I ate frozen food for four months so I could do trauma therapy.

A while ago, I embarked on the difficult and strangely exhausting project of closing a gaping internal wound, the type many of us walk around with our entire lives, in constant pain and in constant denial that the wound exists: I went through trauma therapy.

Along with it, I spent four months or so eating mostly frozen food, supplemented with an assortment of vegetables and fruit, often also frozen.

It didn’t kill me or noticeably weaken me.

If anything, it gave me the time and energy to take care of myself.

I was not expecting therapy to be so physically exhausting, but it was. It was a lot like the exhaustion of internship. During my internship, I usually worked a 10 hour day, filled with the constant assimilation of new information, constant dredging up of old information I’d learned in the classroom years before, and constant anxiety about messing up. I came home a husk of myself, mechanically ate whatever food was put in front of me, watched 30 minutes of TV, made my lunch and set out my clothes, and then slept for as long as possible so my brain could sort through the wreckage.

At the start of therapy, I decided that feeding myself had to be as low-effort as I could make it. I knew that not eating at all, or eating irregularly, would undermine all of my efforts and made me sick in its own right, so that wasn’t an option. (In the distant past, it might have been. Yay, progress!)

I already cook simply, and usually our evening meals are homemade, or a mix of homemade and pre-made. This ensures that we actually make dinner happen, night in and night out, with extremely few spontaneous takeout orders and basically zero restaurant trips. But even this was too much for my trauma brain to deal with. So I decided to make my emotional health the priority and let cooking, aside from opening a package, fall by the wayside — while still feeding myself faithfully.

It worked well. I feel very grateful to live in a time and place, and to have enough money, to be able to outsource cooking to an assortment of ready-made products. It allowed me to solve a problem that in many people’s lives goes totally unsolved, and went unsolved in my own life for years. It also gave me back an hour of time at a critical time of day so that I could catch up on work, or lie down, or exercise a bit.

Over the years I’ve learned that when life crises (either positive or negative) happen, I am going to lose a bit of functioning in other areas. It is just not humanly possible to keep all areas of life completely together 100% of the time. When you unintentionally lose functioning – can’t sleep, can’t focus on work, can barely feed yourself – it’s very distressing, on top of the already-stressful thing that is happening. I’ve been through it enough times to know the horror of being reminded that you are, indeed, not totally in control of everything that happens in life. But learning to intentionally set other aspects of the great video game of life to Easy when you encounter a surprise Brutal Bonus Level is a useful work-around.

You can choose, on purpose, to make some things easy when other things are hard.

You can choose, a little bit, where to lose functioning instead of being ambushed.

The reason I’m writing about this is because of the pervasive guilt and wretchedness I see people get into when they contemplate the prospect of food that is somehow not-good-enough. It is true that food can be more or less helpful to your immediate functioning and long-term health, but the judgments I see people pile on themselves usually concern health only as a thin veneer over something much more troubling: self-loathing. Accusations of laziness, or immorality, or un-classiness, or ignorance and un-sophistication. Of not working hard enough to redeem themselves.

Let me tell you, being human is enough work for anyone. Being alive in a world where terrible and wonderful things happen at random to anyone and everyone at any moment, and the labour we put into mounting defenses against this reality, is a hard damn job. You don’t need to impress yourself or anyone with doing extraneous work just to get fed.

If it makes you happy, gives more than it takes, or adds brightness to your day, by all means, let yourself make that effort. If putting more effort into cooking is what nourishes you, do it and remember to thank your lucky stars. But if it doesn’t, if it adds one more vexing decision that must be made or one more hour of drudgery to your day, why not ask yourself who it’s really for? Because I promise it’s not you.

Cooking is not my primary joy or hobby, though I do take pleasure in it when I’m healthy. What I refuse to do is turn it into a moral obligation or a stick I beat myself with once I’m already down. It is not going to purify me or redeem me. At its best, it will feed me and feed me well, but I can get fed well enough in other ways if necessary.

Frozen food didn’t kill me, it gave me some time every day so I could tend to my most pressing need: to be with myself and to heal.


Traumatic food choices in comments.






27 responses to “I ate frozen food for four months so I could do trauma therapy.”

  1. Fiona Avatar

    Thanks for this, Michelle – and I hope you feel better for the four months “off” as it were …

    Yes, I recently did the sort of thing you’re talking about in this post – not quite, because I have food sensitivities (gads! inconvenient much?), I just picked up a week’s meal plan, got the store to deliver the list of groceries … and then followed the – very simple – instructions on how to put each meal together. Can’t tell you what a relief it was to have no thinking involved in putting food on the table every day. It was like a holiday (or vacation, as you guys say). Would recommend this approach to anyone, particularly with food sensitivities, just to take time out to deal with whatever else is going on … or just to take a rest for a bit.

  2. Janet Avatar

    Thanks for the post, Michelle. I really struggle with having the energy to make “healthy” food choices after a long stressful day at work. I appreciate what you said about being less than “perfect” is okay. There is certainly only a limited amount of energy to go around in my day and alot of it goes into the work efforts.

    I would appreciate any more thoughts from you about what types of frozen foods to chose. Do you mean pre-packaged meals or something else? I have tried sometimes to prepare food for the week ahead on the weekends, but if my weekends are full of other things (like doing more fulfilling activities), the food doesn’t get prepped and I am back in the same crappy food cycle.

    Thanks for the input.

    1. Indywind Avatar

      I can’t guess what’s “healthy” for you– but one of the things that’s worked great for me has been
      Pre-seasoned frozen mixed vegetables in 1-2 serving-size packages. In the US, major brands Birds Eye (“Steamfresh”) and Green Giant (“Steamers”) each have a bunch of different varieties, and some store-brands also have selections. These are things like creamed spinach, broccoli with cheese sauce, fiesta corn with peppers and onion, snow peas and baby corns and broccoli with ginger sauce, green beans and new potatoes with rosemary… you get the idea. I usually wait til they’re on sale and buy as many as my freezer can fit. They also have ones with pasta or rice and even meat included. Those are not as appealing to me for various reasons, but they might be great for someone else.
      I’m also a big fan of pre-seasoned packets of tuna or salmon (in the US, major brands Starkist and Bumblebee both have varieties), or frozen veggie burgers or frozen pre-seasoned seafood.

      Dinner on nights when I don’t have energy to organize feeding myself is grab one from column veg and one from column protein, microwave as required, eat.

      1. Janet Avatar

        Thanks for the ideas. I am going to work on a plan so I can make this work.

  3. Kate Sayner Wynn Avatar

    Thank you! It is good to know that less than perfect is ok from time to time…
    I recently made the decision to stop buying fresh vegetables – broccoli, asparagus, peas etc – and then beating myself up when they went off in the fridge, and switched to frozen. Now I always have vegetables on hand. I also batch cook dishes (thank you, slow cooker!) or cook a double quantity and freeze portions when I do have the energy to start from scratch. I’ve currently got chili con carne, turkey meatballs, marinated chicken breasts and wasabi salmon stacked in the freezer for my no-energy days.
    I also find it helps me to spend 10 minutes on Monday morning making a meal plan for the week…that then drives the shopping list and it’s one less thing to have to think of on subsequent mornings – I just look at the list and defrost what ingredients I need.

  4. Becca Stareyes Avatar
    Becca Stareyes

    I need to consider doing this. Right now, I’m realizing that cooking on weeknights is too much work, thanks to late afternoon/evening classes. And I can’t cook enough on weekends to have leftovers frozen and ready to go. So I need to switch to eating things that can be re-heated or have instructions like ‘boil water and wait’ until the term ends.

  5. V Avatar

    Giving up on the guilt of not preparing my own meals (or working on giving it up anyways – I’m not perfect) was one of the best things I got out of sessions with you. Not to mention having a good way to shut down unhelpful comments from others (“my nutritionist said it was ok” works wonders). It’s been very helpful to be able to feed and care for myself in the easiest way possible when I’m overwhelmed and recognize anything beyond that is a nice-to-have.

    Now, I’m in good enough shape that I can often cook for myself, but I still keep some frozen foods that I find tasty in my freezer as a back up for days when I’m just not up for much beyond that. If even frozen food is too much, I don’t shame myself for going out to eat. I still struggle, but I’m never in the spot I was often in before – starving at the end of the day with no energy to cook and nothing simple available to just get myself fed.

  6. Rachel Avatar

    This was everything I needed today. I’m also going through healing a lot of trauma and it’s been very hard to eat food, let alone spend the little energy I have to prepare it. Thank you.

  7. Liz Avatar

    For me, frozen food is often the healthiest choice I can make. I’m disabled and chronically ill and am on a low fat diet that restricts me to 5 g of fat a meal. This means I either have to spend lots of time preparing food with specialty products and meals separate from the rest of my family. Or I can pop in a lean cuisine, most of which are under 10 g of fat and many are under 5 g.I subsist on frozen food because I simply don’t have the energy most of the time to prepare fresh meals. And it makes it much easier to follow my prescribed diet. Thanks for reaffirming that it’s perfectly acceptable to make those kinds of decisions.

  8. Elizabeth Avatar

    Amazon free grocery delivery from my chosen grocery store has made a massive difference to me–just in the norm, not just for crisis but when I was extremely ill with flu I was having carrot juice and a chicken to cook for broth delivered every other day for a week. Saved me. I can’t even stand Amazon but their offer is too good to refuse for this spoonie. Also, when I’m on a deadline I don’t do the dishes every day, I just leave them until I’m out of dishes. Ending a project is extremely hard for me and I can’t also do the little here and there of constantly cleaning this and that and actually finish.

  9. Linda Strout Avatar
    Linda Strout

    Frozen foods and pre-packaged foods can certainly be a boon if you can find and afford what you like (and meets your dietary needs).

    @Janet, I don’t know what vegetables you like, but I like to get mixes, microwave them, then put a vinaigrette on them, usually some kind of salad dressing Add some protein and a carbohydrate and you have a decent meal.

  10. M-word Avatar

    I’d love to hear more about what this trauma treatment was. I am in therapy but if I could shorten the term by going more intense and be free faster, I’d love to do that.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      It was called Cognitive Processing Therapy.

  11. Valentina Avatar

    Good for you putting your mental and emotional well-being first, Michelle. Frozen food has a bad rep that I find it doesn’t deserve. I always have frozen broccoli and Brussels sprouts in the fridge to make quick meals and a simple 10-minutes frozen pizza from Trader Joe’s for nights when I’m too tired to cook or I ran late. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Harriet Brown Avatar

    A lovely post, one that reminds me of some of the work of Ellyn Satter. :)

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Aw, thanks Harriet! I take that as a huge compliment.

  13. Elaina Najera Avatar
    Elaina Najera

    This entry is so timely. Since the start of 2016, my family has been in crisis. First our beloved fur baby of 12 years passed away. Then mom ended up in hospital. Then my young sister started to have increasing mobility and pain issues. Then my work load became more demanding. In all of this, I have stopped taking my lunch to work. For several months, I beat myself up for eating fast food thinking I was not only being a “bad diabetic” but also a bad caretaker because I was wasting precious money that could be spent on the things my family needed. I decided I had to stop beating myself up and that in the crisis, I could make fast food choices that my body enjoyed and made me feel strong and nurtured, but not greased-up or give me an IBS attack, and that eventually the crisis would pass and I could find my balance again.
    I am now seeking therapy again (had it off and on throughout my life) to address the many historical traumas I experienced throughout my early life, and to address the secondary trauma I have as a result of my job as a social worker. I’m scared and nervous that this is going to be harder this time around. I have to address these long-held codependent behaviors that inherently creep from my home life and into my work life- and I know it will be unfortable and exhausting. Thank you for reminding me to give myself grace. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  14. ruth bernstein Avatar
    ruth bernstein

    I am just chiming in to say thank you, and I hope this project bore fruit for you (see what I did there?). Also, I don’t think you have to necessarily be in crisis for this to work for you–when I went from staying at home with kids to working full-time almost 4 years ago, I outsourced a lot of things just so I could concentrate on the job and the kids. Now I am able to choose more flexibility, but giving myself that headstart was very valuable.

  15. Janet Avatar

    I shared this article with my partner and we have decided to buy an extra freezer and we will stock it with grab-and-go foods rather than ordering out every night. It will help save money and give me more balanced choices to feed my body without the added stress of an hour making and cleaning up from a meal. What a load off my back!
    Thanks Michelle (and Linda and Indywind) for the ideas!

    1. Mich Avatar

      We have always had a freezer in the basement and we stock up on the annual warehouse sale of chicken breasts, or burgers, or fish. Plus frozen veg lasts a long time, even if it gets frosty in the bag.

      1. Mickey Avatar

        And, while it’s not quick, roasting those frozen and more-frosty-than-you-might-like veggies makes them utterly delicious. Dump into a pan, add oil, cook at 400F until all carmelized and brown. Maybe stirring once in a while if you feel the urge.

        We had such bad luck with fruit going bad this winter, that we’ve moved to canned or frozen fruit A LOT of the time. And frozen broccoli is just easier and more reliable than fresh.

  16. JessiD Avatar

    We have a freezer in the garage filled with pizzas, veggies, pre seasoned fish, chicken teriyaki, popcicles, shrimp, waffles and breakfast sandwiches for times when there is no time or energy to cook. Sitting down for a meal is our family priority. The food being served is secondary to the experience. If we do order out or pick up something we still sit and eat together.

  17. A Mark Avatar
    A Mark

    thank you- its amazing how many folks think frozen food is worse than fast food.
    freezing destroys all the nutrients – a few BUT AGING on shelf does too.
    too much salt in those- never mind that the lable says reasonable,

    its often 1,000 mg (maybe but I’m eating THIS one and it says 450)

  18. Jenny Islander Avatar
    Jenny Islander

    It’s funny–we are generally a thrifty family. I’m always after the kids to turn the lights off. I constantly adjust the curtains to take advantage of free solar heat, and keep the furnace turned down. We don’t drive if we can walk. We never pay more than a set price per pound for meat or produce no matter how good they look. Stuff like that.

    We also use paper plates every day, for every meal.

    Because due to logistical issues Mommy is nearly always the dishwasher, and if Mommy has to wash plates three times a day every day, Mommy will go nucking futs.

    I feel guilty if I do thriftiness wrong–but I feel tense, angry, and ready to scream if I have to wash plates again and again and again and again. So spending the money on paper plates turns out to be good for all of us.

    You gotta do what you gotta do, even if part of you is worried that you’re doing it rong.

  19. closetpuritan Avatar

    There seems to be a lot of moral weight about frozen/convenience foods, even when there really is no health difference, e.g. plain frozen vegetables. I think it predates but was reinforced by the “Let’s Move” campaign. I can’t believe how many recipes want you to buy fresh, uncooked spinach… then blanch it briefly in boiling water. That’s exactly what frozen spinach is.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Yup! I think this is about the Protestant work ethic more than anything.

    2. Mickey Avatar

      I have a recipe that calls for a pound of tomatoes, chopped and seeded with their juice. Or I can just use this can of diced tomatoes over here… Silly.