I was disheartened at first by the limited menu when Derek and I started dieting for our recent contest because I like to experiment when I cook and hated the thought of being restricted in my ingredient choices. Ultimately, though, I found that limiting the main ingredients actually inspired me to be more creative...sort of like writing a haiku: the structure is always the same but the infinite possible combinations of words available to you give you all the creative freedom you need to tell an interesting story! Just as using a standard structure frees you from the drudgery of building one when writing, having a basic meal plan makes grocery shopping less of a chore - you already know how much of each of your few staple items to put in your cart and can spend the rest of your time and energy on the more enjoyable task of picking the fresh produce, herbs, and spices that catch your eye that week! Another unexpected boon was never having to agonize over that eternal question "What's for dinner tonight?"
The greatest benefits of embracing a simple, repetitive menu, however, are that routine helps build good habits and that it's easier to stick to an existing plan than to consistently make healthy choices on the fly. For example, if every day for lunch at work you bring bean soup and a salad and you already have it waiting for you in the fridge at lunchtime, you're less likely to be tempted when your coworkers decide to order in Chinese. The key to outwitting temptation is to have made the healthiest choice the easiest one and to make it automatic through habit. That's why bodybuilders are known, and mercilessly teased, for their boring meals and obsessive advance meal prep!
The good news is that, on a whole food plant-based diet, eating a simple, clean diet doesn't have to be boring. When you're not accustomed to the bland fare of the standard American diet you can draw on all the variation available to you in the form of herbs and fresh produce to augment your meal mainstays! For example, here are some variations on the basic theme of broccoli, tofu, and brown rice that formed the base of our menus for many weeks pre-contest:
- Stir-fried broccoli, tofu, and edamame with Thai seasoning and fresh Thai basil served over brown rice topped with toasted unsweetened shredded coconut and a dash of Korean hot sauce
- Finely chopped broccoli, black beans, and diced tofu sautÃ©ed with diced peppers and onions and seasoned with Adobo or chili powder. Serve with a side of Spanish style brown rice simmered with diced tomatoes, green olives, and vegetable broth and top with salsa, chopped cilantro, avocado chunks, and Sriracha.
- Broccoli florets, chunks of roasted eggplant, zucchini, tofu, and cannellini beans stewed with diced tomatoes, brown rice, capers, tarragon, and red pepper flakes. Sort of a ratatouille!
- Shredded cabbage, tofu, fava beans and brown rice topped with sauerkraut and horseradish mustard with steamed broccoli on the side. Kind of a weird-sounding combo but it satisfies a craving for veggie dogs with all the fixings!
Chances are you're not in a situation that requires a steady diet of, for example, four main ingredients but keeping it simple is an interesting challenge to consider. After all - it's how most of the world eats! I hope the above examples illustrate just how varied and healthy a simple diet can be and inspire you to create some menus of your own!