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Cooking Through Grief: An Argument for Emotional Eating

Updated: Jul 14, 2022

Anyone who follows me on social media knows that I love food and that I love to cook. As a female identifying person, being able to embrace food in this world is no small feat. In our culture, especially for women, food is often viewed as the enemy. And if it’s not viewed as the enemy, it is often limited to two categories: good or bad. This weird way of moralizing food creates an unhealthy relationship with food. This unhealthy attitude towards food was fully ingrained in me by the time I was ten. However, my love for cooking came early and I would often sneak into the kitchen as early as age ten to pull out cookbooks and cook things like baked tomatoes or empanadas, much to my parents’ chagrin.

When my father died, I went to visit his side of the family and began pouring through family cookbooks to find recipes for things that my father made for me as a child: his mother’s cornbread stuffing, homemade biscuits, peach cobbler, and many other things. After he died, I cooked and baked through my grief. I would make peanut brittle on the anniversary of his death because he loved peanut brittle. I inherited his KitchenAid and every time I used it, I felt his presence in my kitchen.

Recently my dog became very ill and had to have surgery. His prognosis was not good and the statistics for his condition were not in his favor. In my grief and anxiety, I began cooking almost constantly. I baked things my family couldn’t possibly finish before it went bad. I baked tarts and cookies, and giant tagines of Moroccan food and couscous. I cooked gourmet meals that took most of the day to prepare. The only way I could possibly handle the anxiety of watching my dog recover from surgery while waiting for his biopsy results was to keep myself busy in the kitchen creating beautiful and tasty things to eat. This nourished me and my family while also keeping me busy. I began to think about how we use food and cooking and recipes to heal ourselves and also connect with our grief in a healthy way. While my dog hasn’t died, my anticipatory grief has kept me up at night and I have experienced a type of depression I haven’t experienced in a long time. I posted on social media about my thoughts on food and how it helps us grieve, and I was surprised by how many people commented on my post about their own experiences with cooking and food as a way of healing and connecting with the memory of a lost loved one. People shared stories of feeling connected to lost loved ones with special ways of brewing a morning cup of coffee, a shared chili recipe at a funeral, or a favorite cookie recipe passed down through generation after generation.

Anyone who follows me on social media probably knows that I am a psychotherapist and that one of my specialties is grief work. When helping a patient with the loss of a loved one, I’ll often ask the ones who enjoy food and cooking if their loved one had a favorite dish or recipe. If the answer is yes, my patients will begin discussing the dish and the way their whole face lights up when they talk about it is really a beautiful thing to witness. Their grief isn’t erased in that moment but they are getting to have a joyful moment of remembering their loved one when they were most alive. Because food is a living and loving thing, it nourishes us and keeps us alive, and connects us with loved ones through social interactions and shared memories.

Food is also how people connect with their culture and heritage, as well as how we can connect with cultures other than our own. Anthony Bourdain was a huge advocate of this open-hearted approach to other cultures through food. Padma Lakshmi produced a wonderful series called Taste the Nation which also accomplished this concept beautifully. She also wrote a book called Love, Loss, and What We Ate. This memoir chronicled her life through food with how food and cooking played an integral role in her quest to find herself, connect with her culture, and heal herself through many losses.

A few days ago I made a pot of vichyssoise soup to keep on hand for a quick lunch or dinner throughout the week. It’s a wonderful summer soup because it’s served chilled. It is also an Anthony Bourdain recipe. Cooking this made me think of how food and cooking keeps our lost loved ones a little bit alive. I didn’t know Bourdain but I felt sad when he died, especially given the firsthand knowledge I have of depression. It also made me acutely aware of what a legacy he left behind with his food. Every time I make this, there is a little part of him in my kitchen. The same goes for my father when I make homemade biscuits or peanut brittle. Food can be a way to heal during grieving as well as a way to keep loved ones alive in your heart. As my dear friend and fellow therapist, Lee Walker said when discussing my theory about cooking and grief- “we know that smell and taste are extremely connected with memories, so if there are good memories connecting loved ones and a favorite food, it’s a great way to process grief and other feelings.” He also went on to point out that cooking is a creative activity which means it is a behavioral activation technique for depression. Depression often accompanies grief.

Cooking through my grief isn’t new to me; it’s just that I am now realizing that it is one of my coping skills for grief. In 2015 my beloved dog Atticus died. I have written about him before. He was my heart dog. He died at age fifteen, which is a perfectly respectable age for a dog to die, but grief is grief. Food helped keep me from drowning in it. There is a reason why widows and widowers end up with a year’s supply of casseroles and lasagnas in their freezers after their partner dies. People gravitate towards this type of nurturing without even realizing it. Some people cook for others as a way to offer support and some people cook for themselves and others to feel nurtured. The night before we were to put Atticus to sleep, we had plans to have a friend over for dinner. This dinner for one guest turned into a gathering of friends. I had made boeuf bourguignon, which takes a good four to six hours to make. But spending this time cooking helped with my low mood and seeing everyone gathered in my living room later that night, supporting me and my dog, and eating the food I cooked was healing. It warmed my heart and made me feel emotionally held. It didn’t take away my pain but it gave me some semblance of hope to hold on to while I grieved.

Obviously, my pets aren’t going to leave me with any recipes to remember them by. However, I will always remember the first time I tried the tomato and goat cheese tart that my best friend made for me after Atticus died. Every time I make this tart, I remember Atticus and all the love surrounding me in those days leading up to his death. Now that I have moved through my grief it is also a reminder of the love and laughter he brought into my life for the thirteen years I got to have him in it.

Eating food you have cooked, or had cooked for you, in times of grief is a variation of emotional eating. Emotional eating gets a bad reputation but then again, so does eating in general. But emotional eating isn’t necessarily bad. Eating for comfort is often vilified and it shouldn’t be. I am one of those people who shuts down when I am depressed or grieving, which means that I have no appetite and can easily forget to eat, which is unusual for me. Eating something comforting and nourishing is emotionally soothing and necessary when eating becomes challenging. Emotional eating isn’t always hiding in the pantry binging on frosting in a can. Sometimes it is eating boeuf bourguignon with friends who join you to say goodbye to your beloved dog. Sometimes it is making the macaroni and cheese recipe that your patient gave to you before he died. Sometimes it’s making the biscuits that your father made for you when you were a little girl, that his mother made for him, and her mother made for her and so on and so on. We need to stop treating food and eating, including emotional eating, as a negative act and treat it like the self-care and healing act that it is. Food is a loving and living thing.

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