the unfeesability of... eating
unlearning the discomfort of food
we weren’t a typical family. we rarely breakfasted, lunched, or dinnered together even before my parents separated. mum really wasn’t into cooking, or eating, or cleaning… or mothering for that matter. aside from the odd Sunday roast with my Grandad, we would eat late or skip meals entirely, mum finding it too much to have to cope with fulltime working and being a single parent. along with doing my own laundry and clearing up the messes of whatever four-legged creature mum had rescued that week, one of my regular jobs from the age of eight was to extricate the putrid, rotting vegetables from those more recently stacked on top. untangling excitable, dripping roots from the gridded metal shelving was… unpleasant. given we didn’t know anything about neurodivergence back then, i didn’t know how atypical that was until staying with my first proper friend when i hit my early teens. her mum ran a restaurant with the precision of a surgeon and the caretaking of… well, a mother.
i became vegetarian at the age of nine, unable to balance the ethics of joyful lambs gambolling in fields around me with the chunk of bleeding meat on my plate. my mum complained it only meant more work for her, and that i “didn’t even like vegetables”. in reality, it meant eversoslightly more regular eating habits for me - i liked vegetables, and nut-burger sandwiches, just fine. for the rare visits to my gran’s, it meant simultaneously being berated about creating more work while navigating the finely chopped bacon she had hidden within said ‘specially made meals’. knowing one’s own mind was not allowed, it seemed.
school meals had always been a discomfort, whether dining rooms or packed lunches. in most schools i was bullied so intensively for daring to exist that i avoided social environments at every opportunity, making myself invisible where hiding was impossible. having never understood why regular and healthy eating mattered anyway, and neurologically blocked from hunger signals, skipping the social threat of school lunches seemed a smart move. i also started smoking and drinking booze at thirteen, which dampened any appetite my physiology seemed oblivious to anyway.
burgeoning with the new confidence of a new school where the bullies were mostly teachers preying on young boys (only occasionally admonishing the far-fewer girls for daring to be female-shaped), i threw my first dinner party at sixteen. under the careful guidance of my restaurant-trained friend i made vegetarian gougères with ratatouille (i never was any good at keeping things simple). that meal was the most anxiety-driven self-selected experience i’d had to date, having cautiously invited six people and holding back panicked tears as twenty showed up for free scran. it would be decades before i risked anything so silly again (there’s a story behind that dinner party fail, too).
by the time i escaped to uni, i’d been assigned a room in halls which came with a pre-paid credit system for the dining hall… where the consistent offering for vegetarians was celery soup, and chips. without the money to buy my own meals, the facilities with which to cook them, and no natural appetite for anything other than cider… i just didn’t bother. driving back to Wales for xmas, through a little coastal village that was known for its fish, a deep craving for scampi overwhelmed me. i snuck into a chipshop, bought my illicit supply, and vowed to never tell a soul i’d broken my commitment to nature. that didn’t last long once i recognised i was only lying to myself. my old friend (and her mum!) were so delighted, she took me out to dinner where i was served chicken and a mouthful of rare steak… just to see. there ended my decade of vegetarianism. but not my unhealthy eating.
fortunately for my stomach, i lived with people who loved cooking for the next few years. i would do the dishes, clean the kitchen, and take on other practical household roles to balance the labour, while my old mate did what she found meditative anyway. when i moved in with my ex-partner a few years later, he joyfully practiced skills learned from daytime tv cooking shows - i would come home from work to restaurant-grade dishes from around the world, bless him. and i always brought the wine when invited to other people’s dinners. lots of it. just to show my gratitude… and not deplete their stocks.
the first time i seriously tried to get help for my alcohol ‘dependency’ (i hadn’t admitted the depths of my addictions at that point), a psychiatrist mooted that perhaps my preference for self-starving and over-drinking were a combined form of self-harm. the question “why don’t you eat breakfast?” gained the reply “i feel sick in the mornings, usually hungover, sluggish, and invariably running late for work”. “why don’t you eat during the day?” - “i’m too busy to eat at work, it gets in the way, slows me down”. “and why not at night?” - “i’m usually rushing straight off to a private view…” where the free booze far outweighs the bowls of soggy crisps. yeah, he had a point.
don’t get me wrong, i don’t dislike food… exactly. i’ve had the extreme privilege - and deeply enjoyed - some of the best restaurants. thanks to a couple of mum’s work trips to Italy when i was a young teen (and we were included in her baggage allocations), i’ve eaten freshly caught scampi that was bigger than my plate and not covered in breadcrumbs (it’s apparently rude to be a veggie in Italy), and learned how to appreciate the sliminess of funghi porcini before it slides down the back of the throat. i’ve also been to a couple of places which come highly recommended in the Michelin Guide. i once spent the outrageously decadent equivalent of a month’s rent on a 12-course degustation menu (with matching wines, obviously), which quite honestly made me cry with its intense sensory explosion. i had a job which paid real money, back then. sigh.
it’s not the food itself (most of the time), it’s the entire overwhelming burden of having to eat every single day simply to stay alive, when living hasn’t exactly been my greatest goal. the pressure to think about what i probably won’t want to eat when it comes to it; the stress of shopping for the right ingredients amongst throngs of people; the anxiety of pouring over recipe books and stoves for hours despite their promise of ‘prep time: 10mins’. and by the time it’s ready… i’m so sick of the whole pallava the last thing i want to do is put the damn stuff in my face. far easier to grab the wine instead.
last year, having chosen to quit booze and finally deal with my boundless internalised bullshit, facing up to my eating disorder demons became an obvious next step. my old friend and her astonishing capacity to provide consistent love and support has again been fundamental here. knowing that i respond well to external evidence and internal validation, she suggested we do a nutrition course together. maybe if i understood how it all worked, and found a handful of basic healthy fallback options, i could create a system which caused minimal pain while providing maximum wellness. and she also nudged me to get a microwave - something i had previously only ever used to reheat endless cups of earl grey tea - and bought me a traybake cookbook and a couple of trays (yes, she genuinely is an absolute legend of a human). it took a few goes, more than a few tantrums and timeouts, and by the end of the year i was… still totally shit at it. only now i was shit and even more angry with myself for wasting her time. hello guilt, my old friend.
this year i’ve been trying again, and it turns out all that ‘useless’ effort had grown its own mycelium networks. thanks to learning about my Autism i now know that ‘Interoception’ (the mind noticing signals from the body) can be missing or blocked for us, so we just don’t notice hunger. my ADHD Coach has taught me we tend to need high-protein diets… and i now know what that means and what ingredients contain more of it (even if only a little bit). thanks to my old friend and her repeated mantra “break it down. keep it small”, i’ve learned that if something is already pre-made in the fridge or freezer i am far more likely to actually force myself down the last mile, and eat it. not ready meals, they taste of plastic and cost too much to only then be thrown away. i can cook, and quite well when i can be bothered with it all. it’s the persistent effort, social pressures, and the matrix of barriers that get in the way.
a couple weeks ago i revisited all this with a renewed vigour. i had found yet another recipe/nutrition app (one which doesn’t cost a fortune to leave ignored every month); planned my batch-cooking mission down to the rice kernel; ordered a whole heap of small tupperware pots to store it all in… and then my fridgefreezer broke. it cost me £60 from an opshop almost 3yrs ago, so it’s done me well. i just really could have done without yet another bloody barrier right when things were going so well; throwing away defrosted supplies en-mass was quite the opposite to my new vigour’s ambitions. again the friend stepped up, advising on what i might want to upgrade to now i have money from my 3.5yr PIP battle (yay!), gently holding space for my doom and encouraging me that - once again - all was not lost. five days of far-too-much-overthinking later, and a brand new fridgefreezer with a whopping 120L of freezer space arrived in my kitchen. perhaps the universe knew my old one wasn’t up for the job. perhaps this was (another) brutal test of my commitment to self. or perhaps things just die and need replacing sometimes.
a few days after that (because everything takes s.o. l.o.n.g. now), i had re-planned my batch cooking; drafted a terminally lengthy shopping list; made sure my headphones were fully charged to limit some of the external stress of dealing with a supermarket at the end of lockdown; and even borrowed her car so i didn’t have to lug everything home by hand as usual. (yes, i could have ordered groceries online, but that would take another five days… which was likely to make me give up, again).
yesterday, to a backdrop of Brene Brown’s podcasts, i made two sets of high-protein meals; measured them all out into their respective pots; put them straight into the freezer (after cooling… i’m not a monster); and then made a massive batch of savoury flapjacks as well (even managing to freeze more than half of those, too).
…wait, what? you’ve never had savoury flapjacks before? well… you are WELCOME! to be honest, this entire post is just my TL;DR way of ensuring you all know about this genius: HERE! it’s basically oats with cheese - lots and lots and lots of cheese - and a bunch of grated any-vegetable-you-like mixed in for (the pretence of) health. my sister introduced me to them a few years ago, and if i have ever brought food to an anything, it’ll have been these babes (they blow people’s minds, every damn time). yesterday i used carrot, sweet potato and added grated beetroot - which made them a glorious colour and taste even bloody better.
equally exhausted and wired, i did the washing up and wondered what next. oh yeah: eating. didn’t do great on that last night, tho surely all the tasting balanced things out?? today i’ve had some of one for breakfast, and some of another for lunch, so i’m already two-up on an average day. if i can manage to keep that up, i’ll have far less reasons not to eat, healthily, over my week. of course the more that continues, the more i’ll start worrying about my weight for the opposite reason - i’m a skinny lil thing right now, which makes me ‘look great’ in contemporary ideals (and would probably make my mother proud - i was put on my first diet at eight, to remove my ‘shameful’ puppy fat). regular eating will start adding weight and retriggering the bodyshame side of my eating issues. tho maybe that’s for another post.
til then, enjoy your flapjacks x