Ask A Swole Woman is an advice column for people who are sick of clean eating, perfect gym outfits, and chiseled abs. Casey Johnston, who is not a doctor or personal trainer but isn't afraid to tell gym bros to get the hell away from her squat rack, is here to answer all your fitness questions, and wants you to be healthy, enjoy carbs, and get jacked.
I have a chronic health condition that leaves me exhausted. With my medications, I can manage to make it to work, but sometimes I still have a flare up and have to call in. But all of my energy is spent when I am at work—once I get home, I can barely stay standing, let alone meal prep, cook for myself, or get a workout in. Are there any low-energy or quick ways that I can prep healthier meals for work lunches and dinners? My husband has no problem cooking, but he has a hard time thinking outside the "red meat and potato" box, and I honestly don't think he knows how or wants to know how to cook veggies or lean proteins, and definitely isn't down for experimenting with other protein sources like beans/chickpeas/soy. Please help! I know a healthier diet could make a huge difference in my daily symptoms, but it seems like an impossible hurdle of grocery shopping, meal prepping, and hours in the kitchen. — Staci
Firstly, before we even get to the practical tips and strategies for eating healthier during the week, it seems to me that you need to have a couple of serious conversations with your husband about your priorities. I would sincerely communicate the seriousness with which you take this aspect of your life and how concretely it matters to your health. Eating healthy is hard, but annoyingly, it's worth it. If he knows and loves you, and is the primary food-preparer in the house, he (and any domestic partner who takes on that particular chore) should take seriously the idea that how he does this job meaningfully affects both of your daily lives, particularly your health condition.
The next communication topic would be figuring out a small set of foods and recipes you both agree he can prepare and you will eat. This doesn’t mean he has to go all-in on gourmet dishes for every meal, but you guys can surely figure out 10 or so dishes that you can rotate through to help you start to get in a rhythm. Do you guys like quesadillas? Burritos? Curry? Chicken soup? Maybe chili or a nice bolognese will tickle his red-meat preferences?
This issue comes up a lot when one member of a family decides to start taking care of themselves, and beyond asking them to help you take care of yourself and hoping that they hear you, there’s only so much you can do about other people’s lifestyle indulgences, and/or propensity to feel kinda shitty every day, and/or choice to die sooner rather than later. I wouldn’t spend too much time on this struggle, but it’s worth attempting; if some efforts don’t pay off, other tips listed below may end up proving more useful in dealing with this particular issue. If your husband is still resistant after your conversation, then just make that list of 10 meals for yourself.
I empathize with your situation and it’s a tough one to be in, but I’m skewing this advice to the practical side of things because I think you want more than empathy and because much of this can help anyone whose energy levels or motivation with regard to food represent a struggle. Some of the tips further down may help your husband execute his part, but will also help you get things done if he just can’t get it together (though honestly, it really sounds like he should shape up).
Figure out a maximum food budget.
This sounds dumb, but hear me out. There are an infinite number of videos and articles instructing us on how to feed a family of four for $50 a week. It’s possible, sort of—although those meal plans never have enough protein for anyone who works out. But when you adhere to plans like these, you are often trading convenience, flavor, and some much-needed novelty for money in the bank. Sometimes you need to save that money! But as you so correctly pointed out, food is a big cornerstone of our well-being, and eating well affects how we feel on a daily basis. People are out here in developed countries in our modern day going blind for lack of a balanced diet. Food is a thing that if you can afford to, is worth spending money on.
As far as budget, I come from a family that would never buy that $3 tin of smoked trout when the 50-cent can of tuna is right there. We were a family of six, so those costs could compound really fast. But now that it's just me, if I’m six times more likely to reach for that smoked trout which takes one sixth the time of tuna to make taste good (in fact, it takes no time at all and it tastes good right out of the tin), it does make sense to spend that little bit of extra money on things that smooth that groove. It's taken me a bit of time to grasp that but I've made peace with it, because sometimes that $3 trout means I don’t get stuck spending $15 on a sandwich at work, so if you think about it that way, I’m saving $12 by spending an extra $2.50. Often, it means I don’t end up having bags of chips and cereal for dinner. Am I doing some light false equivalencies here? Maybe. But if convenience and budget are a spectrum, and I’m entitled as an adult to spend my resources how I want, there is not as much shame as some people would have you think in spending more than the bare minimum on groceries.
This is all a way of saying, it may take some experimentation, but it can be worthwhile to figure out where you can throw a little money at the meal prep problem. There is bottomless money-saving content out there, and the Oregon Trail Chef or whomever will tell you how to repurpose corn silk or make your own tomato sauce, which only makes financial sense as long as you manage to source discount, in-season plum tomatoes from Aldis. But do you know how much time and energy it takes to monitor the tomato prices, specifically at Aldis, pounce when the time is right, blanch the tomatoes, seed them, cook them down, season them properly, and store them? Hours. Hours to save like $3 on just buying a jar of tomato sauce. Will homemade tomato sauce be better? Sure. But your time and energy have value that the trendy modern disdain for convenience foods, or the idea of spending money on them, doesn’t adequately reckon with. The slightly more convenient food you don’t have to cook is often worth more than the ultra budget-sparing food that you will or that will take an inordinate amount of time to prepare.
After you’ve figured out what foods you and your husband agree on (or what foods you like, if you’re going rogue), figure out how many shortcuts you can afford while still keeping the meals nutritionally balanced. Sauces, spices, shelf-stable products, slightly fancier and tastier versions of staple foods—these things can be worth it. A thing I’ve started doing to feed my need for protein is buying mostly-prepared foods, like pre-packed burritos or frozen meals, and adding extra meat I’ve cooked to them. This way I don’t have to cook and assemble my own burritos from scratch, but still get an edible meal with the nutrients I need. Trader Joes frozen turkey meatballs are great; so is the aforementioned smoked trout. These things cost a few dollars more than preparing from scratch, but it saves me hours of time. It’s okay to meet yourself where you are, but you have to be honest with yourself about where that is. “Where you are” might not be “meal prepping for a whole week on only 50 dollars,” and that’s okay.
Look for everyday recipes.
A problem I have with online food content is not unlike the problem I have with a lot of fitness content, which is that the easiest stuff to find seems targeted at the most extreme enthusiasts. In the case of food people, that means those who entertain a lot (a LOT), or I suppose possibly people who are just bored of subsisting on regular foods. In the same way I don’t need to know "17 New Moves To Smoke Your Biceps" and just need to know how to bench-press, I don’t need to know how to make [checks Bon Appetit homepage] Miso Pork Ribs with Chile Honey Glaze. I just need how to cook a pork chop or pork loin, and some sort of simple side that will go with it. I wanna know what temperature to roast some frozen broccoli at and for how long, without a hundred Takes on the Best Broccoli Recipe of All Time leaping out at me. I feel like our parents just had like, one cookbook that had this basic information and weren’t inundated with a flood of recipes trying to one-up each other whenever they tried to figure out how to do a basic cooking thing.
Now, I'm pretty confident there is a food enthusiast out there right now going, "but these fancy recipes are so much more flavorful and don’t take that much more time!” Well, they can take a lot more time for a newb, and sometimes they involve investing a lot of time and energy in presentation or textural elements that won’t hold up in leftovers (e.g., crispy skin chicken thighs are big right now; nice idea, but that skin is gross the second, third, or fourth time I’m pulling that container out of the fridge, and they make a HOLY mess of your stove. Not ideal! Calling them a quick and easy weeknight dinner is very nearly a lie).
There are more normal recipes out there, if you dig. I’ve visited this The Kitchn page on how to quickly and easily cook chicken breasts, conservatively, one hundred times, and they regularly do pretty simple meal-prep-type recipes that aren’t trying to blow anyone away. Basically and Healthyish are good sources. If you’re trying to put together more of a diet picture, I’ve mentioned EatThisMuch as a resource before, which will put together a day’s worth of meals based on the number of calories and macros (protein/carbs/fat) you want to eat; most of the recipes cited there skew on the simple side. There are a few subreddits themed on healthy, inexpensive, time-efficient eating where you can find recipes or food combos that are not too intensive (r/EatCheapAndHealthy, r/MealPrepSunday; this is a great guide pinned to the top of MealPrepSunday about the building blocks of meal-prepping and even gets into how to optimally organize your cooking workflow to take the least amount of time and effort). Sometimes just cooking a simple thing (chicken breasts, sweet potatoes, rice or spaghetti with some veggies) and putting a convenience sauce on it, per above, is a plenty healthy and edible meal. You mention that your husband isn’t down for protein sources other than red meat, but maybe if he tries imitating their flavor profiles it would help him—marinating some tofu or adding some barbecue sauce to chicken could make all the difference. I have these curry packets that I only have to add meat, oil, and coconut milk to, and they rule.
Use the “summers" to prepare for the “winters."
This tip is mostly if your husband simply won’t get on board with helping you. A key element, or even advantage, of meal prepping is that theoretically, you’re not cooking every day. But in order to maintain consistently fewer daily cooking hours, you have to recognize your windows of opportunity. With mental or physical illness, this gets a little bit trickier. But when I’m on a downswing, it’s hard to express how grateful I am to myself to find a frozen hunk of Martha’s Perfect Mac and Cheese that I cooked some weeks before in the freezer.
When you’re having a good day and have some energy and time, that’s the moment to get a bunch of cooking done. Make several batches of a few different staples that you can heat and eat, and make liberal use of your freezer; I will even Google for recipes that freeze well, dumb though it sounds. Get leftover containers in single-serve sizes and portion out your big batches so you don’t have to, say, commit to eating the same soup five days in a row when you defrost a big block. You can freeze cooked chicken breasts, pork, rice, and beans. Ideally you’d be able to identify how long of a stretch you need to prepare for between these “summers," but when you're starting out, I recommend trying one or two big batches of a recipe that freezes well. Even if you don’t eat all the portions immediately, you’ll have a little stockpile started. On the next day you cook, you can stockpile some more. Eventually you’ll have a little selection of frozen dinners that will make your exhausted self so happy on a random weeknight.
A closing note on your husband: It sounds like independent cooking would be a lot for you to take on if he really digs in his heels about it. But there’s a small chance that when he sees you making the effort, and even possibly sees the change that attending to your nutritional needs brings about, he may get motivated by proxy. That motivation my come either out of pity for making you take this on yourself or out of a sense that he, too, may enjoy the day-to-day benefits of an improved diet. I see often, very sadly, that family members—both immediate and extended—can be threatened by lifestyle changes like this and receive them as a judgment on how they conduct their own lives. I’m begging you to take no shit from those people, including your husband, even if it means just doing the best you can on your own steam.
Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.