If I had a nickel for every time someone said to me “I wish I loved to cook like you,” I would be able to afford a personal chef.
The truth is, I don’t love to cook. I do, however, love to eat good food so I’ve had to develop an appreciation for the art, if only for my own sanity. I believe cooking at home to be more sustainable for my own health, the welfare of our environment, and my budget. Not only that, but the process of preparing a meal allows me to connect with my food both mentally and physically and has become a very calming and valuable mental exercise.
It’s taken me a while to get to this point and I still have a long way to go. There are plenty of days when I don’t feel up to making dinner for one reason or another and I allow myself plenty of grace to go out to dinner or rely on someone else for the meal prep. Instead of feeling guilty when I end up skipping a home-cooked meal in favor of an easy restaurant meal, I simply unwind my feelings about cooking that day and try to discover what was blocking me from stepping into the kitchen. Once I’ve identified the problem, I’ll try to make a plan to avoid that situation in the future.
Through this process, I’ve found that I do kind of enjoy cooking. It’s the planning, shopping, and cleaning that I don’t like. Once I’m in the kitchen with a knife in my hand, I can relax, appreciate the smells, and meditate on the process of transforming ingredients into a nourishing meal. In order to get here, I’ve put a few protocols in place that have helped remove some of my barriers to cooking.
5 WAYS TO MAKE COOKING STRESS-FREE
Keep your kitchen and counters clean
I’ll admit; this is my biggest barrier to enjoying the cooking process. If I have to wash out a pan before I can use it, or if the dirty dishes have piled up on my limited counter space, I will avoid entering my kitchen at all costs.
The good news about this obstacle is that it doesn’t actually have to do with cooking – it has to do with cleaning. Maybe I don’t hate cooking after all! The obvious solution to this problem is to discipline yourself to wash the dishes after every meal so you’ll always be starting with a clean workspace. Easier said than done.
Here are some practices I (try to) employ to keep my kitchen clean:
- The old “clean as you go” trick. Use any spare moments to wash a dish or utensil during the cooking process so you’ll only have serving plates and silverware to clean when you’re finished with the meal.
- Use fewer dishes. Cook things in the same pan, try more one-pot meals, cook in the dish you intend to serve from, use one knife for all your chopping, use one glass all day long, only set out silverware essential to the meal, plate food directly from the stove instead of using serving dishes, and put all your food onto one plate instead of using many dishes for one meal.
- Own fewer dishes. Owning fewer dishes means using fewer dishes, which results in washing fewer dishes. I find this especially true when it comes to pots and pans. I have a few favorites that I use for everything and a bunch of others that I only use when my favorites are dirty. Getting rid of the “others” forces me to keep my favorite pots and pans clean.
- Ask for help. If you did the cooking, is it possible someone else might do the cleaning? It’s only fair.
Wash and chop produce ahead of time
This oft-recommended practice sounds so boring, but it’s so worth it! I’ve never felt more proficient in the kitchen than when I’m cooking something and I say: “a little _________ would be really good in this dish…I have some of that in my fridge! It’s already washed and chopped!” and then I throw it in with the other ingredients and smugly celebrate my creativity and competence.
It’s great if you can wash and chop your produce as soon as you arrive home from the market, before putting it away, but it’s not always possible. A good strategy is to at least try to immediately prep any produce that doesn’t have a specific role in your meal plan for the week, i.e. carrots or celery that you plan to snack on or that bell pepper that looked pretty, but you don’t know how you’ll use it. This way these foods will be available when you’re hankering for a snack or you discover a need for that random ingredient in the middle of cooking.
Any produce that you purchased for a specific recipe can be washed and chopped as you prepare for that meal. The trick here is to prep the entire amount that you purchased instead of just the amount required for the recipe. This way the remaining produce is easily available as a quick addition to future meals. Nothing will go to waste.
Keep your fridge clean
In the same vein as keeping your counters clean, a clean fridge filled with only fresh foods will keep your stress levels down. Having to search through an over-crowded fridge only to find that the lettuce you were planning to use has gone bad will add to your cooking frustration and reduce the likelihood of you wanting to cook again in the future.
I’ve found that cleaning out my fridge once per week keeps everything in check and makes cooking a breeze. The best time to clean the fridge is right before grocery shopping. Simply take a few minutes to sort through each shelf and drawer to get rid of any expired items and add items to your grocery list that you need to purchase.
Make a meal plan
As a nutritionist you may think I have no problem coming up with wonderfully nourishing meals to make for myself every night. In reality, after talking about food all day, the last thing I want to do is spend time trying to figure out what to eat. When I already have a plan in place, I actually look forward to going home and stepping into my kitchen.
A meal plan can be as detailed or as simple as you’d like, but I’d encourage you to keep it simple if you want to begin to feel more confident and less stressed in the kitchen. Here are the basic steps I follow when making a plan:
- Decide how many meals you’ll need. I have a personal goal of preparing at least 4 dinners at home each week. There is no nutritional reason for this; it’s simply what works for my schedule and you may find a different number of dinners at home to work more effectively for you. You’ll also want to consider breakfasts, lunches, and snacks. Of course, things come up and schedules change so I tend to purchase a tiny bit less than I think I’ll need for the week because I hate for things to be wasted or for spoiled food to sit in my fridge. I can always stop by the store to pick up a few items later in the week.
- Choose your ingredients. You may want to have a recipe for every meal of your plan, and that’s okay. I personally only choose 1-2 recipes to work from each week and “wing” the rest. This “winging it” strategy has actually helped me feel less stressed about my cooking. It allows me to browse the grocery store to choose the freshest and least expensive proteins, or to be inspired by seasonal produce. I’m not tied to a list and I’m not running around the store trying to find every last item. My strategy is to choose 3-4 proteins and 3-4 vegetables that I can play with as I prepare dinners during the week. As long as my pantry and freezer are well stocked, I know I’ll be able to make some satisfying meals out of my purchases.
- Plan your leftovers. You don’t need to produce a new dish for every meal of the week. I try to make enough to have food leftover every time I cook that I can eat for lunches during the week, another quick dinner, or to freeze for another time.
Create a grocery shopping routine
There’s little I hate more than finishing a long day of work and realizing I have to stop at the grocery store on my way home in order to make dinner. On the flip side, knowing that my fridge at home is already full of everything I need for dinner (and it’s washed and chopped!) makes me so happy I almost don’t mind the rush hour traffic.
The trick to keeping your fridge stocked is to make grocery shopping a routine. Choose a day and time of the week that you will use for grocery shopping. Depending on your circumstances, you may need to shop more or less often, but I try to make a big shop once per week with on other quick run to the market. I typically do my big shop on Sundays. I’ll hit up the farmers market to find the best deals on seasonal produce and pastured eggs, and then I’ll head to the grocery store to round out my purchases with everything else I’ll need for the week. My goal is to live off these items for the entire week, but I’ll inevitably need to run to the store one more time to pick up a couple of items that I’ve run out of or additional ingredients for a recipe I’m craving. This can easily be done during a lunch break or at a more convenient store on my way home.
This week, I encourage you to assess your feelings around cooking. If, at the end of the day, you don’t feel like cooking dinner, stop to think and pinpoint exactly what part of the process is stopping you. Is it that you don’t have any food at home and having to stop at the grocery store is too much effort? Is it that you have a pile of dirty dishes in the sink that need to be washed before you can start on dinner? Or maybe the meal that you were planning to prepare no longer sounds appetizing to you or would take too long to prepare. Whatever the case, use that information to brainstorm ways to prevent this from stopping you again.
I would love it if you would share your sticking points in the comments below so I can address them in part 2!