We don’t talk about this enough: Meals are a lot of work.

Cooking dinner is often the most intensive labor to do for the day. I think everyone, from people with depression asking for quick recipes to moms who swear by the Instant Pot, can agree. This is especially true after a day where nothing has gone well; eating can become exhausting.

Before my boyfriend and I allowed ourselves out of bed today, I had to outline exactly where, and what, I would eat for breakfast. If we didn’t, I would’ve just skipped meals until dinner.

After all, we almost did that the day before: a bagel each at 11 a.m. and a shared patatas bravas tapas before our 7:15 p.m. dinner because our stomachs were starting to hurt.

The fact we were able to register hunger pains was a sign of our body-brain improvement.

A few days before that, I could operate on a muffin or a random assortment of snacks before it was 8 p.m. and I realized I wasn’t eating enough. I’d then order food because I just couldn’t bring myself to cook.

That’s how it’s been for two weeks. Until today.

Today, I just threw out the garbage bag of takeout boxes, and I’m not feeling too much shame about it.

It was that I was lazy. It was that I was tired. All of that should be valid, whether or not I have depression — which I do. I had been depressed and was at my worst, where hunger and appetite had completely gone.

Cooking wasn’t just work; during my worst, it’s also an act of care and a labor of love. And at my worst, my mental state likes to insist that I don’t deserve self-care or love.

Cooking isn’t as easy as it sounds when you’re depressed

A lot of millennials get vilified for ordering to go instead of cooking or meal prepping at home.

Taylor Lorenz, tech reporter at The Atlantic, was nationally mocked for purchasing $22 avocado toast. Shame around takeout has reached all new heights, to a point where $5 coffee is vilified by money coaches.

But the thing is, I tried to cook for myself when I was depressed. I tried really hard. All it did was trigger suicidal ideation.

Once it was after I touched cold rice to my lips. It wasn’t just the fact that it was cold. In that moment, the frigid rice became a cumulation of failure. Failure at steaming food, not completing work tasks, going without food since 9:30 a.m.

I couldn’t even do something as simple as eating! I ended up sobbing into my dinner with Netflix on, going to bed hoping tomorrow wouldn’t come.

Another time was while I was boiling dumplings. What could go wrong?

I knew how to boil water; I knew how to wait. This time, even though it was again my first meal of the day, the instructions were so easy. There was no way I’d fail. Then my grandma, who lives upstairs, came down to greet me and said, “You’re not eating any rice?”

You’re not eating any rice? is a metaphor. The meaning has become more loaded over the last five years of hearing it. Rice, when my grandma says it, isn’t about whether or not my meal is “healthy” (healthy in the Western way, where a plate is defined by portions of grains, veg, and protein). Rice isn’t even about whether or not my dumplings would taste better (they wouldn’t, because they were water dumplings).

Rice, when my grandma says it, is about whether or not my meal is “real.” It broke me apart, because I felt an increased pressure of whether or not my life was real, whether or not I was doing the right things that made life worth living.

So, I tried twice to cook. All I came away with was the idea that life wasn’t worth living.

How we value food matters

Fortunately, I’m able to separate food from the mainstream definition of “healthy.” I don’t worry about whether or not the type of food is “doing my hormones a service” or “putting my cells at risk.” I can intuitively eat in moderation.

What I’m working on is how to appreciate my appetite and understand that craving a certain type of meal isn’t bad.

Diet culture has us so caught up in only valuing hunger, your body’s physical need for fuel, as a restriction tool that we tend to demonize our natural appetite, or cravings for a type of food that brings joy. This culture teaches us that we should control our appetite or alter it so it only overlaps with hunger.

But I can’t feel hunger. I don’t know how else to understand food. Food, to me, only matters in context: a shot of energy, aesthetic pleasure, a new beautiful memory… When I have to see it only as a tool for survival, when I’m at peak depression, food and survival have no meaning to me.

In fact, I stop looking for context in food. It becomes a fish out of water, flapping desperately because it can’t do what it does best to live: swim. It’s dying of boredom. That’s what my brain was saying to me: Food without context is without meaning, and it’s so boring. And yeah, I’ll die without it, but god, life is so boring.

I used to think not eating was natural because I wasn’t hungry. My body wasn’t sending me any warning signs, so?

It wasn’t until recently, when I accepted that I had to get takeout, that I realized how important appetite was as a self-care tool for me. It was an instinct I needed to lean on for when I had no will to eat.

Food is about listening to hunger when it calls and leaning on appetite when hunger isn’t calling.

The depth of how exhausting eating gets extends way beyond cooking. I’m lucky enough to have an income and living situation where I can afford takeout for 14 nights in a row, in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Even then, it’s taken me a moment of sanity to question why I felt shame when looking at my garbage can. I shouldn’t feel bad at all for ordering food every night.

Finding a new relationship with food

Now that the worst of my depression is tapering away, food has regained its original context: to feel productive. It may be sad, but the truth is, I’m not sure when I’ll ever be able to give food meaning on its own.

But for now, I can get better at distinguishing between hunger and appetite — the same way I can tell the difference between sex and love, to separate the need for fuel and emotions. Just the way sex is, and isn’t, about love. Food is, and isn’t, about hunger. It is, and isn’t, about appetite.

It’s about listening to hunger when it calls and leaning on appetite when hunger isn’t calling. Sometimes it’s also discovering that leaning on appetite, the way I did with takeout, is a luxury too.

Food isn’t a relationship that comes intuitively for everyone. Sometimes you just know at first sight how you feel; other times you have to grow and restart the relationship over and over until you’ve learned from your mistakes. Eventually there’ll be a relationship you can truly trust and react within, using your gut.

And while I didn’t end up eating what I told my boyfriend I was going to this morning, I did have a Ghirardelli mini brownie before we went out the door. My dog tried to go into a cafe, so I ended up ordering a fatty pork belly banh mi and ate the whole thing. I finished my first meal at 2 p.m. and managed to eat a small bowl of pasta. I then finished the rest of the mini brownies and did my laundry.

I kind of look forward to tomorrow.


Christal Yuen is an editor at Healthline who writes and edits content revolving around sex, beauty, health, and wellness. She’s constantly looking for ways to help readers forge their own health journey. You can find her on Twitter.