The simple answer is that I cook because I’m the caricature of a picky eater, and cooking for myself makes it easier for me to eat real food.
The longer answer is that eating food has always been struggle. For most of my life, I was the dictionary definition of a picky eater. As a kid, I limited myself to bread, cheese, chicken, beef, or pasta. If I ate anything else, I’d scrutinize it in great detail first. Each ingredient had to have an acceptable flavor and a consistent texture – not too crunchy, not too soft. When my family ordered pizza, I would scrape the tomato sauce off both the crust and the cheese. If I couldn’t safely extract the cheese from the tomato sauce, I’d chalk it up to bad luck and just eat the crust.
My family said I’d become a surgeon one day because of my precision in removing imperfections. There’s a small vein running through my chicken breast? Better slice a channel through it to remove the offending red streak, just to be safe.
I’ve learned that this is actually pretty common for people like me. People with Asperger’s (aka autism spectrum disorder). I wasn’t diagnosed until the age of 29, so I went most of my life having no idea that this was a “thing” people deal with. I was always just the strange one that wouldn’t eat what everyone else did.
People with Asperger’s are prone to sensory overloads. What I mean is that everyday things can easily become overwhelming. Someone’s chewing with their mouth open? Sudden, incredible rage. There’s a bump in my sock? I’ve lost the ability to think or function until I fix it. Doesn’t matter if I’m in the privacy of my own home or on a busy city street. The sock is coming off because the bump must die.
I’m a picky eater mostly because I’m sensitive to different textures. Tastes, too, but mostly textures. When I do eat something bad (due to taste, texture, it looked at me funny, or whatever), I have to spit it out. If I don’t, my body will just throw it back up out of spite anyway. It’s not just that I don’t like some foods. It’s that I can’t keep them down. I still have nightmares about the fateful July 4 when my uncle unknowingly gave me a hamburger with onions inside. The horror.
My inability to eat most foods means that my restaurant selections are limited. The idea of just “going out” is a crazy concept. Menus must be vetted, Yelp ratings must be checked, reviews researched, and restaurants meticulously compared to each other. If I lack complete confidence that I can eat somewhere, I won’t go to avoid being the weird one that just sits there without eating. Plus I’d get hungry, and that makes me irritable. Making friends is hard enough when you’re biologically wired to not understand social cues. Getting snippity that this restaurant only has NY strip and no ribeye won’t help.
The whole ordeal of eating is anxiety inducing. By the time I was in my 20s and supposedly a “functioning adult”, these hangups did me no favors with my friends and my then-girlfriend-now-wife.
Fortunately, my wife is an amazing person. One that obsessively researches food, health, and all things in the between. She never judges me for my eating habits, and she’s always happy to share her findings. As it turns out, eating like crap can exacerbate anxiety, fatigue, ADHD, and all the other fun things I deal with. I suppose I could’ve guessed that existing primarily on bread, cheese, and Twix bars wasn’t a good life decision. Whatever. Hindsight is 20/20?
Anyway. At some point, I decided that I wanted to be better. Not just to reduce the social awkwardness that inevitably followed me around meal times, but also to make myself healthier. Perpetual self-imposed stress isn’t good for anyone (…and neither are Oreos for dinner).
I realized that when I cook for myself, I can control exactly what goes into my meals. I wouldn’t have to worry about anyone putting onions where they don’t belong when it’s my hamburger in the first place. If I cook, I figured I could try and broaden my palate to things like include red foods that aren’t ketchup. I just needed to understand how to cook new foods in a way that I’d enjoy them.
Step 1? Learn. Can’t cook if you don’t know what that means, so I set out to learn different techniques. Queue binge watching Top Chef, Chopped, The Great British Baking Show, and every other cooking show I could find. Nowadays, I mostly read cookbooks, learn from friends and family, and mess around in the kitchen alone.
Learning different methodologies is actually pretty straightforward, even if being able to consistently execute takes time. The challenging part is learning to actually tolerate new foods, let alone enjoy them. Apparently exposure therapy is the key for me, so I’ll pick one new thing at a time and frequently eat it in small doses.
Over time, my palate has grown immensely. I think you could even count the number of vegetables I like on two hands instead of one finger. …Just kidding. Maybe three hands. You’d probably still find it easier to list the foods I will eat than those I won’t, but I think I’m pretty close to flipping that on its head.
So why do I cook? Because it’s what helped me become less of a picky eater. My diet now consists of a (still limited set of) real, whole, and healthy foods. Plus, it’s a great way to bond with friends and family without being too socially taxing. I get to spend time with people I love while focusing our shared energy on creating a great meal.