Working in the city, most people I knew felt overworked and too burnt out to cook. I know I did. I’d learned to cook in college, but the pressures of graduate school and then my first career job led me to rely more and more on takeout or semi-prepared food from the grocery store. The language of meal prepping and self-care were not on my radar 10 years ago. But even if I had been hearing that advice, I’m not sure I would have tried it. The emotional drain of work left me completely defenseless against the temptations of the pizza place on my way home or my mind’s uncanny ability to justify that hummus and chips was a healthy dinner if you also had some baby carrots.
Even my physical environment conspired against me feeding myself well. I loved my apartment but hated my kitchen. It was so narrow that you couldn’t open the oven door flatly, as it would hit the hot water pipe on the back wall. Without an over-the-sink cutting board and a kitchen cart in the living room, I would have had maybe 10 inches of countertop to work with. This might sound like interior design snobbery, but now that I live in a house with a full kitchen, I recognize that all the inconveniences can add up and make cooking a hassle instead of an enjoyable and creative activity.
All of these barriers meant that for years I wasn’t cooking real meals and my physical and mental health was suffering. That changed when my brilliant friend and coworker invited me to join the “lunch bunch.” Her plan: our group of 5 friends would each take one day a week and bring in a meal to share. We could either bring in some glass storage containers with the meal already individually portioned or bring the meal in a larger container along with some dollar store ceramic bowls or disposables to serve ourselves. The cook would send out an email noting today’s menu and how to identify our meal in the breakroom fridge. The next day’s cook could pick up the storage containers at the end of the day or use their own bowls, and the process would repeat.
After joining the lunch bunch, once a week, I was cooking a large family-style meal made with whole ingredients. And four days a week, I was eating home-cooked meals for free with no work on my part. I don’t think anyone actually made the perfectly layered mason jar salads featured on Pinterest, which had inspired my friend to start the group, but we had veggie stir-fries, casseroles, one-pot pasta meals, and a variety of dishes that your mom would approve of as real food. Being fed and feeding others in this way shifted my whole attitude toward cooking and eating:
- I remembered that I was actually a pretty good cook and that cooking could even be fun, not just a chore.
- All the different dishes that my friends brought in expanded my own culinary imagination and inspired me to look for different kinds of recipes for them and for myself, too.
- With a full nutritious meal at lunch, I was less hungry at the end of the day when work and commute stress could make me susceptible to junk food temptations.
- On the days when I did give in to temptation, at least I’d already had a few servings of vegetables before my willpower gave out. With my friends’ support, my “average” diet was moving in a healthier direction.
- My palate shifted so that home-cooked food tasted more “normal,” and eating out felt like a treat. I would actually think, before ordering takeout, that my own kitchen was a viable dinner option.
The biggest lesson I learned was that to really change my habits, I have to be held accountable. As is true in most parts of my life, taking care of others is so much easier than taking care of myself. It’s easy to let yourself off the hook for one more responsibility, but how can you let your friends down?
To this day, I am so grateful that my friend reached out to me with this creative idea. Even if we didn’t even actually eat together, the lunch bunch nourished me physically and emotionally in ways I didn’t know I needed.
If you’re someone who feels discouraged every time someone tells you to cook more at home, I hear you! I think the psychological and structural forces deterring you from making the healthy and financially responsible choice to cook are very real. Habits are always hard to change, and cooking is something that’s especially hard to do on your own. If you have co-workers who you think would be open to meal sharing or if you have roommates that you don’t already cook with, I encourage you to reach out and find a way to share the responsibility of meal preparation. Even if it’s just once a week that you share a meal, and even if some weeks the plan falters (nobody’s perfect), I believe you’re going to find some relief from the mental and emotional burden around food and cooking.
Valerie is an adjunct professor in upstate New York teaching Latin and writing electives. When she’s not working or at the yoga studio, you can find her on her porch binging podcasts.
Image via Unsplash