Food Friday: Designing a Menu Template

Like most people these days, I have a busy schedule. Consequently, I try to make my life habits as efficient as possible in order to save time where I can.  One of my favorite approaches is having a Menu Template.  By using a template to design my meals, I ensure I have a healthy, varied menu, an appropriate number of calories distributed throughout the day, and I have fewer decisions to agonize over.

So what’s a template? Unlike a Capsule Menu (which I’ll cover at a later date) a template is a general outline of the meal(s) offering guidelines but not specifics. In other words, it doesn’t prescribe an exact meal or recipe but rather lets you select from within certain boundaries.  Here’s an example of my template menu:

  • Daily Breakfast: a hot grain along with a serving of fruit (usually berries but sometimes a sliced apple or a pureed peach) and either a scoop of quality whey protein powder or half a cup of full-fat Greek yogurt. As you can see, the template is the same every day; I simply add variety by changing up the grain and the fruit, and sometimes adding spices like cinnamon or ginger. Breakfast is usually about 350 calories.
  • Midmorning snack: if it’s an active day I might have an apple with some almond butter or a few celery sticks with hummus. Basically something that has a good mix of fat and protein, along with some fiber. Usually under 150 calories.
  • Daily Lunch: Lunch is usually legume-based but twice a week I have eggs instead.  It always has at least two or three servings of vegetables just for the bulk.  It might be a vegetable frittata, a bean stew, or a salad with legumes or hard boiled eggs.  It really depends on what vegetables I happen to have in the fridge and want to use up. Lunch runs about 350 calories.
  • Afternoon Tea: By mid-afternoon I’m starting to slump a little, so the Mister and I have started the tradition of Tea Time which consists of a small pot of Earl Grey tea and some sort of sweet(ish) bread or cookie*.  I usually make these up on the weekend and pop them into the fridge or cookie jar to have available for the week, so we tend to have the same snack at tea every day for a week. If I don’t have anything made up, we’ll have nuts and olives, or a slice of fresh baguette with mashed avocado or sardines. Figure about 150 calories for tea time.

Dinner: Dinner runs about 500 calories and is generally a protein with a few side vegetables and some kind of whole grain, e.g. fish with broccoli and red pepper puree with a side of quinoa or chicken breast with mushrooms and wild rice and a basil tomato soup starter.  Alternatively, I may make a slow cooker stew for days when I’m going to be out later in the afternoon.  The big key with dinner is my template for the protein source:  I want to limit high calorie proteins like cheese and red meat, so I’ve “templetized” dinner like so:

  • Sunday: Chicken
  • Monday: Legume
  • Tuesday: Fish
  • Wednesday: Chicken
  • Thursday: Legume
  • Friday: Red meat
  • Saturday: Fish

Each week when I put together my menu plan, I don’t need to come up with a full menu from scratch. I only have to worry about coming up with “a couple of chicken dishes” and “a couple of legume dishes” and so on (I’ve developed a repertoire of my favorites that fit my diet and lifestyle — more on that when I talk about Capsule Menus).

Dessert: Dessert is frequently just a decaf espresso or cup of tea, but again, if it’s been an active day or I’ve skipped my mid-morning snack, I’ll have a dessert of about 150 calories.  This can vary dramatically depending on what I’m in the mood for, but I have a go-to list that will satisfy me depending on my cravings:

  • Ounce of quality cheese and a piece of fruit
  • Banana “Nice” cream
  • Greek yogurt with spoon of honey or some fresh fruit
  • Half an ounce of very dark chocolate (85% cacao)

As you can see, while I’m not wedded to any particular eating plan, I’d say my habits tend toward the Mediterranean diet. Lots of fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes, fish, poultry and limited red meat and full-fat dairy.  Some general principals I follow:

  • I use MyFitnessPal combined with Fitbit to keep an eye on calories. I’m not obsessive about it, but it helps me make conscientious choices. If I’m borderline on my calories for the day, I ask myself I’m really hungry before I eat something.  If so, I eat it anyway. Often though I’m just bored.
  • I try to keep some basic shelf-stable staples like canned tuna and chicken, dried legumes and grains on hand to ensure I can always throw together some sort of meal, even if it’s not terribly exciting.
  • I eat full fat dairy and butter, but no more one serving of either in a day
  • I use olive oil exclusively over any other oils when cooking, but try to limit the amount due to the high number of calories in fats
  • I make sure to get in at least 5 servings of produce a day
  • I try to avoid processed foods in general: the closer to its original state, the better. For example: fresh apple > unsweetened apple sauce > dried apples > apple juice > apple pie.
  • Because I don’t work out on Tuesday or Saturday mornings, I get a glass of wine with dinner the night before. Hooray for Monday and Friday wine nights!

* A note on sugar:

I tend to avoid sugar as much as possible simply because I have such an addictive sweet tooth that one bite of birthday cake will send me on a bender, leaving me on Skid Row sucking Slurpy and begging passers-by for “just a couple M&M’s, man….”

However, I find if my sweets are only semi-sweet by ordinary standards, I’m less likely to binge while still satisfying the craving.  Thus the single teaspoon (not a tablespoon) of honey in my plain yogurt, or the dark dark chocolate for dessert or the homemade cookies (which tend to use dates, bananas or applesauce as sweetening rather than actual sugar or honey).

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