You wouldn’t think that cooking was a challenging topic, especially at this time of year! *sardonic laughter*
As you read this, you might be recovering from holiday cooking. If this is a huge pleasure for you, (and someone else did the clearing up), I’m glad. But I know this is not the case for everyone.
Actually, the more I’ve reflected on our personal relationship to food and cooking, the more I feel an edge of shame and stigma – and a sense of authoritarianism – around the subject. I have known people who would be horrified by the idea of eating, and offering, anything but fresh ingredients cooked from scratch. If you are one of them, you may find something to think about here.
There’s a gigantic post to be written about food, who has enough of it, who doesn’t, food quality, economic power, the carbon cost of moving it around, labour (everything from who harvests and processes food to who prepares it and who consumes it), and what is called privilege but is also known as relative (or actual) structural advantage. This is not that post.
Here I’m looking at the personal experience of getting and preparing food, and why many more people than you think find it a giant chore and actively stressful on an ongoing basis.
Anything on this list may be further impacted by holiday periods (like right now), when eating/hospitality rituals are at their most significant.
This list is not exhaustive or exclusive
This post was greatly helped by a long discussion thread which ran to over 100 posts and was clearly bringing a lot up for people.
Please note: None of these headings are exclusive – what I have written in some of them of course can apply to others. It’s a rough and ready roundup and for sure I will have missed something.
Not everyone loves to cook
There, I said it.
Not everyone is able to cook
… for themselves or others, for all sorts of reasons.
(TL;DR: Shame features a lot here.)
(1) General food shaming and snobbery
The media is full of images of perfect looking food and recipes. Not all are super posh and expensive and presented by thin white people, and many writers go out of their way to present cheap and easy recipes. But it can seem like we’re never doing enough to make this somewhat mythical-looking proper healthy food. Many of us are too busy or too tired, whether from work or from life, or too skint to think about it.
If this topic is making you uncomfortable – (think of all those politicians saying that they could make Christmas dinner out of three chickpeas and an apple, and why didn’t all these feckless people on low incomes just learn to cook properly?) – it’s worth wondering why. Many people regularly order takeaway or eat microwave or freezer meals or eat food from tins, for many of the reasons you will read in the list below. Yes, you can critique the nutrition in some of it, and the relative expense of takeaways, for sure.
But this is far from being a lazy option, because remember the systemically abusive productivity ethic that sits behind the word lazy.
(2) You never learned to cook and you’re ashamed about it
There are many possible reasons you never learned to cook much. Only a tiny proportion of people never learned because their family was well off enough to employ a full time chef. It’s more likely that your caregiver/s weren’t into it or had no time for it. Perhaps they were out working and/or socialising all the time and you had to make do with what was in the cupboard. Or there was no money for fresh foods that needed to be prepared. If your family was hungry and skint it is unlikely that they were making elaborate things that take ages. Quick, tasty and filling are the most important factors, via takeaway or microwave.
If your childhood was like this you may have mixed feelings about it. If there was trauma attached to it (see below), the kitchen may just seem like a no-go area.
(3) Preparing and sharing food was a fundamental expectation from your earliest days
You may have grown up in a family/culture where cooking for others was an axiomatic part of existence. It is what you did, and to not do this would have been a source of great shame. Being a poor host would be unthinkable. If you were assigned female at birth (see below), you may have been drafted in to help your mother and other relatives prepare large meals. You learned a lot and quickly because there was no choice. Of course that didn’t mean you automatically enjoyed it, and if this is the case, your lack of enthusiasm may cause you to feel as if you are betraying your roots and culture. You may then force yourself to perform ‘Good host and amazing cook’ when you are not feeling it.
Your childhood may have left you with great cooking skills, and the capacity to please others with them – but if food was used as a substitute for love in your family, and not acknowledged as such, control and emotional blackmail may have been in the frame.
(4) Lack of money
It is getting harder and harder to survive in this country if you are on a low income or benefits. We have been at ‘heating or eating’ for a long time now. And heating bills are going up and up. Making sure you have enough for both you and your children or dependants is becoming a normal aspect of daily life for an increasing number of people. Having to be creative, not about flavours or colours or sheer fun, but about whatever you can find that will keep you going for a few hours, is not a joyous experience. If you are struggling to feed yourself or others, you are eventually liable to be traumatised (see below), also from chronic shame, which no one should ever underestimate. You may enjoy dumpster diving, but equally you may not be able to do it or have the energy or time for it.
You might be visiting food banks, unless shame has prevented you and you are waiting for true rock bottom before you go there. Often we think we are waiting for rock bottom when in fact we are already there.
(5) Gender essentialism
If you were assigned female at birth it is more likely, the world over, that you will be expected to cook for others as a matter of course. And to put others’ needs before yours. I don’t need to put an essay here about the implications of this for human relations everywhere, and the assumptions that ride on it. You may have grown up in a family where everyone sat around doing their thing while your mother cooked meals for everyone. Snacks and cups of tea may have mystically appeared by your side at random times and this was Just The Order of Things. If this was modelled to you when you were young, whatever gender you are, if may be harder to shake off than you think. ‘Bad homemaker!’ ‘Bad woman!’ ‘Bad human!’
Tradition can create self-induced pressures: ‘My mother always did it this way!’ You may find yourself experiencing resentment, whether you act on it or not.
(6) Cooking for family
I’ve heard plenty of folks say they loved cooking until they had to cook for their children, however much they love them, and as the years passed their love for preparing food eventually just evaporated. Bring on the freezer meals! Sometimes the mainstream media gets on a high horse about this, even today.
If being a really good cook was part of your identity before having family, you may need some time to adjust.
(7) Eating disorders
You may have had, or currently have, an eating disorder. So preparing food is going to affect you in a number of possible ways. You may have been keeping this a secret from most or all of the people you know. You can just about deal with putting something together for yourself (if you live alone), but when others are around it’s a whole different matter. Even thinking about food may bring a lot of difficult feelings that you would rather keep away from others.
(8) Allergies and intolerances
There is increasing awareness of food allergies and intolerances, which themselves may be increasing. They may cause minor/temporary but life impacting discomfort; cause illness and periods of incapacity; or be actively life threatening. There are many risks in not preparing your own food. If you can get hold of foods that are safe you should be okay to cook. But you will likely need to cook from scratch if you have, for example, a nut allergy or if you are coeliac. (See also having the spare time and money to obtain these foods). If you have Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, you may become increasingly vigilant about new reactions to foods.
Other autoimmune conditions may make cooking complex, so someone might use meal replacement shakes so they know exactly what they are consuming.
(9) Weight shaming
If you live in a larger body, you may have experienced fat shaming from childhood, (and certainly as a adult), as everyone around you pathologised you. Every bite you eat may bring feelings of trauma and stigma. Plus, experiencing other peoples’ judgemental hypervigilance in the guise of caring, as well as medical gaslighting, will also cause harm.
Also, if you wish to lose weight whatever your size, cooking for others may become incredibly stressful. You may feel shame at what your body looks like and what you perceive it to look like; shame at having succumbed to diet culture or having dieted unsuccessfully; and feeling as if you have let everyone down by wanting to lose weight, particularly if you have friends in larger bodies than you. It’s a minefield of shame, whose layers are numerous. None of this will make cooking enjoyable.
(10) Disabilities, physical and mental
Cooking from scratch may be physically tiring for you, or impossible to carry out without help. You may have ME/CFS or Long Covid and have experienced gaslighting around those conditions, and therefore not tell anyone about them. Preparing food may exhaust you for many reasons, but you may not have your access needs fully met. Medication, including pain meds, may also make cooking into a challenging and even unsafe task.
Pre-chopped and peeled foods are a godsend to many. There is a lot of ableism around critiques of these accessible forms of food, and this includes ready made meals.
Depression and anxiety can make cooking much harder too. Take care when suggesting that someone ‘Just batch cook!’ – it may not go down well.
(11) Childhood or past trauma
As you can see above, childhood trauma around food may leave its mark on you – screaming fights in the kitchen, or meals thrown across the room, particularly at Christmas and other holiday times, perhaps fuelled by alcohol or drugs. Caregiver/s may have forgotten to feed you, or have simply ignored you, and you had to find what you could find in the cupboard. Kitchens themselves, and the sounds they make, may become a trigger. As holiday times are seen as ‘family time’, therefore group eating time, if you have experienced abuse in your family you may experience difficult feelings.
(12) Current trauma
If you are recovering from more recent traumatic experiences or grief, you may be in a dissociated state and find it very hard to coordinate in the kitchen. Food may taste different, or have no taste, and everything may feel pointless. You may have lost your appetite, or may be eating whatever comfort foods are easiest to find. These may not be the healthiest but will need minimum preparation. You may be forgetting to eat at all.
And decision making can be a huge struggle for some people at the best of times, even over the simplest things.
(13) Executive dysfunction
This may be defined as struggling with time management and planning; following detailed instructions; adapting to new input; trying not to lose things, and general difficulty with self organisation. It can impact someone due to ADHD, trauma, or brain injury, etc. This may affect someone’s capacity to list and choose food, follow instructions and focus on what needs to be done in what order. For many people this may be a lifelong struggle. Cooking here needs to be the most efficient journey from A-Z with the minimum in between.
(14) Neurodivergence in general
I am using a broad definition here, encompassing both differences you are born with and acquired ones.
If you are, for example, autistic you may (and everyone is different) have a range of foods that you simply cannot eat. You may have safe foods that may seem repetitive or bland to others, but you know you need to have a supply of them. Eating outside those foods may cause distress. You may experience sensory processing issues when shopping for food because supermarkets can be exhausting. (24 hour ones may be a blessing here, with peaceful 4am expeditions possible.) The lights, the noises, the random people, are all stressors.
Tastes and smells when cooking may make it enormously challenging. Plus there is the mess of cleaning up afterwards, the issue of food waste, and stress over who does the labour if there is more than one of you.
There is also the performance aspect of cooking for others that may cause huge anxiety. Being looked at while making something and possibly having your labour judged and commented on, may feel like just too much. Similarly experiencing the pressure to be creative, the pressure to make something pretty, or the dread of cooking on a group rota in a shared home.
You may become hyperfocused and forget to eat for hours and hours at a time. If you have issues with interoception, you may not know when you are hungry, or mistake it for another sensation in the body. (Or you may take all sensations to be hunger and eat more than you need.)
Sometimes, if the resources are there, people get meals delivered because it is absolutely an access issue. Having entire grocery shopping delivered however may not work if the company won’t deliver inside your home.
(15) You just hate cooking!
If none of the above apply to you, you are totally allowed to hate cooking for no reason other than you would rather do just about anything else!
As you will hear in neurodivergent and other circles: fed is better than not fed.
If there is someone in your life who might benefit from reading this list, please forward it to them.
I wish you the best possible festive break, if you are having one.