Have you ever literally broken down in tears just thinking about the task of making dinner?
Spoonie friends, I’m willing to bet you have. For those of us with chronic illness and/or mental illness, there are some days where the thought of having to come up with something to eat—even if it’s just for yourself—is enough to break you. Severe fatigue, pain, and mental fog are a daily reality, and they can prevent you from taking proper care of yourself. As spoonies, we’re all probably aware that it’s better to eat fresh, healthy foods and home-cooked meals, but there are times when that ideal seems laughable. Heck, I’ve had days where I knew I had a frozen burrito waiting for me in the freezer and that all I had to do was get up and stick it in the microwave, but you know what? Even that seemed too hard. Reader, I cried.
I cried because a frozen burrito didn’t seem worth the effort. I didn’t really want to eat it.
I cried because it seemed like the only option.
I cried because we were out of eggs and tortillas and cheese and I was too tired to go to the store.
What I’ve learned since then is that when you live with chronic illness, you need to plan ahead knowing that your best intentions may fail you. If you know yourself and can plan for your needs, you’ll find you’re much better equipped to take care of yourself on the days where everything is difficult.
On the “Day of the Burrito” my planning failed me because my plan hadn’t taken me into account. I had stocked my freezer with burritos because they were cheap and easy, not because I actually wanted to eat them and definitely not because they were good for me. Pro tip: when your body already feels crummy, don’t feed it $0.50 burritos. Your body needs and deserves more from you.
The other thing I’ve found that makes dinner so difficult some days is the process of deciding what to eat. When you’re over-tired and clouded by mental fog, no amount of staring at your pantry or fridge will make your decision about what to eat easier. So I find that having a list of go-to options combined with keeping a well-stocked pantry and fridge is a huge help in avoiding dinner-prep tears. With that in mind, today I’m sharing my top five fast, easy, low-spoon dinners.
1. Beef stew and biscuits
I can already feel it—this first one is going to be controversial. Here’s why: canned beef stew and canned biscuits. “But Anna,” you say, “weren’t you just nagging us about making healthy choices??” Yes yes YES okay. Hear me out: beef stew is rich, warm, and will fill you up. It has vegetables and protein in it, and you can get the low-sodium kind, okay? Canned soups are awesome because they keep for a long time, so you can stock up on the varieties you like and keep them for days when you need an easy win. If your objection here is the soup variety I suggested, I’m sorry—my family ate canned beef stew when we went camping every summer (over rice, which is another great option if you don’t want/can’t eat biscuits), so it’s got the nostalgia factor going for it in my mind. Choose a different canned soup, then. Amy’s makes a yummy lentil soup that’s gluten free/dairy free/soy free/lactose free/corn free/tree nut free/vegan/kosher and also available in a low-sodium variety, so there you go. If you have the energy for the biscuits and can eat them, do try them. The biscuits (or rice) help make this feel like a satisfying meal instead of a bowl full of sadness, and they take only a little more energy to make.
2. Quesadillas (and salsa/guacamole/sour cream)
If you can stand or sit in front of the stove for three minutes to cook one in a frying pan, great, but if not, the microwave will do just fine. We always keep a jar of salsa in the fridge and often a tub of sour cream. If you want to splurge and buy guac (yum), go for it, and if you have some protein you want to add (chicken, beef, beans, whatever), awesome. Another great option here: nachos. Sometimes we have tortilla chips but not tortillas, so this makes a great substitute, especially if you have a can of beans in your pantry to add to it. Just load ’em up, pop ’em in the microwave, and you’re all set.
3. Scratch chicken
I should probably come up with a better name for this so it doesn’t sound like a disease or some kind of campfire story mutant. Anyway, I always keep a package of frozen chicken breasts or tenders in my freezer, so sometimes I can fix up a scratch meal, meaning I throw something together with the chicken, toss it in the oven, and forget about it for an hour or so. We almost always have a jar of salsa and a package of shredded cheese on hand, so that’s a favorite combo in our house. Maybe you always have a can of cream of mushroom soup in your pantry, or apricot preserves, or frozen broccoli, or pasta sauce, or ranch dressing. Find a combo that sounds good and go for it. For the chicken/salsa/cheese combo, I put the frozen chicken in a casserole dish, pour salsa over it (maybe dilute it with a little water, maybe not), then sprinkle lots of cheese on top. Then it goes in the oven and bakes according to the instructions on the chicken package. Your results may vary, but that’s the gist of it.
4. Prepackaged salad mix + protein of your choice
Grab one of those salad mix bags that comes with dressing and toppings and grab a protein you have on hand to add to it: hard boiled eggs, chicken (canned is easy), deli meat, salmon (also canned, if you like), tofu, beans, quinoa, shelled edamame (frozen and thawed in the microwave), or some other option you prefer. This is great for hot summer days or for times when you really feel like you need some veggies (anyone else get that feeling like you’ll keel over if you don’t eat something green ASAP?).
5. Omelet or Scramble
Eggs cook so nice and quickly, so you’ll be done and fed in no time. If you have any pre-chopped veggies around that would be good with eggs, throw them in there (I’ve been grabbing pre-chopped bell peppers and mushrooms at the store recently). If you don’t have veggies, salsa is a good option (we eat a lot of salsa in my house), and so is cheese and/or deli meat if you have some. Or you can also just go for a plain scramble with salt and pepper. Another great option: a friend egg on buttered toast. YUM.
Tips for Success
So there you have it! Five options that are at least a step above instant soups and frozen burritos of sadness. But before you go, I also wanted to give you some tips for shopping/stocking your fridge and pantry to help you succeed:
- If grocery shopping is difficult for you (it often is for me), try a grocery delivery service like Instacart or (affiliate links ahead >> full disclosure statement available here) Amazon Prime Now / Amazon Fresh / Amazon Prime Pantry (they all have slightly different benefits and rules and are available in different areas. In my suburb, for instance, we only have Pantry available). But definitely also check with your local grocery store to see if they have their own delivery program. Our local Vons/Albertsons will carry our grocery delivery up two flights of stairs to our condo and straight into our kitchen, so that’s a huge plus.
- Focus on stocking good, easy protein sources, fresh and frozen; frozen veggies; frozen fruit for smoothies, if you’re into that; quick lunch components like deli meat, tortillas, cheese, and salad mix; and pantry goods like soups, sauces, pasta, rice, beans, crackers, and more protein (canned tuna and chicken are great to keep on hand).
- Know yourself and know what you’ll actually eat. I find eggs pretty delicious, but maybe you don’t. I hate most seafood, but maybe you adore shrimp. Adapt your list of staples accordingly and equip yourself to succeed!
That’s it for now! If you find this list helpful, let me know in the comments and I might add to it. What are your favorite low-spoon meals? Let me know!
Love to you all and eat some veggies,
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