Jack Monroe tackles mental health issues in the kitchen
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Why is it that when we say ‘comfort food’, we think of ‘treats’ to indulge in every once in a while, or worse still, attach feelings of guilt or shame to comforting ourselves with food?
Some days, you might have the energy and inclination to prepare an elaborate or seriously nutritious dish, but others you might think the only thing that’s going to make you feel better is a stack of toast or a piece of cake – and that’s OK, says Jack Monroe.
“I’m writing my seventh cookbook now and I have days where all I eat are salt and vinegar crisps and buttered white bread. Sometimes even I don’t want to get in the kitchen,” Monroe admits.
It’s an admission you won’t hear much among chefs and cookbook authors, but it’s the reality for many of us. And for people living with a mental health issue, the relationship with cooking and nurturing ourselves with food can be especially complex.
“No-one really tackles it, what to cook for yourself when you really don’t feel like cooking, or what to eat when you really don’t feel like eating,” says Monroe (32).
Having been open about living with depression, anxiety, PTSD and ADHD for years, the food writer and poverty activist has used her own, very raw experience to put together her latest collection of recipes in Good Food For Bad Days.
“The irony was halfway through writing this book, I suddenly fell into a massive depressive state. I stopped writing, I stopped wanting to look after myself, I ground to a halt,” says Monroe. She wasn’t cooking either. “But the people who know and love me the most know that when I stop posting pictures of my meals on Instagram to drop me a text and ask if I’m OK, because I’ve obviously stepped out of the kitchen.”
While she knows it won’t work for everybody, “one of the easiest ways for me to start to take steps back towards emerging from whatever dark hole I find myself in, is to get into the kitchen and to stir something or just to throw something together out of whatever’s in the cupboard,” Monroe adds.
“It’s that first step towards acknowledging you matter, and nurturing yourself matters, and taking a moment to just look after yourself.”
She’s a real advocate for not beating yourself up about what you’re eating though, and says sometimes the purpose of food is simply to make you feel good in that moment, or to get some fuel inside you – and we need to be OK with that. But for days when you can get into the kitchen, her new cookbook looks to be a real saviour.
From ‘finger foods’ – like orange and blueberry oat bars – you can batch-cook on a good day (and pick at on a bad one), and meals you can whip up in 15 minutes or less like anchovy butter pasta, to one-pan meals like meatball and white bean stew, for days when you don’t have the head space for complex cooking (and a lot of washing up).
There’s a whole chapter on food and drinks in mugs – because what could be more comforting than that? Think honey nut milk or a ‘Jaffa Cake’ pudding in a mug. “There’s something really transgressive about it,” she says – plus “you can hold it with one hand, eat it with the other, it’s literally ideal.”
She includes a guide – a ‘bingo card’ she calls it – of foods that are helpful for maintaining healthy brain function to consider eating regularly, like bananas, nuts and oily fish. “But it comes with a massive caveat that eating your way through this list, even if it was exclusively all you ate, is not going to shield you from having a bluesy day or tragic life events or chemical imbalances – but it can give you something to start to deal with it.
“If there was any one food stuff that could wish away mental health problems, someone would have turned that into a little pill now and be selling it for hundreds.”
- Good Food For Bad Days by Jack Monroe is published by Bluebird, priced £7.99.