There was a time in my life when I enjoyed cooking. Not just the physical act of preparing food, but the planning, list-making, and grocery shopping. I relished the opportunity to shower my family with edible love and affection. Plus, I never met a spreadsheet I didn’t like, so I spent hours (or so it seemed) drafting elaborate bills-of-fare, striving to accommodate all of my family’s and guest’s dietary needs, no matter how extreme or bizarre. I recall, about 25 years ago, when we hosted a young couple for Shabbos who were exploring macrobiotics, which was trending at the time. I joyously accepted the challenge, and prepared a truly amazing feast, using “new” ingredients and creating recipes that my guests had never considered. The experience energized me and infused my life with a sense of meaning and purpose that continued for many months.
But then life threw me some curve balls, and over time—gradually, at first—I lost interest in all things culinary. Perusing cookbooks and online cooking guides, I reduced every recipe I saw to a sigh and a flippant, “Oh, just another form of chicken and rice,” or “Just another sandwich.” Every meal I prepared felt more like, “Another day, another pot to clean.” Even eating became a bore, and I contented myself with whatever someone else prepared, or settled for a bland, microwaved entree, all the while joking about “nuclear cooking for the nuclear family”.
It seems as though I had forgotten the notion that cooking can be as much a reflection of self-love and self-care as going to the gym, keeping those pesky, annual medical check-ups, or getting a good night’s sleep. Although I had previously strived to prepare wholesome meals for Shabbos, holidays and weekdays—dishes that were heavy on the veggies, fruits, nuts and legumes, and light on the “others”—somehow, along the way, I forgot that feeding souls is as important as feeding bodies . . . that beyond making brachos over our foods and releasing sparks of holiness into the ether, there is the very notion that we should eat to live—not the other way around—and more importantly, that we should eat well to live well.
It’s vital to remember that there is an “I” in cooking, and that regardless of whether the meal will be enjoyed by a cast of thousands or eaten in solitude, we should continue to make the effort to prepare wholesome, filling, and even healing foods at every opportunity.
Self-care is the deliberate, intentional act of addressing one’s mental, emotional and physical health—ultimately leading to improved mood, reduced anxiety, and overall enhanced spirit. This can be accomplished through many channels: getting pampered at a day-spa, listening to soothing music, exercising or meditating, or participating in any number of activities that refuel, restore, and recharge us.
The practice of cooking for self-care can be a fulfilling experience with some planning and a positive attitude. For me, it begins with a clean kitchen—this is non-negotiable. A thoughtfully planned menu is next; each food must be beneficial to my total health, not just something that I crave. Finally, I know that I am only willing to invest a certain amount of time in accomplishing my goal, so I keep that in mind as I perform mise en place and line up all the necessary ingredients before beginning my project. Then I can enjoy the undertaking and enjoy the fruits—and vegetables—of my labor.
For some, cooking for self-care can be a journey to finding your bliss. Tikva Seinfeld has discovered just that, as she has learned how to prepare fermented foods from scratch like kombucha, sauerkraut and sourdough bread. While many would not consider soured foods as “treats”, Tikva feels “the process, as well as the outcome” is therapeutic, netting results that are both delicious and healthy. She has occasionally offered classes to share what she has learned about preparing sour foods at home, thus bringing the notion of “cooking for self-care” into the community.
Rivka, a Baltimore massage therapist, views “self-care” as a two-pronged concept that not only means preparing healthy foods, but also eliminating those that are harmful, and playing up the use of therapeutic herbs and spices. “After meals, I feel satisfied more than full, and so much healthier. Once your body is clear of things it can’t really digest, you can identify what ingredients trigger different reactions,” and then fine-tune your recipes and food choices.
As natural caregivers and nurturers, many women find that preparing foods for others can be a positive extension of self-care, transmitting the message, “You matter!” through healthy food choices and carefully crafted menus. Many women admit that they pay more attention to the quality of meals they prepare for others. For example, Marti, the Everyday Jewish Mom, often sends nutritious dinner to friends and neighbors after a baby is born. “When I’m making meals for a new mom, I always like to include a container of cut up veggies and washed fruit. Not only is it good one-handed snacking for mom, but maybe the little ones will grab some too.” Michelle, a wife, mother, and teacher from North Miami Beach, said that she expresses care and love for others through food. “Whether it is a simcha or a tragedy, the first thing I think of is, ‘Do they need food?’ I try to send comfort food—something I know they like. There’s no calorie counting when it comes to chessed meals.”
A thousand miles north, voice coach, Shari Rosen Trofimov, echoes Michelle’s thoughts, almost word-for-word: “When I prepare a meal for a sick person, a mourner or a new mommy, I always think of making some sort of ‘comfort food’. The food should evoke feelings of warmth and home, and should make the receiver feel as if they’re getting a big hug, long-distance.”
Shari’s thoughts on “self-care in cooking” sounds zen-like. “It’s often the preparation of the food itself—and the ability to choose what I will prepare, from foods I have around the house. The rhythm of chopping an onion, the sizzle of oil or adding boiling water to a hot pot . . . the sounds (and smells, of course!) of cooking are soothing in and of themselves.”
Alice Gross notes that she tends to address the needs of the guests at her table, and her adult children, too, before filling her own plate. “I enjoy pleasing others,” she says. “Besides, it’s important that my guests are satisfied, because then I am, too.”
The mission of caring for one’s self through cooking, however, is easier said than done, especially for a modern working mother and wife. Rochie, a high school math teacher who lives in Passaic with her husband and large family, expressed this sentiment—one that many working women can relate to. She reflects that cooking for self-care is “almost impossible, because I’m trying to figure out how to make sure everyone else has balanced meals that they like. I make sure they have what they need to pack lunches they like, (but) I walk out of the house with barely a crumb for snacks or lunch. I definitely don’t rank too high on my (own) food chain.”
The struggle to obtain balance in addressing self-care is real, but the rewards are numerous. It’s so true that “you can’t pour from an empty vessel”, so taking the time to evaluate your personal approach to self-care—through cooking or other channels—ultimately rewards those closest to us. Perhaps with this mindset, I will learn to love cooking once more.