Cooking While Grieving Can Mean Doing The Bare Minimum. That’s OK

Chef and cookbook author Leanne Brown shares what feeding herself looks like during one of the hardest times of her life.
Abeler Photography/HuffPost

Leanne Brown is a chef, writer and cookbook author who is no stranger to “best of” lists, including being named one of the most innovative women in food and drink by Fortune and Food & Wine. Despite this, she’s the least pretentious chef you’ll meet. Her latest cookbook, Good Enough, is dedicated to helping people learn to love and accept themselves through the act of cooking.

It’s a lesson she’s currently putting into practice in her own life as she cares for herself while grieving. What does feeding yourself look like under grief’s crushing exhaustion? In this edition of Voices In Food, she shares in her own words what it looks like for her.

It had already been a tough year, and then the cat got sick. Last summer, my dad’s colon cancer came back. He’d been in remission for 10 long, good years. When he was first diagnosed, in my early 20s, it was a very scary time. There were many moments when I thought, this is it. This is when we lose him. But over the course of four years of really intense medical intervention, he pulled through every time. Eventually, he was declared cancer-free.

When the cancer came back, the doctors had a different plan. This time, they didn’t recommend medical intervention. My dad’s body had already been through so much. They basically told us, it’s back and it’s terminal. Colon cancer is a slow-growing cancer. My dad could have five years left or one.

I live in New York City with my husband and daughter, and my mom and dad live in Edmonton, Canada. It takes two flights to get there, so it’s a long journey. Like so many others, I didn’t get to see my parents during the peak of the pandemic. Now, I book my flights on an as-needed basis, when it feels important to be there. April was one of those times. My dad was in the hospital experiencing organ failure. I knew I needed to get there. But then there was the cat.

As it often happens with old cats, things took a turn suddenly. He let out a loud, primal moan and my husband and I just looked at each other wide-eyed. We knew something was wrong. The vet confirmed our suspicions. The end was near for our faithful friend. I wanted him to die at home, not in the vet’s cold office, so we took him home. I collapsed on my bed. At the same time that my cat was experiencing organ failure, my dad was in a hospital room experiencing something similar. It was all so much.

“Grief has taught me to live my life fully and to enjoy the sensory experience of being alive.”

As I lay on the bed, my entire body felt like it was on fire, especially my face. I knew I needed to do something; take some sort of action. So, I booked a flight home for in a few days time. I took a deep breath and started to feel better. The cat would die at home and then I would go be with my dad. I had a plan. I was doing the best I could.

What to eat when you’re exhausted

Grief is exhausting. The sheer mental energy it takes to get out of bed. To put something on that is somewhat acceptable to be seen in when I take my daughter to school. To make sure she gets fed.

Grief has made me unmotivated to cook. I love food. I’ve written five cookbooks. But the waves of grief have taken away my appetite. Foods I’ve long loved now make my stomach feel all wiggly and unsettled. But grief has also taught me to listen to my body, something I didn’t always know how to do well. I’ve learned that simple foods are good enough.

Eating fresh fruit is good enough. Eating the leftover mac and cheese I made my daughter is good enough. Eating foods that are over-processed, or a hodgepodge of random things from the fridge that would look ridiculous on Instagram, is good enough. Sometimes, though, I override what my body wants. I’m not hungry but I know I must eat to keep going. That’s when simple meals have been handy, like frozen food that can be microwaved, or takeout. When you’re grieving, the simple act of feeding yourself is enough.

When I am in the mood to eat, I savor the entire experience. Yesterday, I made myself a mango lassi. It was so fun to cut the flesh, my fingers gently pressing down on the fuzz, and to hear the sound of the knife hitting the cutting board. The juice ran down my hands as I tossed the slices into a blender with some yogurt. It smelled so fresh as I poured it into a glass — a smell so far from New York or hospital rooms in Canada. The texture was fluffy on my lips.

“Eating fresh fruit is good enough. Eating the leftover mac and cheese I made my daughter is good enough. Eating foods that are over-processed, or a hodgepodge of random things from the fridge that would look ridiculous on Instagram, is good enough.”

What a luxury, I thought. What a luxury to experience this little joy and the smell, taste and texture that come with it. Grief has taught me to live my life fully and to enjoy the sensory experience of being alive. I find myself doing things I didn’t do before, like literally stopping and smelling flowers, or noticing how good the sun feels on my arms. What grief has taught me is that the beauty of being alive is in all these small moments, experiencing what is right in front of me.

People often say grief comes in waves and it’s true. The wave comes and you have to ride it out. And that’s really, really hard. But what I’ve learned is that on the other side of it is joy, expansion and gratitude. But you can’t get there unless you ride out that wave.

Savouring every ite

While keeping meals simple has been key for me, I’ve also enjoyed some really beautiful meals with my family in Canada. During one visit, my mom and sisters made three dishes from my book: saucey-stewed chicken with tomato sauce and goat cheese, pesto potato salad with green beans and an onion dip. It was a very sweet gesture. My dad eats what he can. Sometimes that means just milk and banana. Sometimes that means an ice cream sandwich. It’s good enough.

These foods feed me literally, and it’s yoga that’s been feeding me metaphorically. Learning how to listen to my body in terms of what to feed myself has spilled over into listening to my body through yoga as well. It’s honestly been very profound for me in terms of healing.

I might be hungry for dinner tonight or I might not be. I might make homemade Thai pad krapow with rice, veggies, sweet Thai basil and vegan meat (since real meat has been hurting my stomach lately). Or maybe I’ll microwave something from the freezer. If I am hungry, I’ll savor every bite; the aroma of the spices, the texture of the sliced bell peppers, and the steam wafting up my nostrils as I bring my fork close to my mouth. What a gift to eat Thai at home with my family. What a gift to know it’s a gift at all.