Featured Personal Growth Reflection

The Burden of Dinner and Learning to Say No

I cooked dinner for the first time in a few months today: boxed mac and cheese and sauteed veggies. Even a mostly-boxed meal has been beyond the energy I’m willing to spend making a meal.

Not cooking dinner has been a huge change for me. I used to make a hobby of cooking (although I’ve always prefered baking). I borrowed cookbooks from the library, read cooking blogs, and experimented with new recipes and ingredients from specialty grocers. I’ve spent years learning different cooking techniques, how to season and taste, how to pair ingredients and dishes. I created my own meal planning sheet and meal planning guide. I suspect a lot of people who know me would be shocked to hear that the only thing I’ve cooked lately is scrambled eggs. I still like baking on the weekends, but I just can’t bring myself to care about dinner anymore.

Part of this is physical exhaustion: I’ve been running on 5-6 hours of sleep for most of the pandemic, and something had to go. (A chore that involved making another decision after 5pm, and spending an hour or more on my feet working? Yeah, get rid of that one.) But, this past week, my doctor’s advice to take melatonin has boosted my sleep to 6.5, 7, even 8 hours! What a relief to get some damn sleep. Even a week of normal sleep has made a difference in how I feel overall.

But part is my journey with stripping away perfectionism and internalized responsibilities I’ve burdened myself with. My partner doesn’t expect me to cook him dinner — he’s always been just as happy to order takeout (honestly, more happy since I only cook pescetarian, and mostly vegetarian). In the past I begrudgingly let us order out several times a week, but felt guilty about it. Not just that we were wasting money. I felt it was my responsibility to provide healthy meals for us, and I was letting us down by failing to cook dinner.

This is misogynist bullshit and I’m done with it. I don’t expect my partner to cook meals, and am not obliged to either. My worth as a partner or a woman is not bound to some 1950s ideal of housewifery. This is yet another stupid inefficiency of our “nuclear family” every-household-for-themselves society because it takes me about the same work to feed my family of two as it would take to feed my friend group of eight.

I’ve been working on recognizing my own needs, and being willing to acknowledge and advocate for them. Letting go of unnecessary guilt and self-imposed expectations. Recognizing classist and “diet culture” attitudes about food. Not beating myself up for not having the same energy as other people, and being kinder to myself about what my own real limitations are. Learning to say no and rejecting “shoulds.” Acknowledging that what I need now might be different than the past, and that I’m both mentally and physically exhausted from the pandemic.

Providing healthy home-cooked meals really does carry a mental load, and it’s OK if I decide that’s not a load I want to carry anymore. If I don’t want to cook, it’s totally fair to pay someone else to shoulder that task for me.

I think I’ll need a new mindset to really start cooking again: an intrinsic motivation, not an extrinsic one. Strip away the obligations and bullshit, and find what’s in it for me. Do I feel better when I eat home-cooked food? Can I make meals that restaurants don’t sell? Is there an ingredient I really want to cook with? What makes this fun, and not a chore? Maybe I’ll only choose to cook on special occasions, or when I’m hosting people, or if there’s something in particular I want to make. Even if I decide I’m done altogether with dinner (doubtful), that would be OK too.

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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