How not to meal plan
What no one tells you about losing weight is how much repetition and admin is involved.
I do enough of that at work, so I'm resistant to doing too much at home. So I hack it instead.
How much thought did you give to breakfast this morning? Probably not a great deal. We know it's supposed to be the “most important meal of the day” but we're all so busy, aren't we? We eat the same cereal until the packet is empty or grab the same sandwich from the same cafe.
A friend of mine briefly ran a Tumblr documenting his breakfast routine, posting a photo every day. Every day two slices of Marmite on granary toast, a glass of vitamin drink and a cup of coffee. For months. It was a good joke, because that's the reality for most of us. There are better things to be thinking about first thing in the morning.
When I look at manufactured diets – the diets in books and clubs – there's always a bewildering amount of variety though. One morning you're supposed to kick off your day with some wild blueberry porridge you prepared yourself the night before, the next a smoked kipper with a cup of spinach, the next an egg white omelette, garnished with birdseed. Who has the time? Never mind the storage space in the average kitchen. If I was really going to flip my lid about it I'd say this just goes to show that the dieting industry makes losing weight a privilege. All those expensive, exotic grains, all that endless, vacuous variety. Try finding red quinoa in the corner shop on your council estate.
My broad approach, at least where breakfast and lunch are concerned, is reasonable repetition.
I am currently rotating through the same handful of breakfasts that I know clock in around 300 calories. Overnight muesli is one (I throw a sliced banana, chopped apricots and flaked almonds into a bowl of oats, cover with soy milk and pop it in the fridge until morning). Another one is (thinly spread) peanut butter on wholemeal toast. The ingredients are dried or keep well in the cupboard. I don't faff with fish or punnets of fresh fruit. The latter because they go off, the former because I don't eat it anyway...
Again, lunch is chosen from a narrow range of options. The benefit is that I don't need to calculate how many calories are in the lentil hotpot I ate last week (and the week before) or the curry I'll eat three days in a row. Leftovers figure large. It's easy to make an extra portion of something at dinner for lunch the next day.
I did learn one great trick from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (not in person, off the telly) and have adapted it to quickly make non-boring lunches I can take to work.
I have a sturdy lunchbox and in that I put:
- 1 part carbohydrate (cooked pasta, rice, new potatoes with the skins on or a hunk of good bread)
- 2 parts protein (cooked chickpeas, bean salad and/or boiled egg)
- 3 parts raw veg (grated carrot, sweetcorn, chopped tomatoes, red pepper)
- As much lettuce and leaves as I like
- A sprinkle of chopped leafy herbs (parsley, coriander, basil or mint)
- A simple dressing (a few chili flakes and a squeeze of lime, a tablespoon of soy sauce with grated ginger – or an off the shelf diet dressing)
- Some crunchy bits to sprinkle on (a few croutons or bacon-flavour sprinkles, fried onions, crisp celery or dry-fried pumpkin seeds)
You can spend half an hour adding up all the calories there but it will probably come out at between 300 and 350. The dressing and herbs enable you to change up the flavours. As for the carbs, they could easily be leftovers from dinner (which grates on me every time I type it because I'm from Huddersfield, where “dinner” is “tea”).
So, what about tea? That's the tricky one. Of course, it's best to have a proper plan. A seven-day dinner plan, costed, with ingredients in the fridge and cupboards. I've gone one better than that. In my Google Drive is a spreadsheet with 28 days worth of dinner in it.
To be honest, we rarely stick to it.
One thing I do know that is dangerous for dieting, and that's getting home a couple of hours before bedtime and having bare cupboards. So, we make sure we always have brown rice and pasta to minimise the temptation to go for chips. Tins of beans, lentils and chickpeas, because no one has time to pre-soak pulses. Tomatoes, onions, garlic, a basic range of spices and, at the very least, some dried herbs. Pick up some fresh veg on the way home, it doesn't really matter what. From those ingredients, I can make a range of things – from chilli, to vegetarian bolognese to dhal. So, if I don't have a plan I won't be too tempted to call for pizza.
I do have a few other hacks that I'll talk about in future updates. Quite a lot, to be honest. Next time, though, I'll say a few things about exercise – because losing weight isn't all about what you stop doing.