Food & Family: How Cooking Together Can Build Tighter Familial Bonds

It’s no secret, food and cooking 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 very long time. But what I hadn’t realized was, that this was also true for my entire family.

Neglecting Our Nutritional Needs

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 a basic need. If we experience abuse or neglect around food, things can get strange.

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

Cooking for Survival

I was just surviving 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.

Taking the Party With Us

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

I remember many mornings where my caretakers would be cleaning up after a night of rancorous drinking. Where there were as many cans as there were loud opinions being tossed around. 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.

Cooking as Caring

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

I’ll light a 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 to play in the background and go through my recipes, cooking 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. In order to create a more cozy and 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 seasons.

Turning Cooking into a Resource

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 is, 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. I did this in order to bring that sense of calm, ease and comfort I was working so hard to cultivate. So after I made my kitchen and meal prep routine a resource, I thought to myself, “how can I share this with others?”

Family Dinner Fridays

I’ve been having dinner with my parents more often lately. It’s been good, but I 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 idly chat 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 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 event to be a part of.

Making Tighter Bonds Together

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’re growing tighter bonds with one another through 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 the night leading up to dinner and 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.

Feeling Uncertain About Opening Up

The reason I felt so unsure was that my strongest childhood memories around meal time were filled with anger and shattering dinner wear. I knew that things were different now. Our tempers had all mellowed since those early meals together for one. 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 communicated in 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.

A Turn for the Better

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, things looked good. It smelled aromatic, was thick and stew like. It was better than I had imagined it would be. 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. So we were discussing the differences she noticed from her old ones as compared with her new ones. My father told me stories about his past. Something I know very little about. Ans 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 it’s always been there. Waiting to help with our meals.

As we finished cooking our meal, I put the naan I had picked up for the night in the toaster while my father had gotten some bowls from the cupboard. I felt more at ease now. 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 hadn’t felt in a very long time.

Learning healthy Ways of Being in Relationship

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 after abuse. 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 I’m trying to rebuild some of my relationships with people I originally learned those 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 an unhealthy relationship and boundaries look like, was something I wasn’t wholly sure I was able to do.

Learning to Keep Healthy Boundaries

But then I realized that I had already done this to some degree. 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 my 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 no longer my same old self. The one who would leave himself 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 have kept to my boundaries and ended the meeting early. And I feel much better for it though it wasn’t easy. I still miss the bonds I bad, but now recognize just how unhealthy they were.

New Relationships, Healthy Boundaries

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 shown how to do before. And that was one of the aspects of making dinner with my father and mother that was so reassuring. We were all nervous about how we were affecting one another, showed me that they were thinking of my emotional 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 people can change the ways they used to be. Including myself. That there is hope for our future and our future relationships.

Cooking for Good Change

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. Dinner felt more natural than it ever had and I think we all left that night feeling a little more hopeful about our futures 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 makes a difference. 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 feelings of love.

Be the Change

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 harvest 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 the grill 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.

Be the One to Connect

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 and start there. Whatever 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 and be the vulnerable one. 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”. 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. They are aware of how they feel and how they effect those around them. This is no easy task for people who are used to isolating as a form of self protection. And not everybody is able to take to it so willingly.

Keep Yourself & Your Boundaries Priority

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 ways of connecting. 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 while building trust in myself.

And it’s no 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. And it isn’t always the other person’s fault either.

Learning to Speak Your Piece

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 to your feelings is so important. When establishing boundaries, especially if you’ve had unhealthy ones before, you need to speak what is and is not okay to do in clear terms. This can be awkward. Though however awkward it may feel in the moment, it’s worth it. To know that you’re establishing your expectations clearly on how you will and will not be treated.

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

Establishing boundaries, especially with those whom you may have already fallen into unhealthy ways of relating to one another with, can be tricky. And like anything else, it isn’t easy! This is an area where you will need to bring and cultivate patients, with yourself and others. And 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, keep an open mind and know that you are a good person 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

Updated: 8/27/22

Author: nolabelsliving

Social worker by day, blogger by night. I have a lot of lived experience which is why I started my blog. I was not given any direction when I started out on my journey, but have been blessed with some amazing support and guidance along the way. Just want to give back a little of what I've received : )

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