Cooking as a Self-Care Practice

I was not the kid my mom would have pegged as the one who’d enjoy cooking. I hated touching raw meat. I had zero patience for the exactitude or step-by-step process required by most recipes and all baking. I even infamously nearly burned the house down trying to boil hot dogs once. (PSA: burner covers are a *terrible* idea, no matter how cute they look.)

So what changed? Some of it was a slow building of skill and confidence. Some of it was just necessity—for a year I lived on my own and I didn’t have the money to eat out all the time. But more than anything, I’m aware of an accumulation of shifts in behaviors and attitudes around food over the last twenty years, shifts that have made it something I find restorative rather than draining. Something that when I do it regularly, it keeps me grounded in my best self for everything else that I do: triathlon training, work, relationship, all of it.

This post isn’t really about how to cook. (though perhaps I should write a post for beginner cooks at some point?) It’s not about shaming you for not cooking more or telling you what you should or shouldn’t eat. This is about cooking as an act of self-care and the restoration of the connection to the world around you.

Below are a list of practices that have helped me. Practice is a super important word there and I want to reiterate that this didn’t happen over night! Maybe find one below that you’d like to try out and then experiment with it. And perhaps, with enough practice and play, you’ll find something shifts for you too.

1. Keep it simple

We’ve been told our food pictures inspire people, which is awesome! We love that our cooking and local eating have given people ideas and aspirations about their own food. But here’s a secret you might already know—when we make mac and cheese out of the box, we don’t post about it. And why would we, really? You all know what that looks like. It’s not really worth shouting from the roof tops. But that ends up creating the illusion that we never cook simple food, when that’s just not true.

If you’re a beginner cook or an every-once-in-a-while cook, trying to make something super complex is a set-up for frustration. We’ve got two experienced cooks in our kitchen and we spent a full calendar year of our relationship learning how to cook together. Maybe that’s not your reality. That’s ok. Start out making things that you can cook, with ingredients you can readily find. Cooking as self-care isn’t about stressing yourself out or beating yourself up or proving anything to anyone. It’s about nourishing yourself. And that doesn’t have to complicated.

blue apron
January 2016, the two of us starting to learn to cook together

2. Make some time (and maybe a plan)

If the self-care were a pedicure, you’d set aside enough time to do it right? If it was your favorite TV show, you’d block off a night on your schedule. Cooking requires time. Which seems silly to say, but one of the recurring complaints I hear about cooking is that people “don’t have” time or that it takes “too much” time. If you want to try cooking as a self-care practice, you have to make time for it and consider it time worth taking.

Moreover, I’ve learned to make more time than I need. If a recipe says it takes 35 minutes, I carve out an hour for myself to make it. By doing that, I prevent frantic chopping as I watch the 36th minute go by, shaming myself for being so slow and worrying about the next thing I’m supposed to be doing. I also set aside time once a week to plan and shop for what we’ll be making that week. This involves finding the recipes and then figuring out which nights we can take the time to cook them.

Nothing always goes to plan. But having a plan at 5pm when I’m tired and hungry, and having the time to actually make it without added stress or shame, means that at least a few times a week I can care for myself through the food I make.

3. All about atmosphere

Think about the last time you really enjoyed a meal out. Or the last time you treated yourself to spa service and you actually felt relaxed as you left. Chances are good that a part of what helped you settle in, open up, and relax was the atmosphere. The same it true for cooking.

Before you even start, put some music on. Pour yourself a relaxing beverage to sip as you go. Clear the counters and give yourself more space than you think you need. Give yourself plenty of light and maybe even some that’s warmer than a fluorescent. Invest in a gadget that delights you or some pretty ceramic bowls to put the stew or soup in. If there are certain colors or levels of cleanliness you need in order to really relax in the kitchen, create that environment for yourself. You may already know what things you need to make a bath relaxing—figure out what that list for you in the kitchen, so you can look forward to cooking the way you might look forward to that bath.

4. Companionship or solitude

This one is mostly about knowing if you’re an introvert or an extrovert. Do you get more energy from being with others or do you get your energy back in the time you spend alone? If you want cooking to feel like restorative time, you might want to align that with your intro/extraversion.

Introverts, even if you love the idea of cooking with your partner or kids, make some solo cooking time too. Extroverts, even if you don’t have a partner or roommate right now, find a friend to cook with or host a cook-for-the-week party. Creating the right social atmosphere for you is as important as creating the physical atmosphere to cook in, if you’re going to do it as an act of care.

5. Engage your senses

Cooking is an act of care for your body through the food that you make. It can also be an act of care for your body, while you’re cooking. Take a moment and smell the herb you just chopped up before you drop it in the pot. Hold you hands over the soup pot for a moment on a chilly day. Look at the colors in the pot and watch as they change. Take little tastes of your work along the way.

It might seem a little silly and yes, I know there’s an actual recipe you need to pay attention to as well. But if the act of cooking is going to care for you, you need to be present to it and not just thinking about the next thing that needs to go in the pot.

Basil from our garden, with a small crown of white blossoms. Can you smell it?

6. Ground it in gratitude

One of the best parts about eating (mostly) local has been having specific names, faces, and farms that come to mind as we’re cooking. Knowing exactly where our food comes from and whose hard work is on the cutting board, keeps the food we eat from being just another thing that we buy. Money, as they say, doesn’t grow on trees. But pears do. And we know exactly which ones, picked by which hands to whom we can be grateful.

This is the ancient wisdom in grace before a meal—a moment of recognition that food is a gift. A grace from God, from someone’s labor, from the earth itself. But you don’t have to wait until you’re sitting at the table to tap into that sense of thankfulness and abundance. Try adding your gratitude as the secret ingredient in the food you cook. I swear it makes it taste better than when I add a dash of frustration, shame, or thoughtless entitlement. In our experience, it will be all the more powerful if you can connect that gratitude to where your food came from—in our case, our neighbors and the world they grew and tended around us.

Are there other things that have helped you cook as more than a chore—as self-care, as enjoyment, maybe even as a spiritual practice? Let us know in a comment below!

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