I have tried to adopt a policy that food is morally neutral. It is neither good nor bad

I have tried to adopt a policy that food is morally neutral. It is neither good nor bad

When I first started dating my boyfriend, I didn’t want a relationship. I was in the early stages of recovery, which was and continues to be the foremost priority in my life, and I was facing a hectic year, work wise, with two novels to be published and the debut of the stage adaptation of Asking For It.

He was funny and smart and handsome, but so were other men I’d dated, I reminded myself. I didn’t have time to commit to anything serious. But from the very beginning, there were tiny signs this might be different. A hand in the small of my back as we crossed the road, standing on the side of oncoming traffic as if to protect me.

A photo of a Hodges Figgis bag, all of my novels nestled inside. And the morning he first made me breakfast — scrambled eggs with crème fraiche and freshly chopped chives, his homemade guacamole, sautéed vine tomatoes, baked sourdough bread smothered with Glenilen butter. Yes, I thought as he told me that he loved to cook. I could get used to this.

When recovering from an eating disorder, you have to learn to differentiate between your physical hunger and your emotional hunger. I think this is something that most of us can identify with. Are you actually hungry or are you picking at those chocolates because you’re bored? Did your boss make you feel small at work and you don’t know how to articulate your frustration and shame, so you eat a packet of biscuits?

So many of us have been conditioned to associate food with our feelings — we have cake for celebration, we eat ice-cream when we’re sad because that’s what we saw in movies — and we have also been taught to divide food into two categories, good and bad.Grilled chicken is good, sweets are bad.

Spinach is good, chips are bad. This might be fine if we decided to eat the ‘bad’ things in moderation because we want to feel better within ourselves; have more energy and focus, to sleep better.

The problem is that we — and this particularly pertains to women — have decided that foods somehow have moral value. That by eating food we deem as ‘bad’, we become bad too. I have spoken to many women who are tormented by these thoughts, who feel an intense sense of guilt whenever they eat ‘forbidden’ foods, whatever enjoyment they might have experienced in the process destroyed by the self-loathing that follows. It’s no way to live.

I have tried to adopt a policy that food is morally neutral. It is neither good nor bad, it’s just food.

It’s simply fuel for my body to do the things that I want it to do. I practice intuitive eating, I eat when I’m hungry and I stop when I’m full, even if there is food left on my plate. (This is an Herculean task if you’ve been brought with the refrain of ‘think of the starving children in Africa’!)

But still, I cannot help but associate food with love. I remember days spent Over Home, and the smell of baking wafting from the kitchen as my grandmother would make soda bread and scones and queen cakes. Running out to her garden to collect apples so she could bake apple crumble.

I think of my mother, how she had a home cooked meal on the table every night. The new recipes she began trying out in the late 80s and early 90s, food she’d first tasted in Italy and Spain.

I never thought of her cooking as love, back then. I just thought it was something that mothers did, at least the mothers I knew. But what was her reason for cooking but for nourishing her family? To keep us healthy and happy?

To ensure we would sleep easily at night time and that we would have breakfast before we went to school in the mornings? Far too many children in the world still do not have such luxuries.

I gave an interview to the Sunday Independent years ago where they asked me what my signature dish was, and I replied, “Eating Out.”

How delightfully Carrie Bradshaw of me, I thought at the time, although that one-liner didn’t quite explain the reason for my lack of cooking. I wasn’t eating properly to try and keep my weight down, I hadn’t exercised in months, I wasn’t sleeping enough, I was drinking too many cocktails on too many nights.

Sometimes we talk about ‘self care’ as if it’s all about taking long bubble baths and getting massages (no shade, I love both activities) but in those days, I wasn’t taking care of myself on the most basic of levels. For me, recovery has been a gradual transition into a different way of life.

One where I go to the gym and I push myself as hard as I can, not to look a certain way, but because I want to challenge myself to feel stronger.

A life where I have started to cook for myself, making ragu and curries and pasta bakes with as much glee as I did in first year Home Economics. I take the time to prepare the ingredients,following the recipe carefully, and when I open the oven and inhale deeply, I realise that the food still smells of love. I am worthy of it, I tell myself. I deserve to be loved.

I have tried to adopt a policy that food is morally neutral. It is neither good nor bad, it’s just food.

TRY: Clever Batch by Susan Jane White. Within two weeks of buying this cookbook, I have already made five of the recipes. Everything was easy to make, even for an amateur like me, it all tasted delicious, and the ingredients were straightforward to source.

READ: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. Where do I start with this Booker Prize winning book? It features 12 interconnecting stories of black women living in the UK, dealing with race and feminism and life, and it is just spectacularly beautiful. A triumph of a novel.

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