For Minnesota’s 'batch cooking boss,' food can be medicine that actually tastes good
By ERICA PEARSON | Star Tribune (Minneapolis) | Published: September 11, 2018
MINNEAPOLIS - Hundreds of people pay to get an email from Stephanie A. Meyer each week outlining a menu, grocery list and recipes for a week of meals good for those with food sensitivities.
When Stephanie A. Meyer writes a grocery list, she’s not just planning meals for herself and her boyfriend. She’s writing a list that hundreds of people around the world pay to get by email each week.
Meyer, a Minneapolis food writer and culinary coach who calls herself a “batch cooking boss,” launched the meal plan subscription service Project Vibrancy Meals a year ago.
Besides a shopping list, she sends subscribers a six-night meal plan with recipes that are designed to let them spend about three hours once a week preparing everything and then quickly put together meals every weeknight. It’s set up for home cooks who want to avoid processed foods and for people who follow restrictive diets like paleo, Autoimmune Protocol or Whole30. With every list, she includes substitution suggestions like “zoodle” noodles spiralized from zucchini, rice made from cauliflower or leaf lettuce instead of tortillas.
“One of my clients calls it ’meal planning Jenga,’” said Meyer, 51.
Meyer, who has the autoimmune disease Hashimoto’s, says that cooking this way has helped her manage her condition while allowing her to enjoy what she eats. Now, she’s using what she learned while researching and following limited food plans to feed her growing business.
In doing so, she’s become part of a worldwide movement that views food as medicine. She champions certain fare (such as bone broth and sweet potatoes), and limits potentially inflammatory ingredients to figure out any sensitivities.
Meyer found inspiration in “The Paleo Approach,” a 2014 New York Times best-seller by Sarah Ballantyne, who blogs as “The Paleo Mom.” Ballantyne said a variation of the diet (which avoids dairy and grains and is heavy on the protein, vegetables and fruit that paleo’s adherents say our Paleolithic ancestors likely ate) helped her heal from several autoimmune conditions.
Many nutrition experts say food plans that avoid grains altogether aren’t the best choice for those who don’t have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, because whole grains have benefits to cardiovascular and other health. Still, the popularity of diets like paleo continues to rise. And as more people try to avoid wheat and processed foods while piling their plates with protein and veggies, entrepreneurs like Meyer are finding that they are happy to pay to make it easier.
RESTRICTIVE BUT FUN
Meyer takes an upbeat, fun approach to the challenges of eating a restrictive diet and finding a cooking routine that fits a busy lifestyle.
After buzzing up a pesto with pea shoots and garlic scapes in the tiny kitchen of her light-filled, top-floor apartment in a 1902 Lowry Hill house, she recently got to work slicing farm stand tomatoes and beating soy-free eggs for a summer frittata with snap peas.
“Yay, tomato season!” she said, pouring the eggs into the pan before carefully arranging the slices of tomatoes and snap peas, cut lengthwise, on top. She tore fresh mozzarella into pieces before dropping them in, dabbing in spoonfuls of pesto and giving them a swirl.
She was testing the recipe, which she planned to include in Week 48 of her meal plan, as an option for folks who eat eggs, with substitutes for those who aren’t able to stomach nightshade veggies and dairy. She also makes a “pizza frittata” with tomato sauce and pepperoni that serves up pizza flavor without the crust.
“It all kind of pivots on the condiments,” said Meyer, who is careful to tell her clients that she’s not a nutritionist. She includes three recipes for sauces like chimichurri, pesto and avocado Caesar dressing in each week’s plan.
Meyer develops a recipe by thinking about taste, health, sourcing of ingredients - and how it will look to her more than 10,500 followers on Instagram. Her small workspace is packed with tools, from beautiful, tin-lined copper cooking pans to a stainless steel Berkey water filtration tank, to an Instant Pot multicooker.
“I absolutely think of food as medicine,” she said. “I really have ended up realizing that food either helps or harms. There isn’t that much neutral food.”
Meyer (who includes her middle initial in everything so fans of the “Twilight” author don’t mistake her for that Stephenie Meyer) grew up in tiny Lakefield, Minn., wanting to be either a teacher or a cook.
She worked in communications and fundraising in the Twin Cities before turning to food blogging, eventually developing recipes with Andrew Zimmern before his “Bizarre Foods” show took off. In the earlier days of her blog, she subscribed to a CSA and chronicled how she used each week’s farm vegetables.
Meyer was diagnosed in 2010 with Hashimoto’s, a condition where the immune system attacks the thyroid. She tried a gluten-free diet and says she found that it helped clear the crushing, tired “brain fog” feeling she felt, and that her hair loss, puffy water retention and trouble sleeping went away. She decided to stop eating gluten permanently.
“I’m not willing to live with the side effects. Other people are, and I respect that,” she said.
For a while, she felt great. But a few years later, she was hit with a perfect storm of stress, working to finish writing a cookbook (“Twin Cities Chef’s Table: Extraordinary Recipes From the City of Lakes to the Capital City”) while getting divorced and moving into a new home. Her symptoms returned, even though she wasn’t eating gluten.
With the backing of her primary care doctor, she decided to try the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) diet. A subset of the Paleo diet, AIP eliminates everything from eggs, legumes, grains, nuts, dairy and nightshade vegetables to spices made from seeds, coffee and refined sugar.
After several months on the diet, Meyer religiously kept a food journal as she added back foods, finding that she felt unwell after eating coconut, legumes and chilies.
BOOSTING HOME COOKING
In her work as a culinary coach, in which she gives individual clients in-home sessions on how to cook and creates custom shopping lists and meal plans, Meyer started focusing on “batch” style meals, cooking once and banking prepared food that’s repurposed throughout the week.
She also began to sing the praises of what she calls a “magical elixir” -- a savory soup base with greens, herbs and bone broth, lemon and collagen she patented as “Healing Green Broth.”
She offered a free “Healing Green Broth 30-Day Challenge” online and got people to sign up. Once she’d built a long-enough list of potential clients interested in her ideas and recipes, she launched her meal plan service, charging $29 a month and only opening it up to potential subscribers for certain time windows to boost the allure.
Some nutrition experts -- including Dr. Donald Hensrud, director of the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, which runs its own Mayo Clinic Diet meal and workout plan -- say many Americans are unnecessarily buying into the idea of a paleo, grain-free way of eating.
Those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity “absolutely” should stop eating whole grains that contain gluten, but the percentage of people in the country who have these conditions is very low, Hensrud said.
“The food industry has capitalized on this, and 25 to 30 percent of the population is buying gluten-free products because they believe it’s healthier,” he said. “I’d suggest that that’s more marketing, and people are misinformed if they are doing that.”
He points to studies that have shown benefits of eating whole grains, such as decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, decreased risk of cancers, even overall mortality.
Whole grains aside, nutritionists widely agree that cutting out processed foods and cutting down on sugar is extremely beneficial to everyone, as are strategies that help people successfully cook from scratch at home more often.
For Minneapolis change management consultant Michele Elin, who signed up for an entire year of Project Vibrancy Meals upfront, Meyer’s “batch” meal plan has made cooking fun again.
“I immediately jumped on the bandwagon. I was getting tired of trying to come up with recipes every week,” said Elin, who has tried a number of restrictive diets, including AIP, as she works to figure out a healthy eating plan that makes her body feel right.
“I’ve had this journey where I used to like to cook, and then I had small kids and I got away from the love of cooking,” said Elin.
It’s not such a chore anymore, she said. “My shopping list appears in front of me. I’m not at the grocery store wondering what I’m going to buy and just buying miscellaneous stuff that I end up throwing away,” she said.
“It’s kind of reinvigorated my enjoyment of cooking.”
As she enters her second year of Project Vibrancy Meals, Meyer’s latest challenges include adding subscribers and developing plans with meals for just three nights a week.
And she’s always trying to get her son, who is back in the Twin Cities after graduating from college, to come over for dinner. Her secret weapon?
Beef short ribs.
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