The Health Diaries

Bon Appétit’s Food Director Wants You to Stop Meal Planning

‘I go shopping without a shopping list or a recipe in mind.’

There are many ways to live a healthy life. The Health Diaries is a weekly series about the habits that keep notable people living well.

IfIf you’re a Bon Appétit fan, you probably know food director Carla Lalli Music for her quirky, instructive YouTube videos and love of the pressure cooker. But before running all things food-focused at one of the world’s most famous food media companies, she worked as a line cook and an operations manager. At one point, she was the first general manager at Shake Shack.

All of this is to say that Carla Lalli Music understands food and hard work. On March 19, she’s releasing a new cookbook, Where Cooking Begins, to help the rest of us learn what she already knows: cooking and grocery shopping don’t have to be chores.

Lalli Music shares with Medium her struggle to eat healthy in Bon Appétit’s overflowing test kitchen, the habits that are keeping her sane, and her obsession with intuitive grocery shopping.

I have two children, a 15-year-old and a 9-year-old, so I definitely wake up to an alarm every morning. Unfortunately, that alarm goes off every Monday through Friday at 6:30 a.m. On Tuesday mornings, when I work out with a trainer, my alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. But most mornings, we’re all up at 6:30 a.m., then there’s caffeine intake and human wrangling. The first human, my older son, is out the door at 7:45 a.m. Then, my husband or I take the younger one to school and I’m usually in the office by 8:45 a.m.

My favorite habit right now is listening to comedy podcasts on my commute to work. I’m trying to reduce the amount of news I consume; I thought it was helpful and important for me to be informed, like it made me a bad citizen to tune out the news. But I’ve since realized that giving people horrible looks on the subway isn’t good for anybody, so I listen to comedy podcasts instead.

As for my diet, I’m constantly surrounded by food because of the magazine and not because of what Carla wants to eat. It’s one of the hardest things in my life because it’s very easy to eat things I don’t feel like eating. This morning, I went to the gym before coming to the office. I wanted to have a day that started with food that was good for me. But when I went into the test kitchen to make a coffee, I turned around and saw two giant platters of tiramisu. It wasn’t what I wanted to eat but it was a food I loved and it was right there.

For a long time, I went to every tasting for every recipe that was developed for Bon Appétit, Healthyish, and Basically. In the middle of the summer, during a heat wave, I was eating turkey and mashed potatoes. In the spring, we’re developing recipes for fall. So, as much as I wanted to eat based on my intuition and cravings, I had to eat completely crazy.

Then, about a year ago, I decided that I wasn’t going to go to those tastings anymore. I felt like my metabolism was ruined and my eating habits were out of control. Tastings are at 3 p.m., so I would eat a small breakfast, like a banana or a yogurt, and then I’d have a coffee and nothing else until the tastings. I’d basically trained my body to fast and then gorge on all manner of food.

Now that I’ve stopped going to tastings, I’ve had to retrain myself to feel hungry at normal times. I usually have tea at home in the morning, then I make a coffee at work. We have a La Marzocco espresso machine in the test kitchen, so I’m spoiled by that. Then, my typical breakfast is something like a rice cracker with nut butter and banana or apple, or Good Culture organic cottage cheese, or FAGE 5% Greek yogurt. I’m all about that whole dairy fat.

If left to my own devices, I mostly eat fins and feathers. By that, I mean my diet is mostly fish and poultry with produce and whole grains, and not a lot of red meat or mammals. I typically eat dinner at home, now that I’m not going to tastings too, which is new. My husband and I will eat around 8:30 p.m. or 9 p.m. and sometimes my 15-year-old will want a second dinner because he’s growing really quickly, so he’ll join us.

Before bed, I take my supplements and I take a hot shower. I usually take a probiotic, Ashwagandha, and an omega-6 every day. I finally learned how to moisturize, in my late thirties, so I use something really nourishing on my face, and then I try not to bring my phone into the bedroom. I’m not always successful, but I try! I used to read in bed all the time and then I became a phone addict, so I’m retraining myself to get back to reading before bed.

I think work-life balance is incredibly important but I haven’t been incredibly good at it. I usually work until 7 p.m. every day and I rarely leave for lunch. My day is a mix of writing, meetings, and working on page proofs, if we’re shipping stories. I’m writing a newsletter and a couple of stories each month for Bon Appétit, and about half of my workweek is dedicated to shooting videos. I also read all of our recipes before they publish. Achieving seniority in my career has afforded me some freedom though, so I can leave early for a trombone concert or come in late after going to the gym. I’m really grateful for that and I try to give the people on my team the same trust and consideration.

When I was writing my new cookbook, people would leave the office at 7 p.m. and I’d wave goodbye, then I’d stay until midnight or 1 a.m. If I could do it again, I would have taken more time off. The time we spent creating the images for the book was awesome. But I think I was underprepared for how long the writing was going to take. I shot the book over three long weekends. But to get the writing done, I used nights and weekends for months. My husband was out of the house all day with the kids on Saturdays and Sundays so I could write; he was 100 percent on family duty. During the final dash to the delivery date, I think I was awake for 80 hours straight. It wasn’t pretty. I’m wired to be like, I got this, I got this. And I didn’t got it.

What I really want from my cookbook is for people to think of shopping for food as the first step of any cooking project. I know a lot of people think of grocery shopping as a chore or drudgery that ruins their inspiration and desire to cook. But one of my big things has been treating shopping as part of getting the creative juices flowing. Personally, I go shopping without a shopping list or a recipe in mind. I try to be observant about what looks good and what makes me feel hungry and excited. I buy whatever is abundant or in really good shape. A lot of this shopping is at the farmer’s market but even when it’s not, I start in the produce section of every store. Then, I go to the fish and butcher section. Then dairy. This organizes how I cook.

I want people to stop thinking about meal planning, big batching, and recipe-led cooking. I say, shop smaller and more frequently for the things that matter, like produce, protein, and bread. You should pick those out in person and then use online shopping for the things that come in a box, jar, or can. Plus, once you’ve mastered a few basic techniques, you can simplify how you cook.

I write essays, test products & produce content marketing for brands. I’m also a career coach for freelancers and the co-host of The Writers’ Co-op podcast.

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