Over my years of practice, I’ve seen many clients unnecessarily struggle with the challenge of adopting basic Ayurvedic recommendations for health, vitality and longevity. Aside from the issue of bedtime, those related to food seem to cause the most angst, especially among those who need to juggle multiple competing priorities for time. Quick and easy meal preparation is attractive, but it is not the whole story. As one who has personally dealt with this and more, I’d like to share my secrets for success.
Basic Ayurvedic Recommendations Related to Food
Let’s be clear about what we are trying to accomplish. Here are the most important Ayurvedic guidelines related to food and eating in order of importance:
- Take your main meal at noon
- Eat comfortably seated with your primary attention on your food
- Stop eating when your hunger is satisfied, before you feel full
- Favor food that is freshly prepared with love from wholesome ingredients
- Cultivate a preference for a lacto-vegetarian diet
Are any of these surprising? Nothing is arbitrary in Ayurveda, which describes the laws of nature pertaining to health in human terms. If our body is a machine for creating consciousness from food, these guidelines help to align our eating habits with the strength of our digestive fire so that we create Ojas not Ama. They also serve to support the growth of higher states of consciousness, bliss and fulfillment.
To put things in the proper perspective, if we consider these guidelines in order, the value of “quick and easy” doesn’t surface until #4. While that begs the question of how to organize to make lunch the main meal of the day (see below), it means that some other considerations may be at least as important as time spent in the kitchen.
Digestion is strongest at noon because our digestive fire (Agni) mirrors the Sun. When lunch is the main meal of the day, we’ve matched our food intake to our natural digestive capacity. When we sit to eat with our primary attention on the food, we create an environment favorable for enjoyment along with good digestion. We also precondition success with #3. It’s too easy to over-eat if you’re not paying attention. Moreover, if you’re working, driving or watching TV while eating, you are dividing the mind. Multitasking fosters mistakes. In the process, you are challenging your body to “digest” all those experiences along with your food.
That said, any step you take in the direction of these guidelines is positive. Perfection is not required to enjoy benefits. You can start with your current diet regimen and make small, manageable adjustments over time. You may find that your preferences change as you begin to make better choices. See my general advice for managing personal change. For any regimen to be of enduring value, it must become a habit. The advantage of the strategy of going slowly is that it promotes the development of new habits. It also reduces the risk of rebellion.
How to Make Lunch the Main Meal
The Ayurvedic ideal would be to have a balance of all six tastes at lunch. For the average American, this means that the simplest way to make lunch the main meal is to eat dinner at lunchtime! And include some legumes. The astringent taste which they provide is commonly missing, giving rise to sugar cravings and other imbalances. For more guidance on general food choices at meals, see: https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/menuplan.htm.
As a hospital executive, my solution to the challenge of having my main meal at noon was to invest in a wide-mouth stainless steel thermos for my entrée, a BPA-free beverage container for my lassi, and a non-reactive food storage container for my dessert. I kept a soupspoon on hand in my briefcase. I wasn’t keen on the choices at the hospital cafeteria. Besides, they wouldn’t have met the test of guideline #4. Even so, I often took my food there to eat in the company of others rather than stay in my office. When I had to accept a working lunch, I tried to organize for take-out from my favorite vendors. Occasionally, I would setup social meetings for lunch at local restaurants.
I have long had the habit of waking early (another important Ayurvedic recommendation for daily routine), I simmered grains and legumes lunch on the stovetop while doing my morning meditation. Then, I’d finish it with vegetables, oil and spices while preparing breakfast. Today, I’d use an electric pressure cooker like the Instant Pot because it’s quicker, less prone to error, can be set for a delayed start, and will keep the food warm. I baked my desserts in the evening or on the weekend.
If you are short on time in the morning, you can do your prep-work in the evening. This would be preferable to eating left-overs from dinner for lunch the next day. But it’s all relative: last evening’s leftovers are better than two-day leftovers.
Cooking Freshly Prepared with Love for One
The downside of eating out is the cost, quality and suitability of the menu choices. Moreover, you are always at the mercy of the chef’s mental state. For whatever reasons, I find in my practice that frequent restaurant meals are a risk factor for Ama accumulation.
Thus, when starting on the Ayurvedic path, many find that they are cooking for themselves. If this is your situation, the initial challenge may be portion control, especially if you’ve been accustomed to eating leftovers. If you are willing to learn from your experience, it won’t take long to figure this out. Start with something simple and versatile like my kichari recipe. As a general guideline, allow 3-4 Tbs. of dry grain and 1.5-2 Tbs. of dried legume per person per meal. Cook that in about ¾ cup water. Use more water if you want it soupy. In the beginning, it’s better to error on the side of too wet. Otherwise you risk it getting scorched and having to waste time cleaning your pot.
Be thoughtful in your purchases of fresh vegetables so you don’t end up with a lot of waste. Costco and similar wholesale clubs may great for some staples, but will you really be up to eat 3 pounds of organically grown zucchini this week?
Grocery Shopping Made Easy
If you’re going to prepare healthful food to nourish yourself, you need to have suitable ingredients. It’s easy to stock up on grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, oils and spices. According to the season, I also keep a reserve of durable fruits like apples and vegetables like carrots, cabbage, and sweet potato. All of these have a long shelf-life. That means you can get by with one short trip to your favorite grocery store each week for fresh milk, fruits and vegetables. It also means you always have something on hand to whip up a meal on short notice. My strategy is to look for the best value in what’s available according to the season and whatever Dosha I want to balance. This approach provides adequate variety in the diet even if you are buying in small quantities for yourself.
I don’t need to plan ahead because I know from day to day what I have and what needs replacing. I have a sense for how much I eat in a week and limit my purchases of perishables accordingly.
I rarely venture out of the fresh produce, dairy and bulk-items sections of the store. If I do, it’s because I’m looking for a sale on a staple like organic sesame oil or I need some specific item like organic whole wheat penne, raw honey, etc. I’m not interested in paying a premium for prepared and processed foods. In the quest for optimal nutrition, they add no value. So, I don’t have to deal with the marketing distractions and temptations that drive up cost and time. As a result, my shopping takes only 15-20 minutes. Although over 90% of what I buy is organically grown, my grocery bill is under $50 except when I stock up with staples.
Cooking for a Family
If the only difference about cooking for a family rather than for oneself, all you’d need to do is scale the recipes for the number of people. But the family cook may face other challenges. Everyone might not be on the same schedule. Some might be picky eaters. Some might be seeking to balance a Dosha other than the prevailing season.
The nice thing about family is that “many hands can make for light work.” Even young children may be interested in helping in the kitchen. So, do whatever you can to engage the help you might desire, including letting picky eaters deal with their problem, especially if it’s putting a burden on you.
One possibility for accommodating those who are expected to arrive late is to put their meal in a wide mouth stainless-steel thermos. Alternatively, induction cooktops have a keep warm setting and some ranges have a warming oven.
How to Manage Different Doshas
This problem perplexes many who are new to Ayurveda. It’s really not as difficult as it might seem in theory. I deal with it whenever I do a group cooking class. Remember that the default is to eat according to the season getting a balance of all six tastes at main meals. So, aside from Kapha season (for which a light diet can suffice), we’re looking at how to accommodate someone who is managing an imbalance.
I can’t remember a client who needed a Kapha-balancing diet. Those who are over-weight need a light diet and they almost always need to balance either Vata or Pitta or both. Thus, in practice, there are only two issues: balancing Vata while taking precautions for Pitta (or vice versus); and accommodating a light diet (including non-vegetarian). Let’s take a look. There is enough overlap in the diets for Vata and Pitta balance that the best strategy is to work the common ground. If you do this, then on occasion you can make a side dish that more strongly favors one or the other and everyone’s tummy will still be happy. Generally go with Pitta-balancing spices. If necessary, you can do separate Pitta-balancing and Vata-balancing oil/spice temperings for your main dish.
Remember that sweet, sour and salty tastes balance Vata, while sweet, bitter and astringent tastes balance Pitta. Sour and salty tastes come from condiments and so are easy to augment for an individual serving. Among the grains (sweet taste) that are suitable for Pitta only barley would not be good for Vata. Pitta is fine with most vegetables except for the most pungent, which aren’t great for Vata either. Vata can have trouble with cruciferous vegetables. Vata also doesn’t do well with the larger beans that Pitta types might enjoy, but both do fine with well-cooked red lentils, mung beans and French lentils.
The Light Diet-Heavy Diet Conundrum Solved
Heavy foods are not desirable for breakfast or dinner. Only at lunch should you need to adjust for the lightness or heaviness of the foods. Heavy foods include eggs, animal flesh (especially red meat and fish), soy, cheese, sour cream, yogurt, avocado, root vegetables, banana, fried food, sweet treats and nuts.
If you’re trying to reconcile a non-vegetarian and a non-vegetarian, then the simplest approach is to cook a vegetarian meal plus one meat dish that could be served as a soup that night or again the next day at lunch. This will be a boon to the non-vegetarian: most don’t get enough legumes in their diet.
If everyone is lacto-vegetarian or vegan, then it’s easy to offer heavier foods as a side-dish (e.g., cooked root vegetables) or add-on option (e.g., roasted nuts, sour cream, cheese). Desserts are the happy ending. If you’re into it like I am, make them with wholesome ingredients and have no guilt. Those who are watching their weight can always enjoy a taster bite.