by Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio
Getting a nutritious, well-balanced meal on the table three times a day for yourself, or an entire family, is hard enough when you’re in good health. (There’s a reason multi-cookers and food delivery services are a booming market!) Factor in an energy-zapping illness like chronic Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, or chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), not to mention the gut dysfunction they can sometimes bring, and the obstacles to healthy eating can feel insurmountable.
But take heart! We talked with two experts — a dietitian and a personal chef, both of whom have struggled with chronic illnesses — to get insider tips on their favorite meal and nutrition hacks for the most difficult of days. Read on to find out how to get the nutrients you need to support your recovery.
1. Stock Up on Healthy Staples
It’s tough to stay away from packaged, processed foods (and all the unwanted ingredients, additives, and chemicals they might contain) if you don’t have fresh ingredients on hand. On the other hand, having too many ingredients to choose from and work with can feel overwhelming when you’re wrestling with brain fog, and finding the time and energy to shop and chop ingredients sometimes just isn’t happening.
The solution, says Michelle Penicook, RD, LD, a registered and licensed dietitian in Hinsdale, Illinois, is keeping your kitchen stocked with the same, simple list of the right staples. Penicook knows firsthand what it’s like to manage life with chronic Lyme and keep her nutrition in check — she was diagnosed with the tick-borne infection, mold toxicity, and interstitial cystitis.
So what exactly does a Lyme-literate dietitian keep in her kitchen? She stocks up on an assortment of quality proteins, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and fiber sources for a balanced meal. “I try to keep lots of easy, quality protein around. For instance, I always have organic chicken sausage, eggs, canned tuna and salmon, and frozen organic meats that I can defrost quickly,” Penicook says. “As far as the rest of the meal, I keep lots of frozen veggies and fruits, sweet potatoes, avocados, avocado oil, grass-fed butter, and rice.”
Penicook also loves a sweet treat now and then, but she opts for those that are clean and free of added sugar and sugar alcohols. “I always have Lily’s chocolate or Evolved Coconut Butter Cups on hand.”
As for the gathering of ingredients, if you can afford it, take advantage of the different grocery delivery services that are available like Instacart or Amazon Fresh. Another, cheaper option: Order your groceries online, go to the store pickup lane at the designated time, and an employee will load your groceries into your car for you. “I also keep Balanced Bites meals in my freezer for days when I am too tired to cook, but I want to eat healthy,” Penicook says of the prepared paleo- and keto-friendly meal boxes.
2. Keep These Seasonings On Hand
“While I am a trained and certified chef, I am not a fan of fussy cooking,” says Emily Grimes, Manager of Customer Insights at Vital Plan and a chronic Lyme patient and certified personal chef. “I like tasty, without a bunch of work and dishes.”Sounds just right for a tough, symptomatic day.
So how do you add flavor and nix the hassle? Grimes swears by high-quality seasoned salts. “It is so easy to make foods taste good with a variety of seasoned salts — but not the ones with a bunch of stabilizers and fillers,” she says. “Look for those that are dried herbs and sea salt. This reduces the need to measure a bunch of ingredients — it’s all in there!”
A few of her favorites are made by Bosari and San Francisco Salt Company, but Grimes also has a wallet-friendly strategy for finding flavorful herb, spice, and salt blends: She frequents discount stores like Tuesday Morning, TJ Maxx, and Marshalls.
If you’ve never experimented with seasoned salts, not to worry. Most products have instructions for use on the product, and company websites usually offer new, easy-to-follow recipes.
3. Rotate New Foods into the Mix as Your Body Allows
“It can be monotonous eating the same foods over and over, and yet most of my clients are not trying new foods,” says Penicook, most of whose clients tend to have chronic illnesses and a range of dietary needs. “We tend to get comfortable with the groceries we buy and forget about the huge variety that is out there.”
But while it might feel safe to stick with the same-old if you’re avoiding GI issues, it might actually have the opposite of your desired effect: Variety can help mitigate the chances of developing an intolerance or sensitivity to foods you tend to eat every day, says Penicook. It can also help you deliver the myriad nutrients your body needs to augment your recovery.
For example, if you’re used to consuming sweet potatoes, try rotating in a similar food like squash, yucca, or plantains to mix things up, but won’t necessarily require a whole new recipe or learning a different cooking technique. You might find out that there are a few more items you can add to your repertoire of food, after all. If you’re balancing food sensitivities, remember to allow a few days between introducing new ingredients to be sure you can tolerate them without discomfort.
However, if you’re unable to make changes to your diet, Penicook says that cooking your foods in different ways can add some excitement to your meals. “For instance, if you always eat baked potatoes, try mashing them or roasting them for a different flavor or texture,” she suggests.
4. Cook in Bulk
Preparing your meals in bulk is a great way to get more out of your time in the kitchen. Sure, you might chop three times as many vegetables, for instance, but you only have to wash the dishes and wipe down the countertops once. This works especially well when you’re making sauces or marinades for foods like gluten-free pasta, vegetable noodles, or meat dishes, or when you need vegetables for soups, stew, stir fry, or other dishes.
“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of batch cooking, or at least batch prepping,” says Grimes. “By that, I mean chopping, mixing, measuring, and cooking in bulk. Go ahead and wash the whole head of celery when you just need a few stalks. Chop one more onion or carrot. Then, when you need to add onion or carrot to a future dish, it’s ready to go. It takes no more than 10 extra minutes to double a recipe. And now you have two meals: one for now and one in the freezer for later.”
5. Have a Go-To Meal
When you’re feeling beat, it sure helps to have some go-to meal options pinned to your Pinterest board or organized inside a recipe holder to minimize the stress of answering that time-honored question, “What’s for dinner?” As an example, Penicook’s preferred meal is chicken sausage stir fry:
“I cut and sauté onion. Add in whatever veggies I have on hand — usually zucchini and some sort of green. I cut up organic chicken sausage and then add it to the mix. After that’s cooked, I season it with garlic, salt, and pepper. I add in cauliflower rice or white rice, olive oil or grass-fed butter, and serve,” she says.
6. Get Acquainted with Kitchen Tools
Kitchen tools that save time and effort can be a great investment for your cooking set-up. Grimes gravitates toward multi-purpose items. One of her favorites? “Tongs,” she says. “You can literally use tongs for everything — stir, pick up, serve. And you aren’t reaching for or cleaning a bunch of tools.”
Additionally, Grimes loves her blender, which she uses to make tea, smoothies, vinaigrettes, and pureed soups. Plus, it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. “I don’t have a fancy one — it’s the old school, glass carafe, Oster one, and it does great!” she says.
As for Penicook, she likes kitchen appliances that help remove extra steps from meal prep. “I love my Instant Pot and Crock-Pot; they make everything easy and simple,” she says. For clients that have chronic pain or fatigue, she recommends items like a food processor, food chopper, and jar opener to make the preparation less physically demanding.
Finally, Penicook suggests her clients use a stool or chair to take a load off in the kitchen if necessary. It’s a simple trick that can help you conserve your energy or mitigate orthostatic intolerance issues like POTS, which can be brought on by standing for long periods of time.
The Final Takeaway
Healthy meals are the bedrock for recovery from chronic illness, and a less than optimal day doesn’t have to trip up your diet altogether. Familiarize yourself with these nutrition hacks so that they become second nature. With just a few extra minutes in the kitchen, you’ll soon be able to produce nutrient-dense meals you and your family can enjoy in a pinch.
Of course, if you continue to struggle with your diet or finding foods you can eat, you may benefit from working with a dietitian, nutritionist, or personal chef. They can support you, provide accountability, and give you a range of options you might not otherwise have considered.