Depression has a sneaky way of creeping into all aspects of your life, and making you not care about any of them. And yes, this includes food. Eating is a prerequisite for life, so it makes perverse sense that, for many people, it’s among the first victims of a depressive episode.
A friendly warning: this piece mentions — but doesn’t explicitly discuss — depression, eating disorders, and addiction, among other mental illnesses. Bookmark it for later if you need to, and / or skim the headers before diving in. If you’re going through a mental health crisis and need to talk to someone, there are several organizations that provide 24/7 crisis support and general counseling free of charge. Text “START” to 741-741 to reach The Crisis Text Line or call The Trevor Project’s hotline at (866) 488-7386; Trans Lifeline can be reached at (877) 565-8860 in the US and (877) 330-6366 in Canada.
How depression can impact your diet
Appetite is easily swayed by one’s emotional state, so for people with mental illnesses, food can be a source of constant anguish. Depression does a number on your ability to feed yourself, but it’s very rare to struggle with depression alone. Eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and avoidant / restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) rarely present without comorbid depression and anxiety disorders; the same goes for personality disorders, learning disorders, chronic illnesses, and drug and alcohol addiction. Basically, any condition that makes it difficult to navigate life is likely to mess with your relationship with food.
Many prominent chefs have Frankly discussed their struggles with addiction and mental illness in recent years, which is a good thing. (Professional kitchens can be cesspools of, among other things, physical and emotional abuse, self-loathing, and truly destructive alcoholism; the industry is long overdue for a reckoning.) However, a professional chef’s relationship to the physical task of cooking hinges on external validation, which differentiates it from the home cook’s experience. When I ran a food cart — easily the low point in my lifelong relationship with mental illness, by the way — I never once opened late because I was too depressed to get out of bed. My job was to make other people happy with my cooking, so I hauled my useless body out of bed and into work by 6:30 each morning no matter how despondent I felt. When it’s my own health and happiness on the line, though, I fully cannot be bothered.
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What to eat when you’re depressed: A guide
Garbage brain aside, I’m incredibly lucky to have had not just the inclination, but also the safety net and opportunities required to pursue cooking as a career. Along the way, I’ve developed an arsenal of recipes I can rely on when being alive is almost unbearably taxing. I hope that you find something in here that helps, because no matter what your brain says, you gotta eat.
Level 0: Easier than showering
Depression is different for everyone, but losing the will to shower is about as universal a symptom as it gets. I’ve therefore categorized these suggestions by relative ease, as compared to taking off all my clothes, standing upright for 10 minutes, washing my hair and my face and my body, wrangling my wet hair into a towel, drying off, wrangling my only -slightly-less-wet hair into something approaching a “style” and putting on clean clothes. Here are some recipes that are far easier than all that.
Provided you can afford to, there’s nothing wrong with summoning comfort food from the ether when you really feel like shit — especially if you can get more than one meal out of it. I never, ever get sick of pizza, and when I’m very sad, I’ll order enough for several meals. Leftover slices get wrapped in foil and frozen, then reheated in a covered skillet on low heat.
Assorted instant meals
You owe it to yourself to keep a stash of emergency meals in your house. Choose things that you really, truly love so it feels like more like a treat than an unwelcome consequence of struggling to function; my favorites are the frozen palak paneer and shelf-stable Punjabi eggplant meals from Trader Joe’s.
Whether you use a rice cooker or a pot on the stove, good ol ‘white rice cooks quickly and fills you up. A bowl of white rice with butter and soy sauce is satisfying, supremely comforting, and unlikely to aggravate anxiety-induced nausea. Using my Instant Pot as a rice cooker means I can make rice with hardly any effort whatsoever, with leftovers to spare.
Every person with depression should keep miso paste in the fridge: gluten-free and vegan varieties are readily available, it never really spoils, and you can turn it into an actual meal in under five minutes. For a mug of soup for sippin ‘, I pour boiling water over a big glob of miso paste, like tea; for a heartier meal, I put leftover cooked rice and a big knob of miso into a bowl, then add some water and microwave until very hot. (Bonus points for adding some cubed tofu and frozen broccoli or peas.) Either way, I float a pat of butter on top as a finishing touch — miso and butter go together like peanut butter and jelly.
Level 1: About as easy as showering
Taking out cutting boards, knives and assorted measuring implements is often overwhelming for me, but using the stove is usually OK — as long as I don’t make a mess of the cast-iron skillets. I acknowledge that the difficulty categories here are arbitrary — your mileage may vary — but these are a step up from Level 0 without feeling like too much.
Eggs and carbs
I eat two basted eggs with buttered toast and hot sauce for breakfast most days because it’s easy, delicious, filling, and dirties one plate (I just wipe out the skillet when I’m done). Toast isn’t mandatory — I love a crispy fried egg with white rice, soy sauce, and furikake, and I went through a pretty serious soft-scrambled egg taco phase a few years back. If you eat eggs, master cooking them your way so you always have a protein-rich meal up your sleeve.
Potstickers or steamed dumplings
Frozen dumplings from the Asian supermarket are a true MVP foodstuff for me: dumplings never fail to make me smile, and they can be pan-fried or steamed depending on my mood. Just be sure to check the interior temperature of meat dumplings with an instant-read thermometer, and if you don’t have one, err on the side of a longer cook time; the package directions on my favorite varieties run a full five minutes too short.
Boxed mac and cheese
Annie’s white cheddar mac was a childhood staple, but now that I buy my own groceries, I prefer good ol ‘Kraft. I don’t drink milk because it’s gross, so depending on what I’ve got, I’ll make box mac with sour cream, plain Greek yogurt, or heavy cream. The Greek yogurt variety is actually my favorite: its tanginess helps powdered orange cheese taste more like actual cheese, plus it adds a good amount of protein.
Buttered, caramel-ed, dripping in fake butter-y goo or smothered in cheese: I am absolute trash for popcorn. To paraphrase a very wise friend, a bowl of cheesy popcorn and a glass of wine is technically a full meal: corn has your fiber, cheese provides some fat and protein, and wine counts as «produce.» Making popcorn on the stovetop is easy and infinitely customizable; even if you have a microwave, it’s a technique worth mastering.
Level 2: Harder than showering
On a good day, I can carry the victorious momentum from successfully showering right on through to cooking. I do try keep it simple, though, so as to avoid overextending myself and winding up blubbering about ruined crêpes on the kitchen floor.
Dead-simple baked goods
Conquering personal hygiene is grounds for a treat — but since I don’t buy many packaged snacks, I have to make my own dreams come true. Thank God for four-ingredient peanut butter cookies (this recipe also works with Nutella, by the way) and one-bowl cocoa brownies, both of which are easy like cake mix but a billion times tastier.
Feeling up to chopping vegetables is an extremely good sign, and there’s no better vegetable than a roasted one. I usually start mine in a cast-iron skillet on the stove and finish them in a 425º-450ºF oven, then squeeze some lemon juice over top before serving to maximize that results-to-effort ratio.
Tomato soup and grilled cheese
I’d never be so presumptuous as to tell you how to make grilled cheese, but I’m afraid I must insist that you try Marcella Hazan’s tomato butter sauce as a soup at least once in your life. When you do, I suggest the following two changes: simmer it covered so it doesn’t thicken too much, and add a pinch each of sugar and baking soda at the very end to neutralize any tinny, overly-acidic flavors. Homemade chicken stock, crushed red pepper flakes, and / or a swirl of cream are all welcome additions. Pair with the grilled cheese of your dreams—And maybe some roasted veggies — and savor a real meal that you made for yourself because you deserve it.
Regardless of your mental health status, consider this: no diet can fix broken neurotransmitters, and this is not the place to insist otherwise. The United States government doesn’t see healthcare as an inalienable human right, so it’s understandable that Americans assign health-giving properties to food that border on the mystical — but the cruel reality is that the foods considered most “healthy” and “sustainable” (terms that are code for “morally correct”) are only accessible to the people most likely to already have healthcare. Going vegan or paleo or doing a Whole30 is about as likely as “positive energy” to cure mental illness — which is to say, not at all — and criticizing other people’s food choices in the guise of concern for their health is a big-time dick move. Be kind; most of us are just trying to make it through another day.
This story was originally published in 2018 and updated with new information on February 13, 2020, and again on June 22, 2021 to align with current De Tipser style guidelines.