How Enhancing Your Cooking Skills Can Improve Your Relationship With Food

In a world rife with diet culture and food system scrutiny, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to permanently alter our relationship with food. Since the world became significantly more uncertain and daily routines have crumbled for many of us, some new food-related questions have crept into our collective consciousness. Where does our food come from? How does it get to our grocery store? Do we really need to eat a certain way (re: dieting)? Are you more or less hungry than usual? Are you surprised at how much you were relying on takeout/on-the-go food options? Was dining out an important part of your life? Are you surprised at how much physical work it takes to create 3+ meals/snacks each day? Do you miss certain foods that you haven’t been able to access? When will we be able to go out for food with friends again? Go on a dinner date again?

“These may sound like bad things, but this shift in our control over food might offer a wonderful opportunity for many of us to reframe and reclaim our relationships with food.”

Worldwide, we are facing the stark realization that the way we consume food during “normal” times is an exceptional privilege, fuelled by farmers, supply chains, retailers, chefs, and food service workers. We’ve become accustomed to having a wide range of tasty, affordable, unique products available to us at all times, from pantry staples to gourmet culinary ingredients and allergen-friendly snacks. Further, millions of people follow rule-based eating styles (aka. diets) that often serve to control body size or provide certain health benefits. When the world falls into a global pandemic, rules become harder to follow and products/ingredients may become more difficult to source (beyond a brief yeast and flour shortage, this hasn’t happened in my area, but the scarcity mentality persists as a coping mechanism during uncertain times). These may sound like bad things, but this shift in our control over food might offer a wonderful opportunity for many of us to reframe and reclaim our relationships with food. Is all-purpose flour really the devil (yes, even bleached), or is it a long-lasting and delicious pantry staple that provides essential nutrients and produces gloriously comforting, affordable, pillowy loaves of bread?

Over the past 8 (!!!) weeks, I have cooked and baked at home significantly more than I would during non-pandemic life. I have ordered take-out twice (tomorrow will be three times, as part of my new every-second-friday tradition). Which means that I have cooked approximately 168 meals at home, including approximately 112+ snacks. I’ve also been baking 1-2 delicious treats a week (depending on the batch size) to satisfy my cravings for sweet, doughy things that I would usually purchase from my favourite coffee shops. I feel more aware of the amount of work, time, and effort that goes into shopping, preparing, cooking, serving, cleaning up after, and maintaining a regular eating schedule.

“We eat to sustain good health, but we also eat for pleasure, connection with others, to satisfy a nostalgic craving, for comfort when we feel anxious, to celebrate our successes, maintain our energy levels, and soothe our physical hunger.”

Beyond the reframing of food production, I believe we are being presented with an interesting opportunity to reconnect with the reasons that we eat. Of course, we eat to sustain good health, but we also eat for pleasure, connection with others, to satisfy a nostalgic craving, for comfort when we feel anxious, to celebrate our successes, maintain our energy levels, and soothe our physical hunger. For me, this increase in time spent at home and in close proximity to my fridge, has allowed me to really tune into when and what I want to eat. The food is always there, so long as I can keep my fridge stocked, which I acknowledge is an exceptional privilege. During “normal” times, if I was unable to pack food for my busy day, I would find myself scrambling for food between meetings in my over-scheduled calendar. Now, the sense of time-bound urgency is gone. Without the “Quick! Find something to eat so I’m not hungry in class!” panic, I can tune into my hunger cues and cravings without pressure. This personal experience will likely be very different for everyone, but I do imagine that many of us are experiencing a reframing of our relationship with food. Please be compassionate with yourself, your schedule, and your cravings during COVID-19 (and all the time).

“…even complete non-bakers are leaning into the art and practice of cooking from home, feeding their families, and enjoying their homemade meals with pride.”

I am immersed in the world of Food and Nutrition. As I study to become a Registered Dietitian, I find myself reading, watching, and consuming (pun intended) nutrition articles, recipes, food videos, documentaries, and podcasts (check out Dietitians Discovered) nearly constantly. This means my social media feeds are biased towards food and nutrition posts and that I am usually seeking out food-related information. However, it is clear that even beyond my social media bubble the #sourdough trend is real! My anecdotal research shows me that even complete non-bakers are leaning into the art and practice of cooking from home, feeding their families, and enjoying their homemade meals with pride.

If cooking is so great, why don’t people typically do it as often as they are now? Numerous reasons, including lack of time, energy, money, cooking skills, food literacy, desire, etc. However, for those of us that are finding ourselves with more time and energy on our hands (and I realize that not everyone is experiencing this), there has never been a better time to improve your cooking skills. If you find yourself working with a tighter grocery budget, cooking more can actually save you money, especially if you are making your own bread or swapping takeout food for home cooked.

Let’s talk about all the ways that enhancing your cooking skills can help improve your relationship with food. Whether you are caught up in the diet culture narrative, disconnected from the realities of food acquisition and preparation, or simply looking to form lasting, warm memories using food as a vehicle, there are plenty of ways cooking can enhance your connection with food.

Cooking can increase your understanding of different ingredients and their purpose. There is a lot of fear around some ingredients that can be found in processed or packaged foods, but often these mysterious ingredients are just the scientific name for an essential recipe component. For example, people might be wary of Xanthan gum until they realize that it is actually an individual ingredient that they can purchase, provides a wonderful thickening texture, completely safe in small quantities (which is all you ever need), and is entirely sourced from plants. Revelations like this will continue to happen as you cook more often and learn about the importance of different ingredients.

Cooking can increase your knowledge of the time, effort, and work required to make previously under-appreciated dishes. The old adage “it’s the best thing since sliced bread” means almost nothing to generations of people for whom having bread in the house is a given. Bread is mass produced, affordable, and a staple in nearly every home across Canada. It’s tough to appreciate a loaf of bread until you’ve had the intimate experience of nurturing a dough, allowing it to rise, kneading it with your own hands, and watching it turn into a golden-brown loaf.  Even more satisfying is tearing through the crispy crust to release a cloud of steam and tearing off a piece of fluffy bread to slather with butter. Do you feel connected to your bread? Do you take your morning toast for granted? Baking your own loaf or trying to recreate another one of your favourite foods will help you appreciate the fruits of your labour more than ever.

Cooking can be a wonderful way to bond with other members of your household. The art of cooking is in our foundation as humans. No matter where you are on the spectrum of cooking, from total newbie to seasoned home chef, cooking can help strengthen your connection to food and your relationships with those you share food with. In my inner circle, we enjoy summer BBQs, potlucks, Easter, Thanksgiving, birthdays, Christmas, weddings, and New Year’s Day. For each of these occasions, I can conjure mental images of the taste/smell of the food, the noises from the busy kitchens, the laughter and chatter of my loved ones. This positive memory association of the sounds, smell, texture, appearance, and taste of food is one that can be recreated at home during this time of social distancing. Research suggests scent is the strongest sense tied to memory, and given that flavour is intrinsically linked to smell (taste + smell = flavour), it makes sense that experiences in the kitchen can create lasting, positive memories.

“Nothing will ever taste worse than the hot pickle yogurt pasta.”

Cooking can be a meditative experience. Everything from chopping, slicing, whisking, sautéing, glazing, marinating, or kneading presents the opportunity to calm the mind and focus on the sounds, smells, flavours, colours, and textures of our food. When we pay attention to the delicious details of the culinary task at hand, you may notice increased clarity in the kitchen. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play music or listen to your favourite podcast while you cook, but let it serve as a gentle reminder to notice the beauty of cooking during the process.

Cooking is an important life skill. Learning to cook can increase your self-esteem, sense of self-efficacy, creativity, cultural awareness, multi-tasking skills, help you form bonds with others, and of course, provide you with essential nourishment. Studies have shown that cooking might even help you improve your math skills!

Cooking helps you connect to rich local and international cultural traditions. Different cultures have unique holidays, traditions, ingredients, and cooking methods that are fascinating to learn about. While I love exploring new cuisines through ordering food from authentic restaurants, I have also used this quarantine to help expand my recipe repertoire by learning how to make restaurant-worthy ramen and curry dishes. Note: While cooking is wonderful, there has never been a better time to support your local restaurants. If you are able, use this time to order takeout from restaurants of different cultures, find new favourite dishes, and support small business.

Cooking results in food, which is (usually) delicious. This is the best part, and it doesn’t really require further explanation.

I’m going to wrap up this post with a personal story that always makes me smile. My partner “cooks” in the sense that he can make a phenomenal breakfast but doesn’t like to follow recipes so that he can “be creative”. Unfortunately for him, following recipes is how most people learn to cook, and the creativity follows once skills have developed. This no-recipe cooking is probably what led him to create the most repulsive pasta dish I have ever tasted: white macaroni and cheese feat. tuna, yogurt, and pickles. The logic was sound: he had seen me make tuna salad with Greek yogurt before and thought it would be a decent sub for the milk and butter that his boxed mac and cheese called for (spoiler alert: it’s not). Further, pickles can provide a nice tangy crunch in a tuna salad, so why not in a warm pasta dish? He really did put a lot of effort into the dish, so it was especially heartbreaking for him when he sat down to enjoy his creation and found himself trying not to gag. I’ll leave it up to you to imagine what this monstrosity of a dish tasted like (spoiler alert: it was unpalatable), but I will let you know that this dish has created a lifelong memory that we will probably be laughing at for years to come. Nothing will ever taste worse than the hot pickle yogurt pasta.

Why do you cook? What’s your favourite cooking/eating memory? What’s your favourite dish to make? Let me know in the comments!

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