It’s the end of an exhausting day, and all you want is to sit down to a plate of something that doesn’t come from a box and tastes like it took some thought and effort; however, the thought of spending more than a few minutes in the kitchen makes you want to just give up and order pizza or go to bed hungry… again. Over the last several months, I’ve been right there with you, but if my Instagram feed is indicative of how we’ve been eating (it is), you can see that there are ways to get the quality of meals that you want with very little effort. Here are some tips on how to cook when you’re too tired to cook.
Cook ahead for the days you’re truly too tired to cook
Living with lupus, I know I’m going to have rough stretches of days, weeks, and possibly even months ahead of me, so I try to take advantage of my better days and plan ahead. On any given day, if I’m cooking something that can be frozen for later, I like to make a double or even triple batch and freeze the excess so I have something easy on hand for my hardest days. Soups and stews are obvious choices here, but I also like to shape hamburger patties for dinner and sausage patties for breakfast, cook down fruit and starchy root vegetables to mash and freeze, and even soak and cook beans and some grains for the kiddos and hubby to have on hand on days that I’m out of commission. This works well for pretty much anyone who is extremely busy or finds themselves routinely exhausted during the work week.
Cook smarter, not harder
If you’re dealing with chronic illness or are often weak or tired for other reasons, think in terms of efficiency and streamlining. Conserve energy by sitting in a tall chair while you’re prepping ingredients (a great tip from both my aunt and my husband). Most days, I can get away with not needing to do this, but there have been days that we just wouldn’t have eaten if I hadn’t sat down while working in the kitchen. Cook enough so that you’ll have a few meals of leftovers, and prep foods that don’t require many dishes or end with heavy cleanup. Some foods that require a lot of cooking time may actually be good choices if most of that time is spent left mostly untouched in the oven or on the stove top. Simple braised meats only require a few minutes of work up front and actually improve if they sit for a few hours, so you can start earlier in the day and then rest for a while if you need to.
If you do need to make something that requires a lot of chopping, a food processor can make quick work of that, and a microplane grater makes a huge difference in how willing you are to cook anything with minced garlic or ginger. Gather all of your ingredients at once so you don’t have to keep traveling across the kitchen, and clean as you go as best as you can so you aren’t faced with a messy kitchen to clean when you’re done eating. If possible, start cooking with an empty dishwasher and sink (my husband usually helps with that, but the kids can, too) so that dishes can go straight into the dishwasher as you finish with them and you don’t have to deal with them later.
Have a mental “easy throw together meals” list
Guys, I cannot stress how useful this is. The worst thing you can do for yourself is to give in and eat something unhealthy that, especially in the case of autoimmune disease but even for a perfectly healthy person, will leave you feeling even more tired and run down when the healthier (and usually tastier) food you’re craving is pretty much just as easy to make. Need an example? I always have a couple packs of chicken parts and/or a whole bird on hand. There is seriously no work to be done here- salt the chicken and place it in a 425 degree oven until it’s done. There’s your protein. Want starch? Pop a sweet potato in the oven with it. Need something green? You can add a head of broccoli to the oven- you don’t even have to chop it up. That’s less than five minutes of work, folks, for roasted chicken with roasted sweet potatoes in their jackets and whole roasted broccoli. It’s not fancy (though you can totally make it sound like it is), but it is unarguably better than anything prepackaged or semi-homemade that you might otherwise have eaten. If you’re not on a gluten/egg-free diet, go with my old standby of frying or poaching an egg and serving it on pretty much anything, like Israeli couscous, or you can throw together pasta with a simple sauce that takes less time to make than the pasta takes to boil.
Keep a steady supply of ingredients for your back pocket meals
At any given time, my freezer contains fish, chicken, beef, bags of frozen fruit and vegetables, sauces, beef stock, and chicken stock, and my pantry is usually fairly well stocked. While this doesn’t guarantee every meal will be gourmet cooking, it does prevent me from either starving or eating something that is going to make me flare more/worse than I already am, and it does this well. By keeping a good stock of essential ingredients, I can easily throw together slow roasted salmon over spinach simmered in coconut milk with ginger, the above mentioned chicken dinner, or any number of meals that give the whole family something to look forward to.
Enlist help whenever you can
One of my greatest fears leading up to and immediately following my diagnosis was that we were going to need to hire help that we definitely can’t afford in order for the kids to be adequately cared for and for the house to stay in one piece. I have a two year old and a four year old, and I just didn’t think they could manage this new reality of mommy not always being well enough to help with everything. But you know what? My four year old can pretty much make lunch for us by herself now, and it turned out to not be much of a stretch for her to be able to prep a lot of other foods for me. She’s kind of a culinary superstar, as far as I’m concerned, and my son is learning quickly in her footsteps. When I’m too tired or weak to cook dinner on my own, I enlist the help of my tiniest sous chefs. The youngest fetches all of the ingredients he can safely reach and helps carry things to the trash can as necessary, and he helps wipe down the table or tries to sweep the floor during any lag time. The eldest helps measure, mix, stir, crack eggs, and clean up- basically if it doesn’t involve a sharp knife or an open flame, it’s fair game for her. The best part about it is how much they relish the chance to spend time with mommy while learning something constructive with the bonus of edible results. Moral of the story? Get your kids in the kitchen.
I hope this helps you eat well even when you don’t feel like cooking. I’d like to hear from you: What are your fallback meals for when you’re too tired to cook? What tricks do you have to streamline your cooking process? Tell me in the comments below!
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