Practical Magic: How to Nourish Your Body When Executive Dysfunction Has Other Plans

This is a post about healthy eating, which can be a lot, I know! Between my ‘90s childhood, my disordered eating history, and my ADHD diagnosis, feeding myself in ways that make my body feel good and nourished can be a real struggle. It’s taken years to learn what works for me! Here are some of the ways I’ve learned to nourish my body in adulthood, even when my kitchen is messy, or I haven’t had the executive function to go to the grocery store.

There’s a saying they mention when feeding babies: “fed is best.” That principle’s not just for babies, my friends!

Nourishing your body is about addition, not restriction.

Do you remember the ‘90s? Food messaging isn’t always great now either, but things were absolutely wild back then. There was the Special K diet, the Yoplait yogurts that pretended to replace dessert, the cardboard-tasting Snackwells cookies in the bright green boxes…and every single bit of it was fat-free. It’s no wonder that by the time I became an adult, I fully associated the idea of eating healthy with the principles of substitution and restriction! But when you’re trying to nourish your body, those principles don’t work. Addition does.

In practice, this looks a lot like what I used to do when I was making dinner for my baby-sitting charges. Is the main dish mac and cheese? Great! Let’s throw some frozen vegetables in the pot with the noodles, and mix in a can of white beans or chicken at the end. Making quesadillas? Put in some beans for fiber and protein. The more you can round out your meal, the better it will serve your body in terms of sustained energy to make it through your day!

Don’t be afraid to snack.

When I get deeply fixated on my work, or super into a project, I often forget to eat. My ADHD meds don’t help with that, either! But there’s no rule that says we have to eat three strict meals a day, and snacking is a great way to make sure you get some food in you before you get hangry. Grocery store veggie trays with hummus, cheese and crackers, drinkable yogurts and kefirs, or even a big glass of chocolate milk (or hot cocoa) will help to ensure you have the calories you need to keep going!

Perishable fruits and veggies belong where you can see them.

I have ADHD, and anything that’s out of sight goes right out of my mind. Nowhere is that so true as in my fridge, which for some reason has discrete drawers for my dairy, fruit and vegetables. Those drawers are where perishable food goes to die.

A few months ago, probably after seeing something on TikTok, I made big changes to how I organized my fridge. After all, there’s no rule that says you have to use your drawers for produce! Now, I store dairy, fruits and vegetables in the door, where I see them every time I open the fridge, and notice when they’re about to go bad. My condiments go on one of my shelves in a couple of $3 caddies from Target, and canned beverages (I have so many!) go in my crisper drawers. I am eating so much more of my produce since I made the change! So much less food is going to waste!

Non-perishables are your secret weapon.

As a person who has thrown out far too much produce in my life, frozen vegetables are my very favorite secret weapon. They come pre-chopped, the flavor hasn’t been compromised like it is with canning, and they’re every single bit as nutritious as fresh (sometimes more)! They’re also a little bit cheaper than fresh vegetables, normally. A handful of frozen veggies can be tossed into almost any one-pot meal, and you can also just put some in a bowl with a tiny bit of water and steam them in the microwave to eat alongside that slice of cold pizza.

Then there are the shelf-stable foods I love to use. Canned beans, canned seafood, applesauce and other canned fruits…sometimes these get a bad rap, but there’s nothing wrong with using a shelf-stable option! I truly learned this at the beginning of the pandemic, when I was getting to the grocery store less, and my pantry cupboards started to look a lot more like my grandma’s did back in the day. Sometimes, a tuna sandwich or a bowl of canned peaches turns out to be exactly what my body needed.

Buy pre-prepared foods, when your budget allows.

Have you ever heard of the ADHD tax? The term was coined to talk about, among other things, the money we pay for food we buy that we just end up having to throw out because we don’t prepare it before it goes bad.

One way to avoid this is to “pay the ADHD tax up front,” and buy pre-prepared foods at the grocery store. I mentioned veggie trays above; other amazing foods that get me through are pre-cut fruit and pre-washed berries, rotisserie chickens, and frozen burritos (which I usually dip in plain full-fat yogurt for an extra protein boost)! Your own pre-prepared go-tos may change, but the idea remains the same. Remember: fed is best!

Do you have other tips for nourishing your body when your executive dysfunction is rearing its head? Let us know in the comments!


Practical Magic is a new column that curates how-to articles for living your best queer life, edited by Meg Jones Wall.


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Darcy

Darcy, a.k.a. Queer Girl, is your number one fan. She's a fat feminist from California who doodles hearts in the corners of her Gay Agenda. They're living through a pandemic, they're on Twitter, and they think you should drink more water! She also wants to make you laugh.

Darcy has written 347 articles for us.

32 Comments

  1. Love this! I’ve found a lot of luck with frozen vegetables that you can steam in the microwave. Snacking on berries has also changed the whole game for me; I can just wash them and toss them in a bowl and be set, so easy and tasty.

  2. Love this. I already do a bunch of these things, I may try putting perishables on the door??

    Also want to recommend the zine Depression Cooking by Sonali Menezes. “Depression Cooking is part easy recipe book, part manifesto for surviving under the crushing weight of capitalism as a Mad person. These recipes have been compiled over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic from three sources. First, through cooking tips and tricks Sonali picked up over the last 10 years. Second, through conversation with friends and family, and third, through social media comments and messages from strangers on the internet. Depression Cooking is a document of collective knowledge designed to be shared and distributed wherever and whenever possible, entirely for free. It is a way to care for ourselves and one another despite being isolated and apart during COVID-19.”

  3. I love this! I really like applying “fed is best” to adulthood on days when I’m really struggling with eating due to nausea or lack of energy and just have to eat whatever I can even if it means living off of plain Pringles, chicken bagels and chocolate digestive biscuits for a few days.

    Going to keep nourishment being about addition on days where I’m struggling to eat “proper” meals too, that’s a great way of looking at it. It’s really alarming that this is the first time in my entire life that I’ve seen nutrition talked about from that angle.

  4. i love this. i also have a “when nothing sounds good, leftovers it is” policy –

    also, i get up very early naturally and do most of my cooking and baking in the morning. this helps me avoid both cooking in the hot part of the day (the south, y’all) and doing anything elaborate when i’m tired in the evening. i use a toaster oven for all reheating purposes and it’s an absolute game changer.

    • oh yeah i LOVE making soup with a bag of frozen veggies, some macaroni noodles, some white beans and some better than bullion! so easy and so much tastier than canned soup. it seems like you could really change the textures depending on how long you let it simmer.

    • Have you tried vegetable purees? If you have/can get a good blender, you can make silky smooth hummus to supplement your bean intake and silky-smooth soups with veggies like broccoli and carrots.

      A lot of vegan recipes call for basically blitzing cooked veggies into a creamy sauce, so they might be an interesting avenue for you to enjoy. Butternut squash mac and cheese is a good example of this and pretty easy to put together.

  5. This is great, thanks Darcy! Having produce on the door of the fridge instead of hidden away to spoil is so smart and I’m going to try that.

    I almost exclusively lived off of chunky peanut butter in various forms for weeks on end earlier this year, and those single-serve tuna packets, and oatmeal packets with like a handful of raisins thrown in have kept me fed when I can’t get myself to do anything more complicated.

    Also eggs! But if i boil them, sometimes peeling them seems like an ordeal so I’ll either fry them or make egg cups w/frozen veg that freeze really well and then just grab a couple in the morning until they’re gone.

  6. ordering asian food and get a ton of rice you don’t know what to do with? cooked beans/rice freeze well and when thawed don’t have textural changes i notice. i put in individual servings so i can pull out, heat, add seaweed (another good shelf-stable option), rice vinegar, fat (butter, sesame/avocado oil), and nuts if i need protein. soy sauce, if that’s your thing, but i like amino acids. also add veggies if i have em, … even cut some celery into it (kitchen shears are the best). can go for a whole day after that.

    also, peanut butter in yogurt is a super quick way to turn off appetite for hours without depriving my body of fuel. fats/proteins are efficient at that; carbs tend to make me hungry again much quicker.

    • i also like to make rice fritters with leftover rice – mix a couple handfuls of rice with an egg or two + whatever random bits of cheese / veggies / beans i need to use up, form into patties, and pan-fry a couple minutes per side. i love repurposing leftovers and find this an easy way to use up whatever is looking a little sad in the fridge.

  7. This is really relatable content! I’m a big fan of dairy and some of my fav quick snacks/ meals are yogurt drinks/kefir, slices of cheese, yogurt + baked good, and the yogurt/peanut butter combo mentioned above. I also am a big fan of sliced bread + peanut butter or cream cheese.

    I also have found Easy Mac to be very helpful; even though making boxed mac and cheese seems like it should be easy, being able to simply microwave the easy mac is much lower barrier (they sell it as just packets if you want to use your own bowl; I usually eat two packs at once).

    We also store basically everything perishable in the fridge, even if it not recommended (like tomatoes) both to keep it good longer and to protect it from mice.

    My partner and I have also started getting prepared meal deliveries that you order ahead of time and are delivered fully prepared but just needing to be heated up. I’m in Boston and have enjoyed Clover Food Lab boxes, Littleburg, and Inna’s Kitchen.

    Another fav low barrier meal, especially if I have an upset stomach, is what I call hummus rice – which is when I mix hummus with white basmati rice and add salt and optionally a veggie like cucumber or tomato.

  8. I love this!!! I live with my partner now and she is very food-motivated so nowadays I don’t need to strategise around food as much anymore, as she reminds me that It Is Time For A Meal. But anytime she is away I have to go back to my old strategies, and they are super similar to the ones listed in here.

    I love cooking some pasta, draining the water out of the pot and then adding frozen spinach and cherry tomatoes as the whole pot including the pasta is on a gentle heat until the frozen spinach is hot. Done! I also love anything that is a stew of some sort, because I can reheat it infinitely and add different carbs to it. Also a game changer but a little pricey: microwave rice. Use it as the aforementioned carb to go with a stew or toss it in a pan with some veggies and eggs for a quick and dirty fried rice. I personally think I’m quite good at cooking but when it’s just for me I need to go into survival mode and make the barrier to eat as LOW AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE. Fed is best!! I love you all!!!

  9. I feel so seen! I did a lot of design work for an infant formula and baby food company years ago and have been repeating “fed is best” to myself ever since I learned it. Since starting ADHD meds it has become a even more dear to me. My disordered eating monster wants to reward not eating or tell myself I can’t eat unless it’s clean or perfect. “Fed is best” trumps that shit and if that means I have heavily buttered toast four times a day, so be it.

    A recommended person who has great anti-diet, gentle content for neurodivergent or disabled folks: KC Davis and her book Keeping House While Drowning and all of her related social media content (she is the only person I follow on TikTok). I have accepted my brain works differently from most folks and she is the encouragement I need when I waver on organizing my life in a way that works for me instead of against me.

    • My other biggest tip, get a rice cooker with a timer, and keep it next to the sink.* It takes all the work out of rice, and you can set it to be ready whenever you want to eat, so you can get it done at any point during the day that your remember to put rice on. We eat rice 6-10 meals a week, with some favorites being

      -homemade tuna onigiri in an onigiri press
      -kimchi fried rice
      -sushi bowl with ikea frozen salmon (salmon, frozen edamame, cucumber, kewpie mayo, eel sauce. Rotate in other veg as needed.)
      -oyster sauce mushroom stir fry
      -plain white rice with kewpie on it

      Shout out to mu current office’s HELL lunch situation where we all eat together at the time (never the same time) my boss chooses. I am usually both not hungry and in the middle of something at this time. So excited to leave here…

      *when it was not next to the sink I would routinely forget to add water and have hot, dry rice.

  10. Great tips!

    I personally try to plan my meals, so I can do the shopping all at once, and not have to run to the shops every day (even if it’s around the corner, it’s still annoying.) But I always leave one day for leftovers – I often make soups or stews with whatever’s left and needing to be used, or salads in summer. Soups and stews hide veggies that have gone beyond their prime so well. Toss in some (canned) beans or lentills. And I have a box in the freezer for sad veggies or outher leaves of things like leeks that I turn into broth once it’s full. The broth I often freeze again. (PS: clean them before freezing, doing it after is a pain.)

    And I cook more than one meal for a lot of foods, so I have more for the next day or I freeze it. Soups, stews, pasta sauces all tend to freeze well. Pasta and rice not so much. It’s also usually cheaper to cook larger portions instead of ones for just me.

    Another saying that I find is almost always true: Butter makes everything better!

    Seriously, slowly cooking some onions and garlic in butter and olive oil is the start of half of my dishes, and it gives so much taste to everything. (You can buy jars pre-minced garlic btw, I see it mostly in Asian food stores.) And cutting leftover boiled potatoes to fry them in some butter is very yummy.

    • Btw, I don’t want to shame anyone who doesn’t make the stuff I described themselve! It’s just that once I can drag myself to the kitchen, I do really enjoy cooking. Even if I don’t mangage to do it every day. It helps to relax me, and it helps to keep me not get sucked in ED thoughts. Just so it’s clear, these are things that help me, maybe others too :)

  11. one thing i’ve done on the advice of a therapist is when i have spoons, listing out meals organized by prep time/spoon investment along with their components. it cuts down hugely on the amount of time i spend staring at my full pantry thinking ‘all i have are ingredients’

  12. Got to mention Ruby Tandoh’s book Cook As You Are which has lots of helpful ideas for getting fed when you’re low on energy as well as lots of suggestions and adaptations to make recipes more
    accessible for people with disabilities.

  13. I’m a big fan of pre julienned carrots, bags of slaw, and chopped greens like kale and collards. Also veggie dogs and veggie sausages along with canned beans. All make great additions and this is typically how I cook for myself: ramen w.greens carrots and tofu, Mac n cheese w veggie sausage and peas or spinach in it,.tonight was canned tomato soup with added leftover rice and a chopped Tofurkey sausage added.
    Pre washed salad greens are great too and having pre julienned carrots, nuts, and craisins or mandarins, and maybe canned beans to throw on and avoid literally any chopping is just phenomenal.

  14. I’m currently sitting on my kitchen floor, reading this on my phone. I was going to start dinner at like 6. It’s 8:15 pm and I haven’t eaten yet. But I’m now almost too hungry to make dinner. So this relatable, is what I’m saying.

    If I can get the energy to break the gravitational pull of the floor, I’m going to eat an energy bar before doing anything else. And yeah, fed is good.

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