Looking for some recipes to fuel your body better? One writer shares what happened when she batch cooked four “strengthening” recipes for a week in January, and the results might just inspire you to get in the kitchen tonight.
The first few months of the pandemic were all about survival for me. I relied on Deliveroo, bottles of wine, endless online purchases, 10-minute voicenotes and two or three Joe Wicks’ PE lessons a week. But when we went into lockdown in November, I decided to take better care of my mental and physical health.
Since then, I’ve stopped spending money on things I don’t need, started to run a few 5Ks a week, taken on a 5-minute plank challenge, signed up to the new Strong Women Training Club and curbed my takeaway habit. When January arrived, along with a third lockdown, I also decided to take more interest in what I fuel my body with. Along with saving money on those all-too-familiar takeaways, I wanted to feel stronger and more energetic. So I spent a week batch cooking “strengthening” meals…
Before I share the recipes I cooked and the health benefits they provided, I must say that I ate them as part of a mixed diet. I should also mention that I’m a vegetarian. During the week, I also ate a couple of breakfast pastries, bananas, porridge, some frothy coffees, oranges, a veggie sausage sandwich and there was a night of crisps and dip followed by a few glasses of white wine (for my brother’s birthday celebrations over Zoom). This challenge wasn’t about going on a diet or losing weight: it was about making better choices about what goes into my body.
To give you an indication of my daily routine and weekly workouts: I wake up at 5:30am most days after six-eight hours of sleep, work five days a week and sit at a desk in my living room to do this. I go on a few 5K runs per week, do two or three online workouts (a mix of cardio and strength training), and am currently trying to keep up with my plank challenge. I also do a lot of walking – just like everybody else right now. Oh and I’ve also been doing an online gong bath once a week to help me reconnect with myself.
Here are the four meals I cooked at home to help fuel me:
Vegan saag paneer
I’ve cooked this vegan saag paneer recipe from the BOSH! Healthy Vegan cookbook a few times before because it’s so easy to make and actually delicious. Its calcium content supports a strong nervous system and healthy bones, the nutrient-dense yeast (full of vitamin B12) increases energy levels and the high-protein tofu encourages muscle growth. I enjoyed three (big!) servings of the vegan paneer saag and ate them with brown rice.
Firey bean stew
Bean stew doesn’t sound like the most exciting meal in the world, but this recipe – supplied by Gem’s Wholesome Kitchen – really did have a fiery kick and it was a perfect winter warmer. I enjoyed a couple of portions with a big honk of buttered bread. After four servings, I must admit that I was happy to not have to eat anymore (like I say, beans can easily become boring). But it’s another easy, tasty and nutritious recipe. It includes ginger and honey (known for helping with sore throats), spinach (iron), butterbeans (iron, protein, fibre), cayenne pepper (breaks up congestion) and loads of herbs (antioxidants).
Courgette and chickpea soup
Full disclosure: I didn’t have high hopes for this No Fuss Vegan recipe. I mostly tried it just because it looked so easy to create with just a few ingredients that I already had in my fridge. But I was so pleasantly surprised to discover it’s actually a bit of a taste sensation. That pesto really does add some flavour! The courgettes contain insoluble fibre to feed the good bacteria in your intestines for optimum function and chickpeas are proven to prevent the overgrowth of bad bacteria while also improving digestion. I enjoyed three large bowls of this and actually didn’t get bored of it. (Also, please believe me when I say it’s tastier than it looks!)
Caramel nougat bars
Time for another confession: I probably snacked on these tasty little bars a little more than is recommended. The caramel nougat bar recipe, which is taken from Gem’s Whole Kitchen, nearly tastes as good as a Snickers. They are packed with nuts for a punch of plant protein, oats for slow-release energy and dates for a dose of gut-loving fibre. I also used 85% cacao chocolate to lower the sugar and up the antioxidants. I ate one after each workout (although research suggests it’s better to eat beforehand) and treated myself to some extras.
How batch cooking helped my mental and physical health
The most surprising thing about this challenge was how tasty these “healthy” meals were. I also found that I used up a lot of ingredients in my fridge, so it felt like I had much less food wastage than usual.
I can’t say I felt significantly more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed than usual, but I did stick to my workout plans with ease – something I sometimes struggle with. I didn’t once feel poorly during the week and my skin looked great (much better than when I had a rare breakout the week before). I also felt lighter when running, rather than bloated and bogged down.
To be completely honest, I think the ups-and-downs of lockdown, along with a couple of sleep-deprived nights and a few glasses of wine I enjoyed during that birthday Zoom call, prevented me from feeling my very best self. In fact, there were a couple of days when I felt particularly tired, then I’d wake up the next day feeling good again.
The biggest benefit was that batch cooking these meals helped me build a stronger routine, which in turn made me structure my day better and feel more motivated to stick to my exercise plan. Cooking while listening to podcasts and the radio also relaxed me. And knowing I had meals prepared for the week cleared my head and made me feel more “together”.
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What a nutritionist says about my week of “strengthening” meals
I shared the recipes with the brilliant dietitian Tai Ibitoye, along with how I felt throughout the week. Sharing her feedback on the challenge, she gave these main takeaways:
- You consumed a variety of fruits and vegetables, such as spinach, tomatoes, courgettes, peas and beans within main meals and oranges and bananas as snacks. Fruits and vegetables are great sources of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals (naturally occurring plant substances) and fibre that are vital for good health.
- You consumed good sources of protein like butterbeans, peas, tofu and caramel nougat bar which can help with the muscle repair process especially when working out. But it would be great to include a bit more variety.
- The meals contained some essential micronutrients such as calcium, iron and B vitamins – which have various roles in the body like keeping bones healthy, making hemoglobin (a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body) and supporting energy production.
- Ensuring that you’re well-hydrated is so important for performance when working out and it also restores hydration levels afterwards in order to replace the water and salts that are lost through sweat. Also, having soups like the vegan soup contributes towards fluid intake too (it’s not just water!) which is good.
- I suggest including more starchy carbohydrate food sources in your meal plan as a diet low in carbohydrates can lead to a lack of energy during exercise, early fatigue and delayed recovery. Carbohydrate is stored in muscles as glycogen. The body’s stores of glycogen are limited and need to be replenished each day, particularly if you are exercising frequently. This may explain why you sometimes felt very tired.
What did I learn?
It’s good to see that Tai approves of the week’s meals – maybe the highly nutritious recipes did me more good than I even realised (it was hard to feel motivated or spritely during January, after all). It also makes sense that the coffees and pastries probably didn’t help with my bouts of tiredness! I’ll definitely continue to batch cook recipes for the week, including all the ones I’ve used above. Because at a time when everything seems out of my control, it’s almost therapeutic to cook nutricious but delicious food that I know will make me feel a bit better.
Images: Hollie Richardson
Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…