Known for being cost-savvy, author and activist Jack Monroe is the food writer focused on ensuring we all can eat well, even on a tight budget. She talks to us about cooking as therapy, achieving the perfect day, and what good mental health looks like to her…
Jack Monroe’s culinary prowess was borne out of a need to eat well and to eat cheaply when she struggled to make ends meet after having her son. Her first cookbook, A Girl Called Jack, was a runaway bestseller in 2014, and now the sequel, Cooking On A Bootstrap, focuses on Jack’s love of cooking as a way to relieve stress and practise self-care – as well as feeding yourself and your family well with delicious, low-budget meals.
Packed with 118 delicious new recipes, such as “fluffy berry pancakes” and “self-love stew”, Jack – an activist and campaigner against hunger and poverty – is on a mission to change the way we eat, cook, and even think about food.
Hi Jack! What inspired your speciality for cooking on a budget?
My work came out of a desperate need to teach people how to cook from food bank boxes – and it’s an issue that’s growing. My website crashed as it passed 35 million viewers. That is huge to me. It’s astonishing that so many people access my work, but also saddening. There was a massive spike in people looking for my work over the summer holidays, with hunger being such a problem during this time. It demonstrates the panic people are in about affordable food. Where do we go from here?
What's your goal?
Ideally, I’d love to teach as many people as possible to cook well, and to cook cheaply. I’m not just a food writer, I am a campaigner. I’ve never been able to separate the two – against all the advice. My food is political, and my politics are food-related. I have the same cupboard staples in all of my books – tinned tomatoes, frozen veg, kidney beans. They are healthy, cheap and help to reduce food waste as they last a while.
What’s your advice for ensuring kids eat well?
With my son, I have a chart on the wall; he is allowed to list five ingredients he doesn’t want to eat. I promise not to cook with those things. So I am working with a handful of things rather than an endless list. I am not dictating to him, he is deciding what he eats. If it’s not on the chart, he has to eat it.
Do you find cooking is a good way to support your mental health?
Yes, keeping yourself well-fed is one of the biggest things you can do for good mental health. I find cooking very therapeutic, as it is the act of creating something from nothing. I also use the time to cook as a rest period to collect my thoughts. I often say to friends that the time I least want to get in the kitchen is the time I most have to get up and do it.
You've been open about having therapy. how does that help to keep you well?
Sometimes I get to the end of the day and think: “I’ve had a really good day today,” so me and my therapist tried to work out what the components of a good day had been.
For me, it can be really simple stuff such as eating all my fruit and veg, doing my hair properly, or making sure the house is tidy. Once I have the contributing factors of a good day, I use them as a to-do list going forwards.
I try to do those things every day, then if something does go wrong, I’m responding to it from a place of being well-fed and having a good night’s sleep, and all the other good stuff – rather than running on empty.
In the past, you've been targeted online by cruel trolls for being different. How have you dealt with that?
The biggest thing sending me off kilter is online abuse and harassment, which I get as a woman with opinions. Not just a woman – a single mum, gay – there’s loads of reasons why people single me out. In the past it’d knock me for six. At the moment, I am in a strong enough place not to allow that to happen. I have mechanisms now in place to deal with it that I never had before.
You’ve just completed a UK book tour, have three cookbooks, and 35 million users tried to see your website relaunch. How do you fit it all in?
There is a lot to juggle. I get up to work before the school run, and then work again before pick up. I fit it around single motherhood, and work in the evenings. I am working from 7am until 10pm most days. I work weekends. I am lucky I don’t have to answer to anyone, but then again I am my own PA, my own ad mogul, website designer – I’ve got like 17 jobs and it can be exhausting keeping on top of it sometimes.
I can work anywhere, but I am doing it with an eight-year-old in tow. This is the true balance. I have to make sure I have adequate time to spend with my son, that he’s well fed and looked after. And sometimes my schedule is quite demanding. You just do it, don’t you? My office is often a tube carriage somewhere, or the back of a cab.
What does good mental health look like to you?
I guess good mental health is being comfortable with who you are, and where you are in your day. It’s a lack of self-loathing, self-doubt and tiredness. It’s a calmness.
Is there anything else you do to support your mental wellbeing?
I walk everywhere; I probably clock up about 20,000 steps a day. It annoys my entire family, but I like to round everyone up out of the house and say: “Right, we are going for a walk.” I’m lucky enough to live by the sea, so getting to the coast is brilliant – that is always very therapeutic.
I use the Headspace app. I always thought meditation wasn’t for me, because I’ve got such a busy mind, but this app is a really easy way to do it every day. In the evenings I use it to get to sleep. I also spend a lot less time on social media; I find that my mental health correlates with how much time I'm on there. And frankly, I am too busy!