This piece was originally published on VICE Italy
I’ve never been a moderation guy. Measuring, economising, rationing – these concepts don’t sit well with me. And this lack of discipline is particularly evident when it comes to the food I eat.
It’s not unusual for me to cook a whole packet of spaghetti for dinner, drink three cappuccinos at breakfast or wipe out an entire packet of biscuits in one afternoon. So much so that, one autumn, I managed to gain over 20 kilos.
But it wasn’t just the act of eating itself that I couldn’t control, it was the food shopping too. I always bought way more than I’d ever actually consume. On many a shameful occasion, I’d find myself clearing out rotten and uneaten food from the fridge while loading up Deliveroo on my phone. The situation was bad for my brain, my body and my bank balance.
I tried diets, and they worked. But once the diets were over, all those impulse buys crept back in. I needed to set my own boundaries. Given that my personal autopilot function allowed me to happily buy a crate of coke and two kilograms of cheese, I wanted to disable it.
So I decided to try a strict regimen of “meal planning”, to see if it could save both my cash and my conscience. For 30 days, I planned five meals a day (breakfast, lunch, dinner and two snacks) using spreadsheets and graphs. Here’s what I discovered.
Comfort out, diversity in
First, I opened my calendar and started writing in recipes. To make the experiment accessible to people of all budgets, I decided to ditch takeaways and restaurants. By measuring out what I actually needed when it came to fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs and fish – rather than buying in bulk – I quickly cut down on my shopping.
When I was cooking for comfort, I’d easily eat meat two to four times a week. But when it came to meal planning, I only pencilled in meat five times over the whole month. This wasn’t a conscious decision; there were just so many other things I wanted to eat, which I never think about when I’m doing a last minute food shop. Stuff like beans, potatoes, ricotta, tempeh, mushrooms, pumpkin, tortellini and cabbage. When you plan your meals, you stop cooking the same old crap every single night.
Better meals for less money
Generally speaking, meal planning saved me a lot of money. I found myself buying only a couple of courgettes or tomatoes, instead of whole bags. This meant going to the greengrocers or butchers instead of the supermarket, while still getting decent prices. A 200g piece of fresh tuna is around €5 from my local fishmonger – the same as two or three tins of poor quality tuna at the supermarket.
This also allowed me to scrap lots of the cheats I usually ate between meals. No more crisps, Cokes or slices of pizza that I’d greedily buy on the walk home, or whole trays of cured meats abandoned halfway and left looking sad and forgotten in the fridge. Instead, I snacked on fruit, nuts or avocado toast.
My initial financial goal was to save around €100 on my usual monthly shopping budget of €300. In the end, despite buying better quality food, I spent around €150 in total, cutting my budget in half. Despite all the planning, I think I even saved some time. By going to the supermarket without a plan, I used to just wander around aimlessly, hypnotised by large fancy breads. Following my new method, I was in and out.
The ups and downs of eating on a schedule
By the end of the first week, I started to feel some of the downsides. Many people, myself included, are emotional eaters and find not being able to binge based on their feelings a bit restrictive. Take, for example, one particular evening when I was planning on roasting a pumpkin, but all I really wanted was a takeaway pizza. You never know how you’re going to feel on a certain night, and resisting was not easy.
There were tons of occasions when jars and bottles of stuff I’d bought ended up redundant because of how little I needed. For example, buying a jar of tartar sauce is pointless if the meal plan tells me I’m only going to use it for one flatbread. Single use luxuries like that were ruthlessly cut from my regime. And I love tartar sauce.
On the other hand, planning also allows you to better manage prep times, so I found myself cooking more time-intensive, tasty and nutritious meals than I’d ever normally make, like tortellini in homemade broth, stuffed peppers and baked chicken thighs with potatoes.
My girlfriend knew it was a temporary experiment, but it was easy to imagine how settling on and then following a strict meal plan would become complicated with two or more people involved. The same goes for dinner with friends: it's hard to pass up an impromptu night out with your pals just because, one month prior, you planned to roast an aubergine.
But as the experiment went on, the physical and mental benefits were clear. I had much less sugar (thanks to the lack of treats in the cupboard), ordered less junk food and felt less guilty about waste.
The experience might sound trivial, but it made me reflect a lot on my eating habits, and take back some control. I’m going to keep planning my meals, but perhaps with a slightly less aggressive regime. For anyone else with similar issues: give it a go, even if you have to give up the tartar sauce.
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