Food and Family: How Cooking Together can Build Tighter Familial Bonds

It’s no secret, food brings people together. Culturally it creates bonds and even some good natured disagreements. I’ve been cooking for most of my professional career. But it wasn’t until recently that I really started cooking for myself. If you’ve read my post on self-care Sundays, you’ll know that food was an area that I neglected for a long time. What I hadn’t realized though, was that this was also true for my entire family.

This seems crazy to me now, knowing that most all my caregivers were involved in the food service industry to some degree. One was working in it and one had gone to cooking school!

But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. If you have an insecurity around food it stands to reason that you would find a way to be immersed in it. After all, eating is one of the things we need to do to survive. If we experience abuse or neglect around this basic need, things can get really out of hand.

As I’ve said above, I know this to be true from my experience. Cooking for me as a career choice was a way to be surrounded by a source of nutrition so I didn’t have to worry about feeding myself. But this was no way to live.

I was just trying to survive at the time. I was barely able to take care of myself, and all I had down at that point in life were the very basics, just enough to get by. And I found that a lot of people are drawn to the food industry in some variation of this same reason.

When you work in the industry, the bonds you make can be pretty tight. There was definitely a sense of family when I showed up to work, or family as I had known it. With the hustle and pressure that came with the dinner time rush, to the beers we drank together while cleaning up, it definitely felt like gathering for a holiday or some special event like a graduation.

And while I have fond memories of working in the food industry, the ways I was living were not sustainable. And I imagine it was this way for my caregivers as well. I was certainly emulating their behaviors in the ways I was living. And it isn’t a great stretch of the imagination to think that they were experiencing what I was at some level. Another way to put it, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Even more to the point, when I did gather with my caretakers, there was such a sense of urgency paired with lots of drinking. The same atmosphere that was present in most kitchen jobs I worked in. We were creating the same type of perpetual party that was the culture in the restaurant scene. And if it wasn’t sustainable in the restaurant, it definitely was less so at home.

I remember many mornings where my caretakers would be cleaning up after the night of rancorous drinking. Where there were as many cans as there were loud opinions being tossed around, figuratively. This was a strange place to grow up in as a child, and one I wouldn’t wish for anyone to experience. I’m not trying to imply that my caregivers are bad people. They didn’t know any differently and more to the point it’s how they grew up. But it was a scary place to be as a vulnerable child to be sure.

More recently, I’ve been cooking for myself as a way to care for my nutritional needs. Something I was never taught. Now I am coming to enjoy the process of bring my meals together. I usually batch cook recipes for the week. I’ll pick two to three recipes to cook, pick a day to go grocery shopping and cook my meals for the next two weeks all in one night.

I usually light a basil scented candle and put some of the more ambient lighting on in my kitchen. I clean out my fridge and gather my ingredients, ready my recipes on my computer, put some soft music on in the background and go through my recipes one at a time. Making sure that I take as much time as I need so as not to feel rushed or pressured in anyway. If it’s in the winter, I choose recipes that utilize the oven to generate more heat in the kitchen, to create a more cozy, comfortable setting. I also like drinking a few cups of herbal tea while cooking in the colder months. And in the summer, more salads and dishes with raw veggies. As well as some lemonade or iced herbal teas as a refreshing change for the warmer season.

The ease that I’ve brought to this aspect of how I take care of myself has become a great resource for me. I feel safe, calm and at ease in the kitchen. Instead of insecure, a bit of fear and the uncertainty I used to feel. What I realize now, was I was carving a space out for myself to feel safe, in control. I was so used to having almost every aspect of my life being so out of control that I literally didn’t feel safe anywhere. Once I established a foothold for safety in the kitchen, I padded my kitchen and cooking time with loads of resources in order to bring that sense of calm, ease and comfort I was working so hard to cultivate there. So after I made my kitchen and meal prep routine a resource, I thought to myself, “how can I share this with others?”

I’ve been having dinner with my parents more often lately. It’s been good, but I’ve always kind of had the feeling that something was missing from the experience. We typically would gather around the T.V. after serving ourselves from the kitchen. We’d talk a little, but the T.V. had always been the focal point while we idoly chatted about random events. Nothing too personal or in-depth. Just glancing the surface of what was happening around us and speaking in broad generalizations.

We never shared cooking duties. One person usually picked the recipes and the other would cook while we waited for the meal to be ready. It was very mechanical and without much feeling. We were eating to survive and not enjoying the process of coming together to share a meal. Then one day while I was making dinner, or cleaning up, I had the idea to make dinner feel more like a family event as opposed to just shoveling food in our mouths while watching the television.

So it was a natural transition that I thought to take the way that I’ve turned my meal prep into a self-care routine, and bringing those same principles to our family dinners. I thought that this way, we can practice taking care of ourselves and one another together, while also bringing an element of peacefulness to something that, for me, used to be a hectic and sometimes scary place to be.

Also, we’ve never cooked a meal together before. This was also something that kind of blew my mind. So as well as practicing self-care, we’ll be growing tighter bonds with one another and the food we’re creating. I suggested that we take turns picking the recipes. Each week someone can choose, and we’d all come together in a thoughtful way to create something we’ll all enjoy. The idea landed and we planned to come together the next Friday night to cook a meal I chose.

The recipe was chana masala. A simple dish I enjoy that I had just found a new recipe for. I was definitely nervous about the night leading up to dinner. I was really taking a risk by opening myself up and sharing something that has become such a resource for me. I felt vulnerable, uncertain, scared and a little on edge.

The reason I felt so unsure was that most of my childhood memories around meal times were filled with lots of angry yelling and shattered dinner wear. I knew that things were different now. We had all mellowed our tempers since those early meals together, but there was still a place inside of me that felt as though it could happen again. That I wasn’t safe.

As the time came nearer to begin cooking, we all gathered in the kitchen and readied ourselves for the event. I made myself a cup of tea and went around gathering the ingredients we would need for the dish. My father gathered some utensils and started in on prepping the veggies and my mother began gathering and measuring out the spices and herbs we needed. We all took to our tasks quickly and rigidly with pensive attention.

The atmosphere was tense. As though we’d all been here before, but hadn’t been there for so long that we forgot what to do. It should have been instinctual, but instead we were left with awkward half spoken sentences. Reading and rereading the same directions over and over again. Missing steps, forgetting ingredients, I was using a mortar and pestle to grind chiles, garlic, cilantro and ginger into a paste that took what felt like forever and the closest I came was a wet chunky mess. The lighting was bright and harsh, and the music I tried to play kept turning itself off. It was the opposite of the resource my meal prep had come to mean for to me.

But when I finished washing our dishes and went to the stove to see how the chana was coming along and how the ingredients we had prepped separately had come together, it looked good. It smelled aromatic and was thick and stew like. It was better than I had imagined. And as the meal prep went on, our conversation felt more natural as well.

We found out about how each other’s day’s had gone. My mother just got new glasses and we were discussing the differences she noticed from her old ones as compared to her new ones. My father told me stories about his past, something I know very little about. As I was cleaning the cutting board I asked where my father got it. He couldn’t remember and my mother didn’t know either, but I enjoyed cleaning that board as I always do knowing that’s it’s just always been there.

As we finished cooking our meal, I put the naan I had picked up for the meal in the toaster and my father had gotten some bowls from the cupboard, I felt more at ease. I wasn’t totally comfortable, but it was the start of feeling safe again. As though maybe it was okay to start to trust those I choose to keep company with. This was something I had been notoriously bad at when I was younger.

The friends I had kept in my youth were mean, spiteful and said hurtful things often and without reserve. It truly felt like a sport we were playing. Who could demean the other to the point where someone would break. And of course we all pretended not to be hurt, but we couldn’t feel anything to begin with because we were already so numb. The damage had already been done, the games we were playing were just practice from lessons we learned long ago.

This is what makes building new bonds so scary. Knowing How I used to be in relationship with others, and that I chose to be in those relationships was nothing but self destructive. And what’s more, I’m trying to rebuild some of my relationships with people I originally learned those old lessons from?! It felt a lot like juggling knives. So knowing that I can trust myself enough to create healthy bonds, or at least know what unhealthy relationships and boundaries look like was something I wasn’t wholly sure I was able to do.

But then I realized that I had already done this in some ways. I remember getting together with an old friend somewhere close to both of us. This was a step towards seeing if we were able to stay in touch, keep connected. When we sat down and started talking about old times, some of those same spiteful remarks were popping up in our conversation. It was as though they were poking around the edges, to see how close they could get to my core. To see if they could still walk right in, past security and do whatever they felt without meeting resistance.

Luckily I had established some healthy boundaries for myself. I was not my same old self, the one who would leave themself wide open to be abused in the ways I had been used to, all to feel a sense of belonging. I recognized what was happening and since have kept to my boundaries. And I feel much better for it though it wasn’t easy. I still miss the bonds I made but now recognize just how unhealthy they were.

And with the new bonds I’m creating, there is definitely a sense of mutual respect. We care for one another in that we respect one another’s space and boundaries in ways I wasn’t ever shown before. And that was one of the aspects of making dinner with my father and mother that was so reassuring. That we were all nervous about how we were affecting one another showed me that they were thinking of my wellbeing. And that makes me feel a little more secure in building new bonds with them.

This all seems pretty basic, but if all you know growing up are people without boundaries and saying and doing the most hurtful things to one another, it’s nice to know that you can change the ways you used to be. That there is hope for the future and future relationships. That was something that was definitely missing from my early interactions in all my relationships.

Now that we’ve cooked together once, we plan on making it an on going, weekly event. We ended the night by sharing how we felt and our hopes for the future. It felt more natural than it ever had and I think we all left that night feeling a little more hopeful for our future together.

And it’s something that has made me stronger in my other relationships as well. I went into the next day feeling a little more self confident in communicating to and interacting with other people, knowing that I had people I could rely on. That I had carved out another little space of safety in a world that sometimes feels as uncertain as it did in my youth. A place to go back to when I needed some support and feeling loved.

And all it took was for someone to come up with the idea and bring it into fruition. I am now looking forward to helping them this summer in the vegetable garden, knowing that the meals we’ll be making will be even sweeter using the fresh produce we’ll be harvesting from the yard. I’m also looking forward to helping them with projects around the house.

Helping them build a back porch or patio, a place to gather and enjoy the garden and grilling weather in the summer. A place to eat meals and gather outside. Carving out another place where we can all feel a little safer coming together. With a little luck and some work, maybe we can make the house feel more like our home.

So if you have some family you’re trying to reach out to but aren’t sure how, maybe cooking a meal together would be a good place to start. And if cooking isn’t your thing, find something you are all interested in, start there. Wherever it is, be the one to make the first step. I’ve found that people are almost always going to say yes when you ask them if they want to have a good time.

Usually it just takes someone to make the first step, make the plan. Be that person. You’ll be happy you did. But if it’s something that is still tender, or emotionally raw, go slow. It doesn’t help to rush yourself to try and feel comfortable because you feel you “should” be. Have a plan where you can take care of yourself if the need arises.

I am lucky in that the people I chose to rebuild my relationships with were not only willing to try, but also capable of doing the important work of self-introspection. Being aware of how they feel and how they affecting those around them. This is no easy task for people whom are used to isolating as a form of self protection. And not everybody is able to take to it so willingly.

Don’t be afraid to end your plans if you feel as though your boundaries are being violated. Above I mentioned that I had got together with an old friend who had not changed from our shared unhealthy past. I had ended our meeting early that day, telling them I felt uncomfortable with the way things were going. And now I keep very limited contact with them for this reason.

I was honest with myself, and with them about how I felt my boundaries were being abused, and took care of myself by removing myself from the situation. Also limiting future contact with them, until I am certain I can trust them enough not to violate my boundaries. This is how I’m actively taking care of myself, and building trust in myself in the process.

And it’s not easy. But if you don’t define your boundaries, others are more than willing to define them for you. From work, to romantic relationships, family and friends, if you don’t have a clear idea of how you want to be treated in your relationships, you leave yourself open to having your trust abused as well as many other important aspects of your connections. And it isn’t always the other person’s fault either.

Friends and family aren’t mind readers. What may be a sign of intimacy to one person may be an insult to another. This is why speaking your feelings is so important. When establishing boundaries, especially if you’ve had unhealthy ones before, you need to establish what is and is not okay to do in clear terms. This can be awkward, but however awkward it may feel in the moment, it’s worth it to know that you’ve established your expectations clearly on how you will be treated.

It’s empowering knowing you’re taking care of yourself in this way. And also a good indicator of the other person being trustworthy of being emotional support to you. By actively, not passively setting boundaries, you are building the trust and bonds that will last. If this is something you’ve had difficulty with historically, then it’s a good way to slowly rebuild healthy relationships knowing you have your best interests at heart.

Establishing boundaries, especially with those whom you may have already fallen into unhealthy ways of relating to one another can be tricky. And like anything else, it isn’t easy! This is an area where you will need to bring, and if necessary, cultivate a lot of patients with yourself and others. And it’s important to go slow. There’s no point in rushing into something if you or the other person aren’t ready for the changes. So go slow and keep an open mind, and know that you are good deep down, and worthy of trust. Peace 🙂 be well and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Lindell family cooking” by One Tonne Life is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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