When you live with a chronic or mental illness you will likely find that certain foods affect you, for better or worse. Everyone is different and finding the right foods for you is key.
There is a problem though, we don’t always have the energy needed to prepare healthy meals for ourselves. Cooking and baking require energy, strength, and can be downright painful.
Many of the premade meals and foods that are available are filled with ingredients that are harmful to anyone, but especially someone that already has poor health. Many of the healthier versions that can be found are $$$ and most of us with chronic illnesses simply do not have the income needed to purchase such things, at least not on a regular basis.
So are we doomed to a life of unhealthy eating? Not necessarily. I have found some things that make eating healthy a bit easier for myself. I know all of these tips may not work for each individual. Hopefully though, something here will be of benefit to you or give you some ideas that will work in your life.
This is my number one tip for a reason! In the past I was used to whole meals being made at one time and then eaten soon after. But after my health took a turn for the worse, I found I couldn't make multiple dishes at once. This led to frequent trips to a drive through for dinner, or I would only make one thing (usually from a box), without a veggie in sight.
Eventually I realized, I don’t have to make every component for dinner at the same time! Now this does vary a bit from the popular ‘meal prep’, which is making several meals all at once. This means you eat the same thing over and over for several days, that's not my kind of thing.
I prefer the method of food prep. I make a big batch of brown rice about once a week, at a time that I feel up to it, and reheat a serving at meal time. The same can be done with beans, quinoa, veggies, sauces, even pasta (quick tip: splash a little water onto the pasta before microwaving it, this helps it not taste dried out like reheated pasta often does). If you can't have gluten, or you are simply looking for a healthier option, try pasta made from brown rice, quinoa, edamame, lentils, or chickpeas.
I can then mix and match different foods with different sauces and toppings and I don’t get bored of the same ol thing every day.
This can also apply to foods that you eat raw, but require some prep time. When washing and preparing fruits and vegetables, such as grapes, berries, mini tomatoes, and cucumber, I prepare them all at once. Instead of preparing one serving at a time, I now have several servings ready to be taken out of the fridge and eaten. This is extremely helpful when you can barely stand because of pain or fatigue.
If you are not sure where to start search ‘food prep’ online or on social media. You will find a lot of ideas and tips that could help. And feel free to message me for recipes or more ideas.*
Have Easy Foods on Hand
Things like bananas, apples, a bag of pre washed spinach or lettuce require very little effort to have for snacks or to add some extra nutrients to your meal.
You can also find pre washed and cut veggies ready to be cooked in many stores. These items may not always be the healthiest options, as they sometimes contain additives to preserve freshness. There is also the environmental concern of the added packaging. And even though I care a lot about these things, if that's the only way you are physically capable of adding veggies into your diet, do it!
As much as I try to avoid unnecessary trash and packaging, sometimes surviving with a chronic illness means that a plastic bag of pre cut brussels sprouts or broccoli is in fact necessary.
Nuts are another great staple to always have on hand. They are full of beneficial nutrients, filling, require no prep time, and do not spoil quickly.
Have Frozen Foods on Hand
Frozen veggies are great to have on hand to add a quick, nutritious element to any meal. You don’t like the taste of frozen veggies? I hear ya, but it’s amazing what a yummy sauce, like marinara or salsa can do. Even just adding sea salt and some seasoning or dried herbs, with olive oil or vegan butter can transform the sometimes bland frozen vegetables.
You can also find many ready to eat meals in the frozen food section. But beware, not every seemingly healthy meals actually are. Many frozen foods are packed with preservatives, artificial flavorings, sugar, and more. I have found in most cases a good rule of thumb is to avoid anything that has the words “diet” “low fat” or “lean”. In many instances those are buzz words that sound good, but really just mean they’re full of chemicals, a.k.a. not real food.
Do not despair though, there are more and more actually healthy foods that can be found in the frozen section. There are a number options of healthier veggie burgers, burritos, even pizza. The issue is, these sometimes (almost always) cost more. So you may have decide if this is something you can add to your budget. Can you spend a little more on one or two of these things and less somewhere else? Perhaps having some of these things on hand for only the worst of days, while you prepare less expensive foods yourself on your better days?
Find the Right Preparation
There is another hurdle to eating healthy for many, and that is they just don’t like many healthy foods. Hey, believe me I get it. When I am feeling especially bad, I don’t always feel like eating a lot of healthy foods, even though I normally like them.
So that is where this tip comes into play, find the right preparation for you. Because honestly, trying to force yourself to eat something you don’t like is really just setting yourself up for failure.
When it comes to eating veggies it is amazing how different they taste depending on how you prepare them. Steamed broccoli and roasted broccoli are like two completely different things.
Sauces and seasonings can also make a huge difference in taste. Herbs not only add yummy flavor they also add their own nutrients and powerful natural, plant healing power to your meal.
Another tip is to simply hide veggies in your favorite foods. Obviously I don’t mean that literally, you will know they are there. But adding veggie purees or shredded veggies is a way to add extra nutrients, without feeling like you’re eating a pile of vegetables.
For example, every two or three months I make a big pot of what I call hidden veggie sauce. It is essentially tomato sauce that also has a variety of other veggies blended up in it. Once I’m done with it, I divide it up and freeze most of it. I then add it to pasta, veggies, quinoa, pizza, wherever you would normally add tomato or marinara sauce.**
Another example is to shred up some zucchini, squash, carrots, or whatever veggie you have, and add that while cooking noodles, rice, pasta, quinoa, beans. You will hardly notice them, but they will add an extra boost of nutrients.
Buy Organic When Possible
You can’t afford to buy everything organic? I understand, I can’t either! But is it possible to buy some things organic? As I mentioned earlier sometimes it’s a matter of prioritizing what you spend your money on.
Maybe start by getting some of produce from the Dirty Dozen list. Also looking for organic packaged foods like crackers or pretzels can reduce the amount of harmful additives that you are eating.
While organic foods are still more costly than their “conventional”*** counterparts, more and more stores have their own line of organic products. As I am sure most of us that have struggled financially know, store brands are often just as good as the name brands!
There are a number of ways to add healthy foods to your life while living with chronic illness, it may require a little more effort, it may cost a little bit more, but ultimately eating healthier is an investment in your body and your health.
*I eat a predominantly plant based diet, so my tips reflect that. But many of these tips can also apply to meat/dairy products.
**I would totally share the recipe, but I make it differently each time, based on what veggies I have on hand or are in season.
***I hate that chemical filled foods are considered the norm. But sadly that's it where the world is at right now. That is why I refer to them as conventional.