My Nutritionist-Approved, All-Condiment Meal Plan

Pesto is best-o.

Author by Theresa Fisher
Art credit: Twisha Patni

More often than I’d like to admit, when I come home from work, I’m too burned out (or impatient or, yes, lazy) to go buy groceries and make a nutritious, grown-up meal.

So, instead, I make a beeline for the chilly, barren cavity that is my refrigerator, and take inventory of what’s inside: tapenade, hummus, Sriracha. I shouldn’t be disappointed in the selection — given that I control the flow of consumable goods into and out of my fridge — but hunger doesn’t have the capacity for logical thought, so I am. If I deign to open the kitchen cabinets, I will find more condiments — mustard, alternative nut butters, an aioli or two. But I probably won’t find much (or any) actual food. Foiled again.

I know I should leave my apartment and go buy the staple foods that I neglected to buy in the first place (because I got distracted by the artisanal spreads aisle). But instead, I stand there, talk myself out of Seamless-ing, and consider scraping together a meal from the only food-stuffs I have on hand. A condiment feast, if you will. How would experts in the nutritional sciences feel about having condiments for dinner (by choice, more or less)?

I wasn’t sure, but I was curious to find out, so I asked a bunch of nutritionists and dietitians how to make the healthiest and least-anemic dinner possible using only the condiments in my kitchen. To my surprise, I received seven different condiment meal plans in response. But seven is a lot, so I chose two to feature.

Here’s the list of condiments (and their close relative, accoutrements) that I sent to experts:

  • Salsa (medium hot)
  • Butter (3.5 salted sticks)
  • Tapenade(s)
  • Pesto (because it’s best-o, according to my mom)
  • Red pepper hummus
  • Fig spread
  • Pickles (kosher dill)
  • Mustard(s)
  • Ketchup (not catsup)
  • Sriracha (threatening to unseat ketchup as “America’s favorite goopy, red condiment”)
  • Cocktail sauce 
  • Pickled ginger (leftover from sushi)
  • Peanut butter 
  • Nutella
  • Maple syrup (the authentic, sap-tapped stuff)
  • Dried apricots
  • Peanut dipping sauce (for the homemade chicken-satay kick that never came to be)
  • Ginger salad dressing
  • Applesauce (I definitely didn’t purchase this)
  • Cashews  

And here are the two featured meal plans:

All that and a mustard smear
Courtesy of Emily Matson, a dietetic intern at the University of Michigan School of Public Health

Matson, being a responsible professional, advised against using sodium-packed condiments as a meal replacement. But she still indulged me, and proposed three different mini-meals, each containing a “healthy fat source, some protein, and a fruit or vegetable”:

I could make an antipasto style dinner using tapenade for fat, dried apricots for fruit, and cashews for fat and some protein. “To add some more color,” Matson suggested, “add a little mustard smear to the plate with the tapenade.” (My verdict: sophisticated!)

For an easy crowdpleaser, I could whip up a condi-veggie spread: salsa (by the spoonful, fine by me), red pepper hummus, and a pickle for some crunch and panache. (My verdict: clean and crisp!)

Or, if I were in the mood to pair sweet with a hint of savory (and when am I not in the mood for that), I could mix together applesauce, chopped-up pickled ginger, and a tiny amount of maple syrup, accompanied by a small scoop of peanut butter — and a bit of Sriracha for flavor, color, and kick — on the side. (My verdict: “bam!” OR “yum-o!”)

Bold ideas from a nutritional brain trust
Courtesy of Betsy Anderson Steeves, a nutrition professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, plus a “panel of nutrient experts from the graduate program in public health nutrition”

Steeves and her students floated all sorts of ideas — great ideas, in fact, that someone who has more culinary follow-through than I do might actually try:

I could make trail mix for a balanced combo of carbs, protein, and healthy fats. All I’d have to do is chop up dried apricots, throw in cashews, freeze some Nutella, and then break the frozen Nutella into chunks for a sweet component. (My verdict: fancy!)

“This would be fairly nutrient-dense with vitamins and minerals in the nuts and dried fruit,” Steeves said. “You’d just have to watch how much you eat — because, like any trail mix — it would also be energy-dense. The serving size for a typical trail mix is a 1/4 cup — not much!”

I could also go with a simple snack recipe: I’d just need to turn on the oven and roast cashews coated in ginger salad dressing or Sriracha. (My verdict: innovative!)

Or I could do something that, Steeves conceded, “might be cheating”: a roll-up meal. If I have leftover tortillas, because “maybe I ordered takeout fajitas and have leftovers,” then I could spread peanut butter on a tortilla, for protein and healthy fat, and smear on a little Nutella, cashews, and dried apricots, for carbs and fruit. Alternatively, I could create a mediterranean wrap by slathering a tortilla with hummus and olive tapenade. In either case, Steeves suggested adding a side of applesauce for a “good dose of fruit.” (My verdict: disqualifying entry!)

Ultimately, however, Steeves and her brain trust determined that a proper meal would be tough to make, due to the lack of a carb-y/bread-y product. To get around that, one person suggested I could “grind cashews down into flour and then make a healthy muffin out of cashew flour, butter, applesauce, maple syrup, and chopped apricots/cashews.” (My verdict: I mean, I could do that.)

“But the rest of us,” Steeves said, “thought it would simply be easier to go to the grocery store.”

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