An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
We tend to think of minimalism when it comes to the amount of stuff we own, for example decluttering or creating a minimalist capsule wardrobe. But it’s easy to forget one of the primary ways in which we mindlessly consume: the food we put inside our bodies every single day.
For me, minimalism is a more all-encompassing lifestyle choice. Minimalism goes hand in hand with mindfulness and veganism, because it means critically examining your daily habits to ensure they’re in line with your core values.
So what does minimalist eating mean when it comes to your dietary choices?
There are so many diets out there (Atkins, Keto, Paleo, 5:2, to name just a few) that even amongst nutritionists, the consensus is mixed when it comes to dietary recommendations. Faced with aisle upon aisle of branded pre-packaged foods claiming to be sugar-free and zero-calorie, it’s clear that we need a minimalist approach more than ever when it comes to demystifying and understanding our food choices.
Even with the best of intentions trying to eat more healthily, there are only 24 hours in a day. I remember when I started making more of an effort with my diet, most meal plans I tried included an elaborate new breakfast, lunch and dinner each day of the week. This food prep took huge amounts of time out of my day, with endless lists of ingredients I’d spend a small fortune on (… to never use again!).
Unsurprisingly, this mostly resulted in food waste and disillusionment. Sound familiar?
A minimalist approach to meal planning means working smarter, not harder.
Know Your Why
Unless you’re a passionate cook, the reality outside of a perfect social media world is that there are always going to be days when you’re too busy or simply don’t feel like it! Whilst the effort towards self-improvement is commendable, it just isn’t sustainable. I know from my own experience that this leads to burnout and reverting to poor eating habits, like fast food and expensive takeaways.
Minimalism isn’t about deprivation or doing the least amount of work possible; it’s about knowing what’s important and focusing on this above all else.
Every mouthful you consume is contributing to your long-term health; potentially switching on genes that make you more susceptible to the development of disease. As discussed in my post about plant-based diets, recent research by the WHO explains the clear link between a poor diet and chronic diseases.
Before I really thought about this, I just had a vague notion that I should eat healthily, which felt like a rule imposed from outside of myself. However, as soon as I identified health as one of my core values, my outlook completely changed. I want to live a long and healthy life, and feel good in my own body so that I can experience things fully. As a vegan, I also want to live in a way which doesn’t impose unnecessary suffering on other sentient beings.
Because of this, I’m willing to take time each week to set myself up for success. I also want to do this in a way which doesn’t require a lot of time slaving in the kitchen, but keeps me accountable towards my health goals.
So what does this look like in terms of the food you’re putting on your plate, and how can you do it so that you’ll stick with it long-term?
Dr Greger’s Daily Dozen Checklist
Ever since I read How Not to Die by Dr Michael McGregor, I’ve been using his simple daily dozen checklist as the basis for my weekly grocery list and daily meal planning (you can download the app for free!). A healthy minimalist diet centres around food groups like fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
This isn’t a prescriptive diet with strict rules. I like it because it gives you a framework to ensure you’re getting the right daily nutrients for optimum gut health and protection against disease. But it also offers you the flexibility within these broad parameters to be creative and mix things up.
It takes a bit of education at first. For example, I’d never even heard of ‘cruciferous’ vegetables before (e.g. rocket, kale, broccoli or cauliflower). These super-veg are not only rich in vitamins and fibre, but lower inflammation and have actually been proven to have cancer-fighting properties.
Ground flaxseed was something I’d also never considered incorporating into my diet, but if one tablespoon stirred into my porridge every day gives me essential Omega-3 fatty acids, a considerable dose of protein, and reduces my risk of numerous major diseases, then I can’t argue with that! For a list of superfoods to incorporate into your diet today, see my article here.
What Should a Minimalist Plate Look Like?
Alongside the daily dozen, I also try to follow the below general rules as a very loose guide when constructing my plate:
The Plate Method
Where possible, a good rule of thumb is to ensure that half your plate is filled with fruits, veggies and leafy greens. A quarter of your plate should be protein-based, for example tofu or beans. The last quarter of your plate should be a whole-grain carbohydrate like rice, pasta or quinoa.
Try to base your plate around whole foods where possible, i.e. natural, non-processed and non-refined ingredients. If something comes in a packet, get into the habit of looking past the top-line marketing claims, and have a scan of the list of ingredients. If there are more than ten ingredients, with things you’ve never even heard of or don’t know how to pronounce, then put it back!
Cook from Scratch
As convenient as they are, try not to buy ready-made sauces or meals. Compared to what you can make yourself, they are full of unnatural preservatives, sugar and salt. Not only is it cheaper, but you have the peace of mind of knowing exactly what you’re putting into your body!
Eat the Rainbow
And no, I don’t mean Skittles! Try to eat a variety of different coloured plants, e.g. red tomatoes, yellow pepper, green cucumber, purple beetroot, etc. Not only does it look attractive on your plate, but recent research suggests that eating up to 30 different plants a week significantly improves the health of your gut microbiome.
Once you know what your plate should look like, one of the best things you can do is create a bank of your favourite quick and easy recipes that you enjoy preparing and eating, and which are suitable for batch cooking. Try to ensure that your staple meals have prep and cook time under 30 minutes, with no more than 5-10 fresh ingredients outside of your pantry essentials.
You can then do your meal prep twice a week (once at the beginning and once in the middle), hitting all your dietary needs without the stress or guilt associated with your usual weekly food habits.
The Benefits of Minimalist Meal Prep
What if I told you that I only spend one to two hours on meal prep each week (breakfast, lunch and dinner for seven days included), then all my meals are simply grab-and-go?
Creating your own minimalist meal plan means:
- More time for the important things – by setting aside time to meal prep a couple of times a week, you free up time in your daily routine to do the things which really matter, for example building a creativity habit.
- Health benefits – you can rest assured that you’re getting your recommended daily intake of vitamins, minerals and nutrients, by consuming food you’ve prepared from scratch yourself!
- Better weight management – a minimalist plant-based diet is great for weight control and maintaining a healthy BMI, because these foods are generally low-calorie and high in fibre. Your body knows more intuitively when it is full, so you don’t over-eat or constantly snack.
- Less decision fatigue – in much the same way as feeling overwhelmed when trying to decide what to wear each day, creating a minimalist meal plan means fewer decisions and therefore less stress. You then have more brain power for the important stuff.
- Reduce food waste – by being intentional with a clear plan for your weekly shopping list, you can minimise food waste and live more sustainably. Getting to the end of the week with an empty fridge feels so satisfying when you’ve stuck to your minimalist meal planning!
- More streamlined kitchen – ditch the fancy gadgets! After you’ve covered the basics (like big pans for one-pot meals), more equipment just means more washing up! Keep it straightforward with simple meals, ingredients and processes.
- Cheaper – because you’re buying whole foods and fresh produce, as well as buying what you actually need per week, you should see a reduction in your weekly shopping bill!
The Challenges of Minimalist Meal Prep
I can confidently say that the benefits of minimalist meal prep far outway the challenges, but as with any behaviour change, it can be useful to be aware of potential difficulties before you start. This helps you to stay on track in the long-term.
- Requires better organisation – if you’re used to making decisions about food at the last minute, you’re going to have to learn to be more proactive with your organisational skills! From planning your weekly shop to meal prepping, there is more time required up-front.
- Dedicated time to meal prep – You will need to put time aside to complete your meal prep, and portion it out for the rest of the week. Your future self will thank you for this, but it might feel like a lot of work at first!
- Can be monotonous – when you’re eating a minimalist meal plan, you need to get used to the fact that you’ll be eating the same meals for 3-4 days in a row. This can be difficult if you really fancy a specific type of food. I would argue that this is something you get used to, and as long as it’s tasty, you’re probably not going to mind too much!
- Cravings in the moment – when you’re addicted to sugary processed foods, it can be hard to stick to a healthy meal plan which is based around plant-based whole foods. You need to give your tastebuds time to adjust, so stick with it and it’ll get easier.
- Difficulty when away from home – of course, this is a strategy which works well when you’re at home and are in control of your food shop and cooking. When you’re away it can be more difficult, so just do what you can when forced to deviate from your routines.
Your ‘Capsule’ Kitchen Essentials
There are long-life whole-food essentials which you should always have on hand. It may help to think of your pantry essentials like the basics of a capsule wardrobe, which you then add seasonal interest to with statement pieces (in other words, your weekly fresh food!).
So before you focus on your weekly shop, make sure you have a fully stocked pantry. You can use these ingredients in all sorts of different ways as the basis for your minimalist weekly meal plans. Like a capsule wardrobe, these ingredients will prove to be incredibly versatile, and greater than the sum of their parts.
- Tinned legumes – e.g. chickpeas, lentils, black beans, cannellini beans, kidney beans
- Whole grains – e.g. rice, pasta, quinoa, bulgar wheat, breakfast oats
- Nuts & seeds – e.g. cashews, chia seeds, ground flaxseed, pistachios
- Dried fruits – e.g. apricots, cranberries, currants
- Sweeteners – e.g. maple syrup or coconut sugar
- Herbs & spices – e.g. basil, cumin, chili powder, coriander, mint, paprika, turmeric, salt, pepper
- Oils & vinegars – e.g. olive oil, coconut oil, sesame oil, white wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar
- Spreads & condiments – e.g. tahini, peanut butter, mustard, sriracha
- Tinned items – e.g. chopped tomatoes, coconut milk, curry paste, olives, sundried tomatoes
- Frozen goods – e.g. berries, peas, mixed vegetables
- Other – e.g. nutritional yeast, vegetable stock cubes, tomato puree, flour, cornstarch
Whilst this may be an initial investment to build up your long-life pantry essentials, it will help you when it comes to your weekly shop, which will mostly consist of fresh but simple ingredients. Change up your protein source of choice or whole grain, and use herbs and spices to create new and interesting flavour combinations.
Example of a Weekly Minimalist Meal Plan
This is an example of what a week of minimalist meal planning looks like for me. I promise that whilst these are some of my favourite meals, they are all super easy recipes with simple steps, that don’t require a guest appearance on Masterchef to pull off! I am all about maximum taste and enjoyment with the most time-efficient prep possible. One-pot meals are always my go-tos!
I should also clarify that the prep and cook times on these meals are completely realistic (there is nothing worse than recipes which state 5 minutes prep time, and 30 minutes later, you still haven’t even turned on the cooker!). Following this meal plan with adequate hydration and exercise, you hit 23/24 of your daily dozen every single day. Whilst I have built this meal prep around cooking for one, you can flex up your servings as required.
Monday – Thursday
Note: I prep all Monday – Thursday meals on Sunday evening, with recipes set to 4 servings. I split everything up into containers so that I have equal portion sizes, making it as easy as possible for myself in the coming days!
Breakfast: Overnight oats with blueberries, lemon, flaxseed & chia seeds (prep time: 5 minutes, chill time: 2 hours)
Lunch: Vegan Greek pasta salad with a handful of rocket (cook time including prep: 15 minutes)
Snack: Carrot sticks & hummus
Dinner: Creamy chickpea & spinach curry (prep time: 5 minutes, cook time: 30 minutes)
Friday – Sunday (+1 extra portion!)
Note: I prep all Thursday – Sunday meals on Wednesday evening, with recipes set to 4 servings. I tend to freeze the remaining portion of lunch and dinner leftovers, so that I start to build up a store of healthy meals for when I need them!
Breakfast: Overnight oats with blueberries, lemon, flaxseed & chia seeds (prep time: 5 minutes, chill time: 2 hours)
Lunch: Harissa spiced beans with a handful of rocket (prep time: 6 minutes, cook time: 9 minutes)
Snack: Carrot sticks & hummus
Dinner: One-pot creamy mushroom pasta (prep time: 10 minutes, cook time 20 minutes)
Your Shopping List for this Minimalist Meal Plan
To get started on this weekly meal plan, I’ve included your grocery list for you (assuming you have your pantry staples all set!).
I’ve worked out that this would cost me just shy of £20 when shopping at Morrisons (but if you can, opt for a local farmer’s market). This works out at a daily average of £2.69, or 90p per meal. Bear in mind that this list isn’t taking into account your pantry essentials, so the overall price per meal will be slightly higher. You will also need to top up your pantry with anything you’re running low on weekly, so your shop may be a bit more expensive than this.
But I think that this is a great place to start, and hopefully this helps you to see for yourself the knock-on cost-effectiveness of minimalist meal prep!
- Avocados 2 pack
- Cherry tomatoes
- Button mushrooms
- Carrot batons
- Fresh basil
- Fresh coriander
- Fresh chilli
- Pitta bread
- Vegan feta
You must also ensure on a vegan diet that you are at least supplementing with vitamin B12, as you won’t get this essential nutrient from plant-based sources. I personally choose a vegan multivitamin to ensure I cover all potential deficiencies in a vegan diet (you can read more about these here), and have researched the best vegan multivitamins available in the UK, so check out my recommendations for full peace of mind when it comes to looking after your health.
Have You Considered a Handy Plant-Based Meal Delivery Service?
If this is all sounding a bit too much like hard work and you’re really not sure where you’re going to find the time, then my best advice would be to consider a vegan meal delivery service. From recipe kits with all your exact pre-portioned ingredients to convenient ready meals that just need popping in the microwave, there are some amazing options out there!
The great thing about the meal delivery services I recommend in this article is that they are all super healthy and designed by nutritionists, so you can rest easy in the knowledge that you’re looking after your body in the best possible way. This takes the time and guesswork out of doing your own recipe-hunting and meal planning. Which, let’s face it… isn’t for everyone!
These companies also put sustainability and minimising food waste at the top of their priority list, so you can be sure that you’re doing your bit for the planet too.
This new way of food shopping means:
- Less food waste
- Nutritionally balanced meals
- More convenience
- Creativity with new and exciting cuisines
So whilst you’re transitioning to a minimalist meal plan and gaining confidence in the kitchen, why not check out some of these options? They may just take some stress out of your already hectic schedule!
What About Intermittent Fasting?
Another common question regarding minimalist meal planning is whether you should consider intermittent fasting.
I won’t go into detail about intermittent fasting (that’s a whole other post entirely!), but recent studies have started to prove the link between intermittent fasting and potential health benefits, including the suppression of cancer and even the extension of your lifespan. Intermittent fasting essentially gives your gut a break, which allows it to rest and restore.
On a whole food plant-based diet, you really don’t have to worry about weight loss (getting to a healthy BMI will pretty much take care of itself!), so the benefits here would mostly be health-related, as well as giving you more time back in your mornings.
Personally, I don’t actually get that hungry in the mornings and may often go for a week of intermittent fasting, eating between the hours of 1pm and 9pm. During these periods, I skip breakfast altogether. As long as you’re still getting your regular meals and aren’t starving yourself, then there is nothing wrong with giving your body a break and learning to discipline yourself in this way.
If you’re not sure, I’d suggest giving it a try and seeing if it works for you in your daily routine!
A Final Note
I hope that this guide to minimalist meal planning and prep gives you some inspiration for your next weekly food shop, and is a stepping stone towards a more minimalist lifestyle! On top of the cost savings, another knock-on effect is that I have actually started to enjoy getting more creative in the kitchen, and now even look forward to my meal prep days. Not only is it doing me good in terms of my health, but it’s satisfying to see my meals come together for the week, knowing the level of self-love that has gone into them.
Before undergoing any radical changes to your diet, speak to a qualified health professional first if you’re unsure or have underlying health conditions. Whilst eating the same foods for a few days in a row is fine, make sure that you mix up your weekly meal plans to ensure your body is receiving a variety of different foods!
For more fuel to stay accountable to your whole-food plant-based meal plan, why not watch some inspirational vegan documentaries? And if you enjoyed this post, have suggestions of your own, or want to see more weekly minimalist meal plans in future posts, then do let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!