Cooking as Self Care in an Intergenerational Autistic Family

Since lockdown began I have pretty much been making 3 different lunches every day. Not So Little Person has a mixture of fruit, salad stuff, maybe cheese or salami, arranged in neat little piles on a plate (or occasionally in the shape of an alien invasion or other such nonsense because well, this is me we’re talking about). The Dude mostly has a toasted sandwich (I make the sandwich, he does the toastie part). And I have a variety of things. Sometimes a toastie (gluten free bread for the win), once I made a pile of potato salad and that fed me for 4 days; leftovers or little piles of stuff also work. Today was buttery scrambled eggs with cheese.

Cheese, cucumber, cheese on toast, baby spinach and mayo, salami

There was a time when I would have been quite resentful of this whole thing. Not So Little Person used to be much more picky about her lunches and I used to get downright frustrated abut mine. Partly because eating tended to give me a stomachache and I didn’t really realise it. Turns out I’m not coeliac but I do have sensitivity to gluten. Being able to eat the food you cook without discomfort is helpful.

But our reactions to food tell us a great deal about our emotional state in this house. Some of us lose our appetites when we are stressed. Some revert to much more restricted diets when anxious or ill. There’s a reason I reached for the eggs today (the butter was a new addition. A different kind of self care because I like butter. The smell when it cooks. The sizzle. The taste. The yellow sliding against the knife as I cut a slice off.) Sorry, distracted.

Jazzed up tomato soup from a can. The Dude had his plain.

For a long time I struggled with the whole cooking thing. Partly it was the whole endless obligation of cooking meals. (Resolved by changing my definition of “cooking meals”). There was a time when there was a whole lot of lack of appreciation and disrespect for my efforts (addressed and removed). There was the “woe is me I have to cook the same thing for my kid every night” thing. While simultaneously managing to forget to cook it for her. Conversations and an alarm helped with that one.

Thing is, on some deep level, I like cooking. But my sensory needs and Not So Little Person’s sensory challenges got in a bit of a tangle and it took some work to get it sorted out. (Hence the intergenerational in the title of this post)

Some of the things that helped us out are

– cooking and eating are separate things.

– yes, I like cooking. But not everyday. As soon as I feel I have to cook every day, it takes the fun out of it and then we’re eating ready meals for 6 months.

– Cooking and feeding everyone are two different things.

– remember the metaphor of rolling hills to the horizons, with ups and downs but always there. It’s not about making a gourmet meal every day.

– we bought an Instant Pot. It’s an electric pressure cooker. This makes it easier to separate the cooking from the eating. Also easy no-stir risotto in 20 minutes. Makes me feel like I have fulfilled the obligation without having to do the actual work. Played the system, if you will.

– some meals are more or less set in stone. Bacon sandwiches on Saturday lunch. Pain au chocolate on Sunday. Less thinking required. Also handy for keeping track of the days in these lockdown times. Less helpful when you forgetting get pain au chocolate during your weekly shop.

Pain au chocolate

– I don’t cook new things or eggs when Not So Little Person is having a bad day. She can have difficulty with cooking smells. And that’s okay. It’s important that she feel safe while I’m cooking. This means she will tolerate weird smells on her good days.

– it’s not “the cooking” I enjoy. It’s the thud thud thud of chopping vegetables (also one of the reasons we now get vegetable box delivered – well, that and one less thinking thing for me), the scrape and stir and watching things change colour.

– sometimes it’s the challenge of “can I get another two or three meals out of what is left hanging about in the fridge?” (Another advantage of getting a vegetable box delivered.)

– sometimes it’s the satisfaction of knowing I managed to pull one out the bag at the last minute even though I wasn’t feeling so good. The days when I whizz everything up in the blender to go in a bolognese, or I make a risotto with stuff out the freezer. It’s not about the sensory feedback on those days.

Whizzed up roasted vegetables

– as with most things, I seem to bounce between two extremes. I’m either cooking up masterpieces from scratch 4 days in a row or I’m peeling myself off the sofa to get a pizza out the freezer. I leave room in my life (and my freezer) for both. So I don’t shop for fresh ingredients for more than four days meals, and I always have stuff in the freezer to reheat. Both are valid.

I know that a crucial part of our mental health is good nutrition. And access to comfort foods. Which can feel contradictory. But to hold that balance in my hands – to acknowledge how helpful the process of cooking can be to my overanalytical brain, in and of itself without the obligations to my family- is helpful. It means buttery scrambled eggs for one can soothe a cranky soul as well as line her tummy. It means I don’t have to judge my success or failure by the taste of my meals, or whether anybody actually eats them (although failures are rare). It means I don’t define myself by my ability to cook or feed my family. I’m much more interesting than that!

Forgetti Spaghetti

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