Self-Care Saturday: Eating Well for Mental Health

How many times have you realized you were hungry, grabbed a snack of some sort, and kept going? How many times do you eat things while thinking, “This isn’t good for me,” but do it anyway?

I think everyone can raise their hands to those questions unless they’ve invested time into learning different habits. Fast food, junk food, pre-packaged meals are all easy to find and portable-things that matter when we’re so busy we hardly sit still anymore. That’s why it’s important to make time to plan meals, whether you meal prep or cook every day.

Eating properly, so you give your body the nutrition it needs, is important. It doesn’t matter if you’ve chosen a certain dietary path, or if you have restrictions because of allergies or other medical needs. What does matter is whether your system can generate enough energy and be strong enough to meet the demands you put on it.

How does that impact mental health?Did you know that processed foods and sugars can cause inflammation in the brain and make depression worse? It also increases the physical load your body carries from stress. According to the APA, that serotonin we need to feel right starts in our intestines. (Something I didn’t know!) If we’re putting the wrong things in, we can’t expect to get what we need.

Rushing through your meals also adds stress to the digestive system and can lead to that heavy, sluggish feeling afterwards. It can also leave you feeling as if you didn’t really eat, and so you end up eating more, later, usually junk food.

Well, how do we get around it?

Personally, I meal prep. There is nothing as easy as grabbing a container from the freezer, tossing it in the microwave, and having an entire meal ready to go. Some examples of what I keep in my freezer are:

  • Homemade chicken or beef soup with lots of veggies.
  • Curry (loaded with bell peppers, onions, zucchini, and so on).
  • Stir-fry.
  • Chicken and broccoli in pasta sauce.
  • Texas chili.
  • Roast and veggies.

My apologies to vegan/vegetarian readers. I do eat meats. I think you can see options from this list, though.

It sounds like a lot of work, but here’s what I do. I plan out two meals. Each meal will yield 4-5 plates. Most of my meals take about 30-45 minutes to cook, including prep time. I prepare one, take out my dinner for the evening (because I usually prep in the late afternoon), and put the rest in the freezer.

If you cook one meal on each of your days off in a week, you get 8-10 meals to carry to work. I have a variety of meal prep containers. Some have two sections, some have three, and then, of course, there are the usual single compartment dishes. Curry goes in 2 sections, one for rice, one for the curry. A meal from making a roast goes in 3 compartments. Soups go in the single sections.

I supplement this by packing a large lunch bag. In this, I’ll have one of my meals, plus fruit for snacks. I allow myself a small serving of chips on days when I want something salty. They’re not good for me, that’s why it’s a small serving, about half of what you’d get in a single serve bag at a convenience store.

Throughout the day, I drink water. I might have a cup of chai in the afternoon, but that isn’t a daily event.

If I feel like a snack before bed, I’ll make myself some popcorn or grab a piece of fruit.

My habits are only offered as suggestions, and to illustrate how it’s easy to meal prep. My diet is restricted due to multiple food allergies, but the key things to avoid are lots of processed carbs (bread, pasta, etc) and lots of fats (deep fried, breaded things). Include vegetables everywhere you can, and with as much variety as you can manage.

Also, if you want to avoid having mushy food come out of your freezer, here are a few tips I’ve picked up.

  • Cook pasta one minute less than usual. Drain off the water and dump it straight into a bowl of ice water. It shocks it and stops it from continuing to cook. When it goes through the microwave, it’ll finish cooking and be very nice.
  • Cook vegetables until they’re just undercooked. This is super important for dishes like curry and stir-fry. Remove them from the heat. Don’t just turn off the burner. Move your skillet to a part of the stove that hasn’t been on (especially when it’s an electric stove).
  • Cook meat until it’s cooked through, but do not overcook it. It’ll toughen up.

I hope this will help you eat better, and in turn, have less depression and stress in your life. If nothing else, your coworkers will be insanely envious. I have a couple of coworkers who come to see what I brought every day. One of these days, they’re going to team up, knock me out, and take off with my food! (joking!)

 

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