Cook and cook and keep on cooking
September 8, 2012 9:22 AM   Subscribe

Give me your tried-and-true tips on eating (consistently and healthily) when anxious.

Quick background: I'm a late-twenties woman in the USA who has an anxiety disorder. I already take anti-anxiety medication and sleep medication as needed (which are both helpful), see a psychiatrist monthly, and a therapist weekly. I work three jobs out of financial necessity, totaling 40-50 hours per week and I am an artist-in-residence with certain studio/other commitments connected to that. I'm in great health according to my last physical, though was told I could put on a few pounds. I'm single and shy, with no close friends who currently live in my town.

Now onto the details! Working with my therapist (we do a combination of EMDR and CBT) and taking medication has definitely helped me cope better in terms of sleep, work performance, and to a limited extent, socializing with other people. However, I really struggle to eat when I feel anxious -- and so far attempts by my therapist to help me find strategies to deal with that haven't been very effective.

I often feel anxious about nearly every aspect of eating -- choosing food at a deli counter makes me feel light-headed, walking into a kitchen to boil water and make ravioli seems like climbing Mount Everest, eating a candy bar seems like it has to be done where no one can see me, you get the idea. It's goofy and stressful and totally doesn't match the part of me that is a fan of the Slow Food Movement, enjoys going to the farmers' market, takes canning classes, tries new recipes, and makes a darn good pie crust.

However, unfortunately, I'm anxious almost every day, for most of the day. The result is that I often go a whole day without eating... until an ex-boyfriend checks in and makes me a sandwich, or someone mentions that they're hungry. If it wasn't for inconsistent social interactions like those, I'm honestly not sure if I would "remember" to eat.

The flip side is that sometimes I will wake up in the middle of the night, wander to a convenience store alone, and cobble together whatever snacks I find into a "meal." Let me tell you, that sucks. It was a recent experience like that which prompted me to ask this question.

There are, of course, totally issues related to child abuse that are tied to my behavior, but I'm working through those experiences with my therapist. Growing up, I wasn't given food consistently, was verbally abused about eating "too much," or given spoiled or moldy food to eat. My little brother and I experienced food poisoning routinely and had no idea how unacceptable that was. By high school, I sometimes ate food out of the trash because I was so hungry. Later in life, I would occasionally eat so much at once that I would throw up because I thought on some level that I wouldn't be fed later. I also struggled a lot with venturing out alone to eat a meal in a restaurant.

Last year, I lived mostly alone and unless my neighbor/good friend brought me leftovers, I often ate very erratically. I tried, I really did. I got a CSA share which included butter and eggs -- and I made some wonderful little meals for myself. But most of the time, I didn't do that and I wound up giving the food away to other people.

As of this month, I now live with five other women who are all very friendly and well-adjusted and like to cook. I'm delighted to talk with them and have them as roommates, but I am already irrationally afraid to go into the kitchen. I don't know them very well yet, they're several years younger than me, and I am nervous that they will notice my bizarre behavior. At best, they might think it's awkward that I just make a peanut butter & jelly sandwich and go back to my room. I'm trying to be friendly and stay in the kitchen to talk with them. But I also have noticed that I am already hiding in my room until I hear them leave before venturing downstairs. This is not a pattern I want to continue.

What I want:
*If I can't become the sort of person who actually spends lots of time in the kitchen making fun recipes with ingredients from the farmers' market consistently, I would at least like to eat simple meals that are healthy, high in protein, and consist of mostly whole foods.

*I want to cut down on the sugar and processed food in my diet a lot. I avoid high fructose corn syrup and sugar generally, but when I feel exhausted from not eating, I totally cave and reach for, oh, I don't know, a couple Little Debbie snack cakes. (I'm fully aware of how dark that sounds, folks.) I'm not interested in meal replacement shakes or other "fake foods" like that. I read this previous question and a lot of the answers mentioned options like Ensure, which is not really what I'm looking for.

*I want to take my vitamins and fish oil. I don't because I have found that I try to take them without eating real food and then I throw up because they irritate my stomach. So, I recognize that taking vitamins really needs to be part of a routine where I eat consistently.

*I don't want to waste food or money if I can help it. I'm on a tight budget and I work three jobs, so eating out for every meal doesn't make sense. But letting another bag of leafy greens go bad in my fridge (because I decide it's easier to sit on my floor than make a salad) doesn't make sense either.

Look, I realize I sound pretty ridiculous. To a large extent, this issue is really just about taking care of myself and building a routine. I am not very good at either task, but I know I am strong and I have survived a lot and I think I can develop these habits. But I have been struggling with what feels like a tidal wave of depression and anxiety for over a year now. I just don't know where to start and I want this year to be better than last year.

So, please give me your advice, easy meals, links to blogs with grocery lists for dummies, success stories, and so on.

Thank you.

P.S. Shout out to Julia Child because I really like how positive she was about making food.
posted by pinetree to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Look, you don't sound ridiculous at all. The thing with the three jobs is enough right there to disrupt anyone's eating patterns.

Your interest in fairly ambitious cooking may be a bit of an enemy here. Do you have any simple go-to foods? My number one go-to right now is low-fat Greek yogurt. Almost every day I take two-serving container, eat half for breakfast mixed with fruit, cereal etc., and take the container with the other half (again mixed with something) for lunch on the go. This sounds incredibly tedious but the tedium is part of what makes it work.

My other go-tos vary but the key is longevity in the fridge or freezer. Lately I have been working through a package of Dr. Praeger's spinach cakes which I melt cheese on top of. If I don't have those I have some other kinds of vegetarian burgers. (I'm not vegetarian but don't really like to handle meat.)

I love Julia too!
posted by BibiRose at 9:44 AM on September 8, 2012

...unless my neighbor/good friend brought me leftovers, I often ate very erratically.
...I now live with five other women who are all very friendly and well-adjusted and like to cook...
equals one possible solution. Can you explain to one or two of your roommates that you don't like to cook but want to eat well, offer money for however much groceries, and then share some of their meals/leftovers so you at least have a consistent source of high-quality food that you don't have to think about beyond taking out of the fridge? Eating more healthily and taking fish oil/vitamins is going to massively help your brain get into the space where it can start to take on something as daunting as "cook good meals regularly".
posted by teremala at 9:49 AM on September 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

By the way, that link really brightened my day! Everyone should click on it!
posted by BibiRose at 9:50 AM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I had roommates, about once a week we would all chip in on groceries and help make a really fantastic meal. Usually it would be something that either took a lot of time and effort to make (tamales!) or something that we couldn't afford to purchase and make just for ourselves (turkey dinner!). It was fun emailing and showing each other recipes for what we should make that week, going grocery shopping together for our ingredients, and then cooking and eating our meal together. It was a great bonding experience because it was a fun activity that the entire household shared together. Even though we were broke college students who ate ramen and PB&Js most days, once a week we had the opportunity to sit down and eat a tasty, healthy meal together like grown-ups. Maybe you could try this with your roomies?
posted by gumtree at 9:52 AM on September 8, 2012

Just to start off: the situation that you're dealing with doesn't sound ridiculous at all, and I think it's fair to say that a wide spectrum of people experience situations that are similar. I sometimes skip multiple meals on a given day, or lack the motivation to prepare a "proper" entree, myself.

Anyhow, as long as it sounds like I'm parroting BibiRose: low-fat Greek yogurt is an excellent go-to food for me. It isn't the cheapest, but it has a long shelf-life in the refrigerator and even the plain varieties can taste good without anything being added. Usually, though, I like to throw in some frozen blueberries, or other frozen fruit, which can usually be purchased cheaply and has a wonderful shop life. Even more than Greek yogurt, though, I eat 1% cottage cheese, usually without seasoning, and usually accompanied by a couple handfuls of salted almonds. Both the yogurt and cottage cheese are healthy when consumed in moderation (by which I mean, like, two standard servings if it's basically all I'm eating for a meal) and it seems that nuts are also healthy in moderation. Both of these meals have minimal prep time, and both depend on ingredients that aren't too perishable. One of the few drawbacks is that a person can easily spend $4 per 24 ounce carton of either.

I could go on and on (as I love to mutter about cooking and eating) but I'll spare people the interminable ramblings. I hope that you work through this in due time, and am sure that you can. Don't worry about the appearance of what you decide to eat, assuming it's healthy, because there aren't any culinary constables on patrol. If you'd like to hear more meal plans that I prefer you could send me a message.
posted by mr. digits at 10:00 AM on September 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Look, I realize I sound pretty ridiculous.

No, you don't. Not to anyone with empathy. Food is really, really emotionally fraught even without being abused, it can be a big source of conflict and stress even in healthy, non-abusive households. Also, 40-50 hours and three jobs? It'd be more unusual if you weren't having trouble managing it.

I am not very good at either task, but I know I am strong and I have survived a lot and I think I can develop these habits.

As someone who has the same problem, but for completely different reasons, this may not work for you, but what's helped me has been: Schedule your meals. Even schedule snacks, if you find out you're the kind of person who does better with lots of small meals and snacks. Same time every day. While you're acquiring the habit, eat the same thing every day, or if there's just no way you can handle the lack of variety, eat the same very and manageable small explicit rotation of things. The goal is to make sure you know exactly what you're going to eat for your next meal and when you're going to eat it. Then just do that until you've managed to stick to the schedule for an entire year. Obviously you'll need to cut yourself some slack in the case of real emergencies, but seriously, do it for a whole year. A smartphone will help enormously with this, you don't even need to spend money on any apps for it, just use Google Calendar, but you can do just fine without one. Write down the entire schedule on one side of an index card, and your rotation of meals if you need one on the other side, and just stick it in your wallet/purse.

But letting another bag of leafy greens go bad in my fridge (because I decide it's easier to sit on my floor than make a salad) doesn't make sense either.

Invest in cheap plastic tupperware. Whenever you buy a bag of salad, as soon as you get home, apportion it into the boxes and stick them in the fridge. If the ingredients you use aren't going to spoil or just make the salad gross, stick them in at that time as well. I tend to eat a lot of salads with nuts in them, so I put the nuts in ahead of time, but putting dressing on will just make it gross.

*I want to take my vitamins and fish oil. I don't because I have found that I try to take them without eating real food and then I throw up because they irritate my stomach. So, I recognize that taking vitamins really needs to be part of a routine where I eat consistently.

Pill box. One that has an entire week's supply in labeled sub-compartments. Have a set day and time for filling it. Have a set time for taking the pills. Sorry, all my advice is like the greatest hits of the ADHD playbook.

*I want to cut down on the sugar and processed food in my diet a lot. I avoid high fructose corn syrup and sugar generally, but when I feel exhausted from not eating, I totally cave and reach for, oh, I don't know, a couple Little Debbie snack cakes. (I'm fully aware of how dark that sounds, folks.) I'm not interested in meal replacement shakes or other "fake foods" like that. I read this previous question and a lot of the answers mentioned options like Ensure, which is not really what I'm looking for.

Do you like sandwiches/bagels? They're a great intermediate step between "totally home-cooked meal from scratch" and Little Debbie, you can get extremely fancy with them, they lend themselves really well to prepping ahead of time or being made on the fly, and you can adapt them to literally any diet, even the insane ones where you can't eat bread. Toasted whole grain English muffin + brie + chopped red onion or red onion puree is my go-to sandwich, and it is incredibly tasty and stupidly easy to make, especially since I chop the onions or make the puree ahead of time, and it'll last a week. You can get far fancier and more complex, without much of an increase in the overall work required, if you want. Actually, pretty much any dish you fancy can have most of it's flavor profile recreated in sandwich form.

Julia is awesome, but her recipes and style of cooking was notoriously complex and took a lot of time. I would hold off on that until you've gotten the habit of just eating regular meals on time, every day, established as part of your daily routine. Even then, I'd work on getting comfortable with cooking from scratch with easier stuff first. Maybe start out with one meal a month that you cook from scratch, made from stuff you got at the farmer's market.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 10:03 AM on September 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

I already take anti-anxiety medication and sleep medication as needed (which are both helpful),
followed by
I'm anxious almost every day, for most of the day.
suggests "time for a medication change" to me. especially because you think this:
Look, I realize I sound pretty ridiculous.
There is nothing ridiculous about what you have accomplished, and wanting more is absolutely reasonable. You deserve more. You deserve the life you are imagining.. You sound brave and strong and level headed. And you need a better set of tools. It sounds like you are currently using a screw driver when really you might need a socket wrench. Or something.

Please be more direct with your therapist/doctor and express explicitly that the level of anxiety you feel around food is unacceptable and you need more help changing it. Ask what medication can help ease this transition.

Now. As for non medication tools. I need to eat a lot, and sometimes if I get super hungry I feel frantic and emotional. My family history includes a lot of food abuse, similar to yours. What I do, now, to prevent spiraling into desperation is always have something I like that is ready to eat nearby. Fruit leather, tortilla chips, any nuts you like, whatever. When I was younger it was pre-packaged peanut butter crackers. None of this was the healthiest stuff out there, but it kept me going. It sounds like you are a woman, and these things could be tucked into a purse.

Start by building yourself some healthy food rituals. Don't just right into cooking meals or insisting that everything has to be whole grains or whole foods. Get a cloth napkin. Sit at the table with your candy bar. When you are eating, only be eating, rather than reading books or watching tv. Cry while you eat if you need to. Have an internal conversation with yourself as a child. This is ok, I promise. I still have to suppress tears sometimes when I eat a roast beef sandwich, because that food is just...mythical to small bilabial. My parents would indulge in it while gloating that we were eating crap because we weren't worth the expense.

Set timers. Every three hours, have a snack. Just drop everything and eat. Buy produce in small quantities and start there for learning how to cook, because the best preparations are usually very simple. Roasted asparagus with olive oil and salt; a baked potato with butter and sour cream; peas with mint; melon and sliced prosciutto. While produce itself isn't calorie dense, there will be lots of nutrients, and you can add butter and other ingredients that amp up the calories.

Divide your fish oil and vitamins into a pill box and put breakfast bars, or slim fast shakes, or cans of Ensure right next to the pill box. Put all of that right at your bedside. Before your feet hit the floor, take the vitamins and eat the breakfast treat. Make it something delicious. Hell, put a box of Little Debbie cakes with the vitamins and the healthier choices so that if you want Little Debbie, you don't have to agonize over it.

But yes, stop buying salad greens, because they are actually kind of a pain in the ass. Washing, cutting, dressing, finding other things to put in the salad. You will get there. You will. But for now, just get apples or oranges or bananas that require little to no preparing.

Feel free to memail me. I taught myself to cook as a young adult, and it was scary. If you want any tips, I'm happy to help.

Last. Food is, for humanity, a very social thing. There is a reason that the words communion and community have so much in common. There are anthropologists who strongly believe that dietary purity laws have a lot to do with strengthening communities and preventing mingling/intermarriage with outside groups. Having your very first community (family) be so deeply disrespectful of such a basic need is devastating, and I really admire your courage and persistence in working to overcome this. Like I said above, you deserve this. I'd give you a big hug if I could.
posted by bilabial at 10:40 AM on September 8, 2012 [7 favorites]

Cooking like Julia Child is a job or a hobby; it's not a particularly efficient way of getting healthy calories.

You don't need to eat fake foods. I agree with those who are saying you should stock your fridge and pantry with "real foods" that you can cobble together to make a meal. Here are some of my suggestions:

Baby carrots/carrot slices
Peanut butter
Frozen vegetables - I eat frozen corn without defrosting it. I like it.
Frozen fruit
Apples and oranges (keep forever in the fridge)
Bananas (available everywhere - only buy two at a time)
Wholegrain crackers (Triscuits are my favorite)
Healthy breakfast cereal & maybe those little shelf-stable milk boxes

Notice that most of this stuff has a decent shelf/fridge life so you don't need to deal with food-wasting guilt on top of your other stuff. If you decide you really need that Little Debbie cake, this food will be there waiting for you when you're ready to get back on track.
posted by mskyle at 10:45 AM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was also coming in to say "schedule schedule schedule." Go to the store and buy one each of various energy bars - there are ones that are gluten-free, low-carb, vegan, all kinds of flavors. When you find one you like buy a bunch and stick a couple of each bag and the pockets of the jackets you wear most often. Carry a bag of almonds with you. Set timers on your phone and when it goes off, eat a bar or some nuts.

And to avoid decision-paralysis when eating out, think about the places you go most often when you're eating out; you're probably pretty familiar with their menus, right? So if you usually go to XWZ Deli on Tuesdays, build it into your schedule that that day you will order [thing you like] and then do that.

Buy a bunch of frozen veggies to keep in the freezer - they'll keep better than salad greens and take just a few minutes in a steamer or the microwave. A little lemon or some salad dressing and you can call it dinner (or lunch or breakfast if you like). Too many simple carbs, in my experience, get me to the so-hungry-can't-think place too easily; try to treat them (muffins, pasta, potatoes) as a treat and not a meal. Stick some string cheese in the fridge for those nights when you're so hungry you can't think all that clearly about what you want to eat - eat a cheese stick and then you'll be able to think better. It really works!

Good luck with this - it sounds like you're doing really great, so be kind to yourself.
posted by rtha at 10:51 AM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I am being good, aka following the prescribed diet, it helps me to be consistent in both food prep and ease of food prep. I've fallen off the low carb wagon recently, and I have an appointment scheduled with a new care provider, but this is what it was like when I was at my best:

Breakfast: One cup of Greek-style yogurt with one full cup of frozen blueberries, maybe a tablespoon of wheat germ. Measure blueberries, thaw for 30 seconds, dump on a cup of yogurt, stir, and eat.

30 minutes of exercise, DVD program or walking, etc.

Lunch: Turkey and cheese sandwich and 8 oz. milk. Mustard or low fat mayo.

Snack: handful of almonds, or some cheese and crackers, light on the crackers, using low fat cheese.

Or... no sugar peanut butter on one piece of high fiber bread.

Supper: 4 oz. protein, low fat steak, chicken or fish, with a measured portion of carbs and some green veg. Maybe 2 squares of really dark chocolate.

I found I had a hard time keeping my blood sugar levels up till noon with just yogurt and blueberries, probably because I was doing aerobic exercise shortly afterward. So an additional little snack, nuts or whatever, or eating lunch a bit early and then snacking on almonds, and I mean, if the bag says: "28 almonds," then I would count them out, and I still do this, to make sure I am only taking in that amount, helps.

Think I read somewhere that if you keep it simple and follow the same meal routine every day, it actually works better than trying for different fare. I know there are some allowed greens that don't count as bad carbs, so sometimes a dinner of lots of greens and 4 oz. of pre-cooked chicken and tomato and dipping into the dressing on the side works. I personally have to watch things like chickpeas and beans, yes, you can subtract some carbs due to the fiber, but I tend to go overboard.

When I first started this meal program, I was diagnosed with low blood sugar, and in my twenties. The thought of breakfast was like, ugh, I can't do this! But I forced myself to do it, per the nutritionist's recommendation, and I lost like... oh... 35 pounds. Probably just by cutting out soda pop and extra sugars.

Then later, when I was a flipside Grannie, it was oh, your blood sugars are a bit high :::sigh::: but more or less the same thing: eat your greens, a bit of protein, and avoid cakes and sweets and less potatoes and pasta and rice. So it goes.

I could never tolerate the fish oil, it just makes me want to puke. I can only tolerate my B-vitamin complex after a meal, and I take a 5,000 D as well after a meal, because they say it absorbs better with fat. I can't even take a multi-vitamin, it makes me ill.

One thing I do have is a little food scale, which I bought to weigh oils for making soap, but I had used an old school food scale (non-digital) years ago when I was diagnosed with low blood sugar. You really DO make mistakes in trying to eye it up when not using a food scale. I found that the nutritionists and nurse practitioners were so, so helpful in helping me achieve my goals, and offering good advice, and telling me that it's a process that can take up to a year to achieve. They expect people to fall of the nutrition wagon now and then.

But now I read nutrition labels religiously, I use low sodium broth packs like Herb Ox, or say, Bragg Liquid Amino Acid instead of soy sauce, and I never eat Little Debbie's, which I did do in my twenties, plenty of times! When I am feeling shaky, I will reach for say, some deli beef instead of a donut, knowing it will last me longer and I won't have a high and a crash. So even if I mess up, I know why and the things that will bring me back on track.

I'd say everyone struggles with these issues, it's so hard when oh, cinnamon donuts or whoopie pies or husband loves ice cream and brings it home, or you were brought up eating chicken noodle soup with crackers on top, food is so very tasty in all its forms, that it's natural to struggle with changing your habits. I have only ever been able to do it with a doctor and nutritionist's support, knowing that I have to go back and report to them three months later. I haven't been to a doctor in a couple of years and I have found myself sliding. It's hard! But still, I remember the education and I tend toward trying for good things now, if that helps. Especially reading labels and looking for sodium content, that is HUGE.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 11:34 AM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

May I recommend the work of Ellyn Satter? It's been hugely helpful to me.

Also Trader Joe's has been a lifesaver to me with my current eating limitations.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:37 AM on September 8, 2012

One word: routine.

The body appreciates routine under stress.
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:42 AM on September 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

I know this may seem like a stretch but it seems like your roommates could be such a great resource. For the majority of people who learn to cook well and utilize food well (not the same thing - I'm totally confident in the kitchen but I still often waste food by not planning well) the learning was a collaborative effort, not a solo pursuit.

Could you contemplate engaging the nicest roommates who are most comfortable in the kitchen? You don't have to go into the whole thing (though I suspect you could - I think young women are so much more exposed to issues of disordered eating than one or two decades ago and I am certain they would have nothing but understanding and sympathy), just saying you are really inexperienced and anxious in the kitchen and could you watch/help them cook? Or just hang out? Most people want to share what they know and like, most people are understanding and want to help, I truly believe that. I guess I understand that may be too far for the level of anxiety, the idea of being scared of the kitchen just makes me so sad.

In any event I don't have your anxieties but I have my own and what helps me a lot is having established go-to quick fixes and scripts. If you know your deli and exactly what you are ordering you can just rattle off the script, hell I've never ordered at Chipotle without reading it off a piece of paper. You can do this anywhere you know the menu, nobody cares, they just want to give you the food you want.

I have also had issues for my own particular nonsense of not eating and it interfering with my medication schedules or supplements or just getting sick and anxious and dizzy from spacing out my food so wackily. I know you want to tend away from this but I really swear by having a decent healthy go-to - I like a Clif bar - you can get very good quality ones with the sort of nutrient profile you want at a co-op or similar health food store. I would rather eat all whole natural foods as well but the fact is sometimes I'm going to mess up and I'm way better off plugging that hole with a decent bar than just letting it fester, feeling bad that I'm not, you know, toasting steel cut oats in butter a la' Alton Brown, until I'm so spaced and hungry that I will eat whatever is available and feel sick. I've gotten pretty good at sort of checking in at characteristics times (ten in the morning, hm, did I eat any breakfast or just coffee?) and I've found that a solid snack like that can get me back on track for the rest of the day. The longer you put off nutrition the harder it gets to manage it! If you don't have an alternative you will go to your defaults like sugary snack cakes. You are being as good to yourself as you can manage under the circumstances - your body desperately needs carbs and fat at that point.

Good luck, let me reiterate everyone else in saying there is nothing ridiculous in any of this (though I know the feeling). You're fighting a hard line and you should feel proud for it.
posted by nanojath at 11:55 AM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I only ever get salad when I am dining out or using the salad bar at the grocery store. The rest of the time it is frozen spinach or broccoli (the little bits, as the big ones with stems grosses me out), or say, asparagus in season. I currently have a container of old salad greens rotting in my fridge, even for two people, it happens.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 11:55 AM on September 8, 2012

A go-to breakfast is so key too, that morning script and routine. I eat one of two things every day I eat (not 100% but getting there). Makes all the difference. Yogurt and fruit and granola? I need a very high fiber diet and swear by a reasonably not-bizarre-crap full box cereal when I'm rushed and oatmeal with frozen blueberries (except when fresh are in season of course) and a little cream and maple syrup, but of course that requires half an hour. Again though, instant oatmeal you could do in your room with an electric kettle and a jug of distilled water in about 5 minutes. All natural is better but sort of natural is better than nothing.
posted by nanojath at 12:04 PM on September 8, 2012

There are a lot of good suggestions here and a lot of love and respect being expressed for what you're going through. Add my voice to the chorus. Especially,

1. Don't aim for perfection -- because even those of us who haven't had your history are still struggling to eat in ways that are emotionally/socially/financially/nutritionally rewarding.

2. Do have some simple go-to foods available. Put extra wherever it's handy (and assuming they don't need refrigeration).

3. Come up with some "basics": hydration is important, lean proteins (oatmeal, chicken, cottage cheese, yogurt), healthy fats (nuts, avocado, etc). Keep it simple. Try to get some of these everyday. And when you feel overwhelmed or like you've gone all day without eating, tell yourself "Back to Basics!" drink some water and eat a little bit and reserve judgement until you've been following the basics for a day or two -- it will change how you feel and your emotions.

4. Recruit your roommates if you're comfortable, to give you some of what they make for a bit more rent money. Tell them only what you want to --"I get too wrapped up in other things and forget to eat". Whatever.

5. If you feel overwhelmed, negotiate with yourself. "I do not want to do a full full shopping trip! (stamp your foot)" "okay, maybe I can just go into the store and pick up some yogurt, peanutbutter and bread. Not a full shop." Remember? Not perfection.

Cry, rage, but also be willing to delight in food. Celebrate small victories (I didn't want to eat, but I had a handful of nuts, so there." Hold on to Julia.
posted by vitabellosi at 12:06 PM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think others have spoken well on long-term solutions: here is a quick fix until you get up and running with those.

I often am "not hungry" for dinner, although I think this comes from GERD more than anything else for me.

When that happens: at least 8 fluid oz of kefir or whole milk yogurt + hefty scoop of protein powder + fruit. You could sweeten with stevia if you wanted. Maybe a sprinkle of ground almonds over the top as well.
posted by Currer Belfry at 1:07 PM on September 8, 2012

I relate to so much of what you've described. I also lose my appetite when I'm anxious, and I also retreat to my room with peanut-butter sandwiches and feel self-conscious about it. But I do manage to eat consistently and more-or-less healthily regardless. Here's what keeps me on track:

1. Accepting that eating is the most significant determinant of my mood and anxiety level. In other words, no matter how shitty I'm feeling, I know that if I don't eat, I will feel worse; likewise, I know that unless I eat, I will not feel any better. This means that keeping myself fed becomes basically my number-one priority, overriding any fears I have about people judging when or how or where I do it.

2. Making it as easy as possible on myself. Past a baseline level of healthiness (enough protein, veggies, no sugar), anything goes. Cooking often seems overwhelming to me and I've wasted so many raw ingredients due to the foolish belief that I will one day make a salad. Plus, I'm really picky. I'm self-conscious about these things and wish they weren't true. But I've also learned that I feel much worse if I place unrealistic expectations on myself and fail to meet them. Again, the most important thing is that I eat something. So that means that if I find something I like and that's healthy, it's fine if I eat it every day. I also rely heavily on pre-cooked, pre-washed things that result in as few dirty dishes as possible. Like Sidhedevil said, Trader Joe's is indispensable for this. They have all kinds of vegetables that can be eaten straight out of the bag. They have cashews divided into separate one-serving packages. Stuff like that.

3. Setting reminders on my phone. I need to eat when they go off, even if I don't "feel" hungry. I also HAVE to eat something (with protein and a complex carb) as soon as I wake up. Rule of thumb: skipping breakfast means tears by 10pm. Literally, it's like clockwork.

From what you've said, I suspect lack of food contributes as much to your anxiety as vice versa. I think eating more consistently will go a long way towards helping you feel better, and you'll find farmer's markets and pie crusts a whole lot more manageable. But for now, meet yourself where you're at.
posted by granted at 1:34 PM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

What everyone said. Plus:

This book by Nigel Slater contains many great simple meal combinations - whole sections on sandwich toppings, or stuff to put on a baked potato, for example. This could be useful for growing your repertoire of quick things to make.

Also, make a snack box and keep it handy. I invested in a nice lunchbox with two compartments, one side containing nuts and dried fruit, the other dark chocolate or rice cakes. When I get dizzy or lightheaded I reach for this emergency box first and it buys me time until I can sort out a better option.
posted by pink_gorilla at 4:09 PM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thank you all so much. I have been touched (and motivated) by your suggestions. I don't think I can even choose a "best answer" because all of your replies made me feel validated and gave me inspiration.

To begin small, I'm going to start with the timer on my phone and the snack bags like nuts. I also just had another nice conversation with my roommates and that has made me feel confident about suggesting a twice-monthly dinner. I am also going to talk to my therapist and psychiatrist about what's been going on with my anxiety to see what changes (if any) might be appropriate given where I'm at in my treatment. Then I'll try to build from there, referring back to this thread as I do.

Thanks again, everybody.
posted by pinetree at 7:15 PM on September 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

You mentioned having trouble ordering at a deli counter. How about spending a few minutes thinking about your favorite deli counter purchase, and writing it down. I think sandwiches when I think deli and here's what mine would look like:

Whole wheat bread, size I feel like having (half or whole sub)
A little bit of golden mustard and a little bit of mayo (and before I could stomach mayo it was sour cream, which is so tasty on a sandwich)
Roast beef
Green peppers

What gets me anxious is there is a line. And people milling around. And the to let numbers are hard to hear so I'm worried I'm not going to hear my number (and worried that means getting another number and waiting more). I am sometimes anxious that people will think my sandwich should have more veggies. The deli counter I use is in a grocery store.

Here's what saves me a lot of internal strife. I call ahead and say I'm coming in 10 or however many minutes to pick up a sandwich. I read from my list. And then, most of the time I get a perfect sandwich, and none of the parts that stress me out. Ok, butting in line to tell the staff I have a sandwich waiting sometimes makes me sweat. But less than waiting in line and trying to decide if I want turkey or pastrami. Nope, I get roast beef because deli sandwiches are a luxury and roast beef is delicious. Calling ahead means not agonizing over the extra dollar, which is also nice.
posted by bilabial at 6:55 AM on September 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to pop in now that it's been a couple of weeks to say that I've been spending more time with my roommates in the kitchen. Our conversations have involved mindful eating and recipes and I mentioned to them that I admire what good cooks they are. They have generously shared leftovers or meals with me on multiple occasions (including tonight when I wasn't feeling well). For the last two weeks, every time I feel like I'm about to try to sneak past the kitchen without saying hello, I take a deep breath, grab a seat, and ask how they're doing. It's simple and it's definitely helping me feel more comfortable with cooking and eating around them. I've been relying a lot on cheeses and hearty soups for my own meals, but I feel okay about that right now.

I also came up with a sandwich to automatically order at the deli so I'll declare a victory on that small front.

Tomorrow, I'm cooking a meal (using a recipe from one of my roommates) and then bringing a plate over a friend's house because they'll need dinner. It's kind of a big step for me in some ways, but I feel pretty calm about it.

At the encouragement of one of my roommates, I might even take a one-day workshop in November on mindful eating.

It's only been two weeks so obviously things are still tough. However, just keeping the ideas from this thread in mind has prompted me to make small decisions this month that have genuinely helped. This will be my last update in this thread, but I just wanted to let folks know how much your advice has helped me out.
posted by pinetree at 7:10 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

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