Editor’s Note: This essay discusses eating disorders and eating disorder recovery. Please take care of yourself if those topics could be triggering.
“What should we do for dinner tomorrow night?” my mom asks across the kitchen table, our mouths still full with tonight’s meal. “I could make mushroom risotto, or what about that miso pork meatballs recipe from the New York Times cooking app?” Her voice is drowned out by the roaring waves of anxiety sloshing around my stomach. I’m exhausted from stressing about today’s food and already there’s tomorrow’s to contend with.
I’ve had an eating disorder or been in recovery from one for almost half of my life. It’s been more than seven years since I’ve succumbed to the need to feel empty; but as anyone in recovery will tell you, there’s no such thing as a finish line, just the desire to keep going.
In many ways, the roots of my healing are solidly planted. I’m no longer afraid to feel full, and engage in your standard three-meals-a-day behavior. I don’t panic if my food plans zag without warning, or go hungry instead of eating foods outside my comfort zone when it’s the only option. If I can’t work out for a week, I breathe through the anxiety rather than punishing myself later.
Despite that progress, I still get anxious when choosing off a menu. I naturally gravitate towards meals with listed calorie counts to enact as much control over my food intake as possible. I feel some level of anxiety about every food decision I make, but at this point, I’m not going to do something that harms my physical health because of it. There’s a delicate balance of control and release at the heart of my recovery, and I’ve learned that cooking tips the scale in the wrong direction.
There’s a delicate balance of control and release at the heart of my recovery, and I’ve learned that cooking tips the scale in the wrong direction.
Cooking plays to my worst instincts, allowing me to enact total control over what goes into my body. When I look at a recipe I don’t see ingredients, I see calories—knowledge I can’t seem to shake after spending countless hours on calorie-counting and low-calorie cooking websites as a teenager. I can recall what I read on those sites better than most schoolwork I was doing at the time, thus, every recipe presents a unique dietary math problem:
- If a tablespoon of olive oil contains X calories, how much oil needs to stay clinging to the bottom of the measuring spoon in order to reduce my meal by Y calories?
- If I ignore the recipe’s instructions to “add a dash of cream to serve” will I save enough calories to add a piece of bread to the meal without stressing out?
- Will the sauce taste noticeably different if I leave out some of the butter indicated in the recipe?
Being in the kitchen turns me into a mad scientist, one who takes the experiment too far and blows up her own lab. I hit rock bottom during my semester abroad in London, getting down to my lowest weight ever while cooking all of my own meals for the first time. Without anyone there to question my cooking and eating habits, my daily calorie intake rarely topped the bare minimum needed to keep my body running. Twelve years later, last spring, I lost 5 lbs in less than a month while isolating in my one-bedroom apartment at the beginning of the COVID pandemic. Even with the best of intentions to nourish my body during a time when it needed comforting food the most, I slid back into my old habits. Everyone on Instagram was showing off their homemade sourdough loaves and here I was avoiding baking altogether because I didn’t want to be left alone with the results. I feared the anxiety that would come from trying to parcel out small portions each day, and so the kitchen became a battle zone I entered only when necessary.
I gratefully handed over the keys to the kitchen when I moved in with my parents in late-April, but there have been other cooking-related challenges to contend with at my childhood home. With so many hours to while away and no social plans in sight, it can feel like the only thing we talk about is what we’re eating or what we’re going to eat, or what we have eaten or might eat tomorrow. My mom is cooking up a storm, working her way through Ina Garten cookbooks, and while I’m eternally grateful to reap the delicious benefits of her free time, there’s very little reprieve from the subject that gives me the most anxiety. I already dwell on food around the clock; the constant food chatter in our house keeps those anxieties front of mind.
It’s clear that my mom wants us to cook together, to share a bond in the kitchen as mothers and daughters have for centuries. You’d have to be blind to miss her obvious disapproval when I offer to buy us takeout at the first hint of being asked to cook, but I don’t want to know what’s in her recipes. I want to be able to enjoy them without thinking about what the stick of butter in the sauce might do to my body. She’s forever asking for my opinion on what to cook, attempting to bring me into the process, but I know my input will mean we’re eating the lightest dish, not the tastiest one. I’m at the stage of recovery where I’ll eat the fried food someone else puts in front of me, but if given the option for steamed, I’ll take it every time. To pick the most delicious meal for myself is an act of self-love I haven’t gotten to yet.
I already dwell on food around the clock; the constant food chatter in our house keeps those anxieties front of mind.
My mom isn’t the only one who spent 2020 in the kitchen. Since March, my Instagram feed has been wall-to-wall food photos boasting elaborate culinary creations born from too many hours stuck at home. I’ve read countless essays about the comfort of cooking during perilous times and listened to my colleagues giddily discuss their baking creations over Zoom on more calls than I can count. Food so often brings people together, but all this cooking has made me feel even further apart at a time when we’re already so isolated. My friends are bonding over sourdough loaves and air fryers, and here I am just trying to keep my head above water. Not being able to participate makes me feel unnurturing and, in a way that’s hard to grapple with as a feminist, it makes me feel like a bad woman. I wish I could put my love into food the way I see those around me doing this past year.
To pick the most delicious meal for myself is an act of self-love I haven’t gotten to yet.
When I was an 18-year-old my therapist told me, “What matters is that you get physically healthy, the mental part will come later.” I’ve lived in that gray zone of recovery for a long time, and, until recently, I wrote off my kitchen-aversion as a personality quirk to laugh off when I show up at Friendsgiving with a bottle of wine for the fifth year in a row. It’s easy to turn your baggage into a shtick, and it took backsliding in 2020 to make me realize why I’m so scared of the kitchen. I don’t like to acknowledge the grip my eating disorder still has over me, but understanding it in all its complexities is vital to overcoming it.
Food so often brings people together, but all this cooking has made me feel even further apart at a time when we’re already so isolated.
There are so many people connecting through food right now, but I’m not one of them. This year, I’m prioritizing my health, which means staying out of the kitchen. As my therapist told me more than a decade ago, what matters is that I stay physically healthy, the mental part will come later. And with it, a love of cooking might one day follow.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder or with disordered thoughts or behaviors regarding food and eating, please seek help. Call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 for support, reach out to a qualified medical professional, or, for a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.