I am all about the shortcut when it comes to cooking, but a year ago, those shortcuts began to disappear as I was diagnosed with severe, life-threatening food allergies. I had to give up take-out Chinese food, frozen pizzas, and McDonald's, among other staples of the post-college foray into independent eating. I'm now allergic to tree nuts and hot peppers (jalapeno, chili, and red peppers, to name a few). These are in just about everything, as I discovered when I set out to feed myself without inducing a trip to the hospital.
I didn't know at first how many prepared foods had hidden pepper products in their "spices" or "natural flavors." I quickly learned that there were many foods and food manufacturers that I could not trust. The only person I could really trust to make my food, at first, was me. In order to eat a meal without inducing a sense of panic about the hidden ingredients or cross-contamination, I had to cook that meal myself. Empowering, right? Eventually, yes. But at first, this was more than a bit of a problem as I previously had not attempted (nor had any previous interesting in learning) how to cook.
It was time for me to step into the kitchen, overcome the "gross" factor that comes with raw meat (ok, I haven't totally gotten over that yet), and learn how to chop veggies without also chopping fingers. I was surprised at what happened when I started cooking from scratch, and what I've gained over the past year of cooking. As I began learning to feed myself safely, I also gained a skill set I did not even know existed. Cooking may be something I do for myself, but it's not really just a solo activity to feed nutrients to your body. It became empowering, therapeutic, social, romantic, and practical. Here's what I found, and what may happen to you when you start cooking from scratch:
1. You learn how to grocery shop.
Oh, sure, you knew how to walk in the store and pick up a frozen pizza or some sushi. But did you know where they keep the kale? How about the vanilla extract? When you cook from scratch, navigating the grocery store becomes an essential start to the cooking process. It also can be a source of inspiration (for me, this "inspiration" seems to hit most frequently in the cheese aisle...).
2. You learn how to read ingredients labels.
As with grocery shopping, ingredients labels may become more important to your shopping desires. Whether you are health-conscious, environmentally-conscious (such as vegetarian or vegan), or health-restricted (as in food allergies, diabetes and Celiac disease), you may find yourself beginning to care what goes into the food items you are bringing home.
3. You gain the superpower of making time go slower.
When I cook, especially if it's a new dish, I have to focus all of my attention on it. Counting out scoops of flour, following recipe steps, deciding where to wander away from the path of established cooking instructions... it takes over, and I find that time seems to slow down in the kitchen. (One exception: when you are expecting guests. Then kitchen time goes twice as fast).
4. You begin to taste food differently.
When I've made a dish for myself, I find myself picking out the different flavors with my tongue, critiquing and praising various aspects of the meal. There's also a hidden secret flavor when I cook for myself: pride.
5. You learn how to be a gracious host.
It is hard to host. You are taking on responsibility for feeding other people, and it's supposed to look good too! The hardest part is not when you flub a meal, though. That is disappointing, but not heart-breaking. The hardest part of hosting is when you really nail it, and it's incredibly delicious, and you are gracious enough to send the last of the leftovers home with your guests. They say when you love something you have to let it go...
6. You start to see your body in a different way.
When I started cooking, I also started to see the connection between my food and how I felt much more clearly. I make a bowl of quinoa with veggies and feta? I feel great! I make a bowl of pasta or fry up some frozen pierogies? I feel like a sack of potatoes sinking into my couch.
7. You enjoy your meal-time company.
It is a privilege to share a meal with someone after you've cooked it from scratch. It's a privilege for them to eat your meal, sure, but it's also a joy to share the food you made with someone you love (or even just like a little).
8. You appreciate compliments.
When that person says they like something you just cooked -- WOW! I think to myself, not only is this edible, but someone else thinks it actually tastes good!
9. You understand why your mom got mad at you when you were a kid and didn't want to try a new dish she made because it looked "yucky."
When I first started appreciating compliments for my food, I also loaded up a child-size backpack full of guilt. How many times as a kid did I refuse to try something, or take one bite and declare the whole thing "yucky," after my mom had put her heart into the meal? Youch, that stings now. Sorry, Mom.
10. You realize that when you are cooking, you get to put exactly what you want in your food.
So, I'm severely allergic to hot peppers -- obviously those are out of my ingredient line-up. But I also don't love mushrooms, and I do really love garlic. Guess what? My kitchen, my ingredients. I can choose whatever I want to go in my food and if you don't like it -- well it's my food, not yours, so you can just go to Subway for your lunch. I'm having garlicky leftover stir fry. (And yes, I do bring minty gum to work).
11. You connect with others who cook.
There are a LOT of people who really love to cook. And a lot more people who have to cook to feed themselves or their families. And even more people who eat. Who knew there was so much to talk about when it comes to appliances, ingredients and recipes! If you are stuck at a party where you know no one and have no small chat left in you, turn to food. Even if your new acquaintance doesn't cook, I'm willing to bet he or she eats.
12. You find excitement in staying in as much as in eating out (and therefore save some money, too!).
Date night coming up and you're broke? Try making homemade pizza with your significant other. When I cook with my boyfriend, I find it is an adventure. You share the mess, you share the stress, you share the pride in the meal you create -- whether or not it tastes good!
13. You gain the confidence that you can adequately feed yourself.
Someone asked me the other day if I cook all my meals for myself. I started to say no and then realized that yes, pretty much all my meals I cook for myself. (Yes, that includes boxed pasta nights. I'm not perfect either). It is a huge confidence booster to know that you can survive without fast food, pizza chains or the prepared food section at the grocery store.
14. You may start eating healthier... or discover your true vices.
Cooking from scratch means buying more basic ingredients. It means probably using more fruits and vegetables, and less pre-made sauces loaded with sugar and salt. Overall, yes, this is definitely healthier than the 99 cent frozen pizzas that got me through graduate school. That being said, I now know that I have a slightly unhealthy love affair with cheese and truly believe that it enhances every meal I cook. Cheese should not always be the answer...
15. You create a balance in your life.
I have to cook for myself because of food allergies, and you may cook for yourself for health-related or choice-related circumstances. Regardless of the reason, taking time to prepare your own food and fuel means carving out some balance in your life. I've become more aware of my food, my body and my time. The kitchen for me has morphed into a safe place of both chaos and respite, a place to recharge both physically and mentally.
Johanna Bond is a mental health counselor with a limited permit in New York, and a writer. She hosts a blog at www.startingfromscratch.me and is currently writing her first book about rising to the challenge of a severe food allergy diagnosis.