It’s February! 🎉 Valentine’s Day is around the corner. I’ve decided to make you all my valentines this year. My gift to you is a series of blog posts about loving and taking care of yourself. And maybe loving and taking care of other people. But mostly yourself. And I plan to start with the greatest antidepressant life hack I know: Make slow cooker chili. A lot of it.
(Well, okay, I technically started with that Woebot review, but let me have this.)
I can guess what you’re thinking: that I’ve soared past depressed and gone full-on psychotic or delusional. But I promise you that, not only will making a metric fuck-ton of homemade chili make you feel better, I have a pretty convincing pile of evidence to back up my oddly-specific and somewhat suspicious claim.
Distinguished members of the internet jury, I present to you my case for using slow cooker chili as a treatment for depression.
It’s Nearly-Impossible to Fail
This post is inspired by a true story: mine, in fact. I’ve been dealing with unexplained migraines and it’s really been hard for me to keep up with the demands of my everyday life with my body doing the biological equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death on a near-daily basis for no apparent reason.
One of the side-effects of being unable to function is that I haven’t been grocery shopping or eating particularly well. It’s nice paying other people to cook for me but all that high-octane crap adds up and was only making me feel worse. I just really wanted a hot, healthy meal this week. Just one.
So I opened Instacart. I ordered half a dozen different cans of beans and vegetables. Then I dumped all that and some seasonings into a crockpot and went to bed. Lo and behold, eight hours later, I had a crockpot full of warm and spicy—and most importantly, HEALTHY—joy.
That’s exactly how easy it is to make chili. Open cans. Dump contents into slow cooker. Add water or broth. Cover with lid. Set it… AND FORGET IT.
When you’re depressed or chronically ill, feelings of success can be hard to come by. But they’re vital to healing. Accomplishments build our self-efficacy, the sense that we have the power to achieve our goals. It might sound insane to a mentally well person that dumping some cans in a crockpot could feel like such a win.
But it was. It still is. I felt so capable and responsible when I finished assembling that goddamn chili that I’m still riding the high from it days later. I made something. And not just any something: I made a healthy and delicious meal.
I see this as an absolute win.
There’s no wrong way to make chili. I declare this to be law and so it shall be. My chili happened to be vegan; I used beans, tomatoes, and the unfortunately-named textured vegetable protein (TVP) to give it a ground-beef-y texture. TVP is great substitute ground beef for chili, by the way. Functionally, it works like rice or oatmeal. It starts dry and lifeless but expands, softens, and soaks up the flavors of whatever liquid you cook it in. I’ve used it as a ground beef substitute in chili, tacos, shepherd’s pie, you name it.
But if you want to use actual ground beef, that’s your prerogative! Don’t like beans? Don’t add them! Chili is USUALLY some combination of protein, beans, tomatoes, onions, sometimes other veggies, some kind of liquid (usually broth), and spices like chili powder (duh) and cumin. But the sky’s the limit! This chili is for YOU. Make it to suit your exact needs.
And you can adjust it as the days go by, too. Your chili’s getting too thick? Add some more broth to it, or hell, even water. Running out but don’t want to clean up the slow cooker yet? Add another can of beans and let it sit for another hour or two.
Or, you can let it cool and store it in the fridge to save counter space. You can even freeze it. I recommend freezing it in single-serving portions to make it easier to reheat but, shit, I’m not your mom. Do what works for you.
Healthy Food = Healthy Brain
Remember a few paragraphs ago where I was like, ugh, I keep eating garbage food and it’s making my bad days worse! Well, that’s not just anecdotal experience. We really are what we eat. It’s like the gas that goes into your car; the higher the quality of gas, the better your car will run. I think.
Anyway, eating healthy food can be both expensive and difficult. Do you know what isn’t either of those things? CHILI.
Not accounting for the TVP I already had, I spent maybe 5 dollars total on canned beans, canned tomatoes, and a packet of chili seasoning. I ended up with enough chili to last me all week.
And it wasn’t garbage food, either. Again, barring the TVP, I used 100% whole food ingredients. Beans. Tomatoes. Broth. If we don’t count the seasonings, I used six ingredients, and four of them were beans.
I like beans.
If I’d ordered chili from a restaurant, I’d have likely gotten a pile of high-calorie slop that was more sodium than anything else. But instead, I had something high-fiber, low-calorie, and genuinely nutritious that cost me virtually nothing and was SUPER TASTY. You can’t beat that kind of quality.
Tasty (and Spicy) Food Makes You Happy
It’s no secret that eating enjoyable foods makes us happy. Food is one of those few things that we as a species can all agree is wonderful and great. Some of us love to make food and almost all of us love to eat food. I don’t have any science to back me up but I do have decades of anecdotal experience to support that a hot meal can be like penicillin for the soul.
But there is science to back up the claim that spicy foods—like, oh I dunno, CHILI—can also cheer you up. Spicy food triggers a release of endorphins, aka feel-good hormones, when you eat it. You also get a friendly jolt of adrenaline, which can also feel quite good if you’re trapped in a sluggish mental hell-hole. There are other health benefits of spicy foods, too. Spicy food can reduce inflammation, clear up a stuffy nose, and even improve cardiovascular health.
Of course, everyone’s spice tolerance is different. I, myself, am white as hell and can’t tolerate anything much spicier than jalapeños. But a little extra heat is absolutely worth the trouble.
You Can Just Like… Leave it in the Slow Cooker Forever
Most homemade soups get better the longer you let them cook. Chili, in particular, undergoes a magnificent and downright alchemical transformation after a good 12+ hours simmering away on low heat. The flavors combine and fuse into a whole so much greater than the sum of its parts. Slow cooker chili is an experience.
Of course, you can accomplish this on the stove, but I highly recommend a slow cooker—particularly one with a “keep warm” function—for the simple reason that you can leave it on. For days, in fact. And your chili will be there, right as rain, hot and ready for you whenever you want some.
Love (and Feed) Thyself
To conclude, what I’m getting at here is that slow cooker chili is probably the closest we’re ever going to get to a happiness potion, so if you feel like quantum garbage, now is the perfect time to make some.