Cooking for Yourself in Medical School and Residency

Most medical students and residents eat poorly.  It’s not really a surprise – the days are packed with work from sun-up to sun-down.  There are no planned meals because there can’t be.  Food is a quick bite when it is available.  It’s feast or famine.  On the far end of the scale, the stereotypical diet of a resident is no breakfast (but usually coffee), a doughnut and coffee grabbed on the run once you get to work, some mid-day meal of fast food, and pizza on call.  Food, particularly fast food, becomes solace.  In the stressful world of residency, this kind of “comfort food” becomes a “reward” for the hard work and tribulations. It’s not rocket science.  This kind of diet doesn’t give you the energy you need to function at your peak.  It is also a diet that is very likely to lead to weight gain.  In your 20s, your body can cope with this suboptimal fuel, but it’s not ideal.  However, what “works” in your 20s won’t work as you get older and could even be responsible for a heart attack, diabetes, or other medical problems in your 40s and 50s.  On a more philosophical level, you would never advise this kind of diet to one of your patients.  None of us want to be hypocrites.

The answer is to cook for yourself.  Not everyone likes to cook, and not every one knows how.   I’m going to make a case that you should learn.  Trust me – if you can learn to take out an appendix, or diagnose a pneumonia, you can learn to cook.   I’m going to assume that you are single for the sake of this description.  But, if you have a significant other, it’s even more important to cook at home.  He or she can participate in helping with the meal preparation, and, by doing this together and for each other, there is added benefit for your relationship.  Having dinner at home with a significant other will become an “anchor” to your day that will become very important to you.  As hard as it is to work around a busy schedule, if you can eat together, and have a real conversation, you will both benefit greatly.

Cooking is a wonderful therapy for the stress of medical school and residency.  If you’ve never learned how to cook, this is a hard time to learn complicated techniques, but it’s not hard to learn simple techniques.  There are several advantages of cooking for yourself that outweigh (on most days) the hassle of spending the time.  The act of cooking for yourself can be a time of “decompressing” from work.  Arranging vegetables, cutting them, smelling the odor of the food appeals to all your senses and is a moment in the day that you can intentionally slow down.  It’s very important that the recipes you choose are simple and quickly prepared.  No one wants to come home to a 2 hour task in the kitchen after a hard day.  Cooking for yourself has other benefits as well.  First, it is tangible evidence that you are taking care of yourself.  This is not a trivial point.  There are days during your training when it seems no one is taking care of you.  Having concrete evidence that you are caring for yourself is an antidote to that feeling.  Secondly, you will eat better.  By cooking from fresh ingredients, you will decrease the amount of pre-packaged and fast food.  Even without medical school, you know that this will result in better nutrition.  Thirdly, you will eat cheaper.  Other than the “free” pizza (ethically debatable, but financially clear), processed food is usually more expensive.  And lastly, you can share.  It isn’t any more work to make 4 or 6 portions of a dish than it is to make 2, and it usually isn’t that much more expensive, either.  If you can convince one of your colleagues that this is a good idea, you can cook for each other on alternate days.   Likewise, you can cook larger amounts and, using freezer ready containers, freeze portions for yourself for the future.  Doesn’t homemade pasta with a side of fresh vegetables really sound better than the greasy middle of the night food that is available in most hospitals?   It’s true that you can’t cook just anything with the kind of schedule you will have in medical school and your residency.  But, there are few key rules that will make it possible for you to do this, enjoy it, and eat well.

Rule 1:  Don’t cook anything that takes more than 30 minutes to prepare.

Let’s be realistic – you are not going to walk into your home at 8 o’clock at night, hungry, and spend an hour preparing something.  But – there are very nutritious dinners that take less than 10 minutes, so getting home late is no excuse.

Rule 2:  Plan ahead.

The first step in preparing dinner for most busy people is to open the refrigerator door and ask “What can I eat tonight?:  If you are anything like I was in residency, the refrigerator had some cheese, some vegetables (often way past their prime), and maybe some leftovers.  Not very appetizing.  There is an easy way to prevent this from happening.  On whatever day you have off and have time to shop, spend 30 minutes making a menu.  Start by making a table for the week with what is happening.

Breakfast Lunch Snack Dinner Comments
Sun
Mon On call – take Tues meals, too
Tues
Wed Out Out with friends after rounds
Thur
Fri On call
Sat

Once you have an outline of your week, fill in the blanks with the meals.  Now, most of us can handle “hamburgers” or “Raisin Bran” as a menu item… but it’s more fun, and healthier to branch out a bit.  So, if you are not used to looking for new things to cook, how do you find recipes?  Cookbooks can be fun, particularly if you are looking for a particular ethnic food or a style (e.g. low-fat) of cooking.  If you like cookbooks, and bookstores, find the used book store nearest you and go to town!  There are also web sites for recipes.  Many of them also have “cooking lessons” on line.  Most cooking shows have a web based recipe site as well.   So, say you start by searching the web and find this recipe. (for this particular recipe, I’m assuming you have no concerns about calories)  It looks easy, and like it would taste good.   So you print it out.

NEW ORLEANS PASTA

ESSENCE OF EMERIL (FOODTV)   SHOW #EE123 – http://www.recipesource.com/main-dishes/pasta/11/rec1100.html

1 tablespoon olive oil

16 ounces chicken breast half, cut into strips (about 1/2 cup)

1/4 cup chopped chorizo sausage

2 tablespoons chopped green onions, plus extra for garnish

1/2 tablespoon chopped garlic

Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce

3/4 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/2 pound penne pasta, cooked al dente and tossed in oil to coat

Creole spice, salt and pepper

In a large saute pan heat oil, add chicken and sausage and cook 5 minutes, stirring often. Add green onions, garlic, 2 dashes each Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce or to taste, and cook for 1 minute. Add cream, cheese, shrimp and pasta. Cook, tossing, to heat through. Adjust seasoning to taste with Creole spice, salt and pepper. Serve garnished with green onions.

Yield: 2 servings

Now what?  First, cut and paste the ingredient list to a shopping list.  If you are compulsive, you can organize it into meat, dairy, produce, etc (it makes shopping easier, but it’s not essential).  You’ll need to add a vegetable or salad to balance this out nutritionally. (I picked broccoli as an example) If you can afford the calories, add a desert. (Ice cream in this case)  Then decide what night in your schedule this will work best.  This recipe will take about 12 minutes total so it would be great for a night you are getting home late.  You can either share the other portion with your significant other or you can take it with you the next day as lunch.  You can double the recipe and have it more than one night.   For example:

Breakfast Lunch Snack Dinner Comments
Sun
Mon On call – take Tues meals, too
Tues
Wed Out Out with friends after roundsThaw shrimp for tomorrow
Thur NEW ORLEANS PASTA (CHICKEN, CHORIZO)Steamed broccoliIce Cream Freeze one portion for later
Fri NEW ORLEANS PASTA (CHICKEN, CHORIZO)Steamed broccoli On call
Sat NEW NEW ORLEANS PASTA (CHICKEN, CHORIZO)Steamed broccoli

Shopping list:

2 lbs chicken breast (16 oz x 2)

1/2 cup chopped chorizo sausage

1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined

heavy cream   (need 1 1/5  cup)

Parmesan cheese  (need 1/2 cup grated)

Olive oil

Creole spice

green onions

garlic

broccoli (4 portions to steam)

One pound penne pasta

Ice cream

Rule 3:  Cook (or prep) today today to eat tomorrow

As soon as you get home from the grocery store:

  • Freeze any meat that is for later in the week (and make a note to yourself to put in into the refrigerator to thaw a day or two before you are going to use it.)
  • Wash the vegetables, dry them and put them away
  • Wash lettuce for salads and dry completely (a spin dryer is the best).  Store in a zip lock plastic bag with a paper towel in the bag (which absorbs any residual water).  Make sure you squeeze out all the air you can before closing the bag.

Take advantage of days off to cook things that may take a little more time or effort.  While  you are watch the football game on Sunday, you can cook chili in a crock pot for Wednesday.  If you know that your vegetable stir fry on Tuesday is going to be after a long day, go ahead and chop all the vegetables and meat a day or two before when you have the time and have them stored in the refrigerator.   When Tuesday rolls around (and you are exhausted from work), you’ll have all the ingredients chopped and ready to throw in the pan.

Learning to cook after a trip to the farmer's market!

Learning to cook after a trip to the farmer’s market!

 

10 thoughts on “Cooking for Yourself in Medical School and Residency

  1. I love your blog. Even though I am not a resident or medical student, I find your hints and suggestions are applicable for all stressful lives!

  2. This is great! I started cooking for myself for real in graduate school. I would do it 2-3 times a week and cook enough to have left overs on the other nights. There are so many healthy things one can prepare which don’t take much time and can bake for 1 1/2 hours or so. During the cooking time one can study if need be. I still do this because life remains really busy. There is something very important I think about the message we give ourselves when we care for ourselves :>)

    Heather

  3. Mary, great ideas. Here’s another easy one: FISH. Tilapia filets and salmon steaks sold in individually wrapped servings at Sam’s, in big zip-lock bags in the freezer section. Easy to bake: 10 min per inch of thickness if you remembered to thaw it, 20 min per inch if you didn’t. Frozen Shrimp, double easy. Adds great protein, faster and easier to cook than red meat, and better for you. Add basmati rice (15-20 min) + steamed vegetables, and you’re done! Way less sodium than prepared foods, too.

    When are you starting the on-line recipe section??? 🙂 I’m a huge fan of home cooking–would rather eat good, simple food at home than anything. (And cooking also helps you avoid that creeping credit card debt!) Slow cooker recipes are great for your “shorter” days–and make the house smell like a home when you get there!

  4. Another easy choice is “crust-less quiche”

    grease a pie tin and layer diced ham, diced onions, and shredded cheese (cheddar, swiss, jack, whatever you like)

    in a separate bowl, wisk 4 eggs and about a cup of cottage cheese adding in nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne, and whatever other spices you like

    pour the egg mixture over the other ingredients in the pit tin and bake at 350 for about an hour or until a toothpick comes out clean

    It serves 4-6 and you can substitute canned shrimp for the ham or add in artichoke hearts or green onions or whatever takes your fancy. It’s very versatile and makes for excellent leftovers. Quiches and casseroles have become a culinary staple with me.

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