeas the best. Whichever beans I use, if they’re not made from scratch, I buy low- or no-sodium cans)
- Nut-based dressing (see below)
I don’t believe you need to eat 100% oil-free, all the time, but for meals built habitually into my day, it makes sense to make them as healthy as possible. Which means no oil, not even olive oil.
So what to use for dressing, then? Keep in mind that the point isn’t to remove fat, which is important for absorbing all the micronutrients in the salad. Instead, it’s to get the fat in whole-food form, which means nuts or avocado.
Most often I use this raw, cashew-based ranch dressing recipe I got from my friend Sid Garza-Hillman:
- 2 1/2 cups cashews (you can soak them for a creamier dressing)
- 2 cups filtered water for blending
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice (approx 1/2 lemon)
- 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 3 teaspoons onion powder
- 2 teaspoons dried dill
- 2 teaspoons sea salt or to taste
- 1 teaspoon basil
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper or to taste
Blend all ingredients (ideally in a high-speed blender) until creamy and smooth. Make sure not to blend so long that it dressing gets hot. If it’s too thick add more water. It’ll thicken in the fridge; just add more water to make it pourable again.
It’s delicious, even for non-vegans. The kids love it too.
Important: This salad isn’t a small meal. It takes a long time to eat, and I’m almost completely full when I’m finished. When salad is your meal, it shouldn’t leave you hungry.
3pm — A piece of fruit, or hummus & veggies.
Not much to say about this one. The salad digests quickly and I usually need a snack in the afternoon. If I’m going for a run, I’ll choose the fruit, so that I get some sugar in me to help with the workout (and usually have a piece afterward, too). The hummus I use is either Roots Oil-Free or a homemade version.
6pm — Dinnertime!
It’s worth pausing here to note that up until now, there haven’t been many decisions to make, like I mentioned in the introduction. So no stress, no decision fatigue. And on my “best” days, before dinnertime my diet has been entirely:
- Nuts & Seeds
- Water, coffee, and/or tea
To me, these are the healthiest foods I can eat. I’ve got nothing against whole-wheat flour or other grains; I just don’t think they contribute as much in the way of micronutrients as the foods above. But when I’ve eaten this way all day, I feel totally okay about eating a big old vegan pasta dish, a whole-food vegan pizza (we use a sprinkled cheese made from cashews and nutritional yeast instead of the processed vegan cheeses), or stir-fry with brown rice for dinner.
Those are pretty typical choices for me. Other favorites around my house are lentil-and-rice dishes; a grain, a green, and a bean; rice and beans, curries and stews, and of course, tacos and burritos.
So pretty much anything that’s Italian, Asian, Indian, or Mexican, as long as it’s vegan and mostly whole-food. 🙂
I’m a Dr. Fuhrman fan, and if you are too, you might have noticed that I get at least four of his six daily GBOMBS (stands for greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries, seeds) before dinner. So I do make an effort to include onions and mushrooms in most dinners, even if they’re not in the recipe I’m making. If they really don’t fit, I water-saute some kale with onions and mushrooms as a side dish when I have time.
We choose meals that are fairly quick, based on whole foods, and kid-friendly. (You can find recipes like these and many more on my recipes page — some are from the early days so they don’t necessarily represent how I eat now.)
Dinner is the one time the whole family eats together, and without TV. It’s not always blissful — sometimes the kids refuse to eat or keep wandering away from the table or take freaking forever to finish, and sometimes my wife or I am stressed from a hard day. But I do think it’s really important to have this uninterrupted time together, so we make a habit of eating together every day.
7:30pm — A glass of red wine or beer.
Almost always just one glass, and when it’s beer, I try to keep it low ABV.
Yep, this is my indulgence. Although we as a culture are fond of sharing articles that say alcohol is good for us, I don’t believe it. I think alcohol is the most unhealthy part of my diet, but it’s a small indulgence. Most days I choose red wine because I think it’s the healthiest option.
I don’t usually eat any dessert, but if for some reason I’m craving something sweet at the end of the night, I’ll have a bowl of cereal with almond milk or some fruit.
The Key to Lasting Change
So there you have it! If you’re new to a plant-based diet, or just trying to make yours even healthier, then I hope this is helpful. Coming up on six years as a vegan, my diet is still evolving, and trust me, it looks drastically different from how it did when I started.
You might also enjoy a post I wrote called 10 Foods Worth Eating Every Single Day, which I wrote about a few other small, specific things that I try to include each day within these meals. As I’ve learned more about nutrition, my thoughts about which foods are the most important have changed somewhat, but that post still provides a good place to start.
The key for me has been extremely slow, gradual change. Rather than trying to suddenly cut out a bunch of bad foods and add a bunch of healthy ones all at once — which so often results in failure — make just one tiny change at a time (assuming your health situation isn’t dire, of course), and you’ll be surprised at how quickly these tiny changes stack on top of each other to move you toward whatever “perfect” is for you.