Photo credit: Sara McDonough

Every time I eat a cashew, I’m brought back to my grandmother’s living room. She always kept a constant supply in a wooden bowl on her coffee table. It’s such a gift that the mere taste and smell of food can conjure up warm memories. Yet these memories are not the only things conjured for those of us with fraught relationships with food.

I’m in recovery from an eating disorder and beginning the recovery process was easily the most difficult and daunting struggle in my life. My eating disorder drained my energy. It consumed my mind. It robbed me of a healthy relationship with food. That is, until I received the support I needed. Recovery has allowed me to rebuild that relationship. This has taken years, but I am in a much better place today. Aside from therapy, what really helped me cultivate a more positive relationship with food was cooking.

Learning to cook has been an empowering challenge. I’m not claiming to be Guy Fieri, but I’ve gotten better around the kitchen, mainly over the past seven months. The pandemic has resembled an intensive cooking class. Thankfully, I started using a meal kit service. Now I recommend it so often that my loved ones probably think I’m involved in a pyramid scheme.

Cooking has become an unlikely anchor during an uncertain time. With many of my life and career goals on hold, I’ve had more time than usual to spend in the kitchen. Taking on the weekly recipes of my meal kit service has been like my own personal Julie & Julia. Cooking has become much more than learning a new recipe: it’s been a bridge to practicing mindfulness. 

Cooking has become much more than learning a new recipe: it’s been a bridge to practicing mindfulness.

Meditation always seemed so unapproachable to me, but a form of that practice sort of fell into my lap through the mindfulness in cooking. Making a new recipe requires focus. I am forced to be present in the moment and let outside stressors go. That’s not to say the cooking itself isn’t stressful: I’ve fanned smoke away from my fair share of detectors. Yet I’ve enjoyed chopping zucchini more than I ever thought I would. However tense the preparation is, it always leads to a moment of gratitude.

Sitting down to eat is the calm after the storm. Some tension remains before the first bite, before I know the results of my efforts. That tension melts away when I taste the food and discover it actually turned out well. This is always a powerful and emotional moment for me. The joy of eating something delicious. The relief that the effort was worth it. The pride of accomplishing a goal. Although I no longer say the grace which I was raised with, I suppose this is my way of saying grace: taking time to appreciate each step that turned ingredients into a meal. To be thankful that I’m developing a connection to food that fills me with many positive feelings.

During the most difficult period of my eating disorder, I could not have imagined I would have this sort of routine experience with cooking. That the tornado of negative thoughts would be replaced with a calm and comforting mindfulness. That the bounds of what I was “allowed” to eat would have disintegrated and opened a path of continual exploration and experimentation. Recovery is possible and so is a joyful and healthy relationship with food. 

I recently cooked a recipe which I tried for the first time in January. My first attempt was a stressful, intense nightmare that thankfully resulted in a delicious dinner. When I decided to try it again, I steeled myself for another anxiety-filled hour. To my pleasant surprise, it was a calm, enjoyable experience. Seven months of incremental improvement turned intimidation into comfort. The taste and smell of this recipe will now conjure a warm memory of both the first and second time I made it. It’s a reminder of where I have been and where I can go. 

For anyone seeking guidance on eating disorders and recovery, the National Eating Disorders Association’s website is a good place to start.

Sara McDonough is a Fordham alumnus, writer, and improv comedy performer.