How I feed myself and the family

I meal prep with a database

Some people eat to live. Some live to eat. I am in the latter bucket.

My priority is to access high quality, nutritious and varied food for myself and my family.

The problem

The sheer amount of mental energy and admin that is takes to execute this never-ending goal is soul crushing.

It especially bothers me when I don't have a lunch solution, since the takeout options around my work are dismal or I generally am struggling with time.

The dilemma is pretty straightforward:

  • No time or energy to manage it myself optimally
  • Too costly to have it outsourced
  • Too unhealthy and costly to rely on US restaurant options

Believe me I've tried

I have underwent trial and error over the years.  

Have done all of the following in a haphazard, circular fashion:

  1. Commercial meal prep kits
  2. Delivered premade meals
  3. Takeout at subpar (in terms of quality and cost) options
  4. Half premade meals or items from grocery store plus cooking
  5. Ad hoc cooking with inspiration from online sites
  6. Tried to bring lunch ingredients to work to no-heat assemble
  7. Prepared entire week's meals on weekend day
  8. Alternated cooking responsibilities with my husband
  9. Paid someone in my community to meal prep and make meals
There were too many negatives and tradeoffs for every solution I looked for

Same went for groceries:

  1. Sourced different foods from different stores because of variability in quality
  2. (e.g. produce at Trader Joe's is better in terms of quality to price ratio than most other stores)
  3. Consolidated all food shopping from one store and took a hit on quality and availability
  4. Doubled down on Costco
  5. Dropped Costco altogether after too much wastage and low quality
  6. Utilized all online shopping options including Amazon Fresh, Whole Foods, and Walmart

Ultimately something would be working for a little bit. But then it wasn't repeatable or sufficiently automatic once life got more chaotic. There was a lot of waste generated in any commercial solution, which hurt my minimalist soul. Or worse yet, the food just made me feel bad or tasted bad.

"Sustainability can't be like some sort of moral sacrifice or political dilemma or philanthropical cause. It has to be a design challenge." - Bjarke Ingels

I was always looking for startups interested in simplifying meal management. I dreamed about food that I actually like and was healthy on autopilot.

In other words, I needed the sustenance part of life to be relatively automatized, affordable, varied, and healthy.

Meal Planning Old School

I would love to have a personal chef, who does everything from conception to execution. But until that becomes more affordable, my pseudo-solution involves recommitting myself to meal planning and prep through a better system and process.

I personally used Notion to organize a digital process, but you could use anything (Excel or Google Sheets). I definitely don't want to knock any paper products as I enjoy planning both with digital and analog tools. But in order for me to have the maximum amount of efficiency I needed a database-like system.

Systems and processes are a lot of work. While the work is significant at the front end, the idea is that it will make the process of meal planning and preparation easier and pseudo-enjoyable. From a health and self-care perspective, the work was completely justifiable to me.

Step 1: Use limits with a diet

Before thinking of actual meals, it is more useful to think about the kind of diet you will restrict yourself to. This might be based off of your preferences or even physical limitations (e.g. certain foods upset your stomach). According to the American Heart Association, the best diet is one that is balanced and varied.  

Pick a diet you'd want to restrict yourself to

Even though a balanced diet is recommended, there are several reasons that you may choose a another kind of diet. The key is to commit to something healthy-ish with some kind of limit. Even in a balanced diet, you could limit yourself to little or no red meat or a no soda policy. This limit forces you to make less choices, which ultimately sets you up for less mental fatigue and more success.

Step 2: Limit calories

After you have a general sense of the type of diet you'd want to restrict yourself to, make peace with a caloric limit for the day that you can live with. This will be different for everyone and is heavily tied in with your estimated physical activity. In general, according to the National Institute for Health, women need about 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day. As far as the needs of your family, children would need less and men would typically need more.

I personally like Mayo Clinic's total daily calorie estimator which is especially useful when you want to target a certain weight. It is height and age adjusted.

Step 3: Copy a food calorie database

After you have a sense of the diet you want and the total calories, next is to have a strong idea of how many calories in each food item. You don't need to really know, but your planning databases should.

The easiest thing for me has been to download raw data from the U.S. government's home for open data on calories by food as well google around the calories of more unique items.

Downloaded sample of calories for thousands of foods

Step 4: Create a caloric and cost database

This is where I have always given up.

In order to meet my minimalist tendencies, I was going to have to get a handle on how much money we were spending on food and then manage my discretionary spend accordingly.

I paired each food item I regularly buy with its calories (for the typical serving size my family uses) and the estimated cost based off of Amazon Fresh data.

Step 5: Create a meal database

This is basically what meal preppers would call the "recipe" section.

Most recipes online will give you the ingredients with calories, but they typically don't give you the associated price.

Now that you already did the hard part, you can understand the meal in terms of calories and cost.

Tile cards that can be created from a database

Step 6: Decide on a rotation schedule

In order for this to be fairly automatic you will need to give up the flexibility of having a varied daily experience. Instead,  I have settled for a varied weekly experience.

The further you plan out, the more satisfaction you will have in terms of a rotation schedule.

Rotating the meals every few weeks builds the badly needed automatic component

Step 7: Order everything online

I prefer Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods because of easy repeatability.

Once you do the chore of ordering the groceries for the week or half the week, you can simply press the button to repeat all of the order based on your rotation schedule.

It is easy to reorder with Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods

Step 8: Split the work of meal designing and rotation with your partner

Get your partner to do some if not half of this work. You also shouldn’t have to do all this yourself unless some other chore that is being exclusively divided up.

Modern Meal Prep

If you have read up until this point, but are not convinced your own custom meal planning and prep is critical, then you likely will do well with an application.

There are many meal prep and planning applications out there. The difficulty with apps is that they tend to optimize for one feature as a trade-off for another. I found myself in a similar dilemma to when I was experimenting with multiple meal prep strategies and shopping at multiple grocery stores.

But if you want to go the meal prep application route...

I personally love both Yummly and Paprika.

Yummly is my all around favorite for variety and kid-friendliness.  Paprika is a good standard and has flexibility to put in your own meals, which Yummly doesn't have.

I think the best solution is one that is blended. I meal prep and cook, but I also outsource when I know the upcoming week may be rough or when I need a break. And of course when it comes to cooking, it doesn't hurt to have some hip-pocket skills.

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