When Cooking is No Longer Fun: The Mental Load of Daily Cooking


I’ve been cooking for a long time. And it’s just not fun any more.

I used to spend hours cooking, trying new recipes, thrilled to see the joy on people’s faces as they dug into one of my lemon meringue pies or my spin on curried chicken.

And I remember when it all started.

I was 12 years old. It was a fall day. Mom told me that she’d decided to go back to college, to get her master’s degree. And it would be my job to cook dinner for the family, all six of us.

Every. Day.

Mom’s cooking repertoire consisted of seven dishes:

  • oven-fried chicken
  • spaghetti sauce made with hamburger, coarsely chopped under-cooked onion, a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup, and a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup
  • beef pot roast with runny gravy
  • creamed hamburger/tuna spooned over plain white rice, made with a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup
  • hot dogs simmered with a can of baked beans
  •  breakfast dinner with pancakes, scrambled eggs, and plenty of bacon
  • hamburgers cooked with two cans of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, served with mashed potatoes

After all, I’d watched her making these dishes over and over again.  I’d eaten them all my life. Up until then.

I fell into the chore of cooking rather seamlessly. After all, I’d helped Mom in the kitchen. I was no neophyte facing the stove

If it was a Monday, then fried chicken, if Thursday, then spaghetti.

And this is what spaghetti meant to me then:

A can of Campbell’s Tomato soup, another of Cream of Mushroom soup, stirred into a pan where grayish hamburger backstroked in grease along with half-cooked chunks of celery and onions, each piece the size of large red kidney beans. Mushy noodles floating underneath like white worms swimming in blood. That was it. Quick. Oh yes. Easy. Oh yes. Delicious? Ah no.

Spaghetti meant something tasteless, characterless. Awful.

Not until I babysat one night for a family I’ll call the Barolinis did I find  food that spoke to my soul and set me on the path I trod still—seeking the peace and tranquility of the archetypal family kitchen bursting with flavor and the love of food.

When Mrs. Barolini called me to ask me to babysit, she mentioned that I would be eating with the kids that night. Would spaghetti be OK? I wanted to say “No,” but polite girls needing money in those days did not say “No” very often to babysitting jobs.

When I got to the Barolinis’ house, there, on the kitchen table behind Mrs. Barolini, sat a huge bowl of red sauce soaking mounds of spaghetti, meatballs as big as my dad’s handballs resting on top. Slabs of olive oil-and-garlic slathered bread lingered on another plate. Impatiently, the Barolini kids waved at me to hurry up and sit down, no formal greetings necessary when hunger stood in the way. The aroma of the food was like nothing I’d ever smelled before.

I needed no more prompting. As Mrs. Barolini scribbled down the phone number of the place they could be reached in case of emergency, my rear end hit the chair. I grabbed the serving spoons and dished up my plate. By that time, the kids were half done with the food their saintly mother dished out as soon as she heard Mr. Barolini and me walking through the door.

We ate greedily, like the kids we were, wadding up balls of bread and stuffing them into our mouths, olive oil and garlic and sauce made from real tomatoes and rich red wine running down our chins, spotting our shirts with little red and gold dots. For a brief moment, a strange, almost electrical, feeling buzzed through me. It was sheer simple happiness. And since happiness at the dinner table was usually as rare as a day without air at my house, it was a new sensation for me. And I wanted that more than anything, again and again.

I gobbled another three or four meatballs, and licked my fingers clean before I put the dishes away and did the dishes that night. What a delicacy that spaghetti seemed to me, a kid whose diet depended on the continuing production of the Campbell Soup Company’s repertoire of soup-based sauces. No offense to Campbell’s, but it thrilled me to learn there was more to eating than a can of soup.

When Mrs. Barolini walked  through the door at 11 p.m.,  her eyelids sagging, I begged her for her recipe. She said, “Of course, I’ll write it down for you.”

And so she did.

And due to that eureka moment, cooking became my passion. My natal family became my guinea pigs, Mom’s kitchen my laboratory. Until I left for college.

And when I returned from home for Thanksgiving or spring break, my brothers stood at the top of the stairs, on the deck in the back of my parents’ house, waiting for me to get within earshot, and then they’d beg me to make Sweet-and-Sour Pork or Mrs. Barolini’s spaghetti.

At one point, I owned nearly 5000 cookbooks, books that transported me to nearly every region of the world.

Mrs. Barolini’s recipe hung on the wall of the many kitchens of my life, from Honduras to Burkina Faso.

But while that framed, and fading, hand-written recipe still takes up some wall space in my Florida kitchen, I now find myself shying away from the incessant labor of cooking, every single day. The enormous chore, the intellectual burden of deciding what’s for dinner, day after day after day, the responsibility of it all, well, that wears me out.

And I know a lot of women feel that way.

Even if take-out is an option—and that’s less true now with COVID-19 resurging—the mere fact of having to wake up in the morning with dinner in mind, every morning, finally has pushed me to the wall.

Enough is enough.

I’m not the only one drooping with this “mental load”.  Or “emotional labor” as some call it.

The mental load is the total sum of responsibilities that you take on to manage “the remembering of things.” It has to do with emotional labor, defined by Arlie Hochschild in the 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, as the process of managing emotions and relationships with others in order to be more successful at your job.

In group settings, it’s an unrecognized responsibility of extra work some members will take on to keep the group running happily and healthily. Oh, and if it sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a core part of feminist discourse—emotional labor is overwhelmingly a responsibility placed on women. ~Leah Ryder

These days, I’ll sometimes poke around some of the cooking-related sites on social media, and I see myself, the self of a few years ago. When cooking was my lodestone.

But now?

Some days I’d just like to make a PB&J sandwich and call it dinner! Or maybe a breakfast dinner.

Breakfast dinner with fluffy omelette (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

7 thoughts on “When Cooking is No Longer Fun: The Mental Load of Daily Cooking

  1. That’s a great story, Cindy! I wonder if Mrs. Barolini had any idea of what she launched in you? We never had a weekly schedule of meals when I was growing up. I probably started making dinners more often the same age as you after my parents were divorced, but my mom never told me I was taking it over. It was more informal, but then I also started going through cookbooks and baked goodies for us, and family recipes (such as they were). :)

    My husband doesn’t care what we have for dinner, so it’s not really an issue, except for me wanting or not wanting to cook or to make something new. I much prefer breakfast meals for dinner. Enjoy!

  2. My mother was a full-time mother of four supported by a professional husband, so she could have found more dishes to fall back on – her mother/my grandmother was quite an accomplished cook. But Mom has never really liked cooking at all, and so she was lucky to have me to pitch in. I hope your kids ended up helping you with the kitchen tasks, because I am sure you needed a break once in a while. I also now make sure there are leftovers, so when I don’t feel like cooking, there’s something besides frozen pizza to fall back on. Not that I dislike frozen pizza.

  3. As a single working mother of 4 kids, I had a repertoire of 7 suppers I could put on the table in about 1/2 hour’s time. We rotated through these every week, with occasional variations. However, I made everything from basic wholesome ingredients and the kids seldom complained. Now, I have time to try new recipes, which is fun, but some days I don’t feel like cooking. Since I live alone, I prepare enough for leftovers I can warm up. Best of both worlds.

  4. Back when I was in my mid-20’s, we had upstairs neighbors who seemed ancient to me, but were probably in their mid-60’s. I remember one day her saying to me, “I am so tired of cooking dinner every night.” I couldn’t even IMAGINE such a thing, as I was caught up with having a new family and my own home at last. I have thought of her words MANY times over the years, and now that I am in my mid-70’s, I can certainly relate!

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