My Thesis Survival Diet

I’m entering survival mode. I do have priorities; I don’t have wiggle room. I’m establishing a set of techniques and habits to keep my motivation and energy high for enduring the long sessions of data analysis, literature searching, and draft writing that are going to be my life for the next few months. I’m making rules like “go to ballet class on Wednesday” and “bake treats for lab meeting” just to make sure that I don’t get permanently attached to my computer screen and my oven still gets a workout. I’m balancing my computer on top of cookbooks and boxes of ziplocs just for a chance to stand up.

Staying appropriately fed and hydrated is paramount right now. I’m starting to believe there’s as much of an eating strategy for productive thesis writing as there’s an eating strategy for optimal marathon running. (Unfortunately, thesis writing does not justify carb loading…) Eat too little, and I end up sluggish and tired; slumped over with my head on the desk and my brain foggy. Eat too much, and I feel my blood pressure rise; my thoughts start to race. I end up giving in to long sessions at the gym to burn off the surplus. In both cases, precious time is wasted.

So without much time to spend baking or cooking but the increased importance of keeping myself as close to a state of perpetual productiveness as possible, here’s what I rely on:

1. Coffee: At a minimum, 2 single cups at home from the Keurig or 20 oz at a coffee shop; preferably consumed as soon after getting up as possible. The key to a good coffee shop is finding one with a productive atmosphere: free wifi, comfortable (but not nap-inducing) surroundings, and tasty baked goods for nibbling. My favorites in Madison are Barriques (minus the homeless guys sharing the cheapest bottle of wine at 7 am and asking me to check their e-mail) and Gallup. My favorite in Chicago is Floriole. The owner once worked at Tartine in San Francisco, and the pedigree shows in both menu and quality. I love sitting at the big window in the back where I can watch the bakers working, though recently I’ve been going upstairs so I’m not distracted from the task at hand.








2. Cookies: I’m in a constant state of nibbling. I crave variety to contrast with the monotony of writing, but I don’t have the time to bake the selection I need. So, I’m treating myself to the products of other’s efforts. Here in Madison I love the thick, chewy molasses cookie from Madison Sourdough. Biscotti from the Swedish Bakery in Chicago are perfect specimens in my opinion: flavorful, dense, and crunchy. I also finally gave in to ordering cookies from Dorie Greenspan’s new shop Beurre&Sel in NYC. I’ve been hearing about her annual “pop-up” cookie shops for the past couple years. Now she has opened a permanent store-front and filled it with colorful tubes of perfectly round, french-inspired sable cookies. When SeriousEats reviewed her Valentine’s selections, I finally caved and decided I had to try cookies from an acclaimed master. A week later, I had an awesome package in the mail…

Beautifully packaged and awesomely photogenic cookies. I’ll tell you about them soon!

3. Steamed vegetables + eggs: A Costco size bag of frozen vegetables and 6 large cartons of egg beaters have been my staples for lunch and dinner the past 4 weeks. To be clear, the egg beaters were given to me by a friend who had a friend that knew a trucker who was shipping cases of egg beaters that broke open and made a mess. They can’t sell the ones that got dirty, so I ended up with 6 large cartons of free egg beaters; actually not half bad and wicked convenient.

4. Fruit: sugar + fiber = keep writing.

5. Chocolate: A square or two of chocolate to nibble really helps when my mind starts to wander.* I’m currently working through a stack of chocolate bars from Weiss in Paris and my Valentines truffles. My mom treated me to a box of 6 from Gail Ambrosius in Madison. She works solely with dark chocolate and delivers masterfully flavorful results that don’t suffer from any bitterness. Mr. R gave me a box from Theo in Seattle.* Ask me what my favorite chocolate is, and I will not hesitate to tell you about the peanut butter and jelly truffle from Theo: salty, slightly crunchy PB ganache topped with a berry pate d’ fruit all enrobed in smooth milk chocolate. I know, you’re going to tell me that’s not chocolate. Fair enough. So now I’ll tell you about Theo’s fresh mint, fennel fig almond, lemon, or ginger. Or I’ll recount the time we took a factory tour. As we stood in the kitchen with its marble tables lined up like lab benches, a chocolatier poured a giant bowl full of ganache onto the table behind us and the aroma of warm, nutty, sensual chocolate enveloped me. I wanted to sit down and inhale deeply for as long as they’d let me stay.

6. More coffee…

7. And maybe some tea: Perfect to pair with those Swedish bakery biscotti. My favorite brands are Stash and Tazo. Awake is for when I want more caffeine but my coffee consumption is getting worrisome*; peppermint, when the stress is getting to my stomach; lemon ginger, when I want to feel energized and alert; and licorice spice or organic apple red, when it’s time to settle down. Like now, since it’s past bedtime, but I couldn’t let another day go without giving you something to read. I’d recommend any of the places I mentioned here regardless of your productivity needs. Enjoy!

*Just please keep the peanut M&M’s away; they try my self control, and my self control usually fails.

*You can find Theo’s chocolate bars in almost any Whole Foods these days, but I find they pale in comparison to the truffles. Given the option, I’d probably reach for a bar from Scharffenberger or Dagoba (both sadly owned by Hershey now) 7 times out of 10.

*Sheepishly, I’m exaggerating for effect here.  So far, I’ve mostly kept my coffee intake limited to before noon, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that boundary starts blurring eventually…

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