Healthy cooking

People often face emotional burdens in many areas of life after a loved one’s death. One place where they may have trouble is in the kitchen.

Planning and preparing meals may feel difficult if you’re grieving. But there are ways you can overcome the challenges.

“After the death of a loved one, people experience many losses, and that can be really scary,” says Laura Rausch, LCSW, senior social worker/bereavement coordinator, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “It’s very disorienting and confusing. It can be very chaotic. And it’s something that we are trying to normalize and provide tools and techniques and skills.”

Rausch and Elizabeth Schandelmeier Gilgunn, LCSW, bereavement coordinator/counselor, UPMC Family Hospice-West, led a class called Cooking for One, which began in October 2022. The class provides tips for meal planning and preparation and mindful eating for people who have lost a loved one.

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The Challenges of Cooking After a Loss

People who recently lost a loved one may face many food-related challenges. Some of those may include:

  • They may not want to eat. Grief can make it difficult to focus on normal everyday activities like eating. Schandelmeier Gilgunn and Rausch say many of the people they work with have a lower appetite after losing a loved one. “Grief
    affects us in very physical ways also,” Rausch says. “And so the thought of putting the effort
    into making a meal just seems pointless. Having a meal by yourself doesn’t sound enjoyable at all.”
  • They may turn to the wrong types of food. When people do want to eat after losing a loved one, they may not want to cook very often. So that can lead them toward more unhealthy options. “There are those of us that turn to food for comfort,” Schandelmeier Gilgunn says. “And what I see with these folks typically after a death is that they are grabbing snacks and junk food and
    things that are easy, processed, and putting things into their body that they
    wouldn’t necessarily have eaten in the past. And it makes their body feel bad, and that just compounds their grief.”
  • They may not have shopped for groceries before. If the loved one you lost did the grocery shopping, you may not find the experience familiar. That may make it difficult to determine what to buy and how much to buy. “I’ve had plenty of clients who have told me they’ve never been to a grocery store,” Rausch says. “They don’t know how to do these things. Or, conversely, ‘I’m used to buying things for two people or for a larger family, and now I’m not, and I don’t even really know where to start.'”
  • The grocery store is an emotionally difficult place. Food can serve as a powerful reminder of someone you lost. Schandelmeier Gilgunn says many people struggle just to get through the grocery store. Others may go at times when the store is less busy and they’re less likely to run into someone they know. “I tell all of my people, if you’re ever in the grocery store and you see somebody crying, that’s what it is,” Schandelmeier Gilgunn says. “It’s actually very common.”
  • Planning a meal for one is difficult. If you’re used to cooking for more than one person, figuring out how much of something you need at the grocery store may prove difficult. Or you may also have trouble cutting down recipes to account for fewer people.
  • Some people may have never cooked before. If the person you lost did the cooking, you may not have much experience yourself. It may seem difficult at first to pick up the skills to cook for yourself after losing a loved one.

Tips for Cooking for One After a Loss

Though thinking about meal planning and cooking after losing a loved one can present difficulties, there are ways you can reduce your burden.

  • Be gentle with yourself. Understand that it’s common to have a hard time dealing with your loss. “People judge themselves very harshly,” Schandelmeier Gilgunn says. “Like, ‘I can’t even go to the grocery store. What is wrong with me?’ That’s one of the first things we talk about because it
    happens to so many of you, and that helps people feel better about themselves and not feel so alone.”
  • Have a plan for the grocery store. Decide when you want to go and what you need when you get there. “You should probably have a general idea of what you would like to buy,” Rausch says. “But also have a plan for, if you do run into someone, what are some of the likely questions that you may be asked? How do you get out of conversations that you may not want to engage in? What do you do if you start crying? It’s more so just preparing people for what could happen.”
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for smaller portions. If you’re at the grocery store, you don’t necessarily have to take the preselected large cuts that are available in the meat department. Try going to the meat counter and asking for a smaller cut. Or go to the bulk section and buy the amount of food that makes sense for you.
  • Figure out what you like. Maybe you and your loved one had an old routine for meals, but that could change now. Whether it’s eating at a different time or in a different room of your house, adjusting your routine may help.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment. If you’ve never cooked before, you can learn new skills in the kitchen and learn what you like to make. Even if you have cooked before, you can try new recipes or make food that you haven’t had in a while. “It’s first encouraging people just to be OK with where they are in their experience and understand that as time moves, their experience will unfold,” Schandelmeier Gilgunn says. “They can start experimenting and having fun with it down the line.”
  • Practice mindful eating. It may feel tempting to go for something quick and easy, but that’s often not what’s best for you. Consider nutrition when you plan and prepare meals. If you’re not sure, talk to your doctor. “We really encourage people not only to see a doctor for a checkup but also to really make sure that they’re getting good nutrition and that they’re hydrating themselves,” Schandelmeier Gilgunn says.
  • Have a plan for the holidays. The holidays are often an especially difficult time. Deciding whether you want to continue your normal holiday traditions or change things up can help with any emotions you might feel. Maybe you want to spend the holidays alone, or maybe you want to invite all your other loved ones. Maybe you want to leave an empty spot at the table in your loved one’s memory. Or maybe you don’t want to discuss it at all. And even if you don’t celebrate this year, that doesn’t mean you have to hold to that next year. “Whatever feels right, that’s the right thing to do,” Schandelmeier Gilgunn says. “There’s no wrong way to celebrate.”
  • Don’t be afraid to talk to someone. Grief can feel lonely. But that doesn’t mean you’re alone. Talking to someone you trust — whether it’s another family member, a friend, a co-worker, or a licensed counselor — may help you with whatever you’re experiencing.

Schandelmeier Gilgunn and Rausch’s Cooking for One class ran for four consecutive Wednesdays in fall 2022 at Phipps Conservatory in Oakland. Although the initial series is over, they hope to offer the class again in the future.

Class participants learn tools for planning and preparing meals for one. They also cook and share healthy meals together.

The class also provides an opportunity for people who lost a loved one to get together and spend time with others who are in similar situations.

“We are all very much on the same playing field here, and it’s just a great group,” Rausch says. “You’re learning, you’re talking, everyone is sharing their experience. And when they start, when people have been so engaged in this experience, it makes talking about their grief a lot easier.”

UPMC hospice providers offer support to many people who are dealing with bereavement. For more information on what we provide, visit our website.

About UPMC

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.