Does Cooking Stress You Out? Here’s How To Keep Calm in the Kitchen Amidst *Gestures Broadly at Everything*

Photo: Stocksy/ Lucas Ottone/ W+G Creative
Cooking can be a fun and creative hobby…but what about when it’s not? When it’s pure anxiety and hassle? FX’s The Bear portrays this well, illustrating how cooking can be incredibly stressful and frustrating. A dinging oven and a chaotic sous chef are only part of the equation.

Why else is cooking so nerve-wracking at times, and how the heck can you get a meal on the table despite the circumstances, without screaming at anyone or burning yourself? Chefs and therapists cooked up some explanations and their best tips.

Why you may feel hot-headed in a hot kitchen

You tend to put pressure on yourself to make the perfect meal

Calling all the perfectionists! “People with perfectionist tendencies may find cooking stressful because they have such high standards and put a lot of pressure on themselves to meet high expectations,” says Avigail Lev, PsyD, founder and director of Bay Area CBT Center. “The pressure to follow recipes precisely and create flawless dishes can increase stress levels and create anxiety around making mistakes.”

Chefs know and validate the struggle. “I have found that the real stress of a professional kitchen lies in oneself,” says Kevin Hoffmann, executive chef at Vinyl Steakhouse. “It’s not just table 104, 305, and 36 that are causing you stress: It’s being inside your own head thinking about that mistake that causes all the others.” (This can go for your family kitchen, too!)

You’re making sure you meet everyone’s preferences and needs

If you’re cooking for other people—or even just yourself—you may know this factor all too well. You have to keep allergies, dietary needs, health conditions, and likes/dislikes in mind. That can be a lot! Lev believes this can add stress to the cooking process.

You’re busy with other chores and to-do items

Cooking is probably one of many things you have to do, meaning you may feel rushed to get it done (especially if people are complaining about being hungry).

“Daily responsibilities such as working, parenting, and chores can be consuming throughout the day,” says Melissa Albano, a licensed clinical social worker with Thriveworks who specializes in coping skills, anxiety, anger management, and stress. “Preparing a meal may often feel like another chore and less of a reward. Finding time in an already busy schedule for shopping and meal planning may also feel like a challenge.”

Diet culture weasels its way into your mind

While this challenge can be present for anyone, it may be especially prevalent for people who have struggled with disordered eating or body image. “Cooking can trigger thoughts and feelings about how food choices may impact their appearance or weight,” Lev explains. “The pressure to prepare ‘healthy’ or ‘low-calorie’ meals can add an additional layer of stress.”

Further, after you’ve already planned the menu and are cooking, you may still have lingering food guilt. Are you cooking “too many” starches and "not enough" vegetables? Are you cooking “too much” food in general?

Concerns like those can consume your thoughts. It’s fair to aim for a well-balanced meal, but try to not stress if the meal isn’t perfectly balanced every time. Instead, consider incorporating “gentle nutrition,” or giving your body nutrients (along with the fun foods it wants) without restricting or micromanaging your food intake.

You’re juggling the preparation of multiple foods

Cooking a whole meal or preparing for a party means you may be working with the oven, stove, and microwave all at one time, at different temperatures. No wonder your mind is racing!

“It’s not making just one dish; it’s cooking a multitude of dishes all perfectly at the same time in concert with other individuals doing the same thing for hours on end,” Hoffmann adds.

Even one dish can cause a lot of distress. “Some recipes can be quite intricate, involving 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’re not confident in your cooking skills.”

To make matters more difficult, the dishes probably need to finish cooking around the same time. “When you’re pressed for time, it can be stressful to ensure that all the components of a meal are cooked and ready to be served simultaneously,” Winston adds.

The kitchen space is chaotic

Whether you’re cooking for family or around roommates, you may be trying to prepare a meal in the midst of distractions. This could be attempting to move hot dishes without running into anyone, rushing to finish up with the oven so someone else can use it, or a host of other things. Lev says this can be overwhelming, especially for individuals who might be easily overwhelmed around others, in the kitchen, or during holidays.

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. What’s key is not letting it affect your self-image or confidence (as best as you can).

“Repeat soothing phrases to yourself during the cognitive process,” Lev suggests. She provides some examples, such as:

  • “I am doing my best.”
  • “I am taking care of myself through cooking.”
  • “I can handle imperfections.”
  • “It is normal to feel challenged and overwhelmed at times.”

Don’t be afraid of opting 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, he suggests one-pot meals, stir fries, and sheet-pan 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 out with a big fancy meal but you ran out of eggs,” says Allison Kent, LCSW, a therapist at Cabo Behavioral. “Researching an egg substitute or switching to a simpler meal is likely possible.”

Try a grounding technique

“Grounding” is a way to anchor yourself to the current moment, and it can bring you down from an intense or unpleasant emotional state. Albano shares a couple of techniques you can try, such as:

  • Playing into your senses: Noticing the feeling of utensils in your hand, savoring smells, and remaining present in other ways.
  • The 5-4-3-2-1 method: Notice 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 how important the layout of the kitchen is — especially when you’re in a rush. “Be organized,” he urges. “Knowing where things are means you don’t have to search for them when you need them.”

Maybe that means having items you’ll need quickly in easy reach, putting all the ingredients for one dish together, or ensuring cooking utensils go back on the spoon rest rather than flung across the counter.

Practice radical acceptance

Radical acceptance is a skill often discussed in therapy. It is what it sounds like—accepting reality, even when you don’t like it—“that encourages us to acknowledge that not everything is within our control,” Kent says. “The more we try to control things, the more often we will be disappointed.”

Along these lines, Kent recommends taking accountability for when you mess up part of a meal. “The blame game only makes the meal more unpleasant,” she says. Further, Albano encourages you to not expect too much from yourself. “If hosting a holiday, set reasonable expectations,” she says. “Not everyone will be satisfied, and it’s okay.”

Try to make cooking a fun, creative outlet

A small mindset reframe may come in handy here. How might the cooking process change if you envision it as an enjoyable activity rather than a chore? Albano recommends making it fun, whether that’s through encouraging friends/family/partners to join or playing some good music.

Delegate and set boundaries

You don’t have to handle all the meal preparation on your own. It’s okay to share the load! For example, let’s say your kids are getting in the way. Kent recommends giving them an age-appropriate task, such as setting the table, folding napkins, or doing something else that will keep them distracted.

What about 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 undivided attention during dinner. As soon as I am done 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 get it all done. Hoffmann wants to remind you that you can do this. “Remember that sooner or later, service or dinner will end,” he says. “Remember that you love this…Believe in yourself. You might not be the greatest yet. None of us started out great, and we’ve all been there.”

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