• Gemma was diagnosed with IBS in 2016 and has struggled with anxiety for many years; she has had to alter her lifestyle and diet to contend with these

  • She has since become fascinated with the gut-brain connection and now blogs about it to provide a helpful outcome for others

  • If depression or other mental health difficulty is making daily life difficult, find a therapist here

Maybe you’ve had a bad day, maybe you’re grieving a loss or perhaps you’re battling an on-going mental health issue. And now you’ve got to find the energy to cook? Perhaps it’s just easier to reach for some crisps or that chocolate bar or phone the nearest takeaway. Perhaps you’re thinking: “Comfort eating will make me feel better.” 

As a sufferer of anxiety, I know these thoughts only too well. However, evidence suggests turning to junk food when we are already feeling low can actually make us feel worse. The gut shares a link with our mind, often referred to as the gut-brain connection.

The Mental Health Foundation claim that one of the most under-recognised factors for mental health is nutrition. That’s why it is important to find ways to still eat healthily and look after your gut even when you're feeling low. As someone who also suffers from IBS, here are my eight tips for maintaining a healthy gut and mind when you just can’t face cooking.

1) Plan your meals 

A good place to start is by writing down what you want to eat each week. Pick a moment when you feel motivated, sit down with a cuppa and list your favourite nutritious dishes which fit your budget and lifestyle. Knowing you have tasty things to enjoy can help you to feel good and look forward to the week ahead. You will also have a clear idea of what to put on your shopping list and be less likely to be led astray. 

Don’t forget to plan in the occasional treat too — having a reward to work towards can help you stay on track, plus everyone deserves to indulge now and again. Saturday is my treat day and knowing this really helps. Meal planning is definitely the best change I have made and will continue to adopt because it frees up thinking space when my time is needed to think about daily life. There are a range of free meal-planning apps available for download including Mealime and FoodPlanner.

2) Batch cook

Once you’ve planned your meals for the week, you can get ahead with cooking too. Whoever invented cooking in bulk deserves a round of applause — not only does it save you money and time during busy weekdays, but it means you have something pre-prepared for occasions when you just don’t feel like cooking. 

Try carving out an hour and a half on a Sunday to prepare for the week ahead. You’ll thank yourself at the end of a long, tiring day when you have a nice tasty, healthy meal without the effort. What’s more, you’ll never have to worry about what to eat! I always keep something nutritious in the freezer exactly for these reasons. Take up the activity which will change your life and leave more time for self-care.

BBC Goodfood offer plenty of healthy batch cooking recipes.

3) Invest in a mood-boosting cookbook

Many of us probably own a recipe book shoved at the back of the cupboard, but is it really tailored for your needs? Ever since I purchased The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food, I have not looked back and it makes a regular appearance in my kitchen. Writer and mental health advocate Rachel Kelly shares her honest insight of being diagnosed with severe depression and the journey she went on to harness the power of food to stay calm and well. The book features joyful recipes designed to boost energy, relieve low mood, comfort a troubled mind, support hormone balance and help you sleep better. I can vouch that the goat’s cheese, walnut and beetroot risotto which encourages mental clarity has helped me feel more grounded. 

Thankfully, with everyone talking more openly about mental health, there are plenty of similar books to choose from including The Healthy Mind Cookbook and Cooking To Cure. Having one suited to your requirements will make you more likely to use it, plus it’s a helpful source of inspiration. Perhaps something to add to your next birthday list?


4) Make cooking mindful

Yes, the race to put dinner on the table and feed the whole family can be an enjoyable one — hard to believe, right? But it doesn’t have to be a chore — cooking can be a mindful activity when you don’t allow the pressure to get to you. As someone who sees cooking as another thing on her to-do list, I am still struggling with this one, but many find the activity comforting and if you don’t, you can learn to. 

Meditation app Headspace offer a guided meditation to help you “master the art of mindful cooking.” They claim by doing this, the activity can become the part of your day where you let your mind be free as well as help to increase your patience and pay more attention to what you are putting into your body. “Cooking mindfully can help transform a repetitive and sometimes rushed experience into something new,” add Headspace. Cooking could provide a form of therapy when you’re feeling low, so switch on your favourite tunes and get lost in the process.

5) Check in with yourself

This is something small I have found valuable. Pause for a minute, before you tuck into your favourite comfort food and checking if you would still want to eat it if it was a not-so-tasty vegetable. 

Next time you find your hand delving into the biscuit tin, ask yourself “Am I really hungry? Would I be eating this if it was broccoli?” If the answer is yes, then you’re physically hungry but if it’s no, then you know you are eating for different reasons, and it may be worth assessing what these reasons are. Perhaps there's something else going on in your life that you need to look after? This has worked pretty well for me and helped me from eating more than I need.

6) Don’t beat yourself up

We can’t be perfect all of the time. One of the hardest things is learning to be kind to ourselves if we do fall off the wagon. If we occasionally find ourselves tucking into a big bar of chocolate or packet of sweets, then THAT IS OKAY. If we're already feeling low, we don’t need to make ourselves feel worse about it. 

This is something I have got better at, but I still sometimes find the guilt creeping in and have to remind myself, I am only human. To help with this, choose a positive mantra to repeat to yourself; for instance, “I am at peace with myself.” Plus, a good tip is that a couple of squares of dark chocolate can satisfy a craving and it’s healthier so there’s no need to feel so guilty!

7) Use fresh ingredients

Even processed foods that are marketed as healthy may contain lots of hidden sugar. Healthline suggest eating too much sugar can increase your risk for mood disorders including depression. 

Where possible, cook with fresh ingredients and you’ll know exactly what is going into your meals. Not only is it better for your mood and gut, but it’ll taste better too, you’ll feel proud of your achievement and it’s less expensive — bonus! It doesn’t even have to take longer than grabbing a takeaway, when you take into account waiting for your food to arrive. And remember, you can always freeze an extra portion so you have a quick but healthy meal for another day.

8) Cook with others

Who said cooking has to be a solitary activity? As humans, we are social creatures, so a great way to cheer yourself up and make something nutritious is to cook with friends or family. 

Cooking in this way can strengthen bonds and if you have kids, they will love getting involved. Another way to do this is by designating certain tasks to each person; the Mental Health Foundation recommend choosing one person to decide what will be served, someone else to go grocery shopping, another to set the table, who will do the cooking and who will do the dishes, then rotate them. This can make the activity seem like less of a chore. Then at the end, you can all sit down and indulge in the delicious meal you’ve prepared together.

Further reading

How to have a healthy relationship with food when the world is obsessed with diets

What's the best diet for mental wellbeing?

Shame, guilt, and your relationship with food

7 ways to reduce food waste

Why taking care of your gut could improve your mental health