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  • Writer's picturehlhowells

Creative Food-Matrix Meal Planning

Updated: May 30, 2019

In the immediate past blog post, I walked readers through a week of meal preparation as it occurs for my family. This was intended to provide fresh ideas for folks like me – who are insane planners, who may plan weeks in advance just to hang out with their friends, and who have no need for spontaneity .

This week, I plan to step outside of my comfort zone, and offer some meal planning ideas for those of you who prefer to be more spontaneous. I hope some readers will comment here (!), as I need help. As I think I’ve said, I do not have a spontaneous bone in my body . . and perhaps I have no business writing about this!

But I recognize it takes all types to make a world, and I want to offer some practical advice to everyone. Plus, it probably behooves me to admit that I’m sometimes a bit envious of you spontaneous-types. I drop my kids off at the most lovely, in-home day-care on the planet – with a provider we know and have trusted since our older son (now in grade-school) was 3 months old. I totally respect and admire her. She feels that spontaneous is the only way to be! The only way to “keep up with the kiddos”! Sometimes, I am envious of her life. What must it be like to not feel a moral anxiety when the counters aren’t clear and the dishes aren’t done??? But, with my own hang-ups, I’m left thinking: “I think I want that life, but I realize I’d spend 3 hours picking up after the kids were sent home, before I’d feel able to breathe again.”

So, I will do my best to serve those of you who lead the life I wish I could embrace . . . . the life where you just LOOK in the fridge, SEE what parts are available, and START making a meal. (Horrifying! Delightful! Ack! I’m anguished!)
Here goes . . .

The best resource for on-the-fly meal planning I’ve found is contained in Robb Wolf’s book, “Wired to Eat”. In this book, he introduces the idea of the Food Matrix. A shorter version can be found here:

The food matrix is comprised of four lists: one list each of Proteins, Vegetables, Fats, and Herbs & Spices. The idea is that, if each meal is comprised of one Protein, one Veggie source, one source of Fats, and one or more Herbs and Spices, then the variety of what you can consume is staggering.

After filling his own four columns with ingredients found in most grocery stores, Robb Wolf writes: “So that leaves us 27-proteins, 24-veggies, 5-fats and 25-herbs & spices. If we take one item from each column we get 27x24x5x25= 81,000 DIFFERENT meals. Divide that by 365 (1 different meal per day) and you will not see the same meal for 221 YEARS.” His point is that, if we all tried every combination, none of us would live long enough to have the same meal twice.

What does this mean for you??? Here’s how to put it into practice with a family of four, eating primally.

Step 1: Fill out YOUR family’s FOOD MATRIX

First, make your own “Food Matrix” with four columns: Proteins, Vegetables, Fats, and Herbs and Spices. (If this were my house, there would be a FIFTH COLUMN, “Fancy Vinegars”, containing balsamic vinegar, red-wine vinegar, tarragon vinegar, champagne vinegar . . . . I guess I really like vinegar and find these all very useful for cooking for varied tastes! If you ever want to get me a gift, a fancy vinegar in an exotic flavor is a great bet!) You fill in the columns with things your family likes to eat.

My boys LOVE pork. My older son, Theo, has never met a pork product he doesn’t like. Ham, bacon, sausage, pork-loin, pork chops, uncured hot-dogs, you name it. Because of his tastes, we’ll probably buy into a fresh-butchered hog prior to buying into our next grass-fed steer. This means that, just with ONE animal, we can populate the protein column with about 6 or more different protein types to provide a lot of variety! For fat sources, there are: bacon grease, lard, coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, etc. You can go forward, thinking about what vegetables you like; what spices, or combinations of spices, that your family likes! You can draw ideas from Cuban cuisine, Ethiopian cuisine . . . you can choose a library of spices from whatever culture’s food you like the most, and be sure to stock all these spices in your house.

Just like MY family would have a special “vinegar” column, feel free to add a column for your family. Do they need primal Mayo? Condiments of any certain type? Special salsas? Just fill in your food matrix according to your family’s preferences, likes, and dislikes. Hate eggplant? Leave that off. Love cabbage? Put all colors of cabbage in as different vegetable entries!

Step 2: Create your shopping list

Think about your meals of the day. What does your family like to eat?

· Breakfasts: protein only? Veggies too? Dinner options at breakfast vs. eggs only?

· Lunches: do you want these from scratch, or are your family members content, like mine, to have prepped salads and simply scavenge proteins from the night before?

· Dinners: plan each night to make dinner from the matrix, with one or more ingredients from each column.

Then, once you’ve been through this thinking, you can construct your WEEKLY grocery list as follows:

· Proteins: You can probably plan on each adult having one serving of 4-6 oz of protein per meal; kids may have less. Therefore: 1-1.5 lbs of meat per meal will usually feed our family of 4 just fine. So, I’d plan on 7-10 lbs of protein for our family for dinners for the week.

· Veggies: should dominate your plate. If you have excess of these, after any given meal, just take these to work later. Over time, I have come to recognize what constitutes “one meal” of broccoli for our family. Plan to bring home at least 7 nights worth of veggies for each week. Because I love salads, I have a special list of “salad parts” that I replace weekly.

· Fats, herbs & spices – these are things I would treat as “staples” for our family. That means that, instead of adding these to a store list when a recipe or whim calls for them (like proteins or veggies), I simply note when any fat or spice source runs out, and add it to my weekly list for replacement. For example, if cumin runs out, or if coconut oil runs out, I add it to the week’s store list immediately – that way, these items are ALWAYS on-hand, and I can safely assume that if I run out, I’ll replace it long before I need it again.

· Fruit, eggs, nuts, snack items – these should be added to your store list as needed, depending on your family’s habits for breakfast time, school lunches, lunches packed for work, etc.

Step 3: Shopping!

Again, I’m a huge dork, and I HATE to shop. So I would likely continue to organize our family’s list so that my list matches the geographical lay-out of the store – this leads to OPTIMALLY FAST AND EFFICIENT shopping. The veggies and fruits are added first, since I walk through that section first, etc .

But, given the way the Food Matrix works, it’s almost impossible not to organize your list by . . . you guessed it! . . . proteins, vegetables, fats, and herbs & spices. Combining this with your family’s weekly staples (again, my family’s staples include diapers, seltzer water, olives, etc), you’ll likely have a list that’s fairly friendly for getting through the store and getting home again quickly, one market section at a time.

Step 4: Eating all this stuff

HOORAY! You have arrived! Rather than make my own instructions here, I’ll simply re-post Robb Wolf’s instructions

on how to eat from the food matrix, once you have brought your groceries here.

“Most of these meals can be prepared in the following manner:
1. Put some oil in a pan.
2. Brown some meat in that oil for a minute
3. If you are using a hearty herb/spice like ginger, add it before the meat, if it’s delicate like basil, add it when the dish is almost done.
4. Add veggies.
5. Stir it a time or two, cover and set a timer for 5-10 min.
6. If it’s done, eat! If not, set a timer again.”

(Again, since I’m a “fancy vinegar” fan, I’d add a step 5.5: throw in a dash of fancy vinegar of your choice and use this in conjunction with fat to steam for 1-2 minutes, prior to serving and eating!)

This works great for dinners. You have to decide, for your own family, how to best streamline this. Do you make larger dinners and plan to take leftovers for lunch? Do you skip breakfast in the interest of intermittent fasting, or combine a bunch of eggs with left-over, pre-grilled veggies? The sky is the limit. I always advocate planning for dinners, and having breakfasts and lunches be served from leftovers, or otherwise scavenged.

Alright, that is all for the Food Matrix Meal Planning blog! For those of you who are spontaneous, food-matrix types . . .

· How do you do all of this? What am I missing? What’s helpful, and what is off-base?

· What additional advice would you have to offer?

I’ve always been curious to try this strategy. However, not only am I an uptight-planner-type, but I also love REALLY complex, layered recipes with BIG, complicated flavor profiles. But . . . just so I can grow, I’m going to give myself the assignment of trying to cook under this exact Food Matrix plan for one week later this summer. After that, I’ll report back in – about how that went, and whether I will switch from insane-planner, Cookapalooza meal planning to Food Matrix meal planning, or not! Maybe I’ll just give myself the versatility to mix it up.

Take care, all of you, and let me know what you think!


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