How to redesign breakfast

Ben Mann
6 min readJan 10, 2017

Last week, I wrote about the results of my quest to re-engineer breakfast. I now blend and drink the tasty, satisfying, cheap shake most mornings. It can definitely be improved. This time, I want to cover my design process, what I tried, and what I want to try so that you can build on top of it.

Design process

Define priorities

I prioritized, in order from most to least important, taste, digestion, time/effort, satiation over time, healthiness, perishability, and price. Your ordering might be different. Or perhaps you don’t care about price, but do care about sustainability, environmental impact, allergies, density. Or inside those categories, maybe you disagree with what I think health means, and want to completely eliminate the carbs, or you believe that fat is evil and prefer more carbohydrates and protein.

Your priorities will shift over time as you converge on what works for you. I thought I wanted 800 calories when I started this, but I felt so full I had to take a nap afterwards. If you’re a professional swimmer, 650 calories for breakfast won’t be nearly enough. If you’re a fashion model, it could be too much. You might not know how many calories you need to feel good, but it’ll become more obvious as you experiment.

Even knowing that taste is more important than health, balancing the constraints in real ingredients is difficult. I want to reduce carbohydrate consumption, but if I don’t use enough it could be undrinkable. But maybe there’s something I can add that will preserve taste while decreasing sweetness. Spices? Something sour, like frozen cranberries?

Or if I were willing to spend much more time, maybe I’d just make steak and eggs every morning. This proves that the ordering in my mind must not match the true ordering. It turns out I’m prioritizing speed over taste.

Whatever you decide, writing these things down and thinking about the implications forms a foundation for the rest of the process.

Find analogs and start with those as a base

When I first started trying existing DIY soylent recipes, I discovered many new ingredients like masa harina, chia seeds, and soy flour. I was surprised by how many of the recipes were shakes. Looking up more traditional shake recipes, I often saw bananas and peanut butter. These helped me decide on a loose set of candidate ingredients and preparation methods to start with.

Looking at the ingredients of commercial products like Soylent, Joylent, and Ambronite helped less. Ambronite especially was useless since, although it prides itself on whole food ingredients, version 1 was pretty much undrinkable. They also tend to use protein types that I couldn’t find locally like algae and oat. They contain guar gum, carrageenan, and sucralose, each of which makes me fart my brains out.

Iterate fast

I started with the DIY recipes exactly as written and started changing things. In the beginning, I made big jumps, sometimes trying completely different recipes one day after another: oatmeal, then masa harina pudding, then soy flour shake. The key was to optimize for learning and not worry about making something inedible. If I failed completely, I ate cereal or drank Soylent 2.0 instead.

Once I found a recipe that was pretty good on some dimensions (taste, speed, digestion), I started modifying ingredient ratios and swapping things out to see if I could get to a state where I liked the results. I worked on a chocolate pudding recipe for a few weeks before deciding it took too long to make, though the other factors were pretty much satisfied.

In summary, simulated annealing rocks.

User testing

One day I was choking down a pudding version. A friend tentatively put the spoon to her lips and immediately spit it out. “What’s that horrible taste??” We eventually determined it was the soy flour. Haven’t used it since.

Occasionally I’d hear “I’d buy this” or “I’ve been eating your recipe for a week!” Feedback like this indicated I was on to something.


Once I got close to the final version of the shake, I often made the same recipe a few days in a row to get a bigger sample size. Did it make me feel energetic afterwards, or did I just sleep better the day before? Was I busy after I ate it, and didn’t notice the bloated feeling? Then I’d make small changes like 1 teaspoon less cocoa powder, or 1 teaspoon more chia.

At some point, declare victory and start over. I’ve gotten a few requests for a savory version, so that’s the next big challenge.

Other ideas and candidate ingredients

Oats. When raw, too much phytic acid, so overnight oats didn’t pan out. Almost pure carbs. Takes a while to cook, and have to watch it if you don’t do it in a rice cooker. Oat flour has similar problems. I did really enjoy my super oatmeal recipe (aka PB&J oatmeal if you add raisins), but took too much prep time.

Masa harina. This is corn flour that’s been nixtamalized. It’s popular on due to its smoothness (compared to oat flour), cheapness, and reasonable flavor profile, but it’s still almost entirely carbohydrates.

Solid instead of liquid. Tried overnight oats, but gave me indigestion. Tried this corn and bean pudding recipe but it tasted awful because of the soy flour. Pudding in general is pretty difficult because most substrates tend to be carb-based. Most efficient was a cornstarch-powered colloid (aka pudding), but then you have to cook it to activate the amylose. The best solid recipe I came up with became the shake in the previous post when I realized that blending a drink would eliminate the cooking and the cornstarch. I’ve also tried just mixing together the shake ingredients and eating it as a paste. While the consistency isn’t bad, it sticks to the throat like glue and isn’t a pleasant experience.

Soy flour. Great macro profile but damn it tastes terrible!! Also hard to find. Please avoid this, or if you like it tell me how you prepared it!

Psyllium husk. Obsoleted by chia seeds, which have a better macro profile for the same poop effects.

Oil + lecithin. There are 480 calories in 1/4 cup of olive oil. You probably wouldn’t think to include it in a shake because oil and water don’t mix, but you can use soy lecithin, a dry emulsifier, to make it dissolve. Lecithin naturally occurs in egg yolks, which is why oil + egg yolks = mayo. This is an easy way to boost calories and creaminess, but I think it made me queasy. Perhaps it’s too dense, or perhaps I was overloading on calories?

Future research

Help me drive this forward! No need to eat the same thing every day. Let me know if you try these or any other variations.

Pre-mix. Mix the dry ingredients together in the right ratios ahead of time? The peanut butter and frozen bananas aren’t really pre-mixable. If you have a food processor, turn it into a paste, freeze that into pre-measured portions, and then just blend it with water at meal time. What do the solid blocks taste like? What’s the texture? Does it really save time?

Savory version. Drinkable yet savory? Not sure it’d work. I once made savory oatmeal with soy sauce, chili oil, and beef jerky and it reminded me of a good jook. Tasty! Fortify that with protein powder or almond meal and the macro ratio might be good enough. Even if it’s relatively high carb, I’m excited about the potential for a high glucose to fructose ratio. Will have to experiment with solid vs water-blended. Oats as a base could be annoying but also possible to make a batch and reheat portions. Could try throwing in some frozen vegetables like celery, kale, etc. Chili?

Copycat Project Juice. They have a lot of green stuff in their smoothies and still manage to make it taste good, though maybe it’s because all of them have a sweet component, usually dates. Maybe replicate one, and use frozen ingredients to reduce the burden of keeping fresh produce around.



Ben Mann

Software engineer, tinkerer, aspiring mad scientist