How to Cook While Struggling With Chronic Illness and Disability
How I feed myself in spite of my limitations. (Includes an easy slowcooker frittata recipe)
Content warning for discussion of food and how depression and anxiety affect eating habits.
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Let's start by talking about my problems with cooking.
I used to be able to Cook. Like capital-C cook. I did multi course meals where everything - I mean everything - was made from scratch. Even the butter.
I loved cooking. Cooking was a happy place for me. It was meditative. In some ways it was even spiritual.
And then I got sick.
When I first started to get sick I just didn't cook. I got delivery. I used a food service which dropped off pre-made breakfasts and then ordered delivery for dinner.
You may notice a lack of a third meal in there. I just don't eat that one. I have a midnight snack of cold cereal or some toast with my last dose of medicine which has to be taken with food. Otherwise I'm just not hungry.
The delivery system worked great. But then covid happened. Also my private disability benefits ran out. Getting frequent deliveries was now not only costly but dangerous. I had to fend for myself.
That meant trying to cook again.
My brain is such a jumbled mess that even writing about why cooking is difficult is taking effort for me. But I want to describe what it's like when I try to cook now, which is to say that it's hard.
The thing to understand first and foremost is that none of my problems are rational. You're probably going to read what I can't do and say "Oh but if you can do X you can do Y" and yes, logically you'll be 100% right. But there is no logic here. This is anxiety, and concentration issues, and use of physical and mental energy and I just can't do it.
I can't stand for significant periods of time. I've never actually timed myself to get the limits of my endurance but anything more than twenty minutes starts to push it.
Concentrating is difficult. Anything with multiple steps is too much. Anything with multiple parts is too much. Think making a main dish and a salad. If there's more than one thing: pot, recipe, whatever, I panic and I can't do it.
I can't be locked into having to focus on something for more than twenty minutes. It's both because of energy and because it triggers anxiety. And here this isn't just something where, say, I'm standing over a pot on the stove stirring and adding ingredients. Even starting something which can cook on its own is too much if it's in that tight period of time.
Again, this is not rational. But something like putting a frozen pizza in the oven is the extent of what I can manage: It's that same time frame but because it requires no real effort from me leading into it or getting it onto my plate when it's done I can handle it. But conversely if I had to cook a meal on top of the stove which needed the same amount of time - well I don't. I can't handle it. Too much, I just down, it could give me a panic attack.
Related, I can't do a lot of prep work. I can do some if I have to. If I have to chop something - literally a thing I can usually manage it. But the more prep something requires the less I'm able to do it.
Likewise the more something requires thought, memory, concentration from me, the more I'm not able to do it.
As I say my brain's having a hard time even describing it so let me give some examples of what I can manage. These are not necessarily things I can do all at once, but they are tasks I can accomplish. Bearing in mind again that in the old days something like making my own pasta from scratch which I would then turn into ravioli was like nothing for me. This isn't to brag about my old skills1 but to show how severe the impact has been. I'm not trying to do that joke about "Doc, will I be able to play the violin?" when I never played in the first place.
Here are things I can do these days:
- Boil water for tea
- Make toast
- Prepare fruit to eat (ex. peel a clementine or slice an apple)
- Heat something in the microwave
- Boil water for and make pasta (Difficult but can be achieved)
- Boil broth and add noodles for a basic soup (Same as pasta)
- Cook a frozen pizza in the oven
- Put things in a crock pot to cook.
As you may imagine, it's that last one which has proven to be a saving grace for me.
A crockpot hits the perfect sweet spot of minimal effort on my part combined with being able to briefly engage, spend hours recovering, then re-engage when I'm mentally ready. Again: there's nothing rational here. I'm aware that I could put many of the exact same meals into my Instant Pot and have them cook in a faster amount of time. I could but I very much can't. My brain cannot handle it. It would make me panic. It does not work for me.
But slow cooking I can handle.
I had a basic slow cooker for years but it broke. Which meant that one month before lockdown started in the US I bought this model:
This is a Crock-Pot 6 Quart 5-in-1 Multi-Cooker.* As you might guess from the description, it does a lot of things which an Instant Pot can do. The only function it's missing is the pressure cooker part. But again: my brain cannot handle using my Instant Pot, even if I stuck to the slow cooker setting. It’s not rational but it's what I'm dealing with.
(* Note that that is an Amazon Affiliate link. However in the interest of full disclosure the current price on it is WAY more expensive than I paid for it. I paid something like $60 give or take. So the link is included for convenience and because this is the model I can personally vouch for but there may be others out there which are more in your price range.)
A slow cooker shaped slow cooker, though, I can handle. And the added bonus is that, unlike most slow cookers, this model allows you to sauté right in the pot. That opens up a world of possibilities for me because it makes adding browned meat to a recipe something within my current abilities. Dump meat in, stir, dump other things in, cover, set time, ignore for hours. Perfect.
In addition to looking for recipes with very few steps, I look for ones which are full meals in and of themselves. By which I mean meat, vegetables, carbs all in one go. I can't say that every recipe I use is the pinnacle of a health food, but at least it's more inclined to provide me what nutrients I need than a frozen pizza.
(Not that I don't occasionally still have frozen pizza.)
I also buy things which save on work and steps, including but not limited to:
- Prechopped fresh vegetables
- Bottles of minced garlic
- Diced frozen onions
- Assorted bags of frozen vegetables
- Penzeys seasoning blends (not an affiliate link)
- Canned broth
- Canned beans
- Canned tomatoes (diced, sauce, etc.)
- Jarred sauces
- Various kinds of pasta
- Frozen chicken breasts
- Bags of shredded cheese
The prechopped vegetables save me on doing the prep work. I can dump in diced celery and shredded carrots or what have you and move on with my life.
Bottles of minced garlic allow me to add all the garlic that I want (which is typically four times what the recipe calls for as a bare minimum) while again saving me on having to do the work. I know that many a professional chef with a cooking show makes a point of turning their noses up at bottled minced garlic and saying "DON'T YOU DARE USE THIS HELLSPAWN INGREDIENT EVER EVER EVER!" Said chefs are cordially invited to go fuck themselves. It smells like garlic, it tastes like garlic, and it's the only kind my disabled ass can use right now.
Diced frozen onions allow me to keep prepped onions on hand without worrying about the smell.
Bags of frozen vegetables are there to pinch hit if I'm making a recipe which doesn't have vegetables in it. I can put a serving of frozen vegetables into the microwave to heat up and have it as a side without too much difficulty.
Penzeys is an amazing company to begin with so worth buying from just because of how they treat their employees well and have no problems being clear that they do not side with certain racist politicians who recently left office. Ahem. But the bonus is that, in addition to having storefronts, they are a mail order spice company. Which if you are disabled like me is a big help.
Their spices and blends are also very good. This is one of those things where yes you may pay more than you would for spices at your grocery store but the longevity and quality of the product is worth it.*
(* NOTE: I do not judge anybody who uses whatever spices or other ingredients they can. Whatever works for you is the right answer. I'm just saying this is why I use Penzeys and recommend them.)
In addition to individual herbs and spices they have various blends. You can find ones that work for your taste preferences but the two I go to most often are Sandwich Sprinkle and Brady Street Cheese Sprinkle, in that order of frequency. Sandwich Sprinkle is a great go to for a way to quickly add flavors to anything savory, like soups and sauces. Brady Street is similar but adds cheese to the mix so it becomes even better for things like pasta dishes. (Those are not affiliate links.)
Canned and jarred goods and pasta: These are all things I keep on hand because they are easy to use and show up as ingredients in many of my go-to recipes. Making sure I always have them also adds to the ease of cooking because it gives me flexibility in what I can make. If I plan on making one recipe but then don't feel up to it I can easily switch out to something else without needing to go to the store.
Frozen chicken breasts can often be added to a crock pot meal as is which removes the step of needing to defrost the meat in advance. Note: there are recommendations that you don't do this because it might not be the best way to cook chicken for food safety. But there are other places that say it's fine and it's worked well for me so far so I'm sticking with it.
Shredded cheese saves on the steps of having to shred it yourself. The bags can be frozen and defrosted for use as needed.
With all that I feel like I should maybe include a recipe? Or maybe several? I'm not sure how much people are interested in what I cook. I'm trying to share what's helpful, though, and somebody asked about this particular meal when I posted about it on Instagram so I figure I may as well start here and people can let me know if they're interested in further installments?
Slow Cooker Frittata
You may ask why do I get so fancy for breakfast instead of simply having a bowl of cereal. My answer is that I'm trying to get nutrients into my body. Something which gives me protein and vegetables and I can eat it as part of my first meal of the day is perfect for that. Also remember I only eat two actual meals a day plus a snack. That's very much not ideal but I'm trying to do the best I can with my limitations.
Anyway, apologies in advance because this is a very loosey-goosey set of instructions. The dish itself is meant to be flexible. Frittatas are basically egg dishes that you add your preferred ingredients to. I'm letting you know what mine are but you can easily swap out.
Also I'm very much a visual and by the gut instinct cook, so the measurements for the milk and the seasoning are a guesstimate. But the upside is that it's very hard to screw this dish up so yay?
So here's how I make it:
- 32 oz Egg Beaters/egg substitute or one dozen eggs (I've tried using egg whites and it doesn't come out as well. In the past I have made egg white frittatas in the oven with no problem though, so if you need to go with egg whites I'd recommend cooking them that way. You can google recipes online for temperature and cooking time there.)
- 1 cup milk (can be any fat content though skim might not be helpful?)
- One overflowing tablespoon of Sandwich Sprinkle or other seasonings to taste
- 1/3 of a 16oz bag of frozen chopped spinach or vegetable of choice
- 8-9oz diced ham or deli meat of choice
- 8 oz shredded cheddar cheese or melty cheese of choice
If using eggs, crack into a bowl and whisk together with milk. Add mix to slow cooker. If using Egg Beaters or similar you can skip to directly adding it and the milk to the slow cooker. (I use Egg Beaters for specifically this purpose. Saves a step both in prep and in cleaning.)
Defrost frozen vegetables in the microwave just enough that they are not icicles. In my microwave this is two and a half minutes on high. You don't need them hot, just not clumps of ice.
Roughly dice meat as needed. This does not need to be neat, just get it small enough that you won't be cutting through huge slabs of meat when you're slicing up the frittata later. My store often sells diced ham which is great for this purpose.
Add Sandwich Sprinkle, vegetables, and meat to the slow cooker. Stir until everything is evenly distributed.
Spread shredded cheese evenly over the top of the mixture. Cover and cook on low. If using eggs, cook for at least 3 hours. If using Egg Beaters, cook for 4 hours.
The dish is done when it has set enough that it can be cut into pieces and retain their shape. They will still have a creamy texture to eat but they shouldn't be like soup.
Cut into 8 portions. Either serve immediately or store in plastic containers and keep in the fridge or freezer for later. Take out of the freezer and put in the fridge to defrost before eating. Reheat in the microwave to eat. In my microwave that's three and a half minutes on high.
Serve with whatever other items you like. For me I add at least one piece of fruit, something toasted, and a cup of tea.
And there we go. How I manage to cook in spite of my limitations. Hopefully that was helpful? Maybe gave some inspiration for those who need it?
Let me know if you have any questions. Also let me know if you'd like me to post more recipes. I don't have a huge catalogue of them but I'm happy to share if anyone wants.
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