I got an interesting email from a friend currently going through an arduous graduate program. Almost as an afterthought, he said, I have a question for you: How do you eat? How do you stay healthy, especially when you’re only cooking for just yourself? How do you make time to eat well when you are so busy? It’s a great question, and something I never thought to write about on my blog. It’s a little off topic, but certainly a good question, so I’ll try to answer it. Planning food – and staying healthy – can be kind of a pain, especially when half the time my mind is telling me I’d rather be doing something else. I find keeping my energy up is really important, so I need to make sure I have lots of green stuff and protein in my life – but I don’t like thinking about what to eat or when to eat. I also hate spending ridiculous amounts of money to eat well. So here’s what I’ve learned.
How do you eat? Do you eat well? Do you feel good? Half of the battle in exercise and fitness is eating well. It’s also imperative for start-up entrepreneurs, people new to the working world, and anyone trying to do too many things. Eating well helps you work well. The themes that run through this – and a lot of what I do to stay healthy – are as follows: be efficient, set up systems, pay attention to what works (and repeat accordingly), and spend a little time planning ahead.
- I have to eat within 30 minutes of getting up in the morning. Depending on if I work out or not, I need to eat either a small (150-200 calorie) carb breakfast (before swimming), or a larger (500-800 calorie) protein breakfast (after swimming or a normal day). If I don’t eat in the morning, I’m hosed for the rest of the day.
- I like to take a pack of eggs and hard boil them (and peel them first!) and keep them around as a source of protein. I also buy in bulk Zone bars and Luna bars and keep a box of each in my car. Usually I’ll eat one on my way to the pool or to the track. If I’m not hungry, I don’t eat before working out, as long as the workout is less than an hour. I also really like Odwalla’s superfood (green juice blend) and the Odwalla protein superfood smoothies. (Although you can make your own with Miracle Greens and Orange Juice as well).
- Other favorites for breakfast (I eat strangely in this department): Spinach. (Seriously, try it, and let me know how you feel – I feel amazing after eating spinach). Sometimes I stop in the store and grab a bag of spinach and a pepper and apple and eat them for breakfast. I also enjoy almonds, peanut butter, and cheese (not together – separately). Oh, cottage cheese or oatmeal is also good.
- The goal for me is to eat something that fills me up for a while so I don’t think about eating again so quickly. If I eat plain carbs at 6, I want to eat again at 8, 10, 11, and 12 – and most of my day is spent trying to figure out what to eat next. If I eat almonds, protein (from cottage cheese or oatmeal or eggs), I can usually last until 11 until I’m hungry again.
I could save more money by being better in this area, but I’ve settled for what works in reality: I rarely pack my lunch. I couldn’t name a day in the past several months that I actually got up early enough and made a sandwich and took it to work. It’s just not on my mind late at night before going to bed, and not something I think about at 5 in the morning when I often wake up. It’s also not a habit I’m particularly in need of changing – I don’t like doing it. With the exception of a cooking day on the weekend or one weeknight, I don’t cook that much at night and I’m awful at packing lunches. Here’s what I do instead:
- Buy premade, but healthy. Instead of trying to keep my fridge stocked (it always goes bad because I end up not making my lunch), I go to Trader Joes’ and pick up pre-made salads (delicious!) or pre-made sandwiches – about a week’s worth. The cost per lunch is usually around $3 or $4. The trade off is this: If I forget to buy lunches in advance, then the only lunch options by my work are in the $10 range and up. If I were to make my lunch, which I don’t, so it’s not really even a comparison, I would hypothetically save a bit more. However, the amount that I “would” save making a lunch is disproportionate to the amount that I spend if I forget my lunch on just one day, so the mid-range is actually the most effective long-term option in reality.
- Buy the goods but don’t make it yet. I also like to buy sandwich components – tomatoes, avocados, turkey meats, cheeses – and keep those in the fridge at my work. (If you don’t have a fridge nearby where you work or eat, buy a small one, or find a cooler – it expands the options of fresh food immensely). I also like buying vegetables and pre-cooked beans and grains as well – steamed lentils, beats, green beans, carrots and hummus, celery sticks, and apples are all yummy. I keep a variety of those in the fridge at all times.
Dinners + Meals.
Contrary to much of what this post seems to indicate, I do like cooking. I just don’t like doing it every day – in my mind, there’s no need to. So I like to set aside a few hours to open up cookbooks, try a few recipes, and play music. Sometimes I hop on the phone and call my parents while the food is simmering, or I read a book in the sunshine while something is brewing, baking, or cooking. I love these days. Cooking is much more fun when I get to do it slowly, or do it with friends, and I really enjoy doing it on the weekends (not so much during the week, though). When I do love to cook, here’s what I do:
- Cooking days. Sundays, when I’m home, are often cooking days. I’ll cook 4 or 5 different options for meals, each for 2 or 3 people. Nothing too complicated, but I use all the space on the stove and take a few hours to cook. I might make a chicken bake dish, a loaf of bread, a pasta dish, possibly a big heavy pot of soup, and two or three different vegetable ideas (brussel sprouts with bacon or vegetable stir fry being a current favorite). Inevitably I’ll make brownies and cookies, too. This effort of cooking – several main meals – fills up a whole bunch of tupperwares for dinners during the week and lunches that I take to work with me (correction on above, when I cook, I bring a bag full of 5 lunches with me to work on Monday mornings to last the week).
- Pre-made Food. Okay, Tuesdays and Wednesdays aren’t usually that exciting. I buy pre-made for dinner occasionally. There are a lot of quick meals that are nearly pre-made (frozen pizzas, etc). The two things to watch out for are the Saturated Fat content (read: any dough or breaded anything) and the salt (sodium) content. For example, those Trader Joes’ pizzas are dang good but pack a whopping 900mg of sodium in each of their mini-personal pizzas. This is Not Good For You. My favorite pre-made dinners are frozen burritos, potstickers, sushi, spring rolls, and casear salads.
- Potlucks and Friend Dinners. I love potlucks. While I don’t always enjoy cooking for one person, I LOVE cooking for lots of people. So I invite friends over to cook together – or I head over to someone else’s house for a potluck. Potluck dinners don’t need to be complicated - my friends will show up with a bottle of wine and some cheese - and I’ll throw some marinated chicken and rice on the stove and call it a night.
- Bonus: Places for Inspiration. Some of my friends’ food blogs are GREAT starts for inspiration. Genevieve writes a blog “Tastes and Tales” and Trucy keeps a log of great food around the city: Forrked.
- Eating out. This is inevitable. I do it a lot. I set a little system and try not to do it more than twice a week for both health – and money – reasons. Some great tips for eating out: Share. Don’t get appetizers. Watch or hold the chips and bread. Or – enjoy it and eat reasonably the rest of the week. :)
- Snacks. So Hi, – I eat a lot, by the way – I like to eat a variety of unusual snacks throughout the day. I don’t like having chips or anything bread-based as a snack, because I’ll snack my way through the entire bag in one sitting. I’ve learned this about myself, and so switched the stuff I have available. If I’m going to be “mindlessly eating” (great book, by the way), I’ll fill my space with things that I can munch on indefinitely. Here are some good ones:
- Apples. Carrots. Entire bag of spinach. Celery. Bag of dried plums. Bag of almonds, no salt, just plain roasted. Pistachios (although the salt balance in these can get to be too much – but the shells make it hard for me to eat too many of them). Mozzarella string cheese. As a treat, peanut butter or chocolate. I also keep a box of dried oatmeal that i can warm up in the microwave at any time – especially on cold days – plain oatmeal is yummy.
- CSA or farm delivery. A good way to keep on top of your vegetables and fruits is having a scheduled delivery box from a local CSA. In San Francisco, there are several options.
Who knew I had so much to say about food?
- Eat Plain. I don’t mind eating simple foods. For lunch sometimes, I’ll eat just one thing. Like a big bowl of unsugared, unadultered oatmeal. I suppose people might find this boring, but I like it.
- Build Systems (or Habits). The key to most of these things … is that I really like systems, and I like not thinking about things and just doing them, most of the time. My habits – workouts and eating – are already built, so I don’t consciously think about whether or not I should or shouldn’t be doing something. Instead, I open my food cabinet at work and choose between options I’ve already decided in advance.
- I don’t like being hungry, so I keep food all over the place. In my car, in my exercise bag, in my purse, in my desk drawers. It’s always hidden, and it’s usually “boring” food (I don’t keep candy in there – well – I can’t. If it’s there, I eat it). Celery and peanut butter, almonds, carrots and hummus, or some dried fruit.
- Drink Water. Half the time, being hungry is really being thirsty. I’ve been trained to drink 8 or more glasses of water per day.
Thanks for the question! Hope that helps. Now, off to eat a bunch of almonds and drink some water … Got any tricks, tips or ideas that you want to share? Any ways that I could improve health-wise? I’d love to hear it!