Low-Spoon Meals For Chronically Ill And Tired Parents

For many parents, exhaustion is a constant state of being. 

This is especially the case for disabled parents and those who face chronic fatigue, for whom energy needs to be spent more carefully. Many use phrases like  “low spoon” or “low on spoons” to explain why this happens to them. 

But what does “low spoons” mean?

The phrase comes from “spoon theory,” which was created by disability activist Christine Miserandino as a metaphor for how disabled and chronically ill individuals have to make different life choices, depending on how tired they feel. Using spoons as a unit of measurement for energy, she made the point that while able-bodied people have an infinite number of spoons to accomplish everything they need to do in a day, people with health conditions need to consider how many spoons they have before going through with an activity. 

So for parents who are already dealing with a severe lack of sleep and keeping up with busy schedules, on top of their health conditions, at the end of the day it’s easy to run out of spoons for making healthy family meals. That’s why we’ve rounded up some easy low-spoons recipes to pull out when your energy levels are at an all-time low, but you still need to put something edible on the table.

So, check out the gallery below for some recipe inspiration!

Note: If you’re on a mobile device, click on the images to see more info.

Microwave veggie chili

Say goodbye to watching a simmering pot for hours, thanks to this microwave chili from chef Jack Monroe. It makes ample use of your microwave to do what's typically done on a stovetop for equally delicious results. Your total cooking time, including time to let hot food stand, should be around seven minutes.

Pasta With A Two-Ingredient Sauce

Pasta is an easy carb to prep, as boiling water is often all you need to get it ready. Jarred sauces shave off cooking time, but if you don't have any on hand there are simple sauces you can mix up with relative ease. Disability blog Dysautonomia Dispatch recommends using a base like butter as a sauce, and throwing in cherry tomatoes and/or wilted spinach for more nutrition.

Scrambled eggs and vegetables

Scrambled eggs are one of the easiest proteins to make in a frying pan. To upgrade this recipe with just a little more effort, you can nuke your favourite vegetables in the microwave (wrapped in a wet paper towel). Adding them to the pan right after cuts down on frying time while getting your veggies browned nicely.

Flatbread pizza

Hold off on calling for delivery: this recipe can satisfy your pizza cravings with little to no effort and the "pizza sauce" can be tomato-based, hummus, or any condiment of your choice. Load up your flatbread with sauce and toppings, then toast your creation for a few minutes. 

Avocado toast

The most basic version of this dish uses just two ingredients with minimal prepping. If you're still feeling peckish, you can add ready-made toppings like pepperoni to have a relatively classy tasting meal for very little effort.

Crackers, cheese, fruits and nuts

Snacks aren't meals, but as Chronic Illness Bloggers recommends, they're perfect on days when parents have absolutely no energy to cook or prep. A kid-friendly charcuterie board can be a life-saver in this regard. Most children will happily eat crackers and mellow cheeses like cheddar.  You can supplement with fruits like grapes, cold cuts, and nuts from your pantry. 

Easy burritos

For days when you're running on fumes, simply roll cheese and canned beans in a tortilla wrap, microwave it, and enjoy with a generous dollop of sour cream or guacamole. If you have a little more energy, you can make a heartier filling out of ground beef spiced with taco seasoning and rice.

"Gourmet" instant ramen

Of course instant ramen would be on this list. Nothing beats slurping a cup of comforting noodles that take two minutes to make. But if you're keen on making the meal more nutritious for your family, there are plenty of instant ramen hacks out there. Use chicken broth instead of the packet for a tastier bowl. Easy toppings include canned meat for protein, sliced pepper, and light greens like cilantro or green onion. 

Mashed Sweet Potatoes

Just boil and mash sweet potatoes for this easy, filling side-dish. Add butter or milk to make it creamy, but water can work fine too. Make it a meal by adding leftover protein or vegetables. 

Pumpkin soup

This recipe from Low Spoons Food needs just two ingredients, pumpkin puree and broth. How you make the latter can depend on how much energy you have: broth from scratch is always a delight, but bouillon cubes or ready-made broth are just as good too. If you want to give your soup more depth and can put in a little more work, the soup's base can be made with browned onions and garlic. 

Soft tofu

Tofu can get a bad wrap for being "flavourless," but you'd be surprised by how tasty this ingredient can get with the right prep. Soft tofu is an especially good food for those who are low-energy, as it doesn't need to be cooked if you don't want to and is friendly for mouths that have a hard time chewing. Common sauces include soy sauce and chili; for a dessert twist, try blending soft tofu with melted chocolate.

Savoury Oatmeal

Who says you can only have oatmeal for breakfast? Using plain instant oats, you can make your meal savory with spices and hearty toppings. If you have more energy, steel-cut oats bring more nutrients to your dish. An Asian-inspired version of the bowl uses soy sauce and ginger for flavour, topped with eggs, spinach, and mushrooms.

Macaroni and Cheese

While a box of Kraft Dinner is a fairly low-spoon recipe in itself, you can make a healthier version of the dish in the same amount of time. While boiling the macaroni, make the sauce out of melted butter, flour, and milk. Then slowly add shredded cheese of your choice to the mix. 

Sausages in tomato sauce

Disability food blog Despite Pain swears by its "sausage casserole," a dish that comes together without the stress of exact measurements. Simply brown onions, followed by sausages, and then simmer in a base of tinned tomatoes. You can add spices for flavour and vegetables like red bell peppers for sweetness. 

Lentil and bulgur salad

Lentils are an incredibly versatile, nutrient-packed ingredient. Using canned lentils as your base, you can whip up a hearty salad in minutes. Salad greens, baby tomatoes, and feta cheese can take it to the next level. And if your kids aren't too picky, grain like bulgur or quinoa will add more depth to the salad's flavour.

What makes a meal “low-spoons?”

Low-spoons meals prioritize taking as little energy as possible, while still putting food in your belly. Don’t expect to cook up a Michelin-level gourmet feast or one that’s necessarily the health-nut option. The golden rule for low-spoons recipes? Any nutrition is better than not eating at all.

Depression meals” come from a similar motivation. This online food trend, where people post their questionable culinary creations made while depressed, stems from people not feeling well enough to make a nutritious meal.

Health professionals don’t look down on these meal-making methods. 

“I would rather you eat [a box of macaroni and cheese] than nothing at all. That’s called harm reduction,” dietician Abby Langer told Global News.

Many low-spoons recipes make ample use of microwaving to save time and cut down on as much prep work as possible. Measurements are fairly loose, as calculating exact ratios can cause a high degree of mental strain. Most ingredients are inexpensive and may even be in your pantry already. 

As with all recipes, there’s room to make these meals your own: several offer various ways to kick flavours up a notch or make them more hearty if you’ve got a few more spoons to spare.

To combat how common it is for low-energy people to run out of spoons to make food, several blogs are dedicated to low-spoons recipes, including Low Spoons Food and Fibro Food Fairy. Recipes are sorted by spoon levels, with more spoons taking up more energy to prepare. There are even communities built around low-spoon food. Jesse Macmillan, a journalism student from P.E.I., founded the Facebook group “Cooking Without Spoons,” to share meal-planning strategies. Macmillan told CBC that because of his disabilities, he needs a lot of time to recharge. 

“Everybody’s really nice, they want to help each other out … they just want to share with other people who are struggling,” he said.  

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