Embrace the Lawlessness of Quarantine Eating
Nothing else makes sense, so go ahead and eat three breakfasts
I used to think I knew how to feed myself. My meals followed a routine: I started each morning with oatmeal, had a lunch I’d meal-prepped the Sunday before, and went out to dinner on the weekends. If I baked a dessert or bread, it was because I expected guests. None of these felt like rigid rules I struggled to follow. They just felt like regular life.
Of course, that was before I was stuck in my apartment during one of the most surreal and stressful periods in many of our lifetimes. Now, there are back-to-back bowls of Froot Loops (who knew they still made that?), rosemary focaccias devoured in one sitting, experimental homemade pizzas. Lunch is late morning spaghetti one day and an early evening mug brownie the next. The cooking and eating schedule I previously depended on for a sense of order has vanished. But, like the maple-tahini cookie dough I made at midnight, I’m rolling with it.
I have entered the culinary Wild West.
This is the first time in my adult life when I really don’t know what the next month will look like, and have little personal power to change my circumstances. I can’t rely on the things that would normally bring me comfort during a rough time, like grabbing drinks with friends or booking a slightly out-of-budget weekend trip.
So, food, by default, is that outlet. In an utterly unsurprising 2014 study on how emotions affect eating habits, researchers found that negative feelings can lead us to choose more immediately satisfying, less healthy foods. It makes sense when the goal is to improve one’s mood in the short term. And when I eat as if I’m on vacation, I feel like I’ve regained a level of control at a time when I otherwise have none.
According to Loretta Breuning, the author of Habits of a Happy Brain, our brains are prone to planning for rewards, like a night out with friends or a vacation. Without those things to look forward to, food can temporarily fill that void—especially if you make it yourself. “It’s the anticipation of reward that starts the dopamine [release],” says Breuning. “When you bake bread, you get a lot of dopamine because you have to plan the ingredients and how you’re going to do it step-by-step.” That’s why there’s a deeper sense of payoff when you make tomato sauce from scratch than when you pour it out of a jar: You prolong the excitement by working toward the moment when you finally get to ladle it over a pile of spaghetti.
And when you share what you made, either physically with the people you live with or on social media, your brain pumps out pleasure-inducing chemicals like serotonin and oxytocin, says Breuning. There’s a reason your feed is full of Alison Roman stews and sourdough loaves: Particularly now, when everyone has to get more creative in how they connect, food makes it easier to relate to each other. Who isn’t cobbling together some questionable sandwiches or considering dessert the new lunch? Our collective inability to stick to three balanced meals a day during an ongoing global tragedy isn’t a failure—it’s just a sign that we read the news, and have more important things to worry about than a pause in our desk salad routines.
I say this as someone with a fresh line of sugar-induced chin zits: If there was ever a time to fully lean into whatever you want to consume, this is it. As long as you’re listening to your body, not using food as an emotional replacement for things like human interaction, continuing to follow social-distancing guidelines, and doing your part to make sure other people have enough to eat, you’re fine.
The main thing, Breuning emphasizes, is to be aware of the role comfort food plays in your life right now. It shouldn’t be like those times when you’re stuck at dinner with people you can’t stand and end up unconsciously rage-gobbling 17 breadsticks because there’s nothing better to do. If possible, what you eat should be a reward, not a distraction.
The moment I can wake up to non-dystopian headlines, jog without wondering if I’m still allowed to, and touch my face with reckless abandon, I’ll lay off the baked goods. When I can stop worrying about my mom’s weeks-long cough, I’ll go back to examining the sodium levels on everything I buy. When I can see my friends in the flesh, I’ll propose splitting a side of something green. In the meantime, eating a cookie immediately upon getting into bed might just offer a speck of solace. And solace is something we’re all ravenous for right now.