Good Mood Food – What’s Cooking in Recovery?

Mood Food with Chef Leslie

Chef Leslie Rulewicz and Chef Assistant Mackenzie Marckini – What’s cooking?

I’ll be the first to admit that I am still working on establishing a “healthy relationship” with food. So, whenever I sit down with Sanford House Chef Leslie, I feel a bit guilty. I know that my last night’s dinner consisted of a package of hastily browned ground turkey and a peck of green apples dipped in caramel sauce, eaten while watching TV. But, I nod as she uses phrases like “choosing your own food adventure”…  Even when she says, “Healthy eating – it’s all about schedule, choices and structure…”


When Food is an Integral Part of the Recovery Plan…

I am getting better. My workmates will remember the “cupcake incident of 2016” when I confessed to devouring the leftovers from my birthday celebration (five cupcakes) on the drive home from work. At the time I lived four city blocks from the office. One can imagine how that must have looked to the person sitting next to me at the red light…


It is no secret that for those of us in recovery, processed food can trigger a transfer addiction. The “reward” of addictive substances is no longer available in the early stages of recovery – and we look for foods that will highly “reward” the brain with a flood of dopamine. These foods are usually high in fat, sugar and salt and are easy to digest. Low quality foods like chips, candy, fast-food and yes, five cupcakes can negatively affect your mood, your overall health and your long-term recovery.


Food can also be a reward for those who are doing the hard work of getting sober. The trick is choosing the correct “food adventure” and Chef Leslie is the Sanford House whitewater-rafting guide.


Learning to eat nutritious foods, and the social aspect of sit-down meals is an important aspect of recovery. And an array of healthy food choices is empowering. Chef Leslie Rulowitz 


The Challenge of Feeding the Newly Sober

The Sanford House hospitality staff is well aware that their charges may have developed bad habits during the months or years of their active addiction. When it comes to feeding the newly sober, there are a number of challenges: 


A taste for processed foods…

The late night, drug or alcohol fueled munchies never seem to involve lean meats and steamed veggies. And without inhibitions, our brains prefer high-calorie foods. The problem with the drive-through, all-night gas station or 24-hour Walgreens diet, is that eating candy makes fruit taste less sweet. When you load up on salt laced chips, a handful of unsalted cashews is a yawner. In recovery, healthy eating must be learned or relearned.


We eat family style. And you have to be at the table for three meals, so we begin to establish an eating schedule. There is no portion control per se. In fact, mealtime is one of the first opportunities for those in rehab to begin to make healthy choices. Chef Leslie 


The ritual of the family dinner has gone by the wayside…

Drug and alcohol misuse often impacts the family dinner. The social aspects of eating and cooking are something that must be relearned in recovery. And for those who started using at a young age, rehab may be the first time they truly experience communal dining. Chef Leslie says, “We have an opportunity at meals to talk to our clients on a different level. We are not clinicians. So, we just let them know we care, maybe ask about a hobby or a family pet…”


Post acute withdrawal, moodiness and depression

There are times, perhaps after a particularly tough day in group therapy, when the tables at John Street for Men and Cherry Street for Women are silent. Sometimes folks just need to process their thoughts and they do not want to practice their dinner conversation skills or even try to be friendly. Got it. Chef Leslie gears her meals around the therapy schedule. Piling on the “brain foods” like avocado, black beans, blueberries, sweet potatoes and fatty fish early in the week to fortify clients. And offering lots of “good mood foods” like nuts and fresh fruit snacks after rigorous therapy sessions.


Weight gain, eating disorders and rewarding yourself for doing the hardest thing ever…

There is nothing wrong with giving yourself a reward of a cookie for excellent behavior. Addiction treatment and early recovery is tough and you’ve given up the thing that occupied most of your time and energy. Good for you! But simply put, real food is the best thing you can give yourself in recovery. And caution is key to staving off the resurgence of a dormant eating disorder or unnecessary weight gain in recovery. For those who need to gain weight, real food is still the answer.


Good mood food salad

The Good Mood Grain Bowl – veggies, sauces, proteins and practicing self-control & healthy choices…

Feed your head… and your body

Drugs and alcohol have a harmful effect on many metabolic processes, organs and systems in the body. Protein is partially responsible for the structure and repair of all cells, tissues and organs. Chef Leslie serves lean meats, eggs, cheese, legumes and whole grains to “beef up” protein levels, build muscle and repair brains. Food is fuel. Eating a variety of proteins in a variety of preparations will keep things fresh and interesting.


Chef Leslie cautions, “Avoid the bad mood generators. Caffeine, aged, fermented or cultured foods, non-dairy creamer, sodium, trans-fats, deep fried foods and the deceptive energy boost and crash of sugar. Also, early recovery is probably not the time to start a new eating regimen like veganism or a liquid diet…” 


Mood Food in a Nut Shell…

As I chat with Chef Leslie (guilty visions of caramel apples dancing in my head) it occurs to me that her advice is pretty simple. In recovery, eat whatever you like in moderation, develop an eating schedule, designate a comfortable place to eat, enjoy the social aspects of dining and prioritize nutrition.


For the fortunate folks who experience the hospitality at Sanford House Addiction Treatment Centers, the attention to detail and friendly approach to food in Chef Leslie’s kitchen goes a long way to lightening a bad mood. And the healthy patterns begun in rehab can be followed for a lifetime in recovery.


Once we get them eating properly, everything seems to fall into place… I love my job – we get to spoil people every day… Chef Leslie





Marilyn Spiller is a writer, sober coach, recovery advocate, and student of the world. (She also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Creative Writing). Seven years sober herself, she penned one of the first sobriety blogs, "Waking Up the Ghost" in 2013. The blog garnered an international following, allowing Marilyn to communicate with thousands of folks in all stages of recovery. Marilyn is Sanford's Director of Marketing and serves as Editor-In-Chief for the Sanford online magazine, "Excursions". She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction.