Grief is a full-body experience. This is something I have learned inadvertently the past four years as I’ve grieved the loss of one of my dearest and best friends. Precious was her name. We met as eager-eyed graduate students in the fall of 2010 wanting to take our writing more seriously. Throughout the years we went from casual classmates to group members for class projects to eventually close friends; from going back and forth in a shared Google Doc to laughing for hours over food and drinks.
When she died in a car accident in the summer of 2017, I was shell-shocked. And I turned to food as a means of comfort. This isn’t unusual — if you know anything about grieving and loss rituals, food is an integral part of what it means to be bereaved. Often those grieving end up with an interesting relationship with food. For me, I overindulged; others may struggle to find an appetite at all. It’s all normal.
At the start of the pandemic, while most of us nursed tons of losses in our homes away from the world, I wrote Self-Care for Grief, which is finally out today. In my book, I wrote about a few practices that involved food, but there’s no direct guide for managing your grief as it pertains to the kitchen and eating. This is what this piece is intended to be — a few tips for helping you embrace what you eat (or don’t eat) with ease as you gently hold what you have lost. Grief is a lot of things, but it’s not exactly predictable. Brace yourself to flow with what comes — and to eat what feels right for you.
In the earliest days of grieving — called early grief those first 90 days — you might find that most tasks that were easiest and instinctual become herculean. At least that was my experience. My friend had died. I was emotionally wrecked. I felt like no one understood. My brain was so busy trying to hold all these truths at the same time that my place of joy with food no longer existed. But I still needed to eat, as the hunger pangs reminded me.
Casseroles and baked dishes were first on the list: broccoli rice casserole, a creamy chicken bake, my Mom’s famed chicken tetrazzini. Anything I could make a massive amount of, slap in the oven, and eat off for days became my go-to. Dutch ovens full of soup were helpful, too. When lunchtime or dinner rolled around, I no longer had to stop to think what I could eat that was fast and low-effort: I simply placed that pot on the stove until I could hear it come to a low, rolling boil.
2. Stock your freezer and pantry well.
As a child, I grew up in a home that had multiple freezers. There was one attached to the fridge in the kitchen and a separate one in the garage. My parents had four kids — it made sense for them to stock whole chickens, ground beef, fish, and other odd ends. Now as an adult, my freezer is immaculate, too. There’s not a lot I won’t freeze. I learned during the beginning of the pandemic, for instance, that blocks of cheese and flour freeze well. Stocking your freezer and pantry well are essential kitchen survival tools — especially if you’re grieving.
Think about what you like to eat and build from there. Love pastas and sauces? Use the first suggestion on the list to make a variety of them on one of those days when you have the energy. Then freeze flat in a gallon freezer bag and label with what is inside and a date. Whether you stock up on your favorite freezer-friendly meals from Trader Joe’s or leftover pasta sauce, meatballs, or individually wrapped pieces of fish that can be easily defrosted and pan-seared — both well-stocked freezers and pantries can take you from scrambling for another meal when you don’t have the energy, to going from hungry to fed in less than an hour.
Every grieving person is different. Every loss is different, too. This is the true measure of the complexities of grief — loss is loss is loss. And when we lose something or someone, reeling occurs as we adjust to a new life. Which is why for some their appetite leaves altogether. This wasn’t my overall experience, but there were periods where the anxiety of everything I was carrying took away my ability to enjoy food. To which I had to embrace something else: the art of grazing.
If the thought of eating entire meals makes you nauseated or fills you with dread, lean into making small plates of food periodically throughout the day. You can pair crackers, cheese, deli meats, tinned fish, veggies, different kinds of dips and sauces. Take whatever odds and ends you have on hand, throw it on a plate, and nibble.
If all else fails, drink your food. No, I don’t mean alcohol or binge-drinking. Please don’t do that. Smoothies, smoothie bowls, and fresh-pressed juices are some ideas. Either make them yourself using inspiration from social media (Pinterest and Instagram are great for these kinds of things) or use your diminished appetite as an excuse to support a local business that sells these for you to buy. As a bonus, you’ll get out of the house, which is good for you even if it feels terrible and unnecessary at the moment. Those grieving often need to be pushed out of their isolation bubble for a burst of endorphins: to be reminded that they are not as alone as they feel.
A full disclaimer: No, this is not an aim to get you on a juice cleanse. It’s only to provide you with other options to getting the food and nutrients your body needs during a difficult, tender time.
5. Ask for help. Lean on your support system and wider community.
Last, but perhaps the most important, tip I can provide to anyone grieving: Lean on those around you for support. Ask for the help you need with eating and making tasks like grocery shopping less laborious. Call on your people. This is what being in community with others means — you celebrate and lift each other higher in those moments of joyousness, and bind together in times of sorrow and loss.
A good website for organizing this is mealtrain.com. On the website, friends, family members, colleagues, and neighbors can sign up on a virtual calendar to bring meals or send gift cards for restaurants or food delivery apps. There’s even an option to organize grocery shopping, too. If you are really struggling with eating and nourishing yourself as you grieve, step outside of your pride, your shame, or whatever other feelings may be giving you reticence and speak up. State plainly what you need.
Know that those around you care for you and love you. They may be struggling, too, in seeing you in pain and not knowing how to provide support and comfort. This is one way that they can help. Remember that. Remember that you deserve to be supported. That grief is a part of what it means to live and love. And one day, when others around you find that they are in a period of loss, they can look back on your example of vulnerability — of you asking for help when it was neither easy or comfortable — as a reminder that they can do the same, too, and be supported.