Cook your way to calm

What activities help you get through tough times?

Over the years, I’ve experimented with a range of weird and wonderful stress-busting activities, including yoga, pilates, meditation classes, floatation tanks, massages, acupuncture, and sound healings (to name a few).

I’ll be the first to admit that cash-grabbing wellness gurus and advertisers have sucked me in.

In our capitalist culture, we’re sold this idea that in order to relax, we need to spend big dollars. But I now realise that the best relaxation experiences are cheap or free.

In this blog, I want to share one of my favourite relaxation practices: cooking.

I’ve created rituals around cooking that help me stay calm, grounded, and focused throughout the day.

These days, cooking is my number one way to relax. My kitchen is my happy place, and it can be your happy place, too.

Perhaps this sounds a bit strange. But hear me out.

I haven’t always found cooking to be relaxing or particularly enjoyable.

Being half Italian, I used to get involved with the occasional food tradition, such as tomato sauce-making day. But it wasn’t like I grew up with the delicious smells of homecooked food wafting through the house.

My teenage years and early twenties were filled with processed junk foods: a dizzying array of Hungry Jacks combos, greasy fish and chips, and takeaway meat lovers pizzas.

Cooking was a relaxation practice I stumbled upon much later in life.

Since upping my kitchen game and trading the expensive wellness activities for a sharp knife, solid chopping board, and fresh vegetables, my savings and confidence have grown.

How does one cultivate calm in the kitchen?

To emerge from the kitchen in a calm and tranquil state, a few conditions have to be in place:

1. You cannot feel rushed
2. Your kitchen counter must be clean and clutter-free
3. You need a sharp knife to chop with
4. Your phone must be out of sight (like most things in life, it’s best not to multitask)

If these conditions are met, cooking can feel like a meditation or an empowering yoga class.

I’m not the only person who feels this way.

In the book ‘Uncook Yourself: A Ratbag’s Rules for Life’, Nat’s What I Reckon shares how he cooks his way through tough times. He writes:

“I reckon getting in the kitchen and un-cooking yourself from the tough moments in your head every now and then is a way better self-help routine than throwing five grand at some short-lived back pat from a cash grabbing blowhard at a self-help seminar just to tell you you’re not doing life right.”

How does cooking lead to a sense of calm? What are the underlying mechanisms?

One reason is you need to focus your mind.

When chopping with a sharp knife, you must pay attention to what you’re doing. If you get distracted, and I have (many times), you might pay the price with a cut to the finger.

Chopping is also a repetitive activity that delivers an immediate outcome. One minute, the bok choy is on the chopping board in full form; the next, it has been chopped and is ready for tonight’s stir-fry.

Cooking also requires you to slow down.

When you’re online, you tend to jump around in a frenzy. But when you’re cooking, you have to follow a recipe step-by-step. This requires focus. This focus helps to clear your mind.

Cooking also gives you a sense of control, power, and agency. As food journalist Michael Pollan says:

“Eating out breeds helplessness, dependence and ignorance, and eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility.”

When you cook, you’re in control of the process (not some big corporate fast food company). Plus, compared to that commodified wellness experience, cooking is super cheap (all it costs is the price of a few ingredients).

It also produces a nourishing meal at the end. That meal will give you energy, help regulate your mood, and keep you calm and steady.

Food impacts your brain

In the book ‘The Food Mood Connection’, Uma Naidoo argues that to decrease anxiety, you should pay attention to what you’re eating. She writes:

“A crucial part of battling anxiety is making sure your diet is full of foods that are calming and free of foods that put you on edge.”

What foods could put you on edge?

Fast foods and highly processed foods. These foods (e.g., greasy hot chips and baked goods) are problematic because they lack fibre and the fragile micronutrients and phytochemicals needed for good brain health.

Naidoo recommends increasing your fibre intake by consuming more plants and whole foods, such as beans, brown rice, baked potatoes with the skin on, broccoli, pears, apples, and oats.

“But isn’t it easier and cheaper to buy takeaway?”

A few years ago, I delivered a talk called ‘Rediscovering the Ancient Art of Thrift’ at a local library. In my presentation, I shared the thrifty practice of avoiding eating out and cooking meals at home.

At this point in the presentation, an elderly gentleman put up his hand and said:

“But vegetables are expensive. Why not just get McDonald’s? It’s cheap, and there’s no cleaning up at the end.”

I immediately thought of a friend who, at the time, ate only McDonald’s (for breakfast, lunch, and dinner). His housemates had confided in me that his feet had developed a pungent odour.

Although my diet was far from perfect, I was concerned. If my friend kept going down this path, I could see him heading for serious trouble.

Fast forward a year: How was my friend doing?

He was not well.

He had put on a significant amount of weight and seemed depressed, rarely leaving his room except to get his next McDonald’s meal (back in those days, there was no Uber Eats).

I explained to this elderly gentleman in the library workshop:

“Maybe you’ll save a bit of time and money in the short term [buying the fast food], but eating processed food will cost you down the track. It will cost you in medical bills and poor health. Your quality of life will suffer.”

He nodded, but I could tell he wasn’t entirely convinced.

Cultivating calm and confidence in the kitchen

Until you’ve cut out the processed junk food, allowed a couple of weeks for your tastebuds to readjust, and developed the habit of home cooking, it’s easy to be sceptical. After all, we live in a world that values convenience. Opening an app, pressing a button, and having dinner delivered to your door in less than 20 minutes has some definite appeal.

But every time you order Uber Eats, you miss out on a valuable opportunity to practice slowing down and calming your mind. You also undermine your cooking skills.

If you haven’t developed the habit of cooking or cooking makes you feel anxious, there are a few simple things you can do to cultivate calm and confidence in the kitchen:

1. Give yourself permission to make a mess

Cooking is a messy process. While I may start with a clean kitchen bench, it quickly becomes a mess. That’s how the process goes (I try to clean as I go).

It’s also okay to mess up a meal. Not every meal is going to be an absolute winner. In ‘The Four Hour Chef’, Tim Ferris encourages the reader to see meals that don’t work out as cheap cooking classes. Learn the lesson and move on.

2. Break down the process

When you think of cooking as one activity, it can feel overwhelming. I divide the cooking process into two stages:

1) Preparing the mise en place: chopping vegetables, taking out utensils, etc, and
2) Pulling it all together: cooking the dish.

In the morning, I take out all the ingredients for a dish so they are ready to go when I need to take a break from my work. I chop earlier in the day and cook the dish in the afternoon/early evening.

If I’m overwhelmed by the idea of chopping vegetables, I break it down to chopping just one vegetable at a time. I’ll say to myself:

“Just chop the capsicum. That’s all you need to do.”

3. Invest in good tools

It’s not fun chopping with a knife with a dull blade. A sharp knife combined with a lovely chopping board makes all the difference.

4. Learn how to chop

Learning basic chopping skills is a game changer. With the proper technique and a sharp knife, there’s no need to worry about cutting yourself. You can chop with ease.

I took a chopping skills course with the online cooking school Rouxbe, but you can find YouTube videos teaching you good chopping techniques.

5. Take your time

You’re not running a restaurant. You don’t have to rush to get meals out to hungry customers. Take your time and enjoy the process of chopping each vegetable.

To sum up

If approached with the right mindset, cooking can deliver a sense of calm and ground you in the present moment. You also get to experience the mental and physical benefits of a nourishing home-cooked meal. The bonus extra is saving a bit of money.

So, what are you waiting for? Pull out some ingredients and start cooking today.