I remember going to my Italian grandmother’s house and eating mounds of pasta while watching bad hair metal on MTV (this was the ‘80s!). I was barely five but I can still taste the ice cream she served while “Cherry Pie” by Warrant was blaring in the background.
Grandma gave me all the food I wanted and let me watch whatever I wanted—unlike my own parents, who did neither. Eating at Grandma’s made me feel better about things, including my family life, which was hard because my parents fought and we all weren’t very close.
It was my grandmother who trained my mother to be a good cook. And the only time my father and I would spend time together was at dinner over those delicious meals. Food became the only way for all of us to be close. I wished we all talked more—but instead we just ate. It made it seem like everything was ok.
In grade school, I didn’t feel like I fit in with the other kids, so I would eat to calm my nerves. At that point, my emotional eating didn’t look like a problem because I had the metabolism of a hummingbird.
By the time I got older and went to college—turning to food for comfort during all the years in between—I gained weight and kept turning to unhealthy food. I might have never dealt with my emotional eating problems and depression if it wasn’t for Wendy’s.
I ate Wendy’s a lot, though I barely ever stepped foot into the place. I was in a serious relationship with a girl who worked the Wendy’s drive-thru, and every night she would bring home a ton of leftovers. Maybe it was hitting my twenties or eating chicken nuggets every single day, but my skinny frame began to expand—and it was not muscle.
By the time I got older and went to college—turning to food for comfort during all the years in between—I gained weight and kept turning to unhealthy food.
This weight gain didn’t change my eating habits. I did try to exercise more (and it worked to some degree) but each year it got harder. I kept eating and gaining more weight. Even when I randomly tried to diet and eat ‘healthy,’ I’d buy Lean Cuisines and end up feeling unsatisfied—so then I’d end up eating three in a row.
I refused to learn to cook because I was so used to others cooking for me or giving me food. And when I was out of TV dinners and stressed out about work, school, or a relationship, I’d end up just giving in and getting fast food.
I hit rock bottom in my late-20s, when I found that I was 60 pounds overweight. I just stared at the numbers on the scale and wanted to cry. I could feel the little kid in me frightened that he’d have to give up eating whatever he wanted. My adult self was experiencing a harsh reality: I needed to change how I approached food. It needed food to become actual nourishment.
When I made the decision to really eat healthfully (I chose whole foods and more veggies over processed stuff) and deal with the emotions behind my eating, I realized that I was going to have to learn to cook—for myself. It occurred to me that I had never even bothered to learn to cook! Others cooking for me was their way of showing they loved and cared about me, so I needed to show love to myself by cooking healthy food for myself.
Cookbooks and YouTube videos became my best friends and my confidants. I dusted off (yes, they were literally dusty) my measuring cups and created a cooking area. It was difficult at first, and my fiancé politely lied to me about the first couple of meals being good.
But I got the hang of it, and I actually started to love the process. Cooking was like learning a new language: It was math, science, and art all rolled into one. It empowered me to know that I was responsible for what I ate, and I started to see food as fuel and art instead of an ephemeral escape.
Others cooking for me was their way of showing they loved and cared about me, so I needed to show love to myself by cooking healthy food for myself.
After cooking every day, my kitchen skills have really improved, and my fiancé’s appreciation of home-cooked meals has as well. She had done all the cooking up to this point, but now I’ve claimed the kitchen, as well, and it’s really become a creative space for me. It’s brought us closer and made dinner more intimate. I take my time to savor the meal as we talk and enjoy the food that I cook.
And becoming passionate about cooking started a domino effect of healthy habits. When I’m feeling high or low, or if I need to get centered, I spend some time in my garden and then I cook a healthy meal.
I don’t eat my feelings now; I cook them. The cravings have gone away and I am halfway towards reaching my weight-loss goals. It has increased my self-esteem and I am much more willing to try things that once seemed impossible. (Example: As someone who works in publishing, I finally attempted to learn Photoshop and print interior design—if I could cook, I could design covers and books!)
The biggest change and benefit of cooking my own food has not been the weight loss, though. It has been an inner bonding between my adult self and my inner child. Cooking has become a way for me to be a responsible adult, while tending to the little kid in me that learned to eat away his feelings and anxiety. I understand now that I am responsible for my own health—and the kid in me gets to enjoy the food I make with love.
That feeling I looked forward to experiencing when I visited my grandma is now something I get to experience on a daily basis.
Being healthier has helped my nerves and my depressive symptoms. It has enabled me to see the world as a kid again, when there were always new discoveries. My grandma has been gone for a while, but I know she’d be proud that I’m learning to cook healthy food that tastes just as good as her own.