5 Hacks for Cooking With Chronic Illness

by Ariela Paulsen
Mighty Well | chronic illness | food sensitivities | cooking hacks | easily adaptable meals

A common challenge in the spoonie community is food. We can’t live without it, yet eating the wrong food can often launch a slew of symptoms. That’s why we put together a list of our top 5 hacks for people cooking with chronic illness!

Food has become so integrated into our emotional and social lives that, even if our homes are strictly spoonie-friendly, we’re constantly bombarded with temptations and lack of access. Creating meals for ourselves within our dietary restrictions that also provide well-rounded nutrition, without requiring so much prep that we use up all of our spoons, can feel impossible. The internet is full of Friends in the Fight trying to share their wisdom (like factvsfitness, The Primal Wellness, and Low-Histamine Chef). We’re here to offer some tips that will help mealtimes feel nourishing again — to both body and spirit!

Expert tips

We started by interviewing Leslie Langevin, dietician, Friend in the Fight, and author of The Anti-Inflammatory Kitchen Cookbook! This book not only has delicious recipes customizable for many dietary needs but also provides hacks for cooking with chronic illness and detailed information about the effects food can have in the bodies of fellow spoonies — both harmful and healing. Leslie describes her journey with Mast Cell Activation Syndrome and details how food can be an avenue for hope.

1. Learn Your Ingredient Substitutions

I remember the despair of learning about my myriad food intolerances and thinking “do I have to cut out all of my favorite meals?” While some meals while cooking with chronic illness may not be doable, you may find some simple substitutions work well for your old favorites!

  • Gluten — grocery stores and restaurants are becoming well-stocked with gluten-free options! Try GF flour (recipes for creative flours in Leslie’s book) or oats for baking. Use noodles made from zucchini, sweet potatoes, rice, or other favorites!
  • Eggs — oddly enough, I can eat duck, quail, and goose eggs; just not chicken eggs! Consider trying these alternatives. You can also use chia seeds or blended flax seeds as a binding agent in baking, instead of eggs.
  • Dairy — there are so many dairy-free milk options now! Rice, coconut, soy, almond, macadamia, cashew, hemp, oat… check the ingredients if you’re sensitive to preservatives and other chemicals, but there are some relatively simple options! Also, mascarpone and cheddar cheeses have almost no lactose, and mascarpone and mozzarella have very low histamine! Consider local, fresher cheeses if you have histamine or chemical sensitivities.
  • Fats — Olive oil and coconut oil are very anti-inflammatory, so they may help counteract the effects of other ingredients. For lighter oils, extra light olive oil or sunflower/safflower oil may be safer than soy/peanut/canola/vegetable oils.
  • Sugar — eating sweeteners lower on the glycemic index helps keep blood sugar levels consistent. Sugar-free sweeteners like Stevia may increase inflammation or histamine levels. Coconut sugar is fairly low on the index and is anti-inflammatory. Maple syrup, also low, has helpful minerals. Even brown sugar and honey are healthier alternatives to cane sugar and corn syrup.

2. Food Prep Tricks

Food prep work!

When you can’t eat pre-made meals, restaurant food, or even leftovers, cooking with chronic illness can be exhausting! Leslie and other Friends in the Fight have some tips for us here as well:

  • Invest in a good blender — quickly make custom nut/seed butter, flour, plant-based milk, smoothies, soups, and sauces.
  • Freeze single servings — It’s so frustrating to make a meal and then watch half of it go to waste in the fridge! But making smaller portions just means you have to cook more often. Instead, make a huge batch of whatever you’re making, and then separate individual serving sizes and freeze them! I freeze cookie-sized balls of dough stacked in a container so that I can take one out, bake it, and have a single GF low-histamine dessert within 15 minutes! You can put blobs of sauces like pesto or freshly made beans on an aluminum foil sheet on a freezer shelf, stacked inside a Tupperware container, or in an ice tray. Once frozen, remove and store them in a sealed container.
  • Get a spiralizer — even budget-friendly models make it possible to quickly whip up veggie-based noodles!
  • Rice cookers can cook the base for your meal without requiring supervision
  • Bread machines allow you to easily make custom bread and pizza dough without eggs, gluten, dairy… or whatever else ails you!
  • Miss ice cream? Get an ice cream churner to make simple frozen desserts with as little as one ingredient!
  • No spoons left to chop ingredients? Buy frozen, pre-chopped produce. Frozen foods actually tend to be more nutritious than food that has been shipped, processed, or has sat on a shelf before you bought it.

3. Reclaim the Fun in Food

It’s disheartening to feel that food is becoming purely a means to an end while cooking with a chronic illness. Enjoying the process of cooking and eating a meal can make it taste so much better, and even perhaps help your body to be more accepting of what you’ve consumed.

  • Grocery shopping — I used to get stressed every time I went shopping. I had to read a million labels to find anything I could eat. I’d pass rows upon rows of delicious forbidden foods. And, thanks to brain fog, I typically forgot at least one item when generating a list. Grocery delivery is becoming more prevalent and affordable, and often keeps track of what you typically buy! I recently came up with another hack; I created a fun grocery list pad with images that I knew would make me feel a bit more at ease. I listed the items that I will likely need each trip, organized by where they are found in the store, and left room to add more items in the margins.
  • Flavor — this may seem like a duh, but don’t forget to make your food taste good! It’s easy to think your foods are so limited that there’s no point in trying. But there are ways to bring it up a notch, and bring back some of that joy in eating! Leslie’s book has a page detailing many herbs and spices with descriptions of the nutritional and medicinal properties of each. There may be herbs, spices, and other ingredients out there that simultaneously take an edge off your symptoms while increasing flavor!
  • Presentation — I was never someone who photographed my food before eating it. I typically shoveled it in without much thought to the aesthetics. But in the depths of an elimination diet, I had started a blog and decided to try sharing my meals with the world. I’d periodically choose a meal, make it look nice, and take a picture. I was shocked at how the simple act of making the food look good made a difference in how I viewed food overall! I’ve started focusing on presentation even when I’m the only one who will see it. And thinking about which foods I would want to share with others made me appreciate tasty meals that I had previously overlooked or grown bored with.
  • Cook for others — wait, you want me to do more work to prepare my meals?? Hear me out. Once in a while, cooking for friends and family rather than just yourself may bring back the important social/emotional impact of meals. More than this, friends may point out flavors that you’ve stopped noticing, and they may even like the meals enough to cook them whenever you’re around!
Some beautifully presented spoonie-friendly meal ideas!

4. Communicate With Those Around You

It’s one thing to practice your craft at home, but another beast entirely to experience food out in the world.

  • Restaurants — try to identify a few restaurants in your area that have things you can eat, and memorize what those meals (and required substitutions) are. Have a printed card (or half-sheet of paper if it’s complicated) with your main do’s and don’ts to hand to the server/chef. Be clear on the card if something is anaphylactic or if trace amounts are ok. It saves some of the discomforts of trying to explain all of your issues in front of everyone (likely through brain fog).
  • Friends and family — It can be hard to feel loved and valued when you go to a gathering and they have provided nothing you can eat. Most people aren’t doing this on purpose, they just don’t know how to cook for you and feel awkward asking, or simply forgot. Consider checking in with hosts a few days before a meal together to see if they have any questions for you or want you to bring something. Try keeping a google doc or sheet with all of your food needs. Start with a quick summary so that someone can learn what they need to know without too much reading. Then list local restaurants that work and even recipes that you enjoy. Making it easier for them will make them more comfortable helping you out. The benefit of a cloud-based form like google docs is that you don’t have to send it out every time you change your eating habits; just send them the link once, and every time they look it’ll be the most updated info.

5. Track and Identify Triggers

You can’t avoid triggers if you don’t know what they are! Sure, there are plenty of diets that people will tell you to try, but there’s no real one-diet-fits-all answer. Bodies are much more nuanced than that. To figure out what works for you (and not), start by taking stock of what you already eat. Write down each meal, including snacks, and then how you feel. This will give you a baseline.

Then you can either remove foods from your diet and track any changes to your symptoms and energy, or do a more restrictive elimination diet in which you slim way down to just foods you know are safe, and add in foods one at a time. Either way, it takes patience and careful records of what you ate and how you felt. Remember that how you eat a food can be as important as what it is. Differences like cooked vs. raw, fresh vs. leftovers, and organic vs. conventional can all make or break your body’s tolerance. Elimination diets can be effective, but also very difficult and not without potential consequences (More on elimination diets here).

As a final aside, you’ve probably experienced the well-meaning acquaintance who suggests “have you tried the _____ diet?” While the diets referenced above are helpful for many people with chronic illnesses, we do not in any way imply that diet is a cure-all. In fact, dietary needs/restrictions seem to be as distinctly individual as the people who live with them. Unfortunately, some of our readers will go through these hacks and not find a single one that fits their needs. I want you to know: You are seen. I have been there, and the struggle is real. Hopefully, at the very least, this list will offer a springboard for your own creative adaptations. Cooking with chronic illness can be a challenge, but we are here to help!

Looking for a community of other people with chronic illness and food sensitivities? Join our Friends in the Fight Facebook group!

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Barbara Kipper June 14, 2019 - 3:27 pm

I like your approach to foods, I didn’t see any big NO, remarks. I do better with alternate suggestions.

Wendy June 30, 2019 - 9:35 pm

A very easy, helpful thing for me was getting a Japanese lunch box. It’s a single serve 2 part steamer, you can cook about 2 cups of rice or what I love is making soup – I keep frozen veggies and good veggie broth on hand. You put water in the base if the unit, put whatever in the larger and smaller stainless steel containers, put the lid on, push the button to get it going and walk away. If all the water evaporates it shuts itself off.

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