I Lost My Cooking Appetite When Pregnant—Here's How I Got it Back

Leanne Brown’s ‘Good Enough: A Cookbook’ celebrates human imperfection.

February 24, 2022
Photo by James Ransom

Author Leanne Brown’s Good Enough: A Cookbook celebrates human imperfection. Through personal essays about attainable recipes, Brown considers cooking through the lens of mental health and self-forgiveness. In this excerpt, Brown shares her experience with severe nausea during pregnancy—and therefore, loss of joy around food—as well as her postpartum journey with cooking, and how the larger experience helped her to press pause on her “inner perfectionist and just make something.”

Being a person is really hard. You are constantly confronted with what you want to do and the limited time and energy you have to do those things. You have to work to earn money to live; you have to work in your home and on your relationships and projects. You also need to rest and have fun or you grind yourself down and can’t do any of those responsible things anymore. Being engaged as a person means constant work and constant growth. It is exhausting. I frequently feel overwhelmed by my responsibilities, and never more so than in recent years, when I was pregnant and during my daughter’s first year of life.

During my pregnancy, I was hit with an extreme form of morning sickness that lasted throughout the nine months. Cooking and preparing food is my passion—it’s how I relax, it’s how I connect with myself, it’s what I do when I want to feel competent, organized, and good at something. As it’s become my career, cooking has become central to my identity. So I wasn’t prepared for what it would feel like when my happy place became my disgusting and frightening place. Days were spent cycling between vomiting and simply enduring the gnawing discomfort of nausea. Food was utterly repulsive, but my body was building a human from scratch and needed sustenance, even though it was rejecting most forms of it. Feeding myself every day became extremely hard, painful, disheartening work.

My stomach was like my own personal volcano. It had to be carefully managed or it would explode. I couldn’t drink water on an empty stomach or it would erupt, so each morning I forced myself to eat bread, crackers, a bagel—whatever inoffensive carbohydrate was at hand. I could then drink water safely. I had to maintain this careful balance between water and carbohydrates all day. Food was no longer pleasure or culture or human connection; it was volcano management.

The experience taught me what it must be like for people who truly find no joy in food. I have always wanted to welcome even the staunchest non-cooks and food agnostics into the kitchen and help them feel some sense of belonging there. But for the first time in my life, I was inhabiting the body of a non-cook—and understanding the experience viscerally rather than intellectually. I wondered if everything I stood for was wrong.

I felt lonely and ashamed, like a fraud. I felt like I had lost myself. My body had betrayed me and I didn’t recognize it. I felt worthless because I couldn’t do the one thing I believed I was truly good at. My memory of that time is a haze of simply surviving. But I am so grateful for the experience now because it made me realize I was missing something in the way I talk about cooking. Sometimes cooking is just hard work. I realized that my philosophy—that every meal is an opportunity for pleasure—was great in theory, but in reality it was smothering me. It was too much pressure. If every meal is an opportunity for pleasure, then I was failing quite a bit of the time.

This lesson—that not every meal is precious—hit me even harder after I had my daughter, Io. Yes, I had my taste and desire for food back, hooray! But I had no time to think about it or prepare it like I’d used to. When I did cook, I was harried and resentful. I started cooking after Io went to sleep. Nothing involved or time consuming, but anything instead of takeout each night (though of course there was still plenty of takeout). I had to guard my time carefully, almost like I got time rations and I was learning how best to spend them. I was so exhausted that spending a time ration on making dinner sometimes felt like punishment. If it wasn’t the best dinner, I would beat myself up for it and then beat myself up more when I realized that the dishes also had to be done.

Eventually, I learned to calm my inner perfectionist and just make something. The fact is that when I make something—even if it’s some kind of Franken-bowl of leftovers—I don’t regret not ordering pizza. I feel proud of myself for using up what I have, proud of my decisiveness, and generally proud that I can take care of myself. I have come to realize that, often, 90 percent of the goal of a meal is just to get fed; the last 10 percent is very nice to have but sooo not worth stressing over.

This attitude became essential during the COVID-19 pandemic that left all of us stuck inside our homes, hearing sirens and making sourdough if we were lucky, or losing jobs, people, and housing if we were not. Cooking became it. People loved and hated it, engaging with it in a way they may not have before or had not in years. It was overwhelming, and heartwarming. Cooking is an essential skill. But it amplifies the feelings we bring to it. Throughout the pandemic, people used cooking to calm themselves and cope with chaos. As a project to distract themselves. As a way to find pleasure. Their anxieties and insecurities were acted out through the food they were making and eating (or not eating). The lessons to be drawn from such a hard time are numerous, and I am so far from processing them all at the time of this writing that I couldn’t bear to try. I can say this: Like all acts of caring, cooking sometimes flows so easily and feels so right, and other times it is only pure necessity, habit, or discipline that brings you to the cutting board. Finding the time and energy to cook is still hard work, whether in my volcano body, as a parent, in a pandemic, or at any other time. There are a lot of times when pleasurable things can feel like hard work. Sometimes I wish I could pause time and take a break from all the caring that being alive requires. But we can’t. And it’s okay to feel any kind of way about that.

Excerpted from Good Enough: A Cookbook by Leanne Brown, illustrations by Allison Gore. Workman Publishing © 2022.

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