Upgrade Your Core Menu – Healthy Eating Without Restrictions

What's on your menu?

Most diets work through restrictions. Additional self-enforced rules of eating to stay healthy. Don’t eat sweets. Don’t eat fried food. Don’t eat carbs. But the truth is, most diets don’t work.

Instead of trying to diet mainly through restricting yourself, try changing your eating habits by adding new foods. By adding new, healthy foods you can push out the junk without relying as much on willpower to do it.

This may sound good, but how does it actually work?

Your Menu Isn’t as Big as You Think…

I’m here to argue from my completely unscientific view through both personal experience and observation that most of what people eat comes from the same menu of about two dozen items. Unless you are a gourmet chef constantly experimenting, I’d argue that 90% of your food can be summed up roughly by the same 10-20 meals.

I’ve found an effective strategy for improving your diet is to simply replace items on this rather small menu of common meals. If your top fifteen meals are healthy then the other hundreds of meals you typically consume are only going to amount to about 20% of your diet.

This is the 80/20 rule in action, where 20% of your meals account for 80% of the food you consume. By improving the quality of these 20% you can have a disproportionate influence on your health. Dietary restrictions are indiscriminate and often focus on the 80% long tail as opposed to your core menu.

Step One: Find New Recipes

In order to move a healthy item into your core menu, you need more than just willpower – you should actually like the food you are adding. When I made the switch to a vegetarian diet, I had to switch most of my core menu. I experimented with dozens of different recipes. Some were awful but some were great and stick with me today.

Find some healthy recipes and try them out. As you get better at cooking them they can work there way up to your core menu list without excessive discipline. I like more basic meals than the ideas proposed by most cookbooks, so I find recipes and simplify them heavily.

Step Two: Persist With a New Item

It can take a few tries to master the cooking of a new meal. It also takes a few times to acquire the taste of a new type of food. Unless the meal was completely horrible, give it a second or third chance and you usually can modify it to fit your likings. It took me almost a dozen times before I found a way to cook tofu that was edible, but I’m sure you could get a healthy meal tasting great in just a few tries.

Step Three: Create a Recipe List

Get a list of healthy recipes you can make. If your goal is to replace a healthy meal in your core menu, you will need a few reminders. Willpower can help make it a part of your diet, but I think engineering your diet to actually taste good is the best strategy. Having a recipe list will remind you of healthy meals you may like but may not immediately come to mind when thinking of what to eat.

Healthy Doesn’t Have to Mean Tasteless

If your solution to a problem requires long-term willpower, you probably aren’t being creative enough. Instead of forcing yourself to eat healthy because you should, why not try to engineer your core menu so you eat healthy because you want to?

  • Leo

    Great post, Scott! I love this idea. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  • Scott Young

    No problem Leo. Glad you liked the post!

  • KS

    Thanks for the article. You have a great site.

    Do you mind sharing what are some of the new foods you have added to your menu? Are you a vegan or vegetarian? I became vegan the last year after being vegetarian for my whole life and it has really expanded my food palette as well.

  • Laine

    Great post! Would you mind sharing your tofu recipe? I too am struggling to find a way to make it taste edible.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the comments guys.

    KS – I suppose I’m a practical vegan. I don’t eat meat, eggs or milk, although I’m not completely strict about it, I still eat things like jello and the occasional mayo based sauce.

    Laine – Tofu? I only buy Extra Firm. I freeze it and thaw it again before doing anything. After I cut the brick into quarters and squeeze out the tofu brine which creates most the flavor. Then I make a marinade pour it into a ziploc bag and place the tofu there to marinade for a few days until I fry or saute it.

    A good marinade I like to make is a honey ginger sauce. Just mix soy sauce, honey and ginger together in a small bowl. Heat it to help dissolve the honey and add some sesame seeds. Very good.

  • Laine

    Thanks Scott! Ill definitely try it.


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  • The Underwear Body

    I’m a massive fan of the the 80/20 rule and I love how you put this. It works too, I’d just never actually realised that what I had been doing was substituting in the foods that would serve my goals better (we always tend to focus on what we WON’T do).

    I think this is a great approach as it takes your mind off what you are missing.