Content note: This piece contains mentions of eating disorders.
“So, who’s the primary cook in your house — you or your husband?”
My answer to this question tends to kill a conversation.
“Actually, we don’t cook for each other much.” That’s usually followed by an awkward pause and an “…Oh.”
I don’t know why this topic comes up in conversation so often. But the fact that people ask, and their reaction to the answer, hints at society’s assumption that every couple *has* a primary cook — and that typically, after that person cooks, both partners sit down and eat.
That’s not what we do.
My husband and I have cooked and eaten separately most days for the entire 10 years we’ve lived together. While some research suggests this should mean we’re less happy than couples who eat together more often, we’re doing just fine in that department. In fact, accepting our differing eating habits has made our relationship stronger — right from the start.
When we met, I had just moved to a new city for college and was hoping that the move would allow me to leave my eating disorder behind. Spoiler alert: That didn’t happen.
Despite multiple previous attempts at recovery, I didn’t feel great about where I was with my illness. And because eating disorders can make the act of eating feel intimate or even shameful, one of the things I struggled with was eating in social situations.
My husband and I had been acquaintances for a couple of years, so by the time we started dating, he knew some bits of my history. But when we started getting to know each other better, I decided to be up front about how my issues would affect our relationship: “Food is hard for me. It might be a while before I’m comfortable eating around you, so we’re going to have to find other things to do together.”
I knew this might strike him as odd since going out to eat is such a common aspect of dating. I wanted to give him a chance to opt out if it sounded too complicated, and I would have understood if he had. He acknowledged that it was an unusual situation but made it clear that he just wanted to spend time with me, regardless of what we did.
We dated for months before we ate together — no dinner dates, no weekend brunches, no milkshakes with two straws. He was incredibly understanding and never made me feel like the complete weirdo I often thought I was.
After all that, you’d think I would remember the first meal we shared. I don’t. I was probably too focused on making sure I was acting as close to normal as possible. But clearly the meal went well enough that we did it again. It got easier, and I got healthier.
He let me make most of the food-related decisions over the next few years. I chose the restaurants we went to and often placed complicated orders. I turned down multiple invitations to Thanksgiving meals with his family. If I decided I didn’t feel like going out to eat, even at the last minute, he was OK with it.
When we moved in together, there was never a question of who would cook. We had different food preferences and usually weren’t hungry at the same times, so it made sense to keep doing our own things.
To this day, we grocery-shop separately and split the fridge like roommates (minus the passive-aggressive notes). Everything is technically up for grabs, but we rarely dip into each other’s stashes.
Doing things this way frees us from potential conflicts over the division of food-related labor — not just cooking but also the time-consuming work of planning meals for multiple people, shopping in preparation for them, and cleaning up afterward.
Research shows that women in the United States spend more time on food preparation and cleanup than men do. In couples where one partner identifies as male and one as female, the female partner is almost three times more likely to take on the responsibilities of cooking and food shopping.
None of this is an issue for us: We each spend only as much time as we choose to. We also don’t get into a daily back-and-forth of “What do you want for dinner?”
Meal planning requires much less mental effort when you only have to plan for yourself — and considering my still-complicated relationship with food, that’s no small thing.
I’m not saying we never spend time in the kitchen together or that we don’t share food. We often prep food at the same time and offer to pick things up for each other at the store. Without being asked, we help each other with dishes (which is apparently the household chore that has the most significant effect on relationship satisfaction).
We enjoy doing nice things for each other — we just know cooking doesn’t have to be one of them.
Of course, this works mostly because we don’t have children and because we have the time, money, and access to make it possible. We know it’s an immense privilege to be able to walk 10 minutes to a store and buy any food we want. Gratitude for that is a major part of our life.
People’s perception of our food habits also took an interesting turn 5 years ago, when my husband became a vegetarian.
If he turns down meat at a meal or otherwise mentions being a vegetarian, people often ask if I’m one too. They seem surprised when I say “no,” probably because vegetarianism is more common among women and because society tends to associate meat with masculinity.
Without more context, they might also assume we’re a typical couple who eat together most nights — and if we were, his diet change might have been more difficult to deal with. But because of our established habits, his transition to vegetarianism was never an issue.
The only thing it has affected is our choice of restaurants — maybe for the better. After years of feeling like I was the high-maintenance one when it came to dining out, I now love the process of finding places that work for us both. I’ll happily go to a meatless restaurant if it means he gets to eat something interesting.
And for family meals and holidays, we plan together: What’s being served? Should we eat beforehand? Should we bring something? Then we help each other deflect the all-too-common invasive questions about what or how much we’re eating.
We’ve all heard the advice that you shouldn’t try to change your partner — and that’s true of their eating habits too. My husband accepted my f*cked-up relationship with food from day one and never pushed me to do things I wasn’t ready for. He did sometimes try to help me make good choices but always backed off when asked.
His ability to accept and love me in spite of my struggles with food showed me he was in it for the long haul. In comparison, his vegetarianism is no big thing.
A few years ago I got a job at a food media company and started bringing home cookbooks. I didn’t imagine myself using them much, because I don’t like to spend a lot of time cooking and tend to eat the same few things on repeat. But my husband, then only a year into vegetarian life, was eager to learn to cook a wider variety of foods, so he dug into those books and taught himself.
Everyone has relationship deal-breakers, and for some people, a major dietary difference might be one. For us, it just isn’t. I’ve loved watching him transform from a fairly minimal cook into one who’s confident enough to try to re-create restaurant dishes at home. He always offers me some of the food he makes, and even if I don’t eat a whole portion, I’ll try a few bites because I love sharing in his victories. I’m so proud of how much we’ve both grown in our relationships with food and each other.
The internet is filled with ruminations on whether people with different eating habits can have a happy relationship. We’re proof that it’s possible — if you want it to be.
Jill Campbell is a Boston-based editor and writer who loves to talk about conscious language, mental health, the evils of diet culture, and her cat. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.