When eating falls apart.

Every round of groups I teach, there is something that I want to work on for myself. For the past three months, it was eating regular meals at regular times – something that I struggle with given my flexible and unpredictable schedule, and the fact that I eat with people for a living.

Early in the year, thanks to a post-traveling readjustment crisis, I was pretty awful at feeding myself for a while. I was scrounging up the bare minimum required for survival at random times of the day, and not giving any thought whatsoever to frivolities like “vegetables” or “food groups” or “not feeling like total crap.”

And given that I deal with depression on a semi-regular basis, this is something that comes up cyclically – one of the first things to go with my mood is eating well.

For me, eating well looks like this: I eat a breakfast that contains multiple food groups soon after waking up, and then about four hours later (five if I’m drinking coffee through the morning), I eat a lunch that also contains multiple food groups. Then around three hours later, I have a snack, and then dinner in another three or four hours. Dinner contains multiple food groups, and possibly even more than one dish. In another three or four hours, I will have dessert or a snack.

In the course of all this, I end up eating fat, protein, and carbohydrate at each meal, and I make an effort to offer myself roughly five fruits and veggies throughout the day, as well as a couple servings of meat/nuts/legumes.

Everything else kind of takes care of itself. I remind myself that I do not need to clean my plate or finish my vegetables if I don’t want, but that I have permission to get seconds or thirds if I do want.

So that is what I focused on for the past three months, while I worked with my group on eating competence.

At first, I just made a deal with myself that I would eat food before drinking coffee in the morning, because I noticed that if I drank coffee first, it killed my appetite, but that the lack of breakfast left me lethargic and tired for the rest of the day.

That was my first step – food before coffee, and preferably soon after getting up.

This probably took a week or two to get going. Then I focused on having lunch at a reasonable time each day – I eventually settled on 1pm because it fit into my work schedule, and because it was long enough after breakfast that I would actually feel hungry, but not starving. If I tried eating at noon, it felt like I was just forcing it.

After practising for another week or two, I started getting predictably hungry right around 1pm each day. Sometimes 12:45 and sometimes 1:15, but relatively consistent. And on the days when something came up and I didn’t get around to lunch until 2pm, I was very hungry but not desperate.

The last, and most difficult, was dinner. Dinner requires cooking. Cooking requires planning, and when I’m feeling gloomy, planning is my least favourite thing to do. But after a few weeks of eating frozen lasagna and other no-plan delights, I was tired of it, and willing to put up with some amount of planning to get a more decent variety of food.

I hauled out my meal-planning sheet (yes, I actually have one), put it in a plastic sheet protector and stuck it to the fridge, next to a dry-erase marker. Then I started by writing down three easy dinners to make in the coming week, and I filled in the rest of the nights with leftovers or more frozen lasagna.

It began with a few of my no-brainer favourites – spaghetti, clam linguine, pork chops. Then the next week, I added a day for beans (usually Sunday, to accommodate slow cooking) and a pizza night on Fridays (because it’s Friday, and we always want pizza on Friday, so I may as well plan for it.) The bean recipes usually made a ton of leftovers, so I began freezing them in individual containers, and then I also had an easy lunch.

Eventually, after a few more weeks, I worked my way up to planning 5-7 meals per week. Sometimes the plan literally is “frozen pizza and pre-prepared salad” because, goddammit, it still counts as a meal. It’s got food groups and everything! Plus if I don’t buy a frozen pizza, I will just order one at some point anyway. There’s no point in fighting it.

For a while, the plan was almost the same rotation every week (spaghetti on Tuesday, linguine on Thursday, pork chops on Monday, chicken on Wednesday, etc.), and then I got bored of that, too.

The past couple of weeks, I’ve been experimenting more. I made some marinated salmon, tried a new green bean recipe (hint: Parmesan cheese), and last night we had Moroccan-style pork tenderloin. One weekend, I made a very labour-intensive stir-fry that I hadn’t made in years.

It’s been nice, and along the way I’ve developed a bunch of short-cuts and sanity-saving techniques to help myself along. One of them is that I rarely cook a recipe all in one session – I always do some pre-prep in the morning so that the burden doesn’t all come crashing down at 6pm. For the stir-fry, I actually made the sauce the night before, then chopped up all the veggies in the morning, and then just assembled it and cooked the noodles in the evening.

Because I’m terrible about doing too much at once, and then never wanting to do it again, this is essential for me. I also started making my meal plan and grocery list the day before I go shopping, because I hate doing them both on one day.

Overall, I’d call this past three months of putting my eating back in place a success. Right now, I’m operating at a pretty high level – although we still have frozen pizza night on Friday like clockwork, and I intersperse a bunch of easier recipes along with one or two more complicated ones during the week.

But here’s the thing: it won’t always be this way.

Something will happen to mess up my routine again, and it will all fall apart. That’s life. Once I get used to whatever has changed I can work up, step-by-step, from the bottom of the pyramid again – because I know how. And I also know that periods of just getting by, and just doing the bare minimum with eating, are survivable. They’re not going to hurt me, and they don’t say anything about my worth as a human being, or my overall capacity to feed myself well.

I used my boredom with repetition to help push me along, because if I’d set out with a goal of “cook fancy new recipes all week” I would still be eating frozen lasagna every day. I did it because I wanted to, and because it felt good.

Eating falls apart for everyone, from time to time, but it doesn’t have to stay that way forever – and it won’t if you refuse to beat yourself up about it, and focus instead on doing what helps you to feel good.

Now I have to figure out what I’m going to work on for the spring groups. I’ll let you know what happens.

If you want to hear more about the groups, you can go here.

Have you been working on anything lately? Let’s hear it in comments.

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