How Ichiju Sansai Helped Me Get Healthy — and Heal My Relationship With Food

Kaki’s Minimalist Japanese Kitchen program teaches the Japanese meal template to getting fit without eliminating anything

When I was a kid, vegetables didn’t get much attention. My mom would cook some meat and rice, then one of us kids would microwave frozen vegetables, mix in some butter and salt, and call it a day. The important thing is that we ate our vegetables, but I inherited the attitude that vegetables are an afterthought: They are not delicious. 

Not surprisingly, when I started cooking for myself, I either wouldn’t make vegetables, or I’d prepare them in the same unappealing way.

With the help of my husband and many years of persistence, I finally discovered that vegetables can be yummy, but knowing that didn’t help me make them taste that way at home. I knew what I liked, but even when I tried, vegetables never quite turned out that good. Plus, making vegetables on top of everything else seemed like too much, so I more often skipped them altogether.

As you can imagine, that’s not great for your health. Especially lately (stress eating abound!), I haven’t been taking care of myself, so I have gained weight and am tired, not sleeping well, prone to headaches and dizziness, cranky AF, and more. Of course, a lot of other factors are involved in all of these symptoms, but lacking key nutrients in my diet surely wasn’t helping.

Over the years, with the goal of losing weight and getting better nutrition, I tried to find ways to make sustainable healthful adjustments to my meals. Cooking vegetables with the main meal was helpful but not always possible, and they still weren’t that tasty. Trendy diets with strict rules designed to crash or trick the body don’t appeal to me, but even forgoing those, I still attempted quite a few, including smoothies, salads, grain-free, slow carbs, Paleo, and more. Some of these diets also preached that carbs, refined sugars, and other foods are poison. Whether I agreed or not, I couldn’t completely eliminate all of them for long — and even though I successfully reduced my consumption, that never seemed good enough. 

In the end, none of these methods turned out to be effective long-term solutions. In fact, the only thing they accomplished was making me feel guilty for not eating better and ashamed that I essentially ate like a finicky child. 

This spring, I considered incorporating more vegetables with the Japanese meal structure called ichiju sansai, which means “one soup, three sides.” When I looked into it, though, I was totally overwhelmed by the many options and just ended up with a long list of recipes that I didn’t understand how to put together. I did buy fun new plates but eventually gave up on ichiju sansai; it seemed like too much work anyway.

Then in the fall, I saw Kaki’s Minimalist Japanese Kitchen (MJK) course, which was designed to teach ichiju sansai to beginners. I signed up right away, but my issues with food and emotional eating run deep into my childhood, so honestly, I was skeptical that I could make any real changes from a short workshop. Still, I started with an open mind and was excited to learn.

An overview of the course

MJK is organized into 7 modules. As soon as you pay, the whole program is available, so you’re free to do the entire program in one day if you want. (I wouldn’t recommend that, though.) 

You’re given a list of tools that would make the recipes easier to cook. One of the items that’s recommended is a rice cooker, but if you have an electric pressure cooker (Instant Pot, Breville, etc.), you can use that to cook rice. Rice made this way is not as tasty as rice-cooker rice, but it’s easier than making it on the stove.

MJK also includes information about Japanese culture, which I’ve always had an interest in, so I enjoyed learning about that along with how to cook Japanese food.

The assignments might not be what you’d expect for a cooking program. For example, Assignment 1 was to write down your ideal lifestyle. I wasn’t expecting anything like this, but I completed the assignment with honesty and then promptly forgot about it. When I looked back on the list to write this review 2 months later, I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of the items on my list had come to fruition — though I didn’t make a conscious attempt towards it — and that I am well on the way to accomplishing others.

MJK is different from other diet programs

Although MJK is all about food, it doesn’t feel like a “diet program.” Other methods I’ve tried have felt restrictive or even punitive, and made me feel like I was not good enough. MJK does have guidelines to follow, but the tone of the program is gentle. It’s not about having control over yourself all the time or eliminating foods that it deems “bad.” It’s not about counting calories, working out for 90 minutes per day, or eating bland food because the goal isn’t weight loss. It’s about true nourishment, body and soul. 

Because of its gentle approach, MJK helped me let go of a lot of the guilt and shame I have surrounding food. Not to say that I don’t sometimes have echoes of those old voices, but I now have the ability to be gentle with myself and let go of those feelings when they arise.

My experience

I purposely wanted to space out the modules into the intended 7 days, so I did Module 1 on day 1, Module 2 on day 2, but when I got to Module 4 — the actual cooking part — I stalled for 2 weeks. I had chosen what dishes I wanted to cook, and I had even purchased the ingredients, but I was not able to get into the kitchen for some reason. 

After a pretty challenging day at work when I’d already made up my mind to order take-out for dinner, I decided to complete watching Modules 5 and 6 just to wrap it up after the unplanned hiatus. Much to my surprise, watching those modules inspired me to cook instead of ordering out that night. So my husband and I cooked our first MJK ichiju sansai meal together. 

The tori renkon recipe (I had to substitute jicama for the lotus root since that’s not available in my area) with broccoli and miso soup. For this first meal, I only made one okazu (side dish) instead of two.

Not only was it delicious, but I also felt so much joy from this meal — a completely different feeling from take-out meals that seem like fun but actually make me feel awful.

The joy I felt from this meal was the joy of deeply nourishing myself. 

I’ve always said that food is love, but this is the first time I’ve ever felt that love in a healthy way. I thought indulging in unhealthy foods was loving myself, but it was actually perpetuating a cycle of guilt and shame around food — and not valuing myself. 

Through this program, Kaki helped me understand what it means to love and take care of myself with what I use to fuel my body. 

7 reasons why ichiju sansai is well worth the effort

I found that the investment in planning, cooking, and washing dishes is absolutely worth it. MJK has had lasting benefits that I’m happy to report — and all this without giving up white rice or anything else!

1. My complex relationship with food has simplified.

MJK catalyzed major shifts in my relationship with food. I had classified some foods as “naughty” and others as “good,” then I would feel guilty for not eating enough good foods and feel like I should be punished for eating too many naughty foods. But now I don’t really worry about what I’m “supposed” to eat because eating a balanced variety of foods as taught in MJK is what makes me feel at my best. 

For example, choosing an apple over potato chips no longer feels like a punishment or deprivation — it feels like nourishment and love. In the past when I’ve heard that choosing a healthy snack is self-care, I could see how that was true, but they were just words to me. Now that I’ve felt the joy from nourishing myself with ichiju sansai, I truly understand what that means — and the choice is easy.

2. I eat more fruits and vegetables.

Since this has been my goal for many years without success, I’m thrilled to report that I actually eat more vegetables. Before MJK, I ate vegetables 2 to 3 times per month on average (sad, right?!) and fruits even less, but after MJK, I eat vegetables with at least 1 meal per day plus fruit as snacks. 

Now I consistently take the extra time to plan for at least one vegetable dish, even if I’m not making Japanese food. For example, when I made chili a few weeks ago, instead of serving with only corn bread, I made a refreshing vinaigrette coleslaw. 

As a direct result of MJK, eating without vegetables now seems incomplete, whereas before, I would’ve been totally fine making meat + carbs and calling it a meal. Of course I do still have the occasional pizza or burger, but for the most part, my meals are more nutritionally balanced.

3. I snack less, but if I do snack, I snack better.

After the pantry-cleaning exercise, I buy fewer foods that live in the pantry. I only buy the foods I know we will actually eat rather than impulsively buying random packages and letting them sit in the cabinet to get stale or spoil. 

Also, before MJK, I didn’t buy fruit very often: I would forget I had them, they would rot, then I would feel guilty about wasting money and sad about wasting food. 

Now, I usually buy fresh fruit instead of chips or other salty foods, and even if chips are available when I feel like snacking, I reach for the fruit instead. 

4. Indulgent food is not as fun.

Whenever I cooked an ichiju sansai meal, I found that joy was a consistent component, and when I indulged in the junk food that I used to enjoy so much, I discovered a stark contrast in the way I felt afterwards. I realized that nachos may be fine once in a while, but much like with shopping, indulgence isn’t the same as joy or happiness. 

Sure, cookies taste good in the moment, but they don’t generate the joy that nutritious food does, nor do they feel as fun anymore.

At first I was pretty sad about this; I felt cheated out of my treats — but I realized that I traded up for self-love. 

Because I have experienced the joy of nourishment, I don’t need indulgence to get that momentary good feeling. And if I choose indulge, I do so mindfully and usually have a smaller serving without feeling like I need to skip meals or work out immediately to make up for it. 

Just as importantly, I don’t feel guilty about the indulgences. I feel so much better eating balanced meals that I don’t feel like I need to beat myself up over every french fry. 

5. I lost weight and feel invigorated.

Along with feeling more energetic and chipper overall, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my clothes fit more comfortably without changing anything else about my lifestyle. Although I didn’t think to take my measurements before starting the program, I can zip up jeans now that I couldn’t 2 months ago.

I also have a menstrual cycle-related disorder that causes (among other things) severe bloating, fatigue, and mood issues, but this month has been one of the easiest I’ve ever had with these symptoms. Studies have shown that food and mood are related, so even though it wasn’t news, I was happy to discover that having a more balanced diet may be effective in improving my mood and other symptoms, even under the powerful influence of hormones.

Time will tell if the diet was actually the reason for the improvement, but I’ll be monitoring this closely and will update when I have more data.

6. My husband and I cook together.

I’d forgotten about it, but I wrote in Assignment 1 that I wanted to have more balance in cooking duties with my husband, so I’m happy to report that this unexpectedly happened! 

For the first 10+ years of being together, I did almost all the cooking for my husband and myself. I never thought I would see the day that we could cook together because, even though we value teamwork, we tend to do things differently in the kitchen and that made cooking together a bit difficult at times. 

With ichiju sansai, we now split dinner duty equally. My husband handles the protein and rice; I handle the side dishes. This works out perfectly, and we get to enjoy both cooking and eating together!

7. It created a positive feedback loop.

The loop looks like this: (1) I eat nutritious meals with ichiju sansai and snack on fruits, then (2) I experience all the wonderful benefits listed above, which (3) makes me want to continue cooking with ichiju sansai

I don’t have to rely on tricks, strict rules, or sheer willpower to stick to the plan or stay motivated. I don’t feel like I’m being deprived of anything that I want because I didn’t have to cut anything out. What I do feel is energetic and happy! The system feeds itself by having so many awesome results.

3 tips before you enroll

If you’re interested in trying ichiju sansai or MJK, here are some things to keep in mind about ichiju sansai in general and the program.

Adjust the recipes for your own needs

Kaki includes enough recipes that you feel like you have options but not so many that it’s overwhelming. The recipes aren’t generally difficult in terms of technical skill, but the meal looks fancy because of the great variety. And once you make the food, you can eat leftovers for a few days so you don’t have to cook every day. 

The recipes use the same or similar pantry ingredients in different ratios for flavoring, so you don’t have to buy a bunch of new spices if you want to try all the dishes. Even with the overlapping ingredients, they somehow taste different from each other — and delicious. My favorite recipe was tori renkon; my husband modifies it by pan frying the chicken separately and then tossing in the sauce to keep the chicken crispy. It is tasty both as written and with my husband’s modification!

One important note for vegetarians is that the protein-based okazu (side dishes) all involve meat or seafood. Maybe another vegetable-based okazu could be used to complete your meal, but that depends on your protein needs. You might be able to use a vegetarian substitute instead of meat in the same recipe, but I haven’t tried it, so I’m not sure how well that would work.

Also, if you have a Japanese or other Asian grocery store nearby, you’re in luck, but sometimes you’ll have to adapt. For example, Kaki recommends buying dashi powder, but I was not able to find that at my local store, so I make dashi stock from scratch. 

Be willing to invest extra effort for sustainable changes

Ichiju sansai is about making sustainable, lasting changes for your health. In other words, ichiju sansai and MJK are not a quick fix or crash diet, so be prepared to invest some time and energy, and maybe some money depending on what tools you already have. I used to only cook a protein and one other dish, most often a carbohydrate of some sort, so for me, ichiju sansai took a little more planning with the addition of a soup and 1 or 2 vegetable dishes for each meal. 

For the recipes provided, once you have the staples, you probably won’t need to buy much except the fresh veggies and meat, but you do still have to budget a little extra of both time (for cooking) and money (if you don’t normally make veggies). 

Be prepared to use — and wash — more dishes

I choose to serve my ichiju sansai meals in different bowls because I enjoy the aesthetic, and having many different dishes emphasizes the variety. The smaller dishes also help with portion control; because they are full, it seems like you’re getting a lot! I know it’s a visual trick, but it works in certain circumstances, and the smaller portions help stretch the meals out more. 

If you can, I recommend trying ichiju sansai with the special dishware. I used this guide by Just One Cookbook for the sizes and found inexpensive, appropriately sized bowls and plates at World Market (they have sales often). The dishes from there are all dishwasher safe, so that makes clean-up much easier. I did splurge on a special set of two, and they bring me joy every time I use them. I look forward to expanding my dishware collection because I found that the dishes add another level of enjoyment to the meal. 

Even if you choose to serve all your food on one plate, preparing and cooking the different okazu requires several bowls or pots. Every time we cook ichiju sansai, the kitchen is a bit of a wreck afterwards, despite me trying to keep up with the dishes as we go. We’re both pretty messy cooks, though, and our kitchen is not that big, so YMMV (your mileage may vary).

Minor quibbles

I only have a few small notes about the program:

  1. The audio is a little quiet, so I had to dial up my volume (PS: This made me feel like an old lady). I was still able to hear it, but I recommend headphones or earbuds for the videos.
  2. I edit writing for work, so I spotted a few typos and other minor issues with consistency in the presentations. The errors aren’t so frequent that they’re distracting; it’s just something that I notice because of the work that I do and because I’m a writer.
  3. Some of the info overlapped with public blogs. For a paid program, I expected entirely exclusive content.

That’s it! None of these were deal-breakers for me, but I wanted to mention them in case they might be for others. 

Closing thoughts

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by MJK’s effect on how I see and experience food. MJK helped me heal and unlearn some well-meaning but misguided ideas about what and how I need to eat to feel good and be healthy. Rather than thinking of food as a tool to force my body into a certain size and shape, I now see it as a way to deeply love and nourish myself. 

Taking the time and effort to create ichiju sansai is, in itself, an act of self-care: Making a balanced, nutritious, delicious meal means I’m prioritizing my health and wellness. Ichiju sansai makes everyday meals feel like a feast. As an added bonus, I enjoy the time spent cooking with my husband. All of these factors add up to a meal that brings me joy and is a show of love — for ourselves and each other. Not to say that we make ichiju sansai meals every day, but I always try to incorporate the MJK lessons of variety and balance into every meal. 

I enjoy the variety of foods and flavors, and my body loves getting the proper nutrition — I am reaping the benefits with more energy, positive moods, and increased focus. The more I eat this way, the better I feel, the more motivated I am to continue.

My experience is my experience, so YMMV, but if you’re interested in learning about ichiju sansai, how to cook Japanese food at home, and Japanese culture, I’d definitely recommend this program! Thank you, Kaki!

If you’re interested in enrolling in Kaki’s Minimalist Japanese Kitchen course, you’ll have to first subscribe to her newsletter. Enrollment is limited, but she periodically opens up spots, so look out for them in your email! To subscribe to her newsletter, click here.

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Photo by Richard Iwaki on Unsplash