The Life-Changing Work of Making Dinner

Every year at this time, my friend Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy holds a link-up on the topic “What is saving your life right now?” This is it for me.

I started out this month, like many other goal-making-types, cruising Pinterest for new, healthier recipes. (This year is going to be different! I’m going to develop great eating habits! More fish! Fewer processed foods! Kale! Green smoothies!)

I’ll admit that even after all of these years of struggling with depression (10 now, since I found the name for it), I still try to find shortcuts. In the first days January, when everything feels possible, I thought maybe if I started eating more leafy greens and salmon, I could somehow nip the thing in the bud.

I probably don’t have to tell you how well that worked.

For me, depression lives in this foggy, cerebral space in my body, dulling everything. I feel it in a heavy but unspecific way. When it’s bad, the best way I can describe it is that it feels big right now – a shadow expanded, a damp blanket spread.

And it’s been big this January, crowding out creativity and hope, making it tough to write and to work, to move forward with my big New Year’s plans. It has felt like a slog to finish anything, every typed word heavy and hard.

I’ve been taking a lot of naps; the other day I finally went to the doctor and upped my Zoloft.

Still, every afternoon when the sun starts to cast its thin winter shadows on the snow and my kids come tromping in from the bus, I have found comfort in that movement toward the kitchen. In the daily work of fixing dinner.

I did not grow up cooking. As a kid, dinner was something to be endured to get to dessert, and when I did spend time in the kitchen, it was to bake pans and pans of chocolate chip cookies. As a result, I can make a mean pan of muffins, but I’m a disaster at chopping herbs. I accidentally left the bag gizzards in the turkey at Christmas. Until very recently, I didn’t know the difference scallions and scallops.

But lately, I find myself looking at blogs and websites and real, actual cookbooks. Folding down pages. Planning dinner.

Lately, I have found buying fresh herbs and grass-fed chicken. Red tomatoes and stalks of asparagus and dense bags of wild rice.

Depression takes me out of my body. It’s like being underwater at the lake – everything muffled and sandy. But there is nothing muffled about the sharp scent of green onions when you slice them, of the crackling onion and celery in butter on the stove.

This month, I have made salmon cakes with creamy red pepper sauce. Italian lentil soup with crusty bread. Honey-garlic glazed chicken and seared scallops in white wine butter (that’s the one from the ocean, I finally figured out) and fish tacos with a creamy avocado-cilantro sauce.

I have been avoiding words like “one-pot” and “quick and easy!” and going for recipes that look beautiful and colorful and that make me want to crawl out of my dark hole and take a bite.

I am spending a lot of time in the kitchen, unproductive time, dirtying every single dish, using every cutting board I have.

Even when we went on vacation to Palm Springs, I felt relief to have a kitchen in our rental. It felt like a certain kind of grace to go to Ralph’s market and pick up firm, fingerling potatoes and organic chicken legs and wine. To buy a fresh loaf of garlic bread and olive oil and tomatoes and to stand in that unfamiliar kitchen, doing the familiar work of making bruschetta.

For one whole week while Andrew was gone on business, I ate caprese salad every night. I chopped fresh basil and tomatoes and good mozzarella cheese and made my own balsamic vinaigrette, which I poured liberally over the whole thing.

And I am being saved by this right now: the honesty of good ingredients, simple straightforwardness of a recipe. The way it tells you, step-by-step, what to do. The way it guides your technique.

In a month that has been so full of political uncertainty and fear and depression, these recipes, these ingredients, these moments over the stovetop have been precious. I do not know what to do about the state of the world. I don’t know what to do about my floundering writing projects or my kid’s school anxiety or the restlessness I feel.

But right now, there is something very specific to do: Mince the garlic. Dice the onion. Brown the butter. I’ve noticed this month that the more I cook, the less I need to look at the oven timer to know when to turn the chicken or add the garlic to the skillet. I am beginning to understand it instinctively.

At night we sit down to dinner (“Ew!” one of the boys inevitably says. “What’s that?”) We eat our food and talk. “What were your best three things today?” we always ask each other. And lately, my top one has been making dinner.

I know that they don’t understand this. They don’t understand that I have already feasted on the smell of fresh-cut cilantro, on the softness of a peeled avocado in my palm, on the white cod flaking gently on the stovetop. It has already filled me up.


* Full disclosure: These photos were not taken in my kitchen. They are from my favorite free photo site, Pixaby. When I cook it does not look like this. It looks like a complete and utter train wreck. Someday I’ll give you the actual tour of my meal-making: nothing Pinnable about it!


66 thoughts on “The Life-Changing Work of Making Dinner

  1. Cooking is my zen place too, the one time in the day I can put aside all the craziness of the world, pour a glass of wine, put on music or an old tv show and just bliss out. Some days, feeding ourselves and those we love, and being grateful for the process, is the most important job we can do. Btw, winter is officially half over, as of today!

    1. “Some days, feeding ourselves and those we love, and being grateful for the process, is the most important job we can do.” I love this Judy. Yes. And also — hooray for halfway done!!

  2. Ha, I love your note at the end! I was about to really impressed that a somewhat beginner cook had that wok set up! Cooking is usually magic for me too, especially with a half glass of white wine at my elbow if I’ve already nursed the baby. My husband prefers a drink after dinner, I prefer mine while cooking.

  3. I love this – cooking for me feels like a way to gently hold are care for the ones near to me – Just this past week i have tried homemade dounuts and onion rings (not together) for the first time ever.

  4. Yes, all of these things.
    However, I find the magic broken and myself being pulled back into reality as my kids run in and out of the kitchen arguing or peering over the stovetop and commenting on how much they’re going to hate what I’m cooking for dinner. (unless it’s spaghetti or pizza or the like).
    By the time we sit down and the kids have made their “yuck” faces and pushed their plates away, all sense of peace is replaced with gremlins of mom guilt over my failure to nourish my children.
    But for the first 20, 30, 40 minutes when I’m first pulling out ingredients, chopping vegetables, and sauteing, it does feel so good.

    1. My kids are so picky and weird about food that I just decided that I’m not going to care. I make something nice for my husband and I and always have bread, lunchmeat, fruit and raw veggies out too. We try to bribe them to try the new things, but if they don’t, whatever.

    2. I agree. My kids’ response to the food I make does effect me. I’ve started telling them that they can only say nice things, “how can I help?”, or nothing. If they forget and complain or nag me….I allow them to set the table. Peace is returning 🙂

  5. When I am depressed, I often make mistakes on more complex meals, so I fall back to the one pot fast meals. However, I am glad I have to cook meals because it forces me to do something when I am depressed, which is a bit uplifting. This was the same way when I had babies… it gave me something “adult” to do.

  6. Addie, This brought me to tears. Because I have been coping with depression through baking but I couldn’t have put it in those words. Beautiful! And thank you.

  7. Your words are lovely, and caprese is lovely, and when you say cilantro, you’re just speaking my language. (Winter) too shall pass, but I hope your love of kitchen things stays on! PS – come cook with me some day, eh?

  8. This is beautiful, Addie. It reminds me of when I first moved to Colorado and did a lot of cooking. I’ve done a bit of a 180 in the last two years, however, and my body and soul are both the poorer for it. I need reminders like these to live fully present in my body, and to truly feed my body and soul.

    1. I totally get it. Different seasons of life make for less cooking. Grace for all of them.

  9. This is so beautiful. I rarely comment on anything, but reading this was like taking a deep breath. The Holy Spirit met me very personally one time in a place of great need by complimenting my cooking. And I hope these moments you’ve shared are like that for you. I am cheering you on in your daily victories.

  10. You will not be surprised to hear that I love this. I’m relating a lot, too. It’s been my hope to learn to cook (more) for a while, but this year is forcing my hand. I’m loving being present with it.

  11. Love this. Cooking dinner saves my life some days, too. I’ve been cooking less lately, but the other night I peeled and chopped a million carrots for soup and it was so cathartic.

  12. I’m just discovering your blog–thanks for your honesty! I look forward to reading the archives. Here’s to hope in the new year.

  13. I’m so excited you are finding some joy in cooking. I create meal plans for women dealing with depression so if you ever need some tips on what you want to add to your cooking routine, let me know.

  14. I have felt this way too lately. I should plan less complicated meals becduse I should be writing more not washing so many dishes… but the simple act of feeding my people feeds my soul and breaks our grocery budget and heals our hurts. And one of these days I’ll write unlimited because dinner for six will not be necessary and in those days I will miss the act of making dinner.

    1. “feeds my soul and breaks our grocery budget and heals our hurts” YES. All of these. Thanks Lindsey.

  15. I’m working through my depression with organizing and cleaning. Mess stresses me out, which is probably why cooking has the exact opposite effect on me, and kinda becomes part of that ocean swell of “things I’m failing at” (UGH). I hope I get to a spot where cooking is as enjoyable for me as it is for you! It sounds wonderful the way you describe it. One day at a time…

    1. I totally get that. Cleaning and organizing have been helpful for me in the dark times in the past. I think it’s a season-by-season thing. Grace in the organizing!

  16. Wow your article is so beautiful. The way you describe your feelings when you’re depressed and the way cooking makes you feel better. It’s just amazing.

    You found a small sip of happiness in a simple thing. That’s great.

    I hope you find more of that.

    (sorry if I make english mistakes. It’s not my native language).

  17. Your writing is wonderful and interesting. I am glad you find such life in cooking. I can relate to the cathartic experience, cooking also brings me joy.

  18. YES. There is a quote from Julie and Julia, one of my favorite movies (I’m terrible and have yet to read the book), that says, “You know what I love about cooking? I love that after a day when nothing is sure and when I say nothing, I mean *nothing* – you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. That’s such a comfort.“

    You just wrote my heart in this post. The kitchen is the room in my house that feels the most like home, the most right. I love food. I love the process of creating – cooking is my favorite (and by far most accomplished) art form. If you’ve ever been to Penzey’s (and if not, you should haul ass there right now bc they are the best), you’ll have seen their two slogans that make up my life’s philosophy: “Love people, cook them tasty food” and “Heal the world. Make Dinner tonight.” I may not be able to heal the whole world, but making dinner sure does heal up a lot of holes in my own heart after each new terrifying day the last several weeks.

    I’m so glad you’ve happened upon the joy that cooking can bring. The more you do it, the more comfortable with it you’ll be. Carry on, sister 🙂

    1. Thanks so much April! And I too have only watched the movie…and not read the book…of Julie and Julia. But the movie was fantastic!

  19. This makes making dinner sound so lovely. I’m in a season of slapdash, noise, little legs running under mine…making dinner is not sacred, and I love all things one-pot or make-ahead. But I can see how lovely and centering cooking can (and has previously been for me).

    Thank you for the reminder and the beautiful words. 🙂

    1. It will get there again! The tiny-kid days are not conducive to peaceful and centering cooking! But the seasons will change eventually. (Mine are 5 and 7 now, and we’re just now getting there.)

  20. Loved this! I have been finding similar satisfaction in the process of preparing food and following a recipe. Last night I made homemade spaghetti sauce, a long version, and felt so triumphant at the accomplishment. Simple joys.

  21. just stumbled on this post through Modern Mrs Darcy. So great. Cooking is a great stress release and comfort for me. No matter how bad the day is, it is nice to know that if you mix butter, eggs, and sugar (or butter, onions, and garlic) it will always be good.

    “the honesty of ingredients and the simple straightforwardness of a recipe.”’ So wonderfully true and comforting.

  22. Thank you for this lovely piece.
    Can I highly recommend Rosianna’s ‘Backburner’ videos on YouTube – she picks a cookbook for the month and cooks only from that. She talks a lot about the link between her mental wellbeing and cooking. I have loved both that she has made so far. The first one is here:

  23. This is my first visit to your blog, but I so appreciate your writing, both the style and substance. I am also dealing with depression that is not totally relieved by medication, and even though I don’t enjoy cooking the way I always have, it’s one thing I can do without being able to think clearly, however basic and simple it may be some days. I can’t folow detailed recipes when my mood and energy are really low, but I can still cook tasty, satisfying food. I wish you the best and hope you can continue to find joy through making food for your family. I always used to tell my friends and family that “food is love”.

    1. So glad you found your way here, Paula…and that you’re still finding ways to let cooking heal you even if it looks different right now. Grace to you.

  24. Thank you! This article was so wonderfully written, and made me feel better, knowing that it’s okay to enjoy the time we have in the kitchen. I am a college student struggling with a variety of issues and my roomates have often accused me of stress cooking. However, I have found great comfort in the ability to create something that nourishes both my body and my soul. I am glad I am not alone in this.

    1. Yes. “Stress cooking” seems to me a totally valid way to deal with the world right now. Tell your roommates that they need to start being nice about it or you won’t let them eat your delicious food. 😉

  25. I truly believe in cooking dinner. It feels right and it creates family. It closes the day. Dinner is wonderful!

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