Teishoku Completely Changed the Way I See Healthy Food
Fried chicken, white rice, and potato salad. I used to think that these foods couldn’t be part of a healthy diet. That if we are to be healthy, our meals needed to be composed of foods like salad greens, raw broccoli, and plain chicken breast. Healthy food was whole grain bread or brown rice, and unhealthy food was refined carbohydrates. I used to describe certain foods as “good” and “bad,” and that enjoying certain “bad” foods was a forbidden indulgence or a shameful show of weak will.
But I later realized that thinking like this was not just wrong. It also really sucked.
Why are the Japanese so healthy?
I was in Japan for the summer and staying at my grandmother’s house. She is a health aficionado, so I was expecting my summer days to be filled with bland-tasting vegetables and dry, lean fish. I thought I would never get to eat white-bread toast or sweet yogurt for breakfast, and forget about an ice cream dessert.
But to my surprise, this wasn’t the case. For dinner, we would have pork cutlets or creamy, Japanese beef curries. On the side, she served us fried tofu and stir-fried eggplant in a thick teriyaki sauce. After dinner, she would bring out fruit jellies and vanilla ice cream, and she would eat it with us, too. I asked her, “Do you always eat like this? Or is it just because we’re here?”
To which she scoffed, “What do you mean? Of course I eat like this all the time.”
Slender, energetic, and skin still as smooth as pearls, my grandmother definitely did not look a day over 50. I thought maybe it was genetic, that she inherited a superpower gene. But when her friends or acquaintances came over, people just as old looked incredibly healthy as well.
It confused me. Why are they so healthy? They eat fried foods and desserts, and they eat them often, too. It’s not a special Japanese gene, because I definitely should’ve inherited that. What made their meals different from those in the United States?
I soon realized — it’s in the balance.
Naturally designed to be well-balanced
What separates eating in Japan from eating in America is that for Japanese people, eating is largely a balancing act. Rather than a categorization of foods to eat, and foods not to eat, meals tend to be built around moderation and variety, a thought that’s no better represented than by a teishoku meal.
Teishoku-style meals are set meal plates, but they are constructed differently from what you might get at your average Olive Garden. It starts with rice, then a main dish, a side dish, miso soup, and oftentimes pickles. Each component is portioned out onto a small bowl or plate, which comes together as a meal — a colorful medley of different flavors and food types. A typical teishoku meal is naturally designed to be well-balanced.
Consider the fried chicken, white rice, and potato salad I mentioned before. Now look at the meal below:
White rice mixed in with hijiki seaweed and toasted sesame seeds, fried chicken in a ginger-soy sauce with yuba tofu, and a small potato salad with edamame and corn. Also served with an okra miso soup, tofu with soy sauce, grated yam, ume plum pickles, and a side salad.
Or consider this teishoku meal:
The same meal, but the main dish is switched out for white fish with sauteed mushrooms, peppers, and eggplant in teriyaki sauce, and an extra serving of grated yam for the rice.
Teishoku meals are constructed to have a balanced portion of carbohydrates, vegetables, and protein, without skimping on flavor. Each portion is prepared differently, which gives the meal its variety and color. A teishoku meal might have fried chicken, a food that is commonly deemed unhealthy, but in moderation and consumed with other vegetables, it can definitely be part of a healthy diet. Teishoku meals are nutritious, filling, and delicious, so anyone can enjoy it.
Adopting Teishoku-style into a healthy lifestyle
You might be thinking, OK, well, that’s a pretty complicated meal to have every day. As a busy person, it’s just not feasible.
And you’re right, the meal above is complicated to prepare from scratch every day, but creating healthy and balanced teishoku-style meals is definitely feasible for busy people. The key is in the preparation.
Consider this meal:
Not necessarily teishoku, but deriving concepts of balance and variety, this is one dinner I had recently — miso soup and a bowl full of vegetables and beef-wrapped lotus root, on a bed of rice. I made the miso soup earlier in the week and froze it, as well as the rice, so the only thing I made that night was the vegetables and beef-wrapped lotus root, which took less than 20 minutes to cook.
The following day, I used leftover beef-renkon from the night before, and added a boiled egg, fresh okra, and an avocado to leftover rice. As a side dish, I sliced yamaimo, or Japanese mountain yam, topped it with katsuo flakes and soy sauce. This meal also took less than 20 minutes to pull together.
I prepare ahead of time to pull together my meals. By portioning out what I make in batches and cooking certain side dishes or main dishes, I can create healthy and balanced meals, while also enjoying variety in the foods I eat. I don’t need to spend hours preparing, I don’t get bored of what I’m eating, and most importantly, I love this way of eating because it makes me full, tastes delicious, and is a sustainable, healthy lifestyle.
How you can start
I often prepare Japanese food because it’s my favorite cuisine, but there are ways you can prepare a teishoku style of eating. All you need to keep in mind is to have a carbohydrate, protein, and vegetables, all in a well-balanced portion. Here are my suggestions to start:
- Have rice prepared at all times. Cook a large batch, and then portion them out into single servings. Wrap them, and toss them in the freezer, so you can simply reheat when you’re ready to eat. If you don’t like rice, bread or pasta are also valid carbohydrate sources.
- Have soup prepared at all times. Again, cook a large batch, and then portion them out into single-serving containers. Freeze and reheat when you’re ready to eat. I try to keep several kinds in my freezer at all times, but this kabocha squash soup is one of my favorites.
- Make at least twice the amount of any side or main dish you make. By having extra, you can repurpose the dish in a later meal, mix and match, and design set meals depending on what you’re in the mood for.
Teishoku-style meals changed the way I see healthy food, as no food is necessarily off-limits. It’s about balance and enjoying everything in moderation. Healthy eating may seem complicated at times, but with patience and a desire to change the way we eat, it’s definitely possible.
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