Why else is cooking so stressful at times, and how the heck can you have a meal on the table despite the circumstances, without yelling at anyone or getting burned? Chefs and therapists prepared some explanations and their best tips.
Why You May Feel Elated In A Hot Kitchen
He tends to put pressure on himself to make the perfect meal.
Calling all perfectionists! “People with perfectionist tendencies can find cooking stressful because they have such high standards and put so much pressure on themselves to meet high expectations,” says Avigail Lev, PsyD, founder and director of the Bay Area CBT Center. “The pressure to follow recipes precisely and create impeccable dishes can increase stress levels and create anxiety about making mistakes.”
The chefs know and validate the struggle. “I’ve found that the real stress in a professional kitchen is on yourself,” says Kevin Hoffmann, executive chef at Vinyl Steakhouse. “It’s not just tables 104, 305 and 36 that cause you stress: it’s being inside your own head thinking about that mistake that causes all the others.” (This can also be used in your family’s kitchen!)
You are making sure to cater to everyone’s preferences and needs.
If you are cooking for other people, or even for yourself, you may be aware of this factor all too well. You need to take into account allergies, dietary needs, health conditions, and likes and dislikes. That can be a lot! Lev thinks this can add stress to the cooking process.
You are busy with other tasks and to-dos.
Cooking is probably one of many things you have to do, which means you may feel rushed to do them (especially if people complain about being hungry).
“Daily responsibilities like work, parenting, and chores can consume you throughout the day,” says Melissa Albano, a Thriveworks Licensed Clinical Social Worker who specializes in coping skills, anxiety, anger management, and stress. “Preparing a meal can often feel like one more chore and less of a reward. Finding time in an already busy schedule to shop and plan meals can also seem like a challenge.”
Diet culture makes its way into your mind
While this challenge can be present for anyone, it can be especially prevalent for people who have had issues with disordered eating or body image. “Cooking can trigger thoughts and feelings about how food choices might affect your appearance or weight,” Lev explains. “The pressure to prepare ‘healthy’ or ‘low-calorie’ meals can add an extra layer of stress.”
Also, after you’ve already planned the menu and are cooking, you may still feel guilty about the food. Are you cooking “too many” starches and “not enough” vegetables? Are you cooking “too much” food in general?
Worries like those can consume your thoughts. It’s fair to aim for a well-balanced meal, but try not to stress if the meal isn’t perfectly balanced every time. Instead, consider incorporating “soft nutrition,” or giving your body nutrients (along with the fun foods you crave) without restricting or controlling your food intake.
You are juggling the preparation of multiple foods.
Cooking a full meal or preparing for a party means you can be working with the oven, stove, and microwave at the same time, at different temperatures. No wonder your mind is racing!
“It is not making a single dish; it’s cooking a multitude of dishes perfectly at the same time with other people doing the same thing for hours on end,” adds Hoffmann.
Even one dish can cause a lot of distress. “Some recipes can be quite complex, requiring multiple steps, techniques, and ingredients,” says Kevin Winston, a professional chef. “Trying to follow a complex recipe for the first time can be overwhelming and stressful, especially if you don’t have confidence in your cooking skills.”
To further complicate matters, the dishes may need to finish cooking at the same time. “When you’re pressed for time, it can be stressful to make sure all the components of a meal are cooked and ready to serve simultaneously,” Winston adds.
The kitchen space is chaotic.
Whether you’re cooking for the family or with roommates, you may be trying to prepare a meal amid distractions. This could be trying to move hot dishes without bumping into anyone, rushing to finish the oven so someone else can use it, or many other things. Lev says this can be overwhelming, especially for people who can easily get overwhelmed with other people, in the kitchen, or on vacation.
How to cool down while cooking
Repeat a calming mantra
It’s easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment, literally, when preparing a meal. The key is not to let it affect your self-image or confidence (as best you can).
“Repeat calming phrases to yourself during the cognitive process,” suggests Lev. She provides some examples, such as:
- “I’m doing the best I can.”
- “I’m taking care of myself through the kitchen.”
- “I can handle imperfections.”
- “It’s normal to feel challenged and overwhelmed at times.”
Don’t be afraid to opt for an easier recipe or alternative.
Meals don’t need to be new and fancy. “When you’re short on time or feeling stressed, it’s best to stick to recipes you’re comfortable with,” Winston adds. “Save the experimentation for when you have more time and a relaxed mindset.” For simpler options, she suggests one-pot meals, stir-fries, and skillet dinners.
If you don’t have an ingredient you need, see if a quick Google search can help you find an alternative. “Maybe you started with a big fancy meal but ran out of eggs,” says Allison Kent, LCSW, a therapist at Cabo Behavioral. “It’s probably possible to investigate an egg substitute or switch to a simpler meal.”
Try a grounding technique
“Grounding” is a way of grounding yourself in the present moment and can bring you down from an intense or unpleasant emotional state. Albano shares a couple of techniques you can try, such as:
- Play with your senses: noticing the feel of the utensils in your hand, savoring the smells, and staying present in other ways.
- The 5-4-3-2-1 method: Observe five things you hear, four things you see, three things you touch, two things you smell, and one thing you taste.
Keep the kitchen organized
As a chef, Hoffmann knows all about the importance of kitchen design, especially when you’re in a hurry. “Be organized,” he urges. “Knowing where things are means you don’t have to look for them when you need them.”
Maybe that means keeping items you’ll need quickly within arm’s reach, gathering all the ingredients for a dish, or making sure cookware goes back into the spoon rest instead of dumping it on the counter.
Practice Radical Acceptance
Radical acceptance is a skill often discussed in therapy. It’s what it sounds like—accepting reality, even when you don’t like it—“that encourages us to recognize that not everything is in our control,” says Kent. “The more we try to control things, the more often we will be disappointed.”
In this sense, Kent recommends taking responsibility when part of a meal goes bad. “The blame game only makes food more unpleasant,” she says. Also, Albano encourages you not to expect too much of yourself. “If he hosts a vacation, set reasonable expectations,” she says. “Not everyone will be satisfied, and that’s okay.”
Try to make cooking a fun and creative outlet.
A little rethinking of the mindset can be helpful here. How might you change the cooking process if you view it as an enjoyable activity rather than a chore? Albano recommends making it fun, whether it’s encouraging friends/family/associates to join in or playing some great music.
Delegate and set limits
You don’t have to handle all the food preparation on your own. It’s okay to share the load! For example, suppose your children get in the way. Kent recommends giving them an age-appropriate task, like setting the table, folding napkins, or doing something else that keeps them distracted.
What about the times when your spouse won’t leave you alone? See about having that conversation another time. Kent says you can say something like, “I really want to hear more about that meeting with your boss, and I want to give you my full attention over dinner. As soon as I finish cooking, I want to hear all the details.”
give yourself some perspective
It’s easy to get caught up in the stress of cooking and feel like you’ll never finish it all. Hoffmann wants to remind you that you can do this. “Remember that sooner or later the service or dinner will end,” he says. “Remember that you love this… Believe in yourself. You may not be the best yet. None of us started off very well, and we’ve all been there.”