Mise en my place: cooking and mental health

Meals and health

After a few posts writing about depression, a new topic. Once again, it’s too sprawling a discussion for one post, so let’s lay a foundation for later write-ups. In this post, I’ll introduce some of my experiences with food and weight management, and with how I’m currently set up (hopefully) for success in the kitchen, and (again hopefully) for ongoing physical and mental health.

As I’ve previously written, depression and food intake are closely connected for me. A depressive episode can lead to poor food choices (see also “comfort eating“). To support mood-boosting exercise, nutrition is critical. Sustained spells of poor eating can upset the three-legged stool: exercise-medication-coping skills.

So what to do? Try to eat “properly,” of course. What does that look like? How do you sustain it? Tune in for another episode of searching for catalysts.

Just tell me what to eat

Ideally, I would always know how to make healthy choices, have time and energy (mental and physical) to plan, shop, and prepare healthy meals. Here in the real world, there always seem to be hurdles. I was a road warrior for years, traveling as a IT trainer or consultant, and eating in airports, hotels, and restaurants. I “ate for two” when we were expecting my daughter, cleaning my wife’s plate when she couldn’t stomach something. And of course, I ate to manage my mood, confusing my serotonin levels for blood sugar levels. All of this led to various periods of weight gain, as I’ve previously mentioned.

So I tried some programs to help me out. At various times, Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers, and Jenny Craig worked for me, but of course short term success is no guarantee of long term lifestyle change. I chalked up any success to having to buy their foods, stick to their plans, and just wait for the weight. I even tried Soylent, though they don’t market as weight loss, just to see if a period of brain-dead controlled eating would help. Much more recently I took an evaluation with a local fitness and nutrition coach, whose plan involved some sort of meal replacements.

Here’s the dark secret: I love to eat real food, and I really love to cook. (Some disclaimers: I’m lactose intolerant, which both simplifies and complicates things. Also, I don’t bake, so “real” cooks like certain friends of mine, avert your eyes!) Meal replacements, structured plans, and the like just don’t work for me. And that’s ok.

Small apartment cooking: inspect your gadgets

These days, I’m cooking primarily for myself, in my small kitchen. Over the past few years I moved from a sprawling suburban house, cooking for the family in a roomy kitchen, to cooking for for one in an urban apartment. I plan to write about meal planning and preparation in upcoming posts, and the mental/physical health connections to them, so let’s look at the environment and tools first

My cooking space more closely resembles a a RV’s kitchen or a small boat’s galley. Fortunately I don’t need to secure my cabinets and counters to keep the contents from shifting. Err, maybe I do.

Of course, with limited counter space, there’s little place for lots of cooking gadgets. Does that stop me? Of course not.

Any visitor will quickly notice that there’s exactly one clear space in my kitchen, to the right of my sink, and I jealously guard that for food preparation. All the other surfaces, few and small as they are, hold my precious kitchen gadgets. What don’t get used often, or are suitable for swapping in and out of storage, go into a cabinet.

Here are the several items I have found best suit my kitchen habits, and are an important part of my meal planning and preparation. Let’s start with the most frequently used, with the caveat that I’m not going to make specific buying recommendations or use affiliate links.

Instant Pot

Of course I’m going to mention this one. When I was cooking in the ‘burbs, I began to learn about pressure cooking. It was handy at mile-high altitude, but a stove-top pressure cooker was often more trouble than I was willing to put up with. When I learned about the Instant Pot, I quickly adopted it. I use the pressure function most, followed by the saute, despite the limitations of the latter. I’ve never tried making yogurt, and I rarely eat rice at home.

Air fryer

Yes, I’m a lemming when it comes to some of these gadgets, though so far I’ve resisted the call of the pricey Thermomix. This really has been a game changer for me. Yes, pedants, we know it doesn’t actually fry, and it’s just a small convection oven. But I use mine practically daily: roasting vegetables, bacon, chicken parts (even a whole Cornish game hen), shrimp, guilty-pleasure refrigerator rolls, you name it. If I can spray it with some olive oil, or shake it in some oil and seasonings, I have probably put it in the air fryer.

Immersion blender

Having grown up with the classic Oster blender, this seemed like an indulgence. But then I realized I could blend hot things in their cooking pot, without a messy and risky transfer to the blender, and the horizons widened. Biggest success story: a few years ago I had major dental work, while also in a Whole 30 rotation. I used my trusty Instant Pot and an immersion blender to make several kinds of soups, which was wonderful to come home to, aggrieved jaw and all.

Tablet stand and AnyList

A tablet stand might seem an odd choice for a list of kitchen gadgets, but I tend to cook from recipes viewed on my phone or iPad more than a physical book. I still have several shelves of beloved cookbooks, but by now favorite recipes from them have long since been transcribed into AnyList.

AnyList has become a must-have for me, and I’ve infected my daughter with my enthusiasm for it. She and I share recipes across our accounts, and will often excitedly tell each other about a new recipe, to be answered with “Is it in AnyList yet?” AnyList is a phone and web-based app for recipes, shopping and any other general list making needs (packing, tasks, etc.).

What makes it a killer for the kitchen are two features: selecting a recipe ingredient can add it to your grocery shopping list; Siri and Alexa integration (as in “Siri, add almond flour to the Grocery List”). At the store, the shopping list becomes a handy checklist, and can be customized by categories, stores and even store locations.

Espresso machine

Ok, another indulgence, but I can’t live without my espresso, and after years as an AeroPress cheerleader (still great for travel!), I’ve gone upscale for a countertop espresso maker. Add beans, water, push button. Even a still-sleeping Chris can make a tasty life-giving brew. (Taken black. See above re: lactose.)

The b-team

So those are the major parts of my cooking. Add in some utensils, some good knives, and here’s the second tier of items:

  • Food scale
  • Cast iron skillet
  • Food processor
  • Sous vide circulator and tub

I used to use the sous vide a lot more for family cooking (sous vide bone-in chicken, finished on the grill, is still the best chicken I’ve ever made), but it’s less useful in a kitchen for one. I’ll still set it up for batch meal prep, but it’s not in the top list any more.

Honorable mention:

  • Microwave oven (almost only used to heat frozen cauliflower rice)
  • Conventional oven (the air fryer means less time pre-heating, and not heating up the whole apartment in the summertime
  • Bamboo steamer (I’ll still use this for veggies, but I do a lot more roasting than steaming)

Now that the tools are identified, in an upcoming post I’ll write about what I cook, why, and how. Not so much recipes themselves (at least for now), but my approach to meal planning and prep. Laying all this out will help better understand the connections back to mental health.

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