It's 6 o'clock. You're done with work for the day, you walk into the kitchen, and you pull out your cutting board to prep dinner. Thirty minutes later, you blink and look up and realize you spent the entire time composing a work email in your head.
See more of the kitchen pictured above: An Artistic, Colorful, Vintage-Inspired Home at Apartment Therapy
This happens to me all the time. And I make cookbooks for a living (for shame!). Even though I spend big chunks of the work day thinking about food, and even though I've finally learned strategies to get more use out of my cookbooks, something awful had happened to me over the years: I became a drill sergeant with my poor husband, who was trying to play sous chef but couldn't ever seem to chop fast enough, do things the way I wanted them done, or stand in the right spot at the right time. (Why couldn't he? Because my demands were crazy, that's why.)
I became a micromanaging tyrant — I was that one boss who always has a criticism at the ready, shoves more to-dos on already slumping shoulders, and cannot rest until every drop of joy has been squeezed out of the workplace. And then I'd sit down to dinner, exhausted, tense, and not sure why I couldn't relax and enjoy my meal.
How This Happened and Ways to Fix It
I think we've come to so deeply value quick and easy and one-pot and make-ahead and wham-bam-done recipes that we sometimes forget we actually like to cook. Yes, we all love quick recipes and rely on them to get anything acceptable on the dinner table at all, but just because we're making a 30-minute meal doesn't mean that every one of those 30 minutes needs to be about efficiency rather than enjoyment.
We've forgotten that practical can also be pleasurable, and that, for those of us who show up to the stove every day, the kitchen can be our sunlit studio and cooking can be our mindfulness practice.
Just because we're making a 30-minute meal doesn't mean that every one of those 30 minutes needs to be about efficiency rather than enjoyment.
If you've also fallen prey to panicked dinner prep, banging and whirling around the kitchen because you need to pull the chicken out now and WHERE ARE THE POTHOLDERS, then this mindfulness practice is for you. Meditation is full of powerful methods to release tension, quiet the mind, dial down the need for control, and relax into the moment. And is there anywhere we need those things more than in the kitchen?
Just remember, it's all a practice. Some days your kiddos or your roommates will barge in and muck up your blissed-out moment. Some days you'll still lose it over never being able to find the oven mitts. And some days you'll skip around through these techniques, picking and choosing what feels good to you that day.
But if you squeeze out even one extra drop of enjoyment from your weekday cooking, then that's progress. And if you spend even one more night laughing and talking around the table with the people you love, then you're on the path. What path? The path to Total Kitchen Enlightenment, of course. (Did I mention that the path leads to some really delicious dinners? Beat that, expensive yoga class.)
1. Prime your mind and set an intention.
Here you are, in the kitchen, and you've thought about this moment all day. Instead of rushing right to the fridge and beginning to pull out ingredients, let that urge go. Sit down at the kitchen table and give yourself a few moments to transition from the work day to leisure time.
Close your eyes and take a deep breath, and repeat until your mind stops struggling against the stillness. Then pull up your recipe and read it slowly, forming the image of each ingredient in your mind. Think about the how great it'll feel to squeeze out the tomato paste and imagine the sizzle of the wine as it hits the pan.
Let yourself smile and melt into the comfort of cooking. This is your time, and it's up to you to enjoy it. Set an intention for the night — it can be something as simple as "listen" to remind yourself to tune in to other's words, or it can be a particular phrase that eases your mind.
2. Prime your kitchen and feel gratitude for it.
Stand at your workstation and look around. Then close your eyes and take a few more deep breaths. Feel gratitude for having food every night and every day, and thank yourself for taking the next 30 minutes to prepare it in a way that will nourish your body and your mind.
For a moment, visualize how much you love to place plates of food in front of the people you love, including yourself. Remember that this is the most basic act of caring for and loving another human, and you're so lucky to be able to do it right now. This the best part of the day, and you aim to enjoy it.
3. Arrive in the present moment and admire it.
Begin to pull out your ingredients and chop them as needed. Feel the weight and steadiness of the knife in your hand. Lean in close and admire the texture and the colors and the smell of the food. Listen to the sound the vegetables make as you chop them and feel grateful for their individual noises.
As you work to prep all the ingredients, notice how your feet are planted. If you're leaning too much on one foot over another, reshuffle them and take a breath as you root them into the ground. Take another breath and release your shoulders away from your ears. Breath into any tense spots in your body, such as a clenched jaw or a furrowed brow, and allow yourself to melt into each moment. You are here, and here is good.
4. Relax into the moment.
As you continue with your cooking, return to this centering practice. As your mind wanders to your to-do list, or that conversation you had this morning, or the meeting you have tomorrow, carry yourself back with a breath. With each breath, relax your shoulders, and look and listen closely to whatever's happening in front of you.
You're now in the moment of the day you most love, and you're not going to let this enjoyment slip away without you and your mind being present. Each time you feel the moment slip away, take a deep breath, flutter your eyes closed for a second or two, and relax back into the present moment.
5. Approach plating with playfulness.
When you're completely finished cooking, open up your dishware cabinet, step back, and survey all the options. Feel gratitude for owning so many dishes that have held so much good food. Scan them all and pick whichever one makes you feel a little giddy inside, even if it's not the right dish for that kind of meal. This cooking practice is for you, and the dishes exist to serve you anything you want.
Take a deep breath and begin plating your dish, admiring the way the food nestles into its vessel and how it steams with heat or settles down into the cold. Breathe deeply as you add your garnishes and admire how the pops of colors, different textures, and different shapes contrast with each other. When you're finished, take an extra-deep breath and savor how good your food smells.
6. Eat with all your senses.
If you're eating alone, go to the table. If you're feeding a noisy crowd, stay in your kitchen hideout for another few minutes. Close your eyes, breathe in the fragrance of the food, and then take a bite. Notice how the textures and flavors collide in your mouth, and bring your attention to any tendencies to rush through chewing or to favor one side of your mouth over another.
Breathe deeply as you coat your mouth with the flavors of the food and as they reach the back of your tongue as you swallow. Take another deep breath, and continue eating. Experiment with opening and closing your eyes and seeing how it affects your perception of taste. Play with the taste receptors on your tongue by seeing how each bite tastes differently based on where you place the food.
Continue eating at a natural pace, but slow down on occasion to savor the flavors and feel the different textures in your mouth. Continue breathing around each bite, feeling deep gratitude for this moment, right here, right now, with this food.