Some of my deepest and most detailed memories of my mother and grandmothers are rooted in the smells that floated through the air from the kitchen. I come from a line of women who know how to cook; and well. In recent years, my innate ability to improvise in the kitchen has really flourished. But when I first started cooking for myself, it wasn’t this way. At 19 I lived in my first apartment, and I had my first opportunity to meal plan and prep for myself. But it wasn’t childhood favorites or family recipes that filled my kitchen. It was recipes from the Abs Diet, Women’s Health and Fitness magazines; promising me that I could “lose 10 lbs” if I ate exactly how they were telling me to. Megan met diet culture.
In the years that followed, my (dis)connection to food continued on this trajectory. Slowly, and seemingly innocently, removing certain foods that magazines and the internet told me to. As a college student and into my early twenties, the objective was simple: low fat, low carb, low cal, low cost. Some how, I thought that I could still get high flavor and high energy? Not so much — or at least not without A LOT of spice and strategic toppings.
Let’s fast forward to just a couple of years ago, when I’d had enough. Cooking was no longer fun. It was stressful and exhaustive. Tired of trying to make everything a bowl of superfoods, and tired of trying to make everything gluten-free, sugar-free, paleo, or vegan. In the chase for “eating real food,” what was I actually even eating?
Then I had an a-ha moment.
That eating could be simple and cooking could be joyful. Realizing that the quality and the source of the food is what really matters, not the calories. That there is nothing wrong with eating bread, delicious whole grains, lean pastured meats and luxurious fats like cheese and butter. I realized that there was middle ground to exist in, where you nourish yourself well without removing everything. Why did I ever think otherwise? (read: diet culture).
Things changed. I began cooking foods from my childhood, that both my mother and grandmothers would make, with organic grains and produce. Bathing in the memorable aroma that now filled my own home, I felt a unique sense of joy and pride. I started experimenting with traditional dishes from other cultures as they were meant to be made, and was slightly saddened to think of how many years I spent making “skinny” versions.
Do I still make gluten free baked goods? Or do we have vegan meals? Of course. Sometimes those kind of foods feel more enticing or nourish me in a way my body craves. But I don’t do it because I’m afraid of wheat, or animal products. It’s okay to eat or not eat something if your body responds a certain way. But I realized that I was avoiding certain foods not because of how it made me feel, but because how other said it made them feel.
As the joy of cooking returned, I promised myself this:
That I would always nourish myself and my family in a way that felt intuitive and authentic. That I’d continue to improvise and experiment with wholesome ingredients, focusing on the quality of the foods we eat instead of trying to eliminate foods. That I wouldn’t lose sight of why I love cooking, and what food means to me. Food is cultural and connective and cooking is a way I show love. I still consider myself a “healthy” eater, but I don’t live for my healthy choices. Nourishing my body with wholesome foods supports my body so that I CAN live.