*This article contains a general discussion of food, restriction and disordered eating*
Few things are more essential, currently, than comfort. As England goes into a second national lockdown, it is perfectly understandable that you may be stressed, afraid, and in need of reassurance. Often, one of the ways that this anxiety manifests is in anxiety around food.
In many childhoods, food is framed as a vehicle for comfort. The message is clearly sent, from personal experience, film and television: if we are sad or hurt as children, a sweet treat will cheer us up.
As we get older, this message persists on screen. Whether it is the iconic ‘pizza in Italy’ moment with Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love, or Bridget Jones’s forlorn, heartbroken dive into the ice cream tub, food is represented as the end of sadness, and a means of stepping into a better feeling. In other words, food is a comfort.
That is, on screen and in theory.
In practice, within society, harmful messages surround ‘comfort food’, i.e. the simple act of using food to comfort ourselves. As we move away from the childhood message that food will make us feel better, we are propelled towards a world where control over food is both encouraged and admired. It says a lot about how society moves us away from listening to our own bodies, when ‘how to eat intuitively’ is a question which needs to be asked.
We are born knowing what our bodies need, through regulatory systems such as the hunger and fullness signals, as well as a feeling of desire for food. Yet we are bombarded with messages which pull us away from this place of trust within ourselves, in our own body, in what our body needs and how it is perfectly unique, and not supposed to look or be like anybody else’s.
I would like to make the claim, particularly during a winter of uncertainty around so many things, that we can take back this powerful tool from being something which is framed as negative, and transform it into something comforting again. Food can soothe us, in adulthood, as it did when we were younger.
Routine – whether it is eating, hygiene, getting some air, or movement – is our most basic resource to make ourselves feel better. Even when all other activities are stripped away, whether through government Covid restrictions or by difficult periods of mental or physical health, making the basic tasks of our everyday life more enjoyable becomes a tool of comfort and power.
We cannot know what we will be doing in four weeks’ time, after this period of lockdown comes to an end, but we can decide what we might enjoy cooking and eating, today and tomorrow.
This is by no means an elitist argument that you must cook something fresh every day, or grind your own flour by hand. In her brilliant book Eat Up!, Ruby Tandoh explores food as a comfort and a joy, regardless of the relative effort it takes. From elaborately cooked dinners to the recognisable instant comfort of Cadburys chocolate, everything she discusses brings some level of comfort.
What is important is not the foods you personally select for yourself to eat, but rather that you know that it is okay to derive comfort, and a level of acceptance, from food. A warm meal can feel like a hug, something of warmth and something soothing. During a winter where we are physically distant from many people we care about, a taste which reminds us of them can bring us back to memories, and a greater feeling of connectedness. And if we can use this comfort, then why shouldn’t we?
We need to celebrate that we enjoy food during this period of lockdown and beyond. Whether that enjoyment takes the form of trying some new recipes, meal prepping to alleviate stress, or simply eating some foods which remind you of better times and people you love, food can be a powerful tool of comfort. We still have that inbuilt connection between food and feeling safe, even if it is not as nurtured in adulthood.
I hope that you can allow your body to change, and that you can understand that comfort through food is both joyful and important. Something done as frequently as eating deserves to be pleasurable, especially in a year when the world has realised how important and how needful, small pleasures really are.
Recipe – Autumnal Spiced White Chocolate Cookies:
(Makes roughly 22 cookies- halve the quantities if you have fewer people to make for, or freeze some for the future.)
225g unsalted butter (left out of the fridge to soften before baking)
200g light soft brown sugar
90g golden caster sugar
350g plain flour
1tsp baking powder
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
2-3 tsp cinnamon (depending on how much you like it!)
200g white chocolate, cut into smaller chunks
Half a tsp of salt
Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius/ 220 fan assisted.
Clean the work surfaces and wash your hands.
In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar using an electric whisk.
Mix the butter and sugar until the mixture is light and smooth, which should take 3-5 minutes.
Next, add in one egg at a time until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Do not overmix.
Add in all remaining dry ingredients to the mixture (flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt, spices). Do not overmix- simply combine.
Next, chop up and add in your white chocolate chunks. I like to cut some into halves, and others into quarters, so that the cookies have a more varied texture.
Next, roll the mixture into 22 medium sized balls, and freeze for half an hour. The cookies will hold their round shape far better this way!
At this point, you could also leave them in the freezer for another day, or freeze half the batch. If cooking from frozen, simply add 2 minutes to the baking time.
Next, line a tray with baking paper, place some of the cookies spread apart on it (usually 5-6 at a time), and bake for 10 minutes.
Turn the tray around halfway through the 10 minute bake time. After 10 minutes, they should be golden brown; the cinnamon will mean they are darker than vanilla based cookies.
Leave to stand for a while, as the centre will still be cooking even out of the oven, and enjoy!