Today, I celebrate eating the same three meals, every day, for roughly the length of a year. Some precise part of my brain wishes I knew the exact date I began. That's a telling preview of what awaits us further down in this bizarre story.
Listen, a grieving mind and body does some stuff that might appear strange upon first glance. It's a matter of self-preservation. It's a need to keep my whole meat-stack from collapsing into a lopsided, catatonic blob on the floor for the world to step over, around, or through. Just, street-mush. I needed to be in control of something when it seemed the heat-death of the universe was the only certainty in not only my life, but in all existence.
Then again, most people aren't the closing act on a list of eulogizers at age 32. Anecdotal research tells us only 0.2% of people dying these days die in their 30s. Think on that, as I recall the experience exacto-carving some stuff across my pinkest parts with a tenacity usually reserved for a teenager defacing a bathroom stall at a hardcore club. But, hey, that's a story for another time, and today's lesson is about my continued need for food to live. Otherwise I would die, and then where would we be?
Now that we have a morsel of context, maybe I should explain.
Where to begin when building meals
My decision to prepare and eat the same breakfast, the same lunch, and the same dinner every day for a year begins, I imagine, the way a lot of dietary decisions begin: following a vacation. I'd just returned from traveling and realized I'd been eating more. Fact was, moving around on buses and trains, not wholly sure when I'd be stopping next for a full meal, motivated both my metabolism and my mindfulness. I was about one year into living with death at this point and one month removed from a strained conversation with my older sister regarding the chemical reaction in my stomach if I don't reliably eat my meals on a predictable basis.
"I get dizzy and I want to throw up and die."
"So eat some chips."
"Chips aren't food."
Following my vacation, I decided I required two things to fully take control of my eating habits:
- I had to eat predictably
- I had to eat more
Barrier to this decision: a prolonged bout of antibiotic treatment in my early 20s exacerbated some major GI issues. Compounded by stress in undergraduate, polyps formed at the base of my esophagus, making not only digestion difficult, but simply swallowing, too. Eating, literally, is difficult for me. I might simply sit at a dinner table, unable to eat, waiting for any bite of food to pass through my throat into my stomach. It's not choking, but it does make every meal physically and socially uncomfortable, and it doesn't exactly motivate one to eat a lot. It also left me sitting in front of a lot of plates of cold food while I lie to those around me about why I've been staring straight ahead, wordless, for thirty minutes, hoping this fist of food get where it ought to go. That leads to many half-eaten meals, and in my mind, many insulted cooks. Once more, these experiences are not conducive to a balanced diet or a love affair with any kind of food.
While this condition lingers, updating my diet has helped a great deal. It helps with acid reflux. It helps with just general lethargy and energy crashes.
I knew if I was going to get my body in better working order, I needed to figure out how to get more stuff into my stomach.
Conclusion: I needed more frequent, smaller portions. Eating lots of small dishes while traveling on vacation had a positive effect. I decided to adopt this into my regular meals.
First breakfast easy:
- Milk (lactose free)
- Peanut butter (organic, smooth, unsalted)
- Cinnamon (one shake)
- Microwave for 60 seconds
~*~* Intermission Start *~*~
(Two-something years ago, the week before things, well, my life took its darkest imaginable turn, the dog appeared. We won't go into why the dog appeared. I live with and care for a dog. We can leave it at that. The dog is happy and healthy. She helps me get out of bed. After we each eat our first course of breakfast (she has an odd eating disorder, too!), we go for a walk. This is the order of operations every morning, including weekdays and weekends. It's part of the More Frequent, Smaller Portions Rule. Returning from the walk, I make a smoothie infused with ice and espresso.)
~*~* Intermission Over *~*~
Second breakfast is also easy:
Banana, peanut butter, oatmeal, milk, ice, espresso smoothie. Espresso machines are kinda great. The cheap ones are cheap. You can get one for $40 online, so if you're curious, just save your money for two weeks and you can buy one. I don't need some $4000, tri-masted stainless steel Spanish galleon of an espresso machine that you'd find in the engineering wing at a tech company. Seriously, I tell people I drink espresso at home, and they aren't entirely sure how to respond. There's a presumption in America that espresso is just coffee hard liquor-equivalent you pour into a 32 ounce Dunkin Iced cup, but it's not, espresso is its own thing, you can just stand and drink it at a coffee bar, and take a load off for two seconds, maybe with a side glass of sparkling water, instead of schlepping around way, way, way too much over-roasted Starbucks. Listen, we're going to talk about caffeine intake here, so this remains relevant. For a while, in the springtime of 2018, during a time when I was struggling with shock, trauma, and even the chance to form memories, I'd leave work to walk around the Boston financial district, and the Boston Chinatown, and the Boston seaport, and I'd enter random coffee shops and ask for their espresso. The servers would look at me funny, like they were upset I just wanted a thing that cost $1.99 off a menu of elaborate foam-topped sugar bombs. The best coffee shop in downtown Boston is still Grace Note Cafe, a tiny stand-up location in the leather district directly above the basement offices of the startup where I worked. They served different espresso blends on a daily rotation. I stood at their weirdly discordant counter and drank it with a glass of seltzer. It was springtime, and it was freezing, and the shop was small, so when the door kept opening for new customers, I'd catch a blast of cold, wet, pavement air on my cheek. Then I'd keep drinking the espresso.
Order an espresso at a Dunkin and they give it to you in a paper cup with a plastic lid.
This was how I slowly reintroduced caffeine into my diet. The stress and trauma killed my appetite, so I filled my stomach with coffee. The acidity shredded my already fragile stomach lining. I was dizzy and nauseous for months. I had endless headaches. I'd sit in the bathroom at work and attempt to keep from throwing up. I removed coffee from my life altogether. In time, I shrugged off all caffeine dependency. With a fresh perspective after about a month, I cautiously reintroduced coffee in the form of an espresso shot in a thick smoothie. I never drink coffee on an empty stomach and I drink as little as possible when I do.
Lunch is the same as dinner. It's usually a little lighter and is offset by snacks. We'll discuss dinner in a moment, so when you wonder what lunch is, know that it's basically dinner, but earlier. As for snacks, there's kinda only one rule: no processed sugar.
This means no candy, or cookies, or energy bars, or corn syrup, etc. It means checking nutrition packages and not eating a lot of things. It also means eating a lot of nuts and fruit. I know almonds are a water-intensive crop, but then again, there's no ethical consumption under capitalism, and I'll fight the battles I can.
This isn't a righteous crusade against sugar, it's an understanding. Dude, I love sugar. I love ice cream and I love dark chocolate (which, if it's high-percentage cocoa, has basically no sugar). But sugar is easy for a body to process. When your body wants energy, it'll go for the available sugar before breaking down whatever else you've eaten. Then you're running on sugar, and the body will let the rest sit idle, like a stone in your guts. I find the feeling painful. Doing my best to avoid sugar means the metabolism works harder. Nothing, uh, stays in me for very long. My body's getting better at being itself.
However, that isn't to say this is the ultimate solution for everyone. All bodies process nutrition differently, and perhaps require more or less of one thing or another to achieve stability. Please, and I cannot stress this enough, don't let anyone tell you what's best for your body. I discovered my solution through experimentation, which was quite a luxury, if we're being honest. I had the time, and the leeway, and the desperation to not want to feel constant pain whenever I ate. It was what I needed in that moment. Will I do this forever and ever? No. Probably not. Life changes and so do people.
And sometimes, your body needs an endorphin kick.
In reality, most of the saltier snacks you find in an office are fine. They're mostly just fat and sodium, and the rest of my meals contain so little fat, it's probably good to get some in there. Higher sodium levels can be filtered through drinking water. I try to drink a gallon of water a day, which is very difficult. That's 128 ounces, which is exactly four helpings from the 32 ounce water bottle I keep at my desk. I usually can't do it every day, but I try. Most research says you should aim for about 64 ounces of water per day for full hydration, which is eight glasses of eight ounces. Your body will adapt to this amount of water intake. At first, you will need to use the restroom every 20 minutes, but it'll normalize over time.
8 servings of 8 ounces = 64 ounces = Hydration
Outside of the espresso in the morning, I don't drink coffee until just after lunch, when I drink 10 ounces with almond milk, and no sugar. This goes along with only drinking coffee when you have something in your stomach. Enacting this rule also forced me to fight caffeine headaches by drinking lots and lots of water. It turns out water is very good for energy in the morning. I've done it both ways. The water route is cleaner and clearer.
So, just drink water. Drink a ton of water. Never stop drinking water. Your body wants it. It uses it for everything, it processes it quickly, and it helps you process everything else you put into your body quickly and properly.
I divide dinner up into three dishes:Vegetable
- Frozen broccoli
- Black beans
I eat them in that order. I eat them one at a time in individual dishes. I eat a predictable portion every time.
I eat frozen broccoli, washed in water, then lightly peppered, and microwaved for 70 seconds. I take it out, wash it again, and microwave it again for 70 additional seconds. Covered, this essentially steams the broccoli. It's almost instant, it provides all the greens you need, and it tastes better than a salad. I'm gonna say it: salads are weird. Most leafy greens, especially lettuce, are just water. There's no nutrition in there. I sometimes eat spinach with a tiny sprinkle of salt and lemon juice. Bigger salads though? That's just dressing and sugar on top of what's basically water, and maybe half a diced tomato. I don't have a vegetable garden and I can't get the freshest, bestest stuff, so my solution is in steamed broccoli. It goes with anything!
Starch / fiber
Here's the, uh, potatoes (?) of the meal. Starch is your carbohydrate. I eat long grain brown rice. I mix in lentils and black beans. I buy it all in bulk and then season it just before eating with salt and a tiny splash of buffalo wing sauce. Why buffalo wing sauce? Because it has no sugar. Barbecue sauces and dressings are mostly sugar, so I avoid them. Failing that, I'll cook up a mixture of cumin or other spices, hit this mixture of rice, lentils, and black beans with some water, and then microwave it for 90 seconds. It tastes like the inside of a burrito, except you don't get gobs of misplaced sour cream stuck in your cheek.
I've also incorporated polenta into this mixture. It's nice to cook up a cup of polenta with garlic, half an onion, and milk, and throw that in a rice cooker. You can blend that in with the starch course. Polenta is good! It's cheap! The Roman army ran on the stuff! It's a great vehicle for flavor and spice.
If it's not already clear, get a rice cooker. It's even more important than a coffee grinder and a blender (and a microwave (but if I have to tell you to get a microwave, I'll have to tell you to get an oven, too (and then we're really pulling on the metaphorical loose thread of the universe's favorite old sweater))).
Chicken, and eggs, and fish. If you're vegetarian / pescatarian, then it's gonna be eggs and fish. If you're worried about cholesterol or the potential acidity that can come with eggs, it's gonna be mostly fish. Which is fine!
I bake the chicken. I dredge it in whatever spice I have the most of and bake it. It's not glamorous. You can still experiment and make it taste like whatever you want. That's the thing with cooking: it's mostly just oil and salt, balanced with heat and spice. You can make stuff taste like stuff. Want to make your food taste like Taco bell? Coat it in cumin. That's all Taco Bell is. It's cumin.
So like adding polenta to your starch, you can tinker with the spices on your protein. For fish, I get individually wrapped cod filets, frozen. This, again, isn't ideal, but I don't live in Maine, and I can't get stuff that was caught today, alright. And if it's not ultra-fresh, then you might as well get it frozen (or “frozen on board,” if you can find that, it's the next best thing to fresh), and just accept it will never be optimal. Like the chicken, I dredge it in a little bit of oil, paprika, panko, and Old Bay spice. Get weird with it. Try out other oils and spice combos. Then I wrap the fish in foil and bake it. It's not as salty and fatty as frying it, and it's easier to clean up.
There's often an opportunity to mix all these courses together. Like, you know, a, *ahem* traditional meal. The fish goes great with the starch course. It's like a deconstructed fish taco bowl!
If you're having eggs, you can throw everything in one big bowl. Three hard boiled eggs, a full cup of steamed broccoli (or more), and an overflowing portion of rice, black beans, and lentils, is a ton of food. Spice and season it depending on your mood and it turns into something special.
Oh yeah. I hard boil the eggs. They are just eggs. The only secret is I throw them in ice water after boiling to make them easier to peel. When cracking the shells, I knock them on the top, and on the bottom, and then gently squeeze them, and go from there. It's weird how you can get good at peeling eggs.
Don't Be A Freak
Along with “no sugar,” this is my other main rule. I don't let this run or ruin my life. If I'm out with friends and it's 10PM and we want pizza, dude, I'm eating that pizza in front of me. If in my life, I come across The World's Greatest Bespoke Donut, I'm not gonna not eat that donut. But I don't otherwise stray. I don't order out. I don't keep Oreos around the house. I eat dark chocolate. I drink coffee and water. I rarely drink beer and wine. I usually go for liquor, just because. Maybe it will ruin my liver someday? I dunno. I think one has to drink a pretty heroic amount of booze to ruin an otherwise healthy organ.
While it sounds a little Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson'ish of me to suggest stuff like "cheat days," if you incorporate these into your life, you end up enjoying it a lot more. So go eat a stack of banana walnut pancakes every once in a while. Chow down on your weekends, dude.
For instance, every two weeks, I go to the same Whole Foods. I buy their most hearty dark chocolate chip muffin and a tall sugar free mango tea. I sit for a few minutes and go hogbonkers on the whole thing. Then I go to therapy. Therapy is hard enough, I don't need to do it on an empty stomach.
When adopting this eating consistency, I also introduced a recurring workout regimen. The first goal was to do 100 push-ups. It took a while. I tracked the progress day by day. Like the eating, I didn't take "days off," so to speak. It was just part of what I needed to maintain focus on the present and not let my mind really YouTube rabbit-hole itself into some dark personal shit.
Once I could do 100 push-ups, I started adding other stuff. The length of the workout expanded. I started dividing it up into a shorter one in the morning:
- 15-20 minutes in the morning for simpler stuff / stretching (two circuits)
- 30-60 minutes in the evening for bigger stuff (four circuits)
I break up the exercise circuits with smaller chores, cleaning, and meal prep, so I don't feel like I'm just sitting around. I also ride a bike to and from work each day, which totals about 5-7 miles. It's not a lot, but it's a good cardio baseline. Coupled with walking the dog multiple times a day and living on the fourth floor with no elevator, I try to give myself a break on that element.
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I also go rock climbing. It's like yoga, but with more gravity, and the skin peels off your fingers. It's also incredibly trendy, but, listen, I started rock climbing in 2005, alright? I'm not saying I became cool in that moment because I spent time at a climbing wall, but I am saying I understood the difference between achieving physical health and being seen achieving physical health. Nowadays, after about five months of my routine climbing 5-6 days a week, I can do pull-ups with one arm, but there are still people so much stronger than me. I do 300 push-ups a day. I'm certain I could do more. I don't know how many sit-ups I can do. At this point, I've stopped looking like Leon S. Kennedy from Resident Evil 4 and started looking more like Link from Breath of the Wild. I don't look like Chris Hemsworth in the third Thor movie, closer to Chris Evans in the first Captain America movie. I thankfully don't look like the over-bloated beef-boys in a Zack Snyder movie and more like pre-set character model in Dark Souls. Look, I've seen some dark shit, and my body rebounded from Gollum-level emaciation, which means I'll freely compliment myself when I say, yeah, I have better arms than Cloud in the Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Gimme that buster sword. I'm anime-pretty.
But this is all to achieve a baseline of existence. Lots of people have bodies and diets that can just kinda… go. Or if you're a big-millions famous Instagram personality, or a movie actor, you have a team of people to engineer your look for you. They look good because that's just them going to work, and, surprise, lots of them are good at their jobs. For me, I found I required a ritualistic, almost meditative focus to settle myself into a routine and not hate my body's response to existence itself. I wish living was simpler. I sometimes hate how it seems others get off easy. But I can't drink that poison. My pain won't hurt them. Even if it did, that'd be a fucked way for me to live. I sit in possession of my life and my agency within. The only verdict is making a choice and trying to understand how it relates to the eventual outcome—the consequence. And then you test stuff and hopefully are free to make another choice, and you might find that to be a positive choice. And if that means I eat seemingly-abnormal meals, every day of the week, for the foreseeable future, then, hey, I get to devote that brain-space to something else, and I get to feel healthier, at least for a small way, for a little while.