Tips for Cooking when You're Chronically Ill

Any of us with food allergies and intolerances already have a lot of work to do in the kitchen. But when you are also battling with any type of chronic illness, the challenge becomes even more intense. Combining a limited diet with feeling sick all the time makes it hard to get the motivation and energy to cook. I mean really, when you don’t feel well the last thing you want to do is cook, right?  

I have been fortunate that my Lyme symptoms have never made me totally unable to cook for myself. I have always been able to grocery shop and prepare my own meals.  And while I've always been able to do it, a few years ago when I was very sick it was completely exhausting. I was so brain foggy and fatigued that preparing a meal took forever, and left me feeling trained. I lived alone and was working a full time job, and it was a serious struggle.

During those times, I figured out some tips and tricks that helped me along the way - things that I still do today even though I'm feeling better. The trick is learning how to make the most of your time in the kitchen and get the most out of your meals.  Making big batches, eating whole foods, and getting help from friends are just a few ideas. Here are some of my favorite things I learned, and I hope they help you too.

Tips for Cooking when You're Chronically Ill 

Make big batches and freeze the leftovers. When you’re having a good day or when you have help from a friend, make big batches.  It is more work on the front end, but ultimately, it leaves you with less work.  You can eat off your big batch all week or freeze the leftovers for later.  Basics like cooked rice, quinoa, millet, or any kind of cooked beans can last for 5-7 days in the fridge if tightly sealed, and they can freeze very well for months.  Prepared foods like soups, lasagna (with brown rice lasagna noodles!), casseroles,  burgers and meatballs, and homemade breads and muffins freeze amazingly well. I use a FoodSaver to vacuum package all my foods for the freezer.  Then when I am super busy or having a bad day and can’t deal with being in the kitchen, I can just reach in the freezer and get something wholesome!

Get friendly with quick to prepare whole foods.

  • Split mung beans and lentils cook quick very quickly and don’t require pre-soaking.
  • Whole grains like quinoa, millet, and buckwheat cook in under 20 minutes. Make big pots of a couple different grains at the start of the week and eat off them all week in salads, soups, or just plain.
  • Winter squash are nutritious and so easy to bake, and you can eat off them for days. 
  • Sweet potatoes and regular potatoes can be baked whole in the oven or microwave, and stored in the fridge for 3-4 days.
  • Most vegetables can be eaten raw if you don’t want to deal with cooking them.  Make a meal of bean dip, raw vegetables, and miso soup.

Steam vegetables. Steamed vegetables take only minutes to prepare, are easy to digest, and can be eaten any time of day with any kind of other foods. You can steam vegetables on the stovetop with a steaming basket in a pot, or you can purchase electric vegetable steamer appliances if you don’t trust yourself (and your Lyme brain) with open flame.  My rice cooker even has a vegetable steaming tray that I sometimes use if I don’t feel like using the stovetop.

Make salads and get comfortable with eating raw.  The easiest food in the book.  Bag of pre-washed baby greens, some kind of protein (beans, meat, fish, nuts), and a handful of other vegetables, or a scoop of quinoa or millet.  Add some salad dressing or a little oil and vinegar, lemon juice, or  sprinkle of vitamin C crystals, and you’re done!  Under 5 minutes.  If your body tolerates raw vegetables well, learn to love eating raw veggies with your meals – less prep work, and good for you too!

Eat plenty of nutrient-dense foods. Don't skimp on the calories and fat. Make sure you eat enough during the day, eating eveyr few hours to keep your blood sugar stable and your metabolism going. Assuming that your body can digest fats well,  you should eat lots of healthy fats throughout the day.  Not only will it help the your brains nerve coatings, it will help your body tissues, and give you a sense of satisfaction.  Cook with coconut oil or ghee, and add olive oil, flax oil, pumpkin seed oil, and help oil to salads or over baked sweet potatoes.  Eat plenty of avocados, nuts and seeds, coconut milk, and high quality olives.  If you can, make bone broth, which is a good source of natural fat and nourishing gelatins. While you are healing, it is imperative that you keep your body well nourished, and eating quality fat can really help.

Make miso soup. If you tolerate beans, eat miso.  Most miso is made of soy, but South River Miso also makes soy-free gluten-free varieties from chickpeas and azuki beans.  As a soy free person, I love this stuff.  Throw some fresh or frozen vegetables in a pot with 1 cup of water, heat until vegetables are cooked through.  Add cooked fish or other meat, beans, or other things like sea vegetables or cooked rice.   When everything is warm, remove from heat, and stir in miso paste. Then eat!  Easy, nourishing, and so so fast.  Sometimes I just make a cup of miso for a nourishing mid-afternoon snack, or drink in the morning instead of coffee!

Make smoothies.This involves little to no prep time and gives you amazing nutrition in a very easy-to-digest way.   I make green smoothies for any meal of the day, adding whatever raw or cooked vegetables I have on had, and anything else from beans to leftover grains, to coconut milk to protein powders or random superfoods.   I often make savory smoothies, but if you can tolerate fruit, add fresh or frozen fruit for a sweet twist.  If you can’t tolerate a lot of sugar, things like lemon and lime juice, fresh ginger, cranberries, and vitamin C crystals add bite without the sugar, and fresh herbs like parsley and mint add great flavor. Smoothies are the ultimate no-preparation meal.  

Don’t have energy or strength to peel, chop, and dice fresh vegetables?  No problem! Many grocery stores sell  packages of cleaned, chopped, and peeled basic vegetables in the produce or deli section, and there are lots of excellent frozen organic and conventional ready-to-cook vegetables.   Look in the freezer section and you’re bound to find a wide variety of vegetables, from cooked squash to spinach to peas to cauliflower.   While fresh, whole veggies are always best, these pre-cut and frozen options are AWESOME if you need to give yourself a break in the kitchen.

Eat meat? Buy rotisserie chickens. If you can find a grocery store that sells free-range, hormone-free, no antiobiotic rotisserie chickens, you're in luck. Rotisserie chickens are a lifesaver, and money well-spent – so many meals, and so so so so good!

Choose quality pre-made pantry items. It is great to have a well-stocked pantry of high-quality pre-made foods to choose from when you can't cook for yourself! Choose minimally processed frozen and canned goods, like…

  • Amy’s Kitchen canned soups and frozen entrees
  • Kettle Cuisine frozen soups (gluten free!)
  • Pacific soups and broths (in boxes)
  • Sunshine Burgers (GF, soy-free, vegan sunflower seed burgers!)
  • Eden Foods canned beans, beans & rice, and (BPA free!)
  • Muir Glen canned tomatoes
  • Easy to cook grain products: quinoa flakes, cream of rice, kasha/cream of buckwheat, GF oatmeal, whole grain millet, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth
  • Trader Joe’s stuff – they have everything!  Soup, broth, frozen stuff, cereal, etc and a lot of it is all natural, organic, and minimally processed.
  • Whole Foods 365 Brand items – minimally processed, not too expensive
  • Lundberg Family farms rice cakes
  • Food for Life brown rice tortillas
  • Nut and seed butters (natural style, unsweetened, no additives).  If you have nut allergies, try Sunbutter, pumpkin seed butter, sesame tahini, or hempseed butter.
  • High-quality canned tuna, salmon, and sardines
  • Bubbie's sauerkraut (in the refrigerator section)
  • South River chickpea and azuki miso (gluten-free, soy-free, vegan)

High quality protein powders. Protein powders are kind of weird, and in theory, I don’t like the über-processed nature of them.  A few years ago I nearly lived on UltraClear Plus by Metagenix for a while, especially when my digestion was a mess and I wasn't absorbing nutrients from food very well. It is a high quality medical food meal replacement protein powder.  Metagenix makes a number of different medical food formulations; this one was suggested by my naturopath and I had great success with it.  It is formulated for people that suffer from chronic fatigue and assists in liver support and detox.  I find it to be a really useful addition to my diet, especially when I’m traveling, needing a detox day, or am on the go and know I’ll need a snack.  I just put a scoop or two into a small glass pint jar and throw it in my purse – then when I want it, add water, shake, and drink.  Two scoops has 160 calories, 20 grams carbs, and 15 grams of protein, and loads of vitamins and minerals.  If I don’t feel like cooking, I’ll often throw a scoop of this into a green smoothie for a quick meal, and get complete nutrition in an instant.  Easy.

There are also decent protein powders made from brown rice, hemp seed, and other mixes.

Get a VitaMix. I think a Vita-Mix is the best kitchen appliance you can ever buy!  I use my Vita-Mix multiple times a day for everything, from chopping vegetables to making smoothies, sauces, vegetable purees, bean dips and hummus, and soups, to grinding my own flours and making my own fresh nut and seed butters.  It makes working in the kitchen so easy and so fast.  I am addicted to my VitaMix.  My favorite thing? Making fresh, hot, blended soups in less than 10 minutes – the blender can actually HEAT food because it is so powerful, and you hardly have to chop or cut up anything

Get a crock pot.  You can’t start fires, you don’t have to keep checking on it, and you can just throw a bunch of stuff in the pot and forget about it all day.  Easy. If you aren’t good at coming up with your own recipes, there are lots of great slow cooker cookbooks out there.  Check out the great blog A Year of Slow Cooking for amazing inspiration. 

Get a rice cooker. Perfect rice every time with very little effort.  Enough said. But I’ll say more.  You can also cook quinoa, millet, and other grains, and some rice cookers have steamer baskets.  I’ve made soup in a rice cooker before.  

Use a kitchen timer.  Worried about setting things on fire or burning your food because your brain fog is so bad you forget that you're even cooking?  I've been there too. Give your chronically ill and foggy brain a break. Set a timer. Your food, pots and pans, and smoke detector will thank you for it.  Trust me, I know. 

Don’t cook at all, and hit up the salad bar or deli. Go to Whole Foods, a local salad place or deli, or your local grocery store or co-op and make a big salad from their salad bar and deli.  So easy, so good.

Don’t cook at all, and order take-out. In a pinch, it works.  Depending on where you live, your options may be kind of terrible, but if you live in a larger metropolitan area, there are lots of awesome – and healthy – foods available for delivery!  Have dietary restrictions?  Talk to the manager of your favorite local delivery place and tell them about your needs – if they know you’ll order a lot from them, they might be willing to do special orders for you.

Don’t cook at all, and ask for help. There is nothing wrong with asking for help if you need it.  You might be too sick to do any kind of cooking for yourself, and you might have to rely on others. If this is what you need, don’t feel bad about it – just do what you need to do to nourish yourself.  Here are a few ideas!

  • Ask neighbors, friends, or family members to prepare meals for you or bring you an extra bowl of whatever they are making, or ask if you can go over to their house for dinner a couple nights a week.  If you can get a few people to help you, each person may only need to help out once or twice a week!  Offer to pay them a weekly amount for their help in exchange, or see if there is something you can do to barter!
  • Ask friends to grocery shop for you and bring you high-quality pre-made deli items from  Whole Foods, your local food co-op, or your local natural deli.
  • Put an ad for help on Craigslist.  Make your expectations and needs very clear and be smart about meeting and interviewing them – be safe and use common sense.  There are lots of great people out there that might be willing to help grocery shop for you, cook, and do other household chores in exchange for some extra money in their pocket.
  • Look into local meal delivery programs.  There are many non-profit organizations that cater to chronically ill people; with a letter from your doctor or case worker you may qualify.  For anyone living in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, try contacting Open Arms of Minnesota, an organization that does free meal delivery to people with chronic illnesses.  I'd like to start volunteering in their kitchen, now that I'm feeling more strong and energetic again!
  • Reach out to your local Lyme Disease support group, and see if anyone has suggestions for meal assistance programs, or see if anyone has a healthy friend who is willing to help out Lymies in need. There is no harm in reaching out and asking the question!
  • Throw yourself a cooking party!  Ask friends to come over and take over your kitchen.  Assign each friend to come up with something and ask them to bring all the ingredients they need to make it.  They can cook it in your kitchen, and everyone can hang out and watch a movie while stuff cooks.  You pay them back for whatever they buy, and you can grace them with your presence while they cook for you.  Make big batches and freeze leftovers. It is like your own cooking crew, and it will be both fun and useful!

I hope those ideas are helpful.  How do you cook when you’re sick? Share your suggestions in the comments section!

*The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.

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