- The pandemic required more cooking at home, leading to burnout in the kitchen for many people.
- There are ways to make cooking more bearable for the long run.
- If pandemic weight gain has you stressed about healthy meal planning, experts share tips for success.
With many restaurants closed and social distancing in place during the pandemic, you may have found yourself in the kitchen way more often than you liked.
Cooking multiple meals a day meant you had to make even more decisions than you already make daily.
Experts say having to make a lot of decisions at once when under stress can lead to decision fatigue, which is the inability to make decisions easily.
“Decision fatigue can be explained by looking at our stress hormone cortisol. Over time, while living a stressful life, our cortisol tends to ‘burn out.’ This impacts our neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine and we end up feeling ‘meh’, lack of motivation, etc.,” Teralyn Sell, PhD, psychotherapist and brain health expert, told Healthline.
In fact, in a survey by the American Psychological Association, 32 percent of Americans reported having difficulty with basic decision-making, such as what clothes to wear and what to eat because of pandemic-related stress.
“In our world of high stress, we make approximately 35,000 decisions every day. Research has shown that we make just over 200 meal-related decisions every day. By the time we sort through all of the other decisions, planning and preparing meals is last on the priority list,” said Sell.
Plus, making meals requires several decisions. For instance, there’s figuring out which meals to make, when to make them, what ingredients are needed, and where to buy them before the cooking even begins.
When the last thing you want to do is cook, consider the following tips for making the process a little easier.
Ask for ideas
Celebrity chef and New York Times best-selling author Devin Alexander said when she’s in a cooking rut, she sends a text or email to her closest friends who share the same level of decadence or fitness she aspires to. She asks: “Wondering if you have a favorite meal for those nights that you need to throw together something quickly.”
“Chances are, you’ll not only get a number of responses (even if you only send it to your 10-15 closest friends), those friends will likely ask you to share the list,” Alexander told Healthline.
Now that physical distancing is distant for now, Alexander suggested adding people to your cooking routine.
“[Whether] you’re single, married with kids, or somewhere in between, most people are cooking and most people are in the same boat, so, combine forces,” she said. “Just this weekend, I had a girlfriend come over with her two kids. The kids played together while we cooked a few meals for the week for both families. I got to bond with a girlfriend without paying for a babysitter and then my cooking and cleanup was done for a couple of days.”
Choosing two meals each to prepare together and divide can set you up for a week’s worth of meals, given you make enough for leftovers.
Incorporate new recipes gradually
Rather than piling on five new recipes for the week, Sell recommended trying out one easy-to-follow recipe once a week for a month or so.
For the rest of the week, stick to meals you know how to cook and that don’t take much thought. Then build up to two new recipes per week, and so on as you become more comfortable with the recipes.
Keep in mind that it’s okay to try a new recipe a few times before you get it exactly right, noted Sell.
“[Perfection] isn’t a thing when it comes to food preparation. Live by the rule good, better, best and some days it will just be good enough,” she said.
Simplify grocery shopping
Ordering groceries through your grocery store’s app or website and picking them up can save on time and energy. Sell noted that it can also keep you from buying items you don’t need.
“Grocery shopping can be overwhelming, using a grocery shopping app allows you to more mindfully shop,” she said.
If you want to skip the car ride all together, consider delivery service from your favorite grocery stores or companies that specialize in food delivery.
Plan dinners first, then add other meals
Christina Brown, nutrition and weight loss coach, recommended focusing on planning dinners until they become a habit. Once you have planning dinners down, add in meals for breakfasts and lunches, as well.
“Knowing ahead of time what you will be eating that day saves you from having to make yet another decision at the end of a long day,” she said.
Invest in new appliances and tools
While you don’t need to buy fancy or expensive gadgets, Sell said investing in some new kitchen tools might make cooking easier and can also motivate you to get started.
“[Perhaps] you might need some better cutlery to help do the job. The hardest part about cooking is getting started. Build on your successes in the kitchen and keep the momentum going,” she said.
Lean on meal kit services
Meal kit services that provide you with ingredients for meals or companies that deliver fully prepared meals can eliminate the prep work, said Sell.
“Some services will actually bring you prepared meals and all you do is point and click [on their website for what you want delivered],” she said.
While cost is a consideration with services that offer prepared meals, there are often options to pay for a few days of meals versus an entire week.
Pandemic weight gain can make meal prepping stressful, especially if you’re trying to change your eating habits. Consider the following to help shed pounds.
Document healthy meals you like
Creating a binder or electronic file of your favorite healthy meals and adding to it as you find more can save you hours of meal planning time, said Brown.
“The basic steps to take would be to sit down on your grocery shopping day, look through your binder/Google doc of healthy recipes, decide on and schedule the ones you will be making that week. Next, go through each recipe and create your shopping list,” she said.
This allows you to visit the grocery store once per week.
“There are also apps, such as Copy Me That, in which you can save recipes, schedule them for certain days, and the app will automatically create a shopping list of all the ingredients you need,” said Brown.
Ditch frozen and non-perishable foods
Because a lot of people stocked up on items with a long shelf life like rice, white pasta, and frozen pizza during the pandemic, Alexander said, “donate anything that remains and commit to buying fresh food again.”
Keep healthy go-to options on hand
Preparing healthy snack options and go-tos is a must, said Alexander. For instance, she makes it a point to always have a healthy dip in her refrigerator, as well as fresh veggies chopped.
“So, when I go ‘too long’ on that conference call, I can munch on that instead of chips or crackers while I cook,” she said.
She also keeps chopped butternut squash and sweet potatoes in the fridge, so she can pop them in the oven when her daughter is hungry.
“I have salad veggies chopped for myself…so I can literally throw together a salad the way you would at a salad bar…I also make celery juice every two to three days,” said Alexander.
For protein options, she doubles up on grilling. If she’s grilling chicken, she might also grill shrimp for the next day. “[Plus,] grill pineapple for dessert instead of eating fatty desserts,” said Alexander.
Eat nutrient dense foods
One pillar to good mental well-being is consuming nutrient dense foods, said Sell.
“Fueling our brain will allow us to feel better and say, ‘hey, let’s do that again!’ Make certain if you cannot eat all of your nutrients that you supplement using a high-quality multivitamin, multimineral and potentially some amino acids like l-tyrosine to help with that dopamine pathway. Additionally, adaptogenic herbs help your body adapt better to stress and can help with cortisol. Always check with your doctor first,” she said.
Track your food intake
Brown said that people often underestimate how much they eat by 20 percent or more, which can lead to quick weight gain.
“Knowing that you have to input everything you ate into your food diary alone can help you eat less. If you have to input the last few bites of [peanut butter and jelly] that your daughter left on her plate, may make you think twice about eating it,” she said.
The accountability of tracking your food also causes you to be mindful about what you eat as well as why you are eating.
“Are you eating because you are truly hungry or are you eating because you are bored?” said Brown.
Add movement to your day
Whether you work out, walk, do squats while you brush your teeth, stretch during TV commercials, or park far from the entrance of the grocery store, Brown said you can find simple ways to add movement to your days.
“If you find that you’ve been sitting for longer than an hour, just get up and walk around your house for a few minutes,” she said.
If getting motivated is hard, Alexander said choose an activity that you find fun and social.
“If I had to rely on treadmills, I’d never be fit. It’s all about making it social if you don’t inherently love it,” she said. “Is it swimming now that it’s getting warmer? Can you do an evening bike ride with a friend instead of going to a bar now that the days are longer? Do you love tennis, beach tennis (my sport!), throwing hoops with buddies?”
Focus on one healthy habit at a time
While having many options to choose can be overwhelming, Brown said tackle one healthy change at a time, and move onto the next once you make the change a habit.
“You may feel that you want to lose all of the pandemic weight as quickly as possible and get discouraged if that isn’t happening. Keep in mind that it took you a while to gain the weight, so it will take you a while to lose the weight. And that is okay, because slower weight loss tends to be sustainable weight loss,” she said. “You will have to work, but it will be worth it when you start feeling better about yourself, more energetic, more confident.”