Why You Should Embrace a Diet of Less Variety

When I came home from the hospital back in early March, I was looking for ways to make life simpler and easier.  I needed to rest and recover, and while my husband was able to take several days off work to be with me, I didn't want him to spend all his time and effort cleaning, cooking, and otherwise maintaining our home.  And once he went back to work, I still didn't have the stamina to do all my normal tasks.  So things like personal grooming, laundry, and food needed to be streamlined as much as possible. 

After all, those maintenance jobs become much tougher when you're feeling tired and weak.  Yet when we don't manage the tasks, home can become cluttered and dirty very quickly, which is not just inconvenient, but depressing.

One area we wanted to simplify was the kitchen.  It was easier to eat the same things for every breakfast and lunch, with the only variation coming at dinnertime.  It not only shortened the grocery list, but it also made meal preparations a snap.  We chose our favorite simple foods, such as scrambled eggs, oatmeal with milk and fresh fruit, toasted whole wheat English muffins topped with a slice of sharp cheddar cheese, and various packaged organic soups.  We used fewer cooking tools and eating gear, which made kitchen cleanup quick and easy too.

butternut squash soup

Enjoying a basic framework

After two or three weeks of this menu, we both noticed something – we were totally fine sticking with the same simple foods for every breakfast and lunch.  Sure, sometimes we had chopped apples rather than sliced bananas on our oatmeal, or we'd eat a tangelo on its own.  Sometimes we added sautéed mushrooms to our scrambled eggs.  We might substitute nut butter for cheese on our English muffins.  Or we'd eat tomato soup or lentil vegetable soup instead of chicken vegetable.  But the basic framework never varied, and that was good.

  • There was little to no debate about what to eat.
  • We saved both time and money at the grocery store.
  • We didn't waste food.
  • There was no guilt about an imagined "need" to vary our diet.
  • Since we were eating healthy foods, we never doubted our diet was healthy, even without much variety.

If you love to cook, and it delights you to try new recipes all the time, you won't be happy with less variety.  I'm certainly not going to tell you to change.  You'll be making room in your budget and time in your day to enjoy culinary adventures, and that's great.  Minimalism is all about removing what doesn't matter so you can make space for what does – and that's going to vary from person to person.

But if grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning up are not your favorite activities, or if you're in a situation where you need to use your time, energy, and money for something other than worrying about what to eat, I say you should stop chasing novelty and embrace this simple way to meet your need for healthy meals.

Our diet is less varied than we think.

If we think about it, many of us will realize that we already eat the same foods most of the time.  And when we eat out or order in, we tend to choose the same restaurants.  We eat the same things over and over, but we try to deny it.

Do we think it makes us sound boring or unsophisticated?  Of course, it's a problem if we consistently choose unhealthy foods, such as daily pizza or bacon cheeseburgers.  But that doesn't mean it's necessary to design a menu a TV chef would be proud of, with something artistic and original at every meal.

Most people vastly overestimate the variety of their meals.

Tim Ferris

I find it interesting that in the areas of the world where people live the longest, they don't have much variety in their food.  The food they do eat features a lot of seasonal fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, with a little meat or seafood, and little (or no) dairy.

Our desire for constant variety is a modern, affluent privilege.  100 years ago, most people ate the same foods week in, week out, and were happy to get them.  And eating seasonally (also an "old-fashioned" idea that ended sometime in my teen years) is better than shipping plums and peaches from South America in February.  If you eat fruits and vegetables in season, you'll have plenty of built-in variety throughout the year.

The 80/20 principle

Most people greatly overestimate the number of possessions they need for a comfortable life.  That's why we all have so much to declutter!  If this is true for our clothing, books, hobby supplies, kitchen gear, and any number of other examples, might it also be true for food?

The Pareto principle is at work here.  Roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.  This could mean:

  • We wear 20% of our clothes 80% of the time.
  • We watch 20% of our available channels 80% of the time.
  • We use 20% of our kitchen gadgets 80% of the time.
  • And maybe... we eat 20% (or less) of possible food choices 80% of the time.

The Pareto principle is an observation, not a law of nature, but like many generalizations, there's at least a grain of truth.  Just think about what you've eaten for breakfast over the past couple of weeks.  I'm willing to bet you've eaten the same two or three meals.  Maybe you've done that for lunch too.

Perhaps it's time to accept it.

fresh green beans

6 reasons to say yes to a simple meal routine

Minimalist author Joshua Becker has shared his philosophy about meal repetition:

Don't believe society's pressure that you need to be dreaming up something new for every meal.  Find your family's favorite meals and serve them often.  You'll lower your monthly food costs, waste, and time spent in preparation.

1.  Save money.

When you start preparing favorite meals in rotation, you'll automatically have less waste.  No more buying food that never gets eaten.  You can also confidently take advantage of sales, buying in bulk food you know you will use.

2.  Save time.

No more hunting for new ideas and recipes if you'd rather not.  Time spent in the grocery store is streamlined and straightforward.  You'll also get more and more efficient at preparing the meals you make regularly.

3.  Reduce waste.

Americans discard 120 billion pounds of food every year.  That comes to 325 pounds of waste per person, and almost all of it ends up in landfills.

4.  Make fewer, better choices.

Decision fatigue is real, and the more choices you have to make throughout the day, the harder it becomes to make good ones, including about what to eat.

5.  Improve health.

It's important to get adequate protein, and to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, but a well-planned meal routine can improve nutrition, control calorie intake, and support good health.

6.  Lose weight.

Eating the same healthy foods every day lets you create a routine that's easy to stick to, which is important if you want to lose weight.  "Consistency is a good thing when we're trying to make and keep new habits," says registered dietician Brigitte Zeitlin.  "If you're trying to eat healthier, that can be really helpful because you know exactly what you're going to have."

So how do I do it?

1.  Determine you or your family's favorite meals.

Try to identify meals that everyone enjoys – or at least that no one actively dislikes.  Start with a couple of breakfast choices, two or three lunch options, and five or six dinner alternatives.

2.  Write out a weekly schedule that can be repeated.

Consider your commitments.  Does someone have soccer practice every Monday and Wednesday?  Do you go to choir rehearsal on Thursdays?  Factor in preparation time as well as time to sit and eat.

3.  Write out a weekly grocery list that can be repeated.

List everything you might need to buy to prepare the meals you've planned, with a checkbox next to each.  Make several copies, and simply check off what you need for any given week.  For example, you probably won't purchase spices or rice every week, but they should be on the list.

4.  Plan for health.

Whatever you're eating, be sure to include several seasonal fruits and vegetables each day.  There's no need to overcomplicate things – basics like apples, oranges or berries (depending on the season), bananas, carrots, celery, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and leafy greens are always good.  Frozen or canned (without added sweeteners) are healthy too.

5.  You don't have to sacrifice all variety.

If it's better for your schedule, Cheerios, milk, and fruit can work for each weekday breakfast, and school lunches can alternate a couple of options.  Then you can take time on the weekend for omelets or pancakes.  Every Tuesday can be taco night, and you can do a stir fry every Saturday, but the ingredients can vary seasonally or with what's on sale.  You can opt for more variety when you dine out or order in, or you can make Monday "new recipe night" instead.  Establish as much routine as you like or need.

A simple kitchen

One of the great things about minimalism is that when we remove the clutter from our lives, we're left with the best, the most useful, our favorites.  That can be true in our diets as well, if we embrace the fact that we enjoy less variety than we think.

Make every day simpler and easier, and look forward to eating your favorite foods often.

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  1. My husband's mother worked full time. She had menus she repeated every week. For instance, if it was Monday, everyone knew it would be creamed hard boiled eggs over Chinese noodles with lime jello and pineapple. That was one of the first of her meals I learned to make for my husband when we married. The kids didn't eat a lot of snacks but they could always have graham crackers if they needed something. Keeping it simple and inexpensive was necessary for her to keep working so they could pay for their kids to go to college.
    Linda Sand

  2. I look forward to reading your blog daily. I love the idea of soup for lunch. Would you mind sharing what brand you like?
    Thank you, Tina


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