Staying on top of your diet is a lot like going to the gym. Once you’ve developed the habit, it’s easy — fun, even — to keep it up. You’re in control, you feel great, and you wonder why it ever took so long to start.
But when you’re on the outside looking in, knowing you’ve got to make a change but not sure where the extra time and energy are going to come from, just getting started can seem like the most overwhelming task in the world.
All it takes is planning
I’ve been in ruts before where I was going to the grocery store every single day. An hour before dinner time, I’d choose a recipe and go buy the ingredients, then come home and make dinner, only to do it all again the next day. I got to know the checkout people pretty well, but they must have wondered who this idiot was buying groceries every day.
Other times — and I’m sure you’ve done it too — I’ve refused to go to the store at all, eating out for almost every meal, and wasting tons of money and eating junk in the process.
But it doesn’t take much to get started, and it’s not worth going through life that way. Make a little effort to plan your meals for just one week, and you’ll save time and feel better right away. It’ll probably still take some discipline to do it a second and third time, but before long it’ll be a habit, and you’ll wish you could go back in time and slap some sense into your old self.
Below are my favorite tricks for making meal planning (and cooking) as simple and as a fast as possible. If you’re in a rut, any one of them could be the one that gets you back on track.
1. Aim for making just four or five recipes each week, and plan them all at once.
Why four or five? Your number may be different, but I find that’s my limit before the task of looking up recipes and making a list of ingredients to buy becomes a pain in the ass. Also, any more than that and food starts to go bad before you can use it up. This amount won’t cover you for the weekend, but by the time Friday rolls around you’ll probably enjoy a break from cooking, or be able to throw something together from the pantry.
2. Use a slow cooker.
No tool has saved my wife and me so much time in the kitchen as this one. With a slow cooker (or Crock-Pot), you need only to prep the ingredients in the morning or the night before, throw them in the pot before you leave for the day, and come home to a hot meal and a house that smells so good your grandmother would be proud. Not to mention that the cleanup required is next to none.
You can find plenty of slow cooker recipes online, but two books we’ve been cooking a lot from are The Vegan Slow Cooker and The Indian Slow Cooker. (Note: the Indian one isn’t all vegetarian, but has only a handful of meat recipes in it.)
3. Forget numbers entirely and focus on eating whole foods.
There’s no shortage of fad diet books or nutritional philosophies claiming to be the next food revolution, especially around this time of year. And most of them make the simple act of eating food a whole lot more complicated than it should be.
If you look at any diet that has stood the test of time because it works — and when I say diet here, I mean “way of eating for life,” not a quick fix — it’s based on whole foods. You can argue all you want about the proper nutrient mix, and Paleo versus vegan and vegan versus raw fruitarian, but when it comes down to it, the most important aspect of any of these is that they’re based on whole foods.
So eat whole foods and little else, and you almost can’t help but to be healthy.
4. When you’re having trouble choosing a recipe, pick just one ingredient to narrow the options.
Okay, let’s say you’ve set aside half an hour to choose recipes for the week. You pull out your cookbooks, you sit down at the Google-machine, whatever. Ready, go!
If you’ve done this before, then you know the problem here is that you have too many choices. You don’t know where to start, or it seems like you already made anything that looked remotely good when you scanned through the book after you got it.
The way to get past this is to limit your options. How?
By starting with a particular ingredient in mind. Is there a vegetable in the refrigerator that you didn’t manage to use last week? Then turn the index of your cookbook and look just for recipes that use that vegetable. You’ll likely notice a bunch of recipes you skipped right past before, just because they didn’t jump out at you for whatever reason. Even better than cookbooks, search engines now make this ridiculously easy by allowing you to search for recipes that include (or do not include) certain ingredients.
So even if you don’t have an ingredient you need to use up, think of one that sounds good right now, and use that as your starting point for choosing meals.
5. Make a big batch of rice (or another food you eat often) to last you the entire week.
This is one of the big advantages to planning several meals at once. If you know you can serve several of them with the same side dish, you can make a lot at once and save yourself some serious time.
I cook a lot of Indian food, so rice is a big one for me, but this works just as well with other grains and pseudograins like millet, quinoa, and bulgur. And you can do it with vegetables too, though they generally don’t keep quite as well in the fridge. But the freezer is always an option!
6. Skip certain herbs and spices or make substitutions when it’ll save you a grocery trip or time in the store.
I used to be quite the perfectionist in the kitchen. Probably it was because I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I did not want to mess with a recipe, for fear of screwing it up. If it called for fresh marjoram and all I had was dry oregano, then I went on a mission to get fresh marjoram, dammit.
But you know what? It really doesn’t matter. Chefs who create recipes are artists, and if your goal is to experience the highest expression of the chef’s creativity, then yes, you should follow the recipe exactly. But for you, the guy or girl who just wants to start eating well and to do it as simply as possible, then it’s not going to matter much whether you use fancy sherry vinegar or substitute the apple cider vinegar you’ve had in the cupboard for the past two years.
Don’t be afraid to take a lot of substitutions and omissions. Plain old Tabasco can stand in for sriracha or chili oil. If you don’t have cilantro, try basil or parsley if you’ve got either one. Or just Google “substitution for ____” and go with it.
Sure, maybe something will taste weird now and then. But in the long run you can save a lot of money and effort this way, and almost nobody’s going to notice.
7. Find a few healthy staple meals that you know you can cook quickly and without many ingredients.
It’s extremely helpful to have one or two quick standbys, especially if they’re based on dry ingredients, so that you can have them on hand for those days when you don’t have time to get to the store or simply don’t want to think about meal-planning.
My favorite, bar none, is this Indian red lentil curry dish. I make sure to always have dry lentils and rice handy, and other than that you just need a few spices and one minute (really) to get it into the pot.
Another easy one along the same lines is a grain, a green, and a bean. You almost always have some combination of these three foods (you can even skip the green if you don’t have it), and they’re always good for make a healthy and filling meal.
It’s not rocket science
You’ve got something you’re really disciplined about, right? Walking the dogs, running, reading for your job, making sales calls, whatever. To other people it seems hard, but for you it’s a habit, and you hardly have to think about it.
Cooking your own food and planning your meals is exactly the same way. All it takes is the discipline to start and stick with it a few times. Soon it’ll be second nature, and food will be one less thing that you need to get under control.
All you’ve got to do is start. Why not today?