On granola bars, cooking, and self-care

This past winter, in an all-Student-Development-staff meeting, we talked about burnout. We talked about warning signs, how to prevent burnout, what to do if you are burnt out, ways to relax and rest. Sitting with my staff, most people said their warning signs were things like not exercising, feeling tired, snapping at their families, and so on. When they asked me about my warning sign, I had an immediate answer: when I am in a bad place, I start eating lots of granola bars and peanut butter sandwiches.

Sounds strange, to express so vehemently that too many granola bars are a sure sign that I am burnt out. But it’s true. The first time I realized this was three summers ago, in Fresno, California. I was under a lot of stress: jobless, homeless (well, kind of), and car-less. I was staying with a family I knew and sleeping on a spare mattress in their daughter’s room, taking the city bus to my temp job at a call center where I listened to phones ring for 8 hours a day. They weren’t a cooking family, which is fine. And at the time, I wasn’t really a cooking person either. But that summer, with all the pressures weighing me down, I ate a diet of mostly granola bars and peanut butter on bread. Seriously. For breakfast I had toast with peanut butter and jelly; for lunch, a peanut butter sandwich; for the short break at work, a granola bar. Maybe an apple somewhere in there. A granola bar at night when I was hungry from not eating real food all day. This went on for quite awhile, until my counselor told me I needed to be eating and sleeping healthily if I was going to work on the issues I was in counseling for. Along with some changes in environment–living with a different family in my own room, getting a used car–I was able to find a greater and healthier variety of food to eat and enjoy. 

This past year, I moved out of my parents’ house and into an apartment. The first month of the year was crazy busy–August is notoriously the busiest season in student affairs. I was still getting settled in my house, and our staff ate out a lot during training. After that, I found it wasn’t very motivating to cook for just myself, when there was no one else to feed; and I was still busy, trying to adjust and find a rhythm that worked for me. I cooked a little, and made sandwiches and veggie snacks for lunches. However, as spring semester rolled around, I ate more at the student center’s grille, and subsisted on peanut butter sandwiches or odds and ends for dinner. Smoothies for awhile. Pizza takeout. And granola bars.

As I’ve been home again this summer, I find myself cooking more for my parents, trying new recipes, utilizing whatever fresh garden produce we have on hand. And I’m finding the cooking process enlivening. I love using my creativity to make something that’s vital. I am creative in other ways too, but there’s something especially satisfying about the combination of hands-on, all-senses-engaged, necessary-for-life creativity that is cooking. I’ve cooked by myself and cooked with my friend Cait, finding new ways to eat vegetables and experimenting with ingredients. And then we get to eat the delicious product! It’s so fun. I love this. 

 grilled rhubarb and chicken for rhubarbeque chicken pizzaImage

I know the multitude of reasons that I didn’t cook much this past year. But I want it to be different from now on. I love cooking, and I love eating, and I love cooking for people who eat with me and enjoy the food I’ve made. I love giving to friends in this way. It’s inconceivable to me, right now, how I could just *not cook* for a whole season. Did I really eat that many granola bars? Wasn’t I hungry and tired of the same carbs over and over? I know that I was, and I feel compassion for that self, who was too overwhelmed and exhausted to change the pattern. And I also know that beyond the simple difference of better food to eat, which would have helped, the act of cooking itself is energizing and brings me back to myself. The times I was able to muster it this year–Indian butter chicken and pancakes were frequent repeats–it felt so good. I don’t want to lose that again.

 strawberry rhubarb pie, just before bakingImage

This summer, I’ve made so many yummy things. Lots of salads, rhubarb pies, vinaigrette, marinated chicken on the grill, new kinds of homemade pizza every week, enchiladas, risotto. My photo stream is once again filled with pictures of food: ingredients, recipes in process, finished products, plates. My fingernails get dirty digging things out of the garden: radishes, green onions, asparagus, strawberries, rhubarb, sugar snap peas, lettuces of all sorts, mint, oregano, sage, basil, lemon balm. Then my hands get shrivel-y washing the produce and the occasional bug.

homemade hawaiian pizza

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I need this. I need my hands moving in the kitchen, picking, washing, chopping, shredding, dicing, kneading, stirring, taking a quick picture with floury fingers. Then opening a bottle of wine, sitting down to the table, a sigh of satisfaction and a smile around at the people I love. Cooking keeps me alive, feeds me, in so many ways.