People often ask me how I manage to do so much cooking while living/coping with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I’ll tell you: It takes LOTS of planning and patience. I can no longer wake up in the morning and say “I think I’ll make X today . . . then run to the store to buy ingredients and then whip up a meal.” My body just doesn’t work that way anymore. I’m lucky in that I’m still functioning at a high enough level that there are days when I CAN cook . . . but it isn’t everyday . . . and I’m never sure when I will be more or less exhausted. I find if I divide the process up into Plan, Shop, Assess Energy, Gather, Prep, Cook, Store/Freeze I end up with enough good food to keep me going.
First, I have to decide in advance what I might want to cook in the next several days and figure out what ingredients I will need (and if I will need to go to the store). I have to give myself permission to adjust the shopping/cooking/menu schedule according to my level of energy on any particular day (and sometimes it changes drastically in the middle of a day).
Second, I go to the grocery store, usually in the middle of the day when it isn’t crowded and chaotic (crowds and chaos both stress me and sap my energy). Sometimes I need to go to both the “regular” grocery store AND the local co-op. Sometimes I don’t have the energy to go to two stores on one day and have to spread it out. In most cases, going to the grocery store is all I’m going to do on a particular day . . . because after doing that I will be too tired to do anything else and will need to rest.
Third, on the morning I intend to cook something I assess my energy level and decide whether or not it is actually going to happen. Often the answer is “Not today” and I have to respect that (and hope I have something in the freezer I can thaw & eat instead of what I had “planned”). Sometimes I decide to “downscale” a meal or cook it over several days. For example, when I make my “Naked Fish Tacos/Burritos” I typically make the rice and beans on one day and the rest of the elements (fish, chipotle mayo, toppings) on another day. Notice that by doing it that way I can always just eat rice & beans one day and add the rest later.
Fourth, if I decide I DO have the energy, I spread the cooking out across the day with lots of resting in between stages. So, first thing in the morning, usually while my cup of tea is brewing, I’ll assemble all the ingredients on the counter. This includes everything that won’t spoil by sitting out (I make a list of those things so I remember to take them out later). I set out anything from the frig that needs to come to room temperature (common in baking). I pull things out of the pantry and off of the spice shelves. I don’t measure anything yet. I’m just putting everything in arms reach. By this time the tea is brewed and I’ve done enough to require a bit of a rest.
Fifth, I almost always prep (i.e., prepare—chop, dice, slice, measure) my ingredients and then rest before putting everything together. This requires having lots of little bowls to measure things into and set aside. I have a set of metal mixing bowls, a set of glass mixing bowls, and a bunch of little Pyrex glass bowls (the sort Mom used to make Jello in when I was growing up). There have been meals/dishes which required almost every bowl in the house! Unless the recipe is very simple (only a couple of ingredients), I prep everything and either leave the bowls on the counter while I rest and/or put anything that needs to be refrigerated back in the frig (but all cut and ready to go into the pan when I am ready). Only rarely do I prep and then start cooking right away.
Finally, I pull everything back out of the frig and start cooking. Before this point I have read the recipe enough times to be pretty clear on what needs to be done. For most of my recipes/menus, the actual cooking time is the shortest part of the whole process. Once everything is prepped, throwing it together can be fun and quick. (Of course, there are other meals that require a long time in the oven, but those generally require less attention from the chef 🙂 . . . just occasional turning or basting or stirring. Still, any time that I can’t just fall asleep must be planned for.)
An important survival tip for Cooking with CFS is to cook in quantity and freeze so you have something to eat on the days you are too tired to cook. Most weeks I only cook once or twice. My favorite recipes are of the “Cook Once, Eat for Four Days” variety. It’s the only way I can survive. I need those other days to recover and do those other things that life requires. Indeed, when I have many doctor’s appointments scheduled in a week I usually don’t cook at all . . . that’s when those soups/stews in the freezer are a life-saver.
I hope this answers some of the questions/concerns about how to eat well and still manage CFS. I would love to hear other strategies people use! (Though remember, with all of my food allergies/sensitivities “eating out” is not really an option for me . . . not to mention I find it (1) too expensive and (2) more exhausting than cooking!)
© 2012, Highly Sensitive Girl