For the last three months of 2021, I couldn’t do anything.
I couldn’t focus on any media I usually love. I couldn’t carry long conversations with any loved ones who didn’t already live with me. I couldn’t make myself get out of bed, so I would just lie there and work from my laptop. And I sure could not feed myself the way I normally do, let alone feed my household.
Luckily, but unfortunately, I’ve been here before. Steep dives in mental health are an old pal at this point, so I have practice. I knew what to do: I turned to my old hero, canned black beans.
Canned black beans are a marvel. Cheap and extremely easy to use, they’re low-impact on very finite resources like time and money. They’re high in protein, which often helps me feel more energized and less like a slug. For me, about half a can of black beans fills me up, which means breaking a can open gives me two whole meals right off the bat.
But most importantly, they’re just good. By themselves, black beans are creamy little parcels of mildly savory, comforting flavor. They deliver an experience close to the inside of a baked potato, without having to be baked. They do typically need to be rinsed, but honestly, if you just eat some straight out of the can, I’m not gonna tell on you. I’ve been there.
Now, I know you are unlikely to be satisfied with a plain old can of rinsed (or unrinsed) black beans. I understand. I too enjoy when a thing has a flavor. That need for more interesting tastes has led me to find several different ways of preparing my beans while still expending as little effort as possible.
When prepping some black beans as a depression meal, I look for ingredient combinations that require nothing more than a knife, a cutting board, and a spoon so as to cut down on dishes. I don’t do anything that requires me to put something on the stove or even in the microwave, because by the time the beans are done cooking, I’d already be out of energy and over eating altogether.
I think of making a Black Bean Depression Meal in three tiers:
- Tier 1 is when I’m in emergency mode and absolutely cannot do more than black beans and some spices.
- Tier 2 is when I’m doing real bad, but I either have enough energy to add something to the fridge, or I’ll cry if I don’t taste something fresh.
- Tier 3 is when I can be more thoughtful about flavors ad textures, and make something resembling a “real” meal in a more traditional sense.
If you, too, experience depression modes such as these, allow me to recommend some tried-and-true bean meals to go with them.
Hi, buddy. You good? Probably not. That’s okay. The black beans and I have your back.
If you want to add some flavor to your black beans but can only do the absolute minimum, start by opening, draining, and rinsing your black beans. Next, see if you have any creamy dressings or premade sauces on hand. I’m partial to Bitchin Sauce, which perfectly coats black beans and brings some nice flavor without overpowering them. Other than that, some ranch, bleu cheese dressing, or Caesar dressing can do in a pinch. Avoid dressings and citrus juices that are too sharp and acidic; the acid has a way of clashing with the mildness of the beans.
Don’t have a premade dressing on hand? No worries. One of my favorite Tier 1 meals is to add a little olive oil and some spices. The olive oil is not skippable here: it adds a silky, indulgent feel to the beans, but it also helps spices cling to them. The Trader Joe’s Everything but the Elote spice blend works great, as does adobo seasoning, as does the Penzeys’ Arizona Dreaming if you add in some salt. Nutritional yeast, as always, works great. And if you don’t have any spice mixes, here are some spice combinations that have served me well in the past with help from a little salt:
- Paprika, cumin, dried oregano
- Sumac and Aleppo pepper
- Onion powder, dried dill, and cracked black pepper
- Curry powder and cayenne
- Just straight up garlic powder
You’ve got this! Think about cold salads you like that have a base consisting of grains or chickpeas. Black beans can replace either of those, and I firmly believe that a cold canned black bean tops a cold canned chickpea any day.
But a Black Bean Depression Meal usually means I’m not capable of much forethought, so I don’t go in with such a plan. Instead, the first thing I do is check my fridge for anything that’s about to go bad. I always try to keep fresh cilantro on hand, because its bright and aromatic flavor tastes like being alive to me; this means I usually have cilantro that’s on its way out. If I’ve got any feta, bleu cheese, or other cheese I don’t have to shred (no shredding in Tier 2!), that’ll probably go in too. A dying avocado fits right in with black beans, as can most other fresh vegetables; it’s all a matter of how you dress them.
Here are some favorite Tier 2 flavor combinations:
- Fresh cilantro, avocado, lime juice, chipotle power
- Sliced cucumber, Kalamata olives, feta, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar
- Fresh parsley, sliced bell peppers (especially the mini ones because small things make brain feel good), ranch dressing
Be proud of yourself for having the energy for Tier 3! Tier 3 is Tier 2 but with additional sauces, vegetables, and advance planning. As with Tier 2, your inspiration will come from salads. If you’re having trouble remembering what goes into a salad, I recommend checking out Claire Lower’s salad templates on our sister site Lifehacker. If you need a more direct push, I’ve stolen wholecloth from the Salad and Go menu more than once.
While writing this article, I hit a solid Tier 3 day myself. I knew I needed to make food for my household, and I knew I didn’t have the energy to actually cook instead of assemble. Here’s how I built this recent Tier 3 meal.
I had recently made some buffalo sauce that really needed to be used up, so the rest of the bean bowl had to bend to that demand. As always, I had some dying cilantro, and I also had some beautiful bulb green onions I couldn’t not get when I saw them at the grocery store, but which were also slowly getting gross in my crisper.
Next, I found half a cucumber that I knew needed to go. I was considering slicing it myself with a knife because I wasn’t about to get out my mandoline slicer for half a cucumber, but then I noticed something: My box grater has a mandoline just built into the side. Excuse me? Has this always been a thing?
I chucked all of these ingredients into a big, big bowl, and then it was time to add more flavor. This was a no-brainer for me: I had the buffalo sauce on hand, I happened to have bleu cheese, and we’ve always got a bottle of good ol’ Hidden Valley ranch. Because not everyone in my household likes bleu cheese, I served that on the side.
I simply mixed this all together, served it with some tortilla chips—Tostitos Scoops are god tier for black beans, given their scooping capabilities—and sprinkled a little bleu cheese on each bite, which made it a fun activity, for serotonin.
It was a great meal that kept well, pleased a crowd, and generally served as an example of what I could easily make while doing real, real bad. It was inexpensive, it tasted fresh, it was filling, and it made me feel like I had accomplished something without totally burning myself out.
A can of black beans is a meal. When you need nourishing, it’s one of the easiest ways to fill up without draining all your energy. Even if all you do is add olive oil and some spices—or just eat them alone, it’s okay, I promise—you can feed yourself, and that’s no small thing.