Falling out of love with food when cooking for one. Photo credits: Caroline Ishii.
OTTAWA — Lately, I’ve been surgeon-like in my dissection of food. Not what I’m cooking or eating, but my love of food. I learned I’ve been living a lie.
Instead of the love affair, I thought I had with food, it’s been more of a tumultuous love-hate relationship. I’ve come to this realization while making food for myself at home. Alone in my kitchen, I am not inspired to cook for a party of one and quickly get bored with what I make.
What?! You’re a chef, are you not? Friends ask, which makes me feel guilty.
I get spurts of energy and inspiration, but usually, I quickly get tired and frustrated when I hit the kitchen. I am usually hungry—which brought me to the kitchen initially—and I want to eat right away. I’m bored with what I cook for myself. How can that be, my friends say. You have the most expansive palate of anyone we know. I love cooking for others, but cooking for myself is uninspiring. It feels more like a chore, it takes time to make something, and then there’s the constant clean-up. Is anyone out there like me?
I’m keeping a food diary. It’s not for weight reduction, and it not to make me feel bad or guilty. It’s a diary of the food I eat and how I feel before, during, and after eating anything. I give what I’m eating a rating on a scale of 1 to 10, like a food critic. One is no enjoyment, boring, or even bad-tasting at times. Ten is a delightful taste experience that makes me happy.
At the same time, I’m more mindful of the eating process. I love eating in front of the TV. I fear not having the TV or radio on or something to read. Why? It is too quiet, and I don’t want to feel like I am alone, even though I am. It is company and a distraction.
I’m trying to practice silent meals, often at breakfast, where I have nothing playing like music or the TV. It is often done on yoga and meditation retreats. I’ve created a special place for my meals with a placemat, candle, a vase with a flower, and a book on mindful eating, How to Eat, by beloved Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. I read a short passage from the book before I start eating.
I also express gratitude like a prayer for the food I am about to eat. It’s my way of saying itadakimasu, as is done before meals in Japan, to be thankful for the food. With hands together, I close my eyes, slightly bow my head, and I thank all that has gone into the food, from being grown, harvested, prepared, and everything in between until it reaches me.
I carefully observe the meal before I eat it. It’s like saying “wait” before you let your dog or cat wolf down the food in their dish. As I am eating, I repeat, I am eating this bread, I am eating this bread, I am eating this bread. This repetition goes for whatever I am eating, like a meditation.
Unless I do this, I am eating but thinking of something else, a problem I’m working out, something I must do, or an email I forgot to answer. It could be one of the 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts experts estimate we have in a day, and often not one is related to the food in my mouth! Before I know it, I’ve finished the sandwich and don’t remember much. I want to remember as much as I can about my life, savour it. How do we do this?
We slow down, and we try to ground ourselves before we eat and be present. That’s why prayer or an itadakimasu is essential. I try to put down my fork, spoon, or the sandwich between bites and chew thoughtfully before moving on to the next bite. Think of the fork and hand together like the gas pedal. If you don’t pause sometimes, you will quickly reach the destination and miss looking at the scenery. Putting the fork down sometimes helps you to pay attention. It’s like putting on the brakes slowly when you’re going too fast around a corner or down a steep hill.
It takes longer to eat this way and might be frustrating at first. I love multi-tasking and keeping busy. I often eat while working or watching a talk on my computer. So this practice does not come naturally for me. But I guarantee you’ll learn a lot about yourself and your eating patterns, and your food will taste better. And if it doesn’t, then why are you eating it?
The food critic
When I first started writing in the food diary, I gave most of my food a five-rating. It was blah, not that good. I was busy and slapped together what I could or grabbed something from the fridge and didn’t take the time to warm it up or prepare it more in an attractive way. It’s only me, I think. And I’m starving!
Over time I started asking myself, what could I do to make my food tastier and more attractive, and what do I love to eat?
It wasn’t about what I think I should eat, others tell me to eat, or I’m scrimping on. After a while, you’ll be able to taste and feel the difference in real food you love rather than what you think you should have. I am. You don’t need to eat every meal in silence and mindfully, and it is hard to do this if you live with others. But you could try once a day to start. Maybe even the tea and cookie you have during a break.
Remember the principles of eating mindfully and slowly, be with the tea and cookie and not your thoughts, and please, no guilt allowed.
Food tastes better with others
My dad used to say that food tastes better with others. I agree. There is nothing like company to make a simple meal taste better. We make the extra effort when cooking food for others. I didn’t put in the extra effort when cooking food for myself. Instead, I prepared food quickly, as if in a race, missing the care I put into cooking for my clients and friends to make it delicious. I’m returning to eating what I love and enjoying it. And it’s often the simple things with good quality ingredients.
Heaven on earth
I love my friend’s rustic Italian salad of ripe seasonal tomatoes with buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil. For me, it is heaven on earth.
I asked her for the recipe to ensure I was getting it right. She said there is no recipe but gave me the ingredients; tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, red wine or balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive, and good sea salt. I didn’t want to skimp on anything as I usually do for myself. Less of this ingredient because it’s too fattening, reduced this because it has too many calories, or I’ll buy another ingredient because it’s cheaper, and so forth. I made it with the ingredients listed. And I made it in the way that I wanted.
In doing so, I demonstrated that I could care for myself as much as I care for others. Revolutionary? For me, it is. I often gave myself the day-old, the leftovers I’ve had two days in a row, and dishes without the embellishments, and I was okay with that. But I realized I wasn’t often happy with this food I fed myself. It didn’t bring me joy.
Food preparation, I’m discovering, doesn’t have to be complicated. I thought it had to be. Take a cheese sandwich. We can take it from ordinary to extraordinary. Using fresh bread and cheese that we love. Making it in the way that we love, whether grilled or fresh with tomatoes and cucumbers. And eating it mindfully takes our experience over the top.
I speak a lot about food and love. I realized that I wasn’t putting the special ingredient that I was using for others into my food. Love. It was often missing in buying food, cooking, and especially in eating what I had prepared. I am feeding myself love, perhaps for the first time. Enjoying what I eat minus the guilt, shame, and the shoulds. Try it. It may change your relationship with food and with yourself.