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Tips for Meeting Your Food Needs With Chronic Illness

Food delivery bags outside door.

I’ve mentioned on my YouTube channel that I feel best when I am mostly eating whole foods like fruits and vegetables, while avoiding grains, starches, legumes/beans and processed foods. I am not impeccable in my eating. There are times I have been — eating squeaky clean and carefully monitoring exactly what and how much of what ingredient went in my system. That is how I know what seems to work best for my system — which things make me feel worse and what I can indulge in.

I understand that even talking about these options carries a great deal of privilege. One can’t make these discretionary choices in this country without having access to wealth, and in our case, help. There are many days when I am simply unable to do much of anything greater than wash a piece of fruit for consumption. And yet, when food is such an undeniable part of our wellness, when it is as important and perhaps more important than some of the things we’re prescribed, how can we get greater ease of access to good food when cooking is so difficult?

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This one is layered and tricky. Here are some of the things I do to make it a bit easier.

We get by with a little help from our friends. Learning to ask for and rely on help from others has been such a big part of my journey. What an amazing gift community is and how lucky I am to have people to rely on! Part of the way we meet our meal needs is by asking for help. Over the years we’ve figured out how to do this better. Here’s my formula:

1) Tell people what I’m eating/not eating. People are interested and willing to cook for me in a way that works. They are glad to know I don’t like mushrooms and willing to leave those out when preparing a meal for me.

2) My friends run a calendar for me every quarter and ask me which nights of the week I’ll need meal help. Then they send out an email for folks to sign up for times to drop off meals.

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A banner promoting The Mighty’s new Spoonie Life Hacks group on The Mighty mobile app. Click to join.

3) At first, we were overwhelmed with too much food — whole casseroles, or big dishes (we’re a household of two). Now we just ask people to make an extra serving or two of what they’re already preparing, or prepare a casserole in a bread pan, not a 9 x 13. That way it isn’t a lot of extra work for them and we don’t have food going bad. I generally ask for meal assistance on nights when my wife will be gone or on weeks I have infusion treatments and we know things will be too hectic to think about meal prep.

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4) Dropping off a meal isn’t signing up for a visit. We ask friends to leave the meal on the porch and text me when it is there. That way I don’t have to be awake, have the house clean, be up for visiting, etc. just to have help with food.

Much like having our dry and paper goods delivered through subscription, we now have our most frequently ordered groceries available in an easy to reorder format online where we can either go pick them up at the store (same or next-day), have a friend go pick them up (because we pre-paid for them online), or we can pay a small fee to have them delivered. Eugene is not a large metropolis, so I know this kind of grocery pickup and delivery service is becoming much more common.

The option of getting fresh food this way has been a revelation for our household. Because getting up, getting dressed, and getting out of the house is so taxing energetically (not to mention all the energy and effort involved in shopping), it is not something I can do anymore. Having fresh fruits and vegetables at the house became a rarity in the past. Now, I can build my cart online anytime I’m feeling well enough to sit up with my laptop and let someone else go get the groceries.

For a bit more money, there are the meal prep kits. These all-inclusive boxes are delivered (usually by UPS or FedEx) with everything that’s needed (except a bit of oil, salt and pepper) to prepare whole meals. We’ve tried five different brands of meal kit services. They all have the same basic formula: recipes and pre-portioned ingredients. What varies is the overall flavor, whether conventional or organic, number of menu options available, and how recyclable the packaging may be.

What’s great about the meal prep kit is it removes so many barriers to cooking dinner — the proverbial: what’s for dinner? Do we have the ingredients? How do we make it? Etc. The cost essentially breaks down per meal to something more than it would cost to buy the ingredients at a supermarket but less than it would cost to eat out.

For me, the upside is that we are good about cooking these boxes and then there is no food waste. No rotten ingredients at the back of the hydrator that we didn’t get to this month. Everything has a purpose and is consumed. The other upside, some companies offer meals for special diets like paleo and vegan, which makes cooking for these sometimes hard-to-cook-for-meal-plans, quite simple. The downsides: there is a lot of packaging waste and these still take time and energy to prepare. The shortest meal generally takes 15 minutes and can take upwards of 30, and I often don’t have that to give.

Aside from these, I always keep nuts and protein bars on hand and know what food delivery is available in my area. Otherwise, figuring out how to feed myself a couple of times a day is still a big hassle. There are several days a week when I yearn for the Jetsons-like-convenience of taking a pill or pushing a button for an on-demand meal experience. We do not have a big freezer and are not the people who meal-prep intensively and put away lots of frozen meals for later. When I was healthier, I used to cook a lot. I do miss it now. Occasionally, I get a big soup or stew made and can freeze extra portions. I know people who rely heavily on their slow cookers.

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