Grocery Shopping and Cooking for Recovery and Healing

Dr. David Wiss

August 18, 2022


In the 1950s, the TV Dinner was born in the United States. Advertisements pitched these dinners as “easy” which could therefore free up more time for watching television. Appealing to convenience is very compelling as well as convincing. We live in the era of specialization and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. We can outsource the effort we don’t want to exert and save our energy for activities we prefer.

In recent years, society has undergone profound shifts in the way that items can be purchased. Technology is advancing rapidly- almost anything can be delivered to your doorstep. Groceries can be ordered through apps. Most restaurants have partnerships with delivery companies and it’s a lifesaver for many.

Nowadays, one can take a much more passive role as an eater and make food decisions on a whim, with very little planning or foresight. This message of “let us do the work for you” is pervasive in food industry marketing and is a very convincing argument, especially when feeling overwhelmed or strapped for time.

Fast food options are priced to create an illusion of value and have caused many people to no longer need grocery stores. Many people are abandoning the kitchen altogether and choosing meal delivery services. We think this can be part of the problem for a growing number of people who feel disconnected from food, leading to mindless eating. Has that been you?

The Neuroscience of Eating Behavior

Why spend an hour going getting groceries, an hour cooking, and then twenty or so minutes cleaning up, only to get a meal that wasn’t as delicious as the one they could’ve purchased? The argument in favor of grocery shopping and cooking is not always convincing, especially if the individual lives alone or with one other person.

Many people have abandoned cooking. It is oftentimes these people that have a ruptured relationship with food and have a hard time breaking through health-related barriers. Meanwhile, ratings for cooking shows and social media accounts displaying delicious food are at an all-time high.

One reason that restaurants and convenience foods are “winning” is because their food is engineered to elicit the highest possible dopamine response. Simply put, food created for commercial purposes is designed to be more palatable, which in turn means more profitable. The relationship between dopamine and food is often understood through the lens of ultra-processed food addiction, which is a hot and controversial topic! This construct is measured by the Yale Food Addiction Scale.

In some cases, highly palatable ultra-processed foods can recruit addiction-like processes in the brain. This may include feeling uncomfortably full and not wanting to stop eating or feeling physically full but still feeling hungry. Is it time to get back in touch with your hunger and fullness cues?

People who eat mostly restaurant foods that are generally high in added oils, salt, and hidden sugars eventually stop enjoying food that doesn’t meet this standard of palatability. It has recently been suggested that reducing highly processed food expectancies may broadly affect health [1]. One way to do this is to plan and cook more of your meals at home.

The good news is that food-related tolerance doesn’t take long to recalibrate. Your homemade meals might not taste as good as restaurant meals, at first. But as you get better in the kitchen you can start to taste your food more intensely without the added oils, salts, and sugar.

The more people become disconnected from food, the more dysregulated eating can become. We define disconnected as no longer being actively involved in the process and dysregulated as the loss of ability to successfully manage responses.

Our ancestors used to hunt and forage and would always be planning their next meal. Too often, folks stop planning their meals and favor choosing what appeals in that moment. While there is something valuable about unpredictability and novelty around food, we’re proposing that the “no planning” approach has contributed to hedonic eating.

Barriers to Healing Your Relationship with Food

The value of shopping and cooking goes way beyond reclaiming ingredients. While it’s undoubtedly true that cooking your own food creates more opportunities to use anti-inflammatory foods and ingredients that are beneficial for mental health, the benefits also extend to our relationship to food.

Our experience has been that connecting with food at the store, washing and cutting produce, and creating delicious meals at home is one component in healing a disordered relationship with food. This is all part of Mindful Eating and Soulful Eating. Are you here for it?

It’s critical to have sharp knives and adequate cooking equipment. Learn more about the powerful principles of “mise en place.” Still, there are many barriers that can exist. There are several reasons that people cannot seem to connect with shopping and cooking, and thereby have consequences on eating habits. Examples include:

1. Don’t have adequate kitchen space or equipment and don’t know where to start.

2. Sharing kitchen space with others and don’t feel comfortable in that part of the house.

3. Have had others feed you for so long and have never been expected to feed yourself.

4. Have bad memories in the kitchen.

5. Have not built grocery shopping into your weekly routine, and it, therefore, feels like a burdensome addition to your schedule.

6. Feel anxious at the grocery store because there are so many items and you have no idea what they are, and perhaps you don’t enjoy crowded environments.

7. Have purchased groceries in the past, only to see them spoil and expire in the fridge. Feels like money’s been wasted.

8. Tried cooking meals at home and have so much anxiety around making mistakes and sometimes end up over- or under-cooking foods.

9. Seek comfort from food and cannot reliably predict that home-cooking will produce comforting food.

10. Don’t like cleaning pots and pans or doing dishes.

There are many other barriers to shopping and cooking that can exist. These barriers could be financial, psychological, environmental, or any other reason why this feels so hard. Start with making a list. It may take some time to think about, as oftentimes such barriers are subconscious. Once you identify your barriers, we can work through them and access all the joy that delicious homemade food has to offer! Is it time to get your hands dirty?

1. Cummings JR, Hoover LV, Turner MI, Glozier K, Zhao J, Gearhardt AN (2021) Extending Expectancy Theory to Food Intake: Effect of a Simulated Fast-Food Restaurant on Highly and Minimally Processed Food Expectancies. Clin Psychological Sci 216770262110045