bowls of soup

Over 30% of households with a working-age disabled adult who cannot work do not regularly have enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs.  

Think about that! Those of us who do have enough to eat need to pause and be grateful that how to prepare foods is the issue for us!

And for those of us who are in that unstable food position, my heart goes out to you. 

If you haven’t applied already, I have a post for you to read on SNAP(food stamps).

Today, I want to talk you through how to plan your way to easier and tastier meals.

Besides the issues around getting food into the house, preparing the food is another issue that those of us with disabling conditions need to think about.  

Though tasty, soda is primarily made of sugar in various forms, with coloring and preservatives mixed in.

Food is usually cheapest when it is highly processed, which often makes it relatively unhealthy.

Often these foods are loaded with preservatives, including salt, and in many cases, they are made from either low-quality products, or are mostly sugar and flavoring, with very little of what they are calling it there.  

Healthy fresh food is often more perishable (fewer preservatives and shorter shelf-life), and often requires more effort to prepare(chopping, peeling, cutting, etc).

This is true for anyone. Those of us with disabilities need to solve our food dilemmas both inexpensively (as we are often low income) and in ways that don’t tax us too hard (as often we don’t have the physical or mental energy to cook).

 What follows are suggestions to help you adjust your thinking and planning around food and food preparation so that the process is as successful and simple as possible.

Think about your priorities

Consider where food preparation is in your priorities.

This looks like it will be delicious! But there’s a lot of chopping and prep work to do before it’s dinner 

 I’m very serious here.

Life is a constant effort to juggle priorities and decide what needs to be done now, what needs to be done later, and what activities can be put in a mental box labeled ‘maybe someday’.  

If right now you are a bit overwhelmed by other things, like finding a treatment plan, maintaining your living situation, or working on a project that will make your life better, please don’t focus too much on food.  

I’m impressed that you’re reading this, as it indicates your degree of concern for your own health.

If food is not a priority, go through this list, and figure out the simplest things that you can do for yourself.

This could include is making meals that are easy for you, seeing if family or friends can help you with meals(or share theirs), or, if the budget allows, buying healthier prepared meals for yourself.

For example, a rotisserie chicken with (previously frozen)steamed vegetables isn’t a bad meal, and the chicken can likely cover a few meals with a bit of creativity.

Worst case scenario there are now some reasonably healthy single-serving frozen meals if you are up to doing some research and label reading when you shop.

Stir-fries! I love them, but couldn’t make them for years

I have been through periods where food was nothing more than a necessity I needed to apply minimal thought to.  

For a while, I was living on frozen dishes.

I’d go into the store during those times, and go straight to the freezer section, and pick up a variety of frozen meals that were as low-salt and high in vegetables as possible.

  Since I wasn’t buying any pantry staples it wasn’t insanely more expensive either.

I did this, for example, after I moved into my own apartment after breaking up with a boyfriend who became abusive.

Later, in a new relationship, I handed over food planning and preparation to my current partner, Al.

He wasn’t working much at the time, and I had just started graduate school in NYC, so had a lot of studying and long commutes many days.

There have been other points in my life where focusing on food and food preparation was the most natural and obvious thing for me to do.  

My chia puddings were nowhere near this pretty, but they still tasted delicious!

After a big symptom shift, for example, food preparation was often one of the best ways to rebuild my self-confidence and improve my eating habits.  

I had a bit more energy than I’d had previously, but would often need to rediscover what I could or couldn’t do.

I had one point a few years ago where I really focused in on healthy eating and did a lot of research around ways to prepare and eat food to help lose or control weight that did not involve starving or deprivation.  

That brought healthy eating into focus, and I happily walked that path for years – testing to see what I could and couldn’t do. 

Making chia pudding or microwaving whole grain oats for oatmeal was pretty easy, but I still couldn’t trust myself to make a stir-fry.

So I didn’t. I focused instead on things I could handle doing.

Take an inventory of your skills and weaknesses

  1. Think about what cooking skills and abilities you currently have. 
    Also, consider what skills you enjoy using – sometimes pleasure can outweigh the challenge.   In my case, I watched my parents cook a lot so I was familiar with the concepts, and following recipes, but I didn’t do a lot of cooking on my own until after I moved out.  I had tried out a variety of ways to cook though, so there wasn’t much that I was afraid to try.
  2. Consider whatever limitations you currently have, physically and mentally, around food preparation.  In my case, the way my Functional Neurological Disorder(FND) expressed was usually in the form of movements, and my symptoms are more likely to come out at the worst possible times. I mean that literally.  The stress of knowing that I needed to dump out the pasta, or stir the dish right now would often be enough to set my symptoms off and leave me rocking and shaking and unable to do what I needed to do.  I slowly learned to avoid certain ways and types of food to prepare, like cooking pasta (needing to drain it would require coordination I couldn’t guarantee), quick, time-sensitive dishes(like stir-fries), and most stove-top cooking.  Unless I was making a meal with a friend or family member who was ready and willing to take over for me at any moment, I would not attempt those sorts of meals.
  3. Think about the food prep techniques that have worked for you.  
removing cupcakes from the oven
This feels a lot safer for me AND the food than stove-top work – at least I have protective equipment!

What are the things that you have found easy?

What hasn’t set off or increased your symptoms? 

The way my symptoms worked would have little effect on making dishes in a slow cooker or in the microwave.  

If I felt I had the energy to put the ingredients together (or to clean the blender, in cases of blender-based baking), baking would also be a comfortable option.

The timer doesn’t start until after the food is in the oven, and baking times are relatively forgiving.  You need to be accurate within a few minutes, rather than seconds to a minute or two.

Work smarter, not harder

Here are more considerations to help you self-assess and come up with meal plans for yourself!

  1. How can I lean into my cooking strengths, and reduce the time I spend dealing with my weaknesses? (example: I can focus for a while, but need a break afterwards – so I use crock pots or bread machines or blenders so I don’t have much time pressure when finding or measuring ingredients, and once it’s started, I don’t need to think about it for 15 minutes to 5 hours, depending)
  2. Are there types of ingredients that are complementary to where I am now? (ex: pasta usually requires pouring out boiling water, but rice, couscous, or quinoa do not)
  3. Are there styles of cooking that better complement where I am in food preparation? (example: stir-fries require minimal time on the stovetop, but a fair burst of focus and concentration- no zoning out or rest breaks allowed during cooking.  Making a stew, on the other hand, is usually more forgiving on the time front, but takes much longer)
  4. If aspects of food preparation are tough, can I find an alternative way that isn’t too expensive? (example: chopping fresh vegetables takes time and energy, and leaves waste that needs to be trashed. But purchasing frozen vegetables (often already appropriately cut) saves effort and energy without compromising the final product)
  5. Once you find a style of food preparation that makes sense, there are tons of recipes out there to choose from – simply search for that method (examples: crockpot meals, 15-minute meals, 30-minute meals, pasta dishes, rice dishes, soups, stews, blender baking, or microwave meals), and select recipes that fit your current lifestyle and preferences.

Improving cooking skills

Yum, stew! This is also a dish that is usually made to serve 4 or more people – so extra portions to freeze and eat another day!

If you are at a point where you want to cook more often or cook more complicated dishes, the previous steps are still vital.  They let you know where you are currently, and give you some insights on appropriate next steps for you. The key thing is to slowly but steadily shift your cooking style and expectation.  Divide the recipes you want to make into the following three categories:

  1. Meals I can always make(simple enough that during a flare I’m still good)
  2. Meals I can often make(can’t be flaring/low energy, but most days I can do it.)
  3. Stretch meals (If I’m feeling ambitious, I should be able to make it).  

Have ingredients on hand that you can use for all three types of meals, and see how often you make each kind.  

To push yourself, try to make those stretch meals more and more often, and slowly your skills and comfort will go up enough that what used to be a stretch is now on your regular repertoire.  

Always have a low energy backup or two on hand in case of a day where you just can’t push yourself, or you need your energy for other activities.  

Planning your way to easier and tastier meals

The more you plan meals in advance, the more likely you are to be able to break the options down and minimize the risk of wasted food.  

Also, once you make the meal plans, you can use the meal plan to create a shopping list, which helps with budgeting better.

If you know what you are making for your meal, it minimizes the mental energy needed during food preparation.

If you know what you’re eating, you only need to focus on how to make it, whereas if you don’t have a plan on what you’re making, you’ll be expending some energy and effort into deciding WHAT to make, on top of HOW to make it.  

The simpler the job is, and the smaller the pieces needed to complete it, the more likely you are to be able to succeed in it.

So when thinking about food, be sure to make the process as easy on yourself as possible! 

Plan your meals in advance, and make the dishes you can enjoy preparing – minimize your pain points and maximize your comfort in the preparation process. 

Select ingredients and dishes that you can easily work with, and you will be able to prepare your meals with less stress and more joy!

statistics from: Coleman-Jensen A., Nord M. (2013). Food insecurity among households with working-age adults with disabilities (Economic Research Report No. ERR-144). Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture.

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