Culinary Conundrum
August 31, 2017 9:06 AM   Subscribe

Help me find meal suggestions and recipes for a friend with a smorgasbord of dietary needs!

A dear friend of mine has a hard time keeping weight on, complicated by some specific health challenges that limit her appetite, the types of foods she can eat, and how much energy and money she has to devote to preparation. She also has frequent stretches of not being able to cook due to sickness or fatigue. Right now she eats a lot of English muffins with peanut butter, or the occasional bowl of ravioli when she has Lactaid on hand, but she's looking for a wider range of options. Starchy, high card foods are great but we're stymied on what to pair with, say, a baked potato that isn't loaded with salt, meat or dairy. All ideas welcome!


-low/no sodium: this is non-negotiable
-high fat, high calories. according to her doctors keeping weight on is more important than other nutrition concerns such as vitamins right now
-lactose intolerant but eats dairy occasionally (avoids yogurt and soft cheeses)
-low effort prep
-can makes large batches ahead preferred
-limited budget
-access to Midwestern grocery store with, according to her, a poor produce selection
-prefers not to eat much meat. Some fish and chicken ok.
-doesn't like avocado
posted by prewar lemonade to Food & Drink (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Rice + veggies cooked/dressed with a very heavy vinaigrette? Lots of calories in i.e. olive oil.

No-knead breads with jams and nut butters, and more veggie-oil spreads (pesto! skip the salt and cheese, add extra nuts maybe)

Add a lot more beans -- get dried and cook a pot for the week, avoid the salt in the canned ones?
posted by curious nu at 9:23 AM on August 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

The sodium makes this legitimately hard because it rules out almost all semi-prepared and ready-to-eat food.

If she doesn't have a rice cooker, get her a rice cooker. Now she can make oatmeal, congee, rice pudding, rice cooker risotto, pasta, one-pot rice and veg etc with only a few minutes of standing time (or even none, if all this can be staged at a counter with a stool or on a coffee table etc). Replace dairy with canned coconut milk.

Have her check her local Craigslist for a "private chef" - there will be all manner of personal trainers and recently-graduated dieticians/nutritionists who actually need to clock so many hours of patient meal-planning as part of their certification process. It is often quite affordable, many of them will offer delivery too, and in your friend's case she might look to have dietarily appropriate freezable components made - single servings of soups and chilis, casseroles, sauces she can toss over rice-cooker-made carbs and steamed veg - so she can use them when she has the least amount of energy/ability to cook, rather than specifically X full meals/week.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:30 AM on August 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Cooked rice with a dressing made of peanut oil and various spices used in curry - a garam masala mix, or cumin and chili, etc. Add toasted peanuts or cashews, cilantro and toasted (or untoasted) unsweetened coconut - seriously, add the coconut. You can inflect this slightly differently by making the dressing with oil and lime juice.

There's a great old Tuscan vegan cookbook (that you can get used on eBay or Amazon) that has about a billion recipes that would meet your friend's needs, many quite simple - a lot of them are "chop things, put in pan, cook for two hours in oven".
posted by Frowner at 9:33 AM on August 31, 2017

These tables of higher fat nuts and oils might help her sub in a higher fat item when adapting recipes.

Does she eat eggs? They are ok for a low sodium diet, easy to prepare, and a good source of calories.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:34 AM on August 31, 2017

Baked potato with veggie chili on top is super easy and delicious and filling. Chili in general is a great make-ahead thing, and you can basically just dump a bunch of canned beans and veggies and tomatoes in a slow cooker and call it a day. And then you can use it as a "topping" on any variety of things.

I don't have a specifically low-sodium version to recommend, (I usually heat up canned chili when I'm having trouble cooking for myself, but I don't know if you're going to be able to find no-sodium canned versions). But the internet has tons of recipes.
posted by brainmouse at 9:34 AM on August 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Does she like milkshakes or smoothies? She can make them with fruit, nut butters and full fat coconut milk. They can then be frozen in pint portions and defrosted in the fridge for the week.

Just an example, banana, peanut butter and coconut milk is really tasty. She could also add honey, cocoa powder or things like graham crackers to change up the flavor. This can be a great way to use fruit that is overripe or even on discount at the store. You can ask the grocery store produce staff if they offer deals on ripe bananas. Sometimes they'll give you a 5-7 lb bag for $2.
posted by annaramma at 9:47 AM on August 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

First up, I'd like to point you (and her) to Budget Bytes. Not every recipe will work for her, but as a whole, the site focuses on easy and affordable meals, made without fancy/expensive ingredients, often in large batches. It has great vegetarian and vegan sections, too, if she prefers to avoid meat/dairy. See, for instance, Slow Cooker Coconut Curry Lentils. Along with rice, it's a complete meal, and the coconut milk provides plenty of fat & calories. It also freezes really well -- if she makes a big batch, she could freeze it in small portions and have a meal available whenever she likes. Here's another one -- "Cowboy Caviar" (aka, black bean salad) that's very little prep -- dump in a can of beans, dump in some frozen corn, chop a bell pepper and a little onion, add some seasoning of choice. It's tasty and it keeps well.

Second, for super-easy meals, I feel like breakfast-for-dinner might be helpful. Oatmeal + plenty of butter and maple syrup + a handful of berries + a couple of fried eggs is not a terrible meal, and she can control exactly how much salt goes into it. Or use some low-sodium bread to make a breakfast sandwich -- toast the bread, spread with butter, and fill with fried egg, tomato, lettuce, onion. List of low-sodium breads here - if she's got a Kroger's nearby, they have a store brand low-sodium wheat bread.

As for low-sodium toppings -- Penzey's has amazing salt-free seasonings that can be sprinkled on top of all sorts of different foods -- here's a gift pack of four delicious-looking options. If those are too pricey, you can also find salt-free seasonings in the spice aisle at the grocery store.
posted by ourobouros at 9:52 AM on August 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

For make-ahead and snacks on hand, boil a dozen eggs. It's not super calorie-dense but it's denser than an english muffin. For times when an extra 5 minutes is available for more enjoyment, make devilled eggs by smashing hte yolks with something high-fat, either mayo or straight up olive oil, and add something spicy (powdered spices, if sriracha or mustards have too much salt, but if she's got a favorite sauce, this would be a great place to add it)
posted by aimedwander at 10:02 AM on August 31, 2017

Cabot Cheddar is lactose free, but does have 180 grams of sodium per serving.

Finlandia Lacey Swiss has no lactose, and is only 60 grams per serving. My point, anyway, is that cheese, if it's possible from a sodium standpoint, is often possible from the lactose standpoint, and is a good (unfortunately for me) food for gaining weight.
posted by papayaninja at 10:19 AM on August 31, 2017

There's a great old Tuscan vegan cookbook (that you can get used on eBay or Amazon) that has about a billion recipes that would meet your friend's needs, many quite simple - a lot of them are "chop things, put in pan, cook for two hours in oven".

....And I meant to post "and I'll get the title and post it when I get home", instead of implying that you should just, like, randomly google around.
posted by Frowner at 10:25 AM on August 31, 2017

A delicious way to eat peanut butter is in banana ice cream - freeze as many peeled bananas as desired, put in strong blender or food processor with as much peanut butter is desired + any mix ins (chocolate chips, chocolate syrup, nuts, berries) and blend. Super delicious, super easy, cheap, and no dairy!

She could make batches of high calorie dips when she has the energy and then eat those on veggies, rice, bread, etc for quick meals. Muhamara is extremely fatty and delicious, hummus with plenty of olive oil and tahini is great, really any beans blended up with lots of olive oil and garlic are going to be pretty tasty.

One last suggestion is baked pasta, like this pumpkin baked ziti. It's still good if you cheat and skip the making your own breadcrumbs and other fiddly bits. It keeps great in the fridge or freezer for later eating. It does require tofu, but you can buy cases of the shelf-stable boxed tofu on amazon and they're super handy to have around if you like to make creamy vegan sauces.
posted by snaw at 11:19 AM on August 31, 2017

Kind Nut Bars are a good way to get in lots of calories but probably have too much sodium. However, there are diy recipes online that look pretty promising and would allow her to eliminate the salt.

I also second the tip above about using acids (lemon, vinegar, etc.) to make up for no salt.

Beyond that: tuna salad with a lot of oil or mayonnaise; fruit smoothies (which can have a lot of calories and to which she can add nuts and chia seeds for more). Water-based porridges, maybe with a mix of grains and with spices and some tangy fruit thrown in to make up for lack of salt, are an easy way to make a huge batch of calorie-dense food, even if you use whole grains like barley, whole wheat, whole oats, etc., which add interest texture-wise. (You basically just put everything in a big pot with water and boil; to make things more interesting you can first saute onions/garlic in the pot, saute whole spices Indian-food style, throw in some cinnamon sticks/star anise/cloves, raisins, bananas, etc. You can also of course add oil and non-dairy milks if you want.)

If her grocery stores have decent frozen vegetables, that can be a good way to save on preparation time and possibly improve selection. (Frozen garlic, onions, ginger, and herbs can be great too.)
posted by trig at 11:39 AM on August 31, 2017

I make my own energy bars in batches, using dates, dried apricots and figs as binder (you need something good and sticky) and a varying mixture of almonds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds and walnuts. Run them all through a food processor and then kneed together, then make balls or bars depending on preference. (Wash your hands frequently or you end up wearing date-nut gloves after awhile.) Wrap'em in plastic wrap and they keep in the fridge for weeks.
posted by me3dia at 1:10 PM on August 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

One of my low-sodium favorite seasonings I discovered when my dad was doing low sodium was this Japanese spice blend, Shichimi Togarashi (mildly spicy and very flavorful). It's probably not available where she is but Amazon ships everywhere, if she's willing and interested. I bake a sweet potato, slather the halves with olive oil, and then sprinkle this on top. I think the same could apply for butternut squash rings.

For breakfast, I would go for plain oatmeal or cream of wheat (not the instant kind) and pack it with dates or raisins and chopped nuts, and maybe coconut flakes, with just a touch of cinnamon and her favorite sweetener.
posted by missmobtown at 1:32 PM on August 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yes, she can eat eggs. I don't believe she has a rice cooker and I'm sure she doesn't have a blender or a food processor, but many of these ideas are still gold. I foresee a lot of coconut, tahini, eggs and spices in her future. Thanks everyone!
posted by prewar lemonade at 2:37 PM on August 31, 2017

Due to allergies, I've been making almost everything from scratch for 30 years now. It's a big quality of life improvement, and after a short while it becomes easy.
Sometimes I make big batches of grilled or fried sliced eggplant, whatever method I use they always take in a huge amount of oil, and the oil makes them keep very well. They can be used as fillings in sandwiches (together with lettuce and tomato and mayo), or as the base of vegan or vegetarian lasagne or eggplant parmigiana, or just eaten as snacks.
Homemade hummus, also with a lot of oil and tahin can keep for a week or so, and is also good in different ways. (I don't add salt at all when I make hummus, whereas the store-bought version can contain a lot of sodium).
Shakshuka is one of my favorite easy dishes, you can make a lot of spicy tomato sauce ahead and keep it in a jar, and then you only need to poach a couple of eggs in it before eating. This is one of many recipes on the internet - it will only be more authentic if she adds more oil to the recipe for more fat.
Some lactose intolerant people can eat butter - if she is one of them, risotto made with is a great high calories high fat dish that I have made a lot for people with weight issues similar to your friend's. Use goat or sheep's cheese, and not too much to avoid the sodium overload in hard cheeses. Risotto doesn't reheat very well, but then you can make little arancini or other forms of breaded rice balls of it, and they keep very well and are even richer.
Many chicken stews keep very well in the fridge or freezer, and again, if butter is allowed they can be very rich. I just saw this recipe, without butter, which looks very good for your friend's purposes: one chicken can become at least four meals, there are potatoes in it, and she can again add a bit extra oil (I'm also certain it will work just fine with canned tomatoes out of season). It's probably difficult/expensive to find Pastis where she lives, but he has alternative suggestions in the comments. An African chicken and peanutbutter stew also freezes just fine and is very nourishing.
Some of the above recipes call for chicken stock, and it seems that you in America have better access to commercial low-sodium stock than we have in Europe. Otherwise it is worth making your own no-sodium chicken stock, frozen in small containers once a month. Does she have a friend nearby who can help her with this? It's not hard at all, but there is lifting involved.
In a lot of recipes that include cream, you can replace it with goat's cream cheese stirred into a little hot water. It is more acidic than cream, so cut down on lemon or vinegar if that is in the recipe. The acidity goes well with fish, so any fish recipe with a cream sauce can work fine with a goat's cheese sauce. They freeze well, though the sauce may separate when heated.
I have often helped friends and family who had lost weight or had difficulty gaining weight because I had these experiences from when I was really suffering from allergies. What is counterintuitive but often works is to serve small portions on small(ish) plates. It also works when you are alone.
posted by mumimor at 2:45 PM on August 31, 2017

Yes, she can eat eggs. I don't believe she has a rice cooker and I'm sure she doesn't have a blender or a food processor, but many of these ideas are still gold. I foresee a lot of coconut, tahini, eggs and spices in her future. Thanks everyone!

A rice cooker I would suggest - and you said low-income so this might be something that friends chip in on - would be something like this. As mentioned above, it makes rice incredibly easy (and ease-of-preparation is a request) and also does a lot of other similar cooked foods, and they usually come with a steamer basket if you want to do steamed veggies. Can be used as a crock pot as well, though the settings can be a little more fiddly to work out -- but it doesn't sound like she cooks much meat, so I think the rice cooker would be a great investment.

A blender or food processor could be had used for <>
I'd also suggest a good-sized dutch oven, something that can be used on the stove and in the oven. It's another really great tool for "big batch" cooking. That's another thing I'd check for used -- they can certainly be bought new for $$$ but I think they tend to be a thing that people buy and then not use, and wind up available for cheaper. I would NOT get a cast iron one; that limits what you can cook in it (due to iron leaching in). Get a Lodge or similar enameled one.

Since she's okay with fish sometimes, oily fish would be great when she can -- canned sardines and anchovies. They're usually pretty cheap.

I've also been seeing tofu on sale a lot lately at my grocery stores -- a block of extra firm is 400 calories, requires very little prep or effort, and while it's low-fat you could cook it in a bunch of oil and up that right up. =) Or toss with nuts, beans, et cetera.
posted by curious nu at 4:55 PM on August 31, 2017

Oops, looks like I had a formatting issue:

A blender or food processor could be had used for <$20 (together!) by looking at craigslist, thrift stores, and local Facebook groups. While all those foods could be done raw, having the option to cook and prepare things in different styles can really stretch the "I'm eating the same thing" every day drag. Great for making the butters and spreads, can also do squashes.
posted by curious nu at 5:04 PM on August 31, 2017

I have the zojirushi rice cooker listed above, and it's great, but honestly you can get pretty much the same primary functionality with more ease-of-use for North American users for under $40, which would be a lot more accessible for a chip-in project, and leave some left over for a small food processor.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:52 AM on September 1, 2017

Oh, there's one more thing I meant to include! Everyone's eating patterns are different, but some things can really help to increase appetite.

- Grazing. Shelf stable snacks (like unsalted nuts or dried fruit) can be left out for easy snacking. She can place them next to her favorite chair, on the kitchen counter or wherever she might mindlessly snack on something.
- What makes her hungry? A very small amount of a less healthy (ex: sugary or somewhat salty) might jumpstart her appetite so she wants to eat that full plate of tofu stir-fry. Perhaps small (or even pre-portioned) amounts of something really tasty can tell her body/brain "Food time!".
- Extreme convenience. If she finds some prepackaged bars, drinks or other meal replacements that she likes, then she can keep an eye out for sales. If she loads up for those periods when she's exhausted she can keep them close at hand so very little motivation is needed to get some food going.
posted by annaramma at 8:57 AM on September 1, 2017

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