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8 ways to socially connect through food when socially distant

Read to me!

Picture this.

It’s December 25th 2011. Christmas Day.

I woke up late afternoon after a very long nap to recover from Christmas morning. Even with my small family of 4 people, I was overstimulated by the lights on the tree, the assorted coloured wrapping paper, and the sound of tissue being pulled a part.

And just like a kid, I was EXCITED — an emotion rarely accessible to me in those 5 months post concussion, and likely made possible with the help of my panic attack medication I needed to get through that morning…

Bob was such a trooper at Christmas 🙂

“Are you sure you don’t want to come for dinner?” My mom asked me…again.

It’s odd to think that bumping the number of people up from 4 to 7 was somehow enough to sound my brain injury alarms.

“I’m sure. I have to stay home.” I replied, as I watched my parents and brother leave for my Aunt & Uncle’s place for Christmas dinner.

I was disappointed. Even though by this point I was perhaps frustratingly accustomed to saying “no.” But missing such a significant social meal felt like more of a blow — I knew I had to do something special to fill that void.

December 25th 2011 was the first time (at least that I remember) actually COOKING dinner for myself post concussion.

Corner of Portage & Main in Winnipeg during the holidays. Apparently the ‘coldest” in Canada.

I made a chicken breast. I think it had some sort of balsamic vinegar based sauce. I steamed some veggies and added cheese (because, let’s be real ;P ). And…I can’t fully remember if I made mashed potatoes or rice… I hope the former because nothing says “something special” like smashed potatoes 😀

I then sat down at the head of the dining room table (an honour typically only bestowed upon thee on thine day of birth celebration), and I opened up Skype on my laptop.

I had a virtual dinner with my then boyfriend, who was also on his own, having to work later that night.

So much about this moment in time shows me the role food plays in social connection, and how that in turn supports our health and well being.

That time my friend from Toronto wanted to take me to all her favourite food places in the city 🙂

About a month ago I was interviewed by another TBI survivor for their platform. The theme of our discussion was “The Pressures of Holiday Eating.”

With a TBI, social eating may be difficult. Add a PANDEMIC on top of that, and you’ve got yourself a cluster-fudge of family meal foils…

At the time I’m writing this, the virus is once again hitting peaks and spreading. The number of people affected and losing their lives is again climbing. Hospitals are bracing to be overwhelmed. A national call to action asks for us to be less socially active, if not straight up stay home.

To control the virus and save lives means to cancel our holiday gatherings.

This will be the second time I have to say “no” to conventional Christmas dinner.

And you know what? I’m up for it.

Can you see the heart? Unintended but appreciated 🙂

In the interview one of the things I shared was my belief that we all deserve that social connection around food. Your brain injury may have showed you just how detrimental social isolation can be on mental & emotional well being. While for others, it may be this COVID pandemic that brought more awareness to this fundamental human need to connect.

But now, how to have that social connection around food at a time when we need to stay socially distant?

Maybe this isn’t important nor a priority for everybody. And maybe it’s not a full-on need for survival. But I feel there’s great opportunity to find healing in creative ways of socially connecting through food, even when we’re a part. Whether that’s because of the pandemic, or because the brain injury holds us back from even just eating with those in our household bubble.

To find these creative ways, I connected with my favourite foodie friend, Emily 🙂 We’ve been friends since teenagers and got a lot of good gossip on each other. She expresses herself through her food blog and has also dealt with her own concussion.

Emily and the tourtière: an epic journey

When Emily and I started going back and forth talking about the importance of food for connection, the tears started flowing.

“It’s more than just missing this dinner…after my grandma passed it took 5 people to accomplish the dinner she hosted for us…emotionally it was hard enough not having her there…I have no other meal like that in the year…and it was also a way to honour the memory of my grandma…”

Truth is, we can’t “get that back.” Much like we can’t get our “pre-brain injury selves” back. There is no going back. Only going forward. And finding out that a new normal is OK.

So after talking with Emily, here are 8 ways to get social connection through food when socially distant 🙂

1) Have a meal over the phone or video call — like the Jetson’s!

This doesn’t have to be full on video if screen time is an issue for you. Just having someone’s voice on the other end, knowing someone is thinking and caring about you while you eat, is a beautiful thing 🙂 I’ve done this a lot in my time, often calling my mom and talking with my mouth full ;P

2) Invest some time and energy in cooking/ baking traditional recipes or a family favourite

My brother and I both live in the same city, but away from our parents who are back our hometown of Winnipeg. This year my brother has really gotten into learning to cook & bake some of our mom’s signature recipes — her famous pie crust dough, mince meat tarts, and soon we’re going whipped shortbread 🙂 This also gets us to reach out to our mom more (“Mom, am I doing this right??”) Making these things connects us with family in a way that can’t happen when living a part.

Mom and her famous pie dough

3) Exchange recipes (or foods) with people you know

I listen to this podcast called “By the Book.” The two co-hosts follow the rules of a chosen self-help book, then weigh in on whether it actually changed their lives. Recently they did one by Martha Stuart on entertaining — an interesting choice during a pandemic 🙂 They found some creative ways to connect, and they shared some that their listeners had sent in. One listener noted how for Thanksgiving this year, each member of the family (in separate households) was going to cook one item of the dinner. They were then going to arrange a distant delivery/ pick up system, so that on Thanksgiving day, everyone had all the different items of the meal! Like a “pandemic potluck” 😉

By The Book on Stitcher

4) If you have people in your bubble, cook or bake with them

I know in the early days of my concussion, I hid in my room while others cooked for me. If I could go back, I would participate more. Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to be a part of the whole prep, but being a part of ANY of it would have really helped me feel just a bit less isolated. And if you don’t have anyone in your bubble, could you try online? Recently Emily taught me how to cook a new recipe over FaceTime. We’re three provinces a part, but it worked and it was delicious 🙂

5) Have an outdoor warm beverage date

Coffee? Tea? Hot chocolate? Warm apple cider? Take it to the streets! Or to a quiet backyard or park 🙂 Here where I am and where I grew up in Canada, in February, the COLDEST winter month, we have outdoor festivals. Picture kiosks and bars of ice & snow, or tents and outdoor spaces with those heating lamp things. Trust me. If we can do it when it’s at least -30 degrees Celsius, it can be done 🙂

Tea time — raise those pinkies!

6) Start a new food tradition

This is one that has been healing to me the past holiday seasons. There’s reconnecting with my family’s traditions, and then there’s starting a new one of my own. Like the holiday granola I gift to friends & neighbours. Or that chocolate black pepper (yes, you read that right) cookie recipe that I LOVE. Or making my own dog biscuits 🙂 A new food tradition to share with others can be just as connecting as an old one IMO.

7) If you’re in need, check out a podcast for online meal support

For some, having people around at meal time can act as a source of compassionate support when eating is just really that tough. Some caring dietitians have put together a meal support podcast. It’s a great resource that aims to create a supportive environment while you eat. It’s called Join Our Table: A Meal Support Podcast for Eating Disorder Recovery. Check it out on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, wherever you get podcasts, and on instagram here: 

Join Our Table: A Meal Support Podcast for Eating Disorder Recovery

8) Connect with your local food providers

Whether this is the owner of the quaint coffee shop down the street, a farmer at a stall in the market, or just learning the name of that grocery store cashier you see every time you go, this is also connecting over food in a way that also connects you to your community <3

One of my faves at the Forks in Winnipeg: Tall Grass Prairie

It’s funny to think that nine Christmas’ ago I had to get creative to make a holiday meal special, and that today I’m in the same position, though for a different reason. And this time the whole world is in the same boat.

Emily and I have a bit of a tradition of our own we’re taking online this year. Usually when both of us are back in Winnipeg, we set aside Dec 23rd to cook an elaborate meal. It takes an epic amount of time, and honestly Emily does most of the work (lol). But DAMN. I still make those dates stuffed two-ways Emily! Because you showed me how 🙂

The last time Emily & I were able to cook together. An epic french-canadian inspired meal 🙂

How are you feeling about holiday meals? Are you grieving the loss of gatherings you would have had? Or are you inwardly rejoicing the cancellation so you’re not faced with having to make that decision? Or do you feel you’re just simply trying to survive your day-to-day?

Whatever your situation, know that now more than ever, you’re not experiencing this alone.

Best in holiday brain health and keeping yourself and others safe,

Krystal Merrells

Wearing a mask

Maintaining the bubble

Plotting an epic meal with her best foodie bud