My hatred of cooking all started with a cake. I was 12 or 13 at the time, and I got it in my head that I wanted to make a cake for my mom's birthday. I had watched her bake a thousand times and figured I knew what I was doing. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, actually. My brother (a far superior cook, even at 15) hovered over my shoulder the entire time, making pointed comments about my technique. I tried to follow the seemingly basic recipe in front of me, but was so panicky and nervous—What if the cake is bad? What if Mom hates it? I'm going to ruin her birthday!—that I kept making mistakes. My fatal flaw: using bread flour instead of regular flour, resulting in a dry, inedible mess topped with a hodgepodge of over-sweetened frosting and stale, hideously-colored sprinkles. Each bite turned to dust in your mouth. It was truly revolting.
This might not seem like a big deal. So you made a crappy cake when you were 12. So what? But that experience haunted me long after the fossilized confection was tossed into the garbage can. Every time I stepped into the kitchen to do anything beyond grabbing a bowl of cereal or some ice cream, the embarrassment of the entire experience came flooding back to me. My confidence at doing anything cooking-related was completely shot. And for years afterwards, I simply refused to cook at all.
But I'm bad at cooking, right?
I'm not the only person who has struggled with this fear of cooking, says Amy Cirbus, PhD, a therapist and manager of clinical quality at Talkspace. "'It’s intimidating!' is what I hear over and over again," she says. And for good reason: "If cooking hasn’t been something you’ve cultivated over the years or become familiar with, it can feel like there’s just too much to know. There’s an overwhelming amount of gadgets and cutlery, varieties and styles," Dr. Cirbus says.
Being "bad" at cooking (or hating it) can also be a loaded idea if you're a woman, Dr. Cirbus says. "There’s an expectation that as nurturing caregivers, [women] must know how to cook well." Which is why a woman's cooking skill (or lack thereof) is too often perceived as a major character flaw, rather than just something they don't know how to do.
"If we have any evidence at all that we may be bad at a particular skill, anticipatory anxiety builds up and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy." —Amy Cirbus, PhD
Plus, once you think you're bad at something, it becomes that much harder to improve at that skill. "It’s vulnerable to willingly expose ourselves to failure, to work our way through something we believe we won’t be successful at," Dr. Cirbus says. And as humans, we generally prefer to avoid vulnerability—and the embarrassment it can lead to. "Over time, if we have any evidence at all that we may be bad at that particular skill, anticipatory anxiety builds up and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy," she says. "We stumble through [the action] only to end up with the outcome we feared. This makes it even harder to embark on it again." This explains why, for many years, my sporadic attempts at cooking were similarly unsuccessful (burned eggs, dry muffins, horrific pancakes). I was convinced that I was a bad cook, so never gave it any real effort. And when I did try to cook again, it was anxiety-inducing and horrible, and thus convinced me that I was indeed a failure as a chef.
Giving cooking the old college try
I experienced this cooking anxiety for nearly 10 years, but as a teenager and college student, it was mostly kept at bay. I had my parents to feed me, and then the dining hall staff.
But that status quo was interrupted my junior year during my semester abroad. The university I went to didn't have a meal plan or a dining hall—students lived in apartments, like grown-up humans, and were responsible for cooking for themselves.
I decided to start with something basic: scrambled eggs. Armed with only a pan, a spatula, and a cookbook called Clueless in the Kitchen (very on the nose), I decided to just read all the directions step by step, then go at my own pace. If I effed it up...well, eggs were cheap. And only I would be eating this anyways, so the stakes were low.
"Getting over hangups is about letting go of a certain outcome. It's about letting go of the perfectionism of it and getting comfortable with a less-than-stellar result." —Dr. Cirbus
I waited until I had the kitchen to myself, so I could concentrate and do my own thing without the pressure of people watching me. I cracked the eggs into a bowl, mixed them with a little bit of milk, and poured them into my pre-heated pan on the stove. Following the directions in the cookbook, I stirred them so nothing stuck to the bottom of the pan and a few minutes later...I had fluffy, edible-looking scrambled eggs. They needed a bit more salt and probably some pepper but I made them, damnit. They were mine!
I slowly branched out and found more recipes to try, like Nutella-stuffed crepes and curry-glazed chicken. Each time I tied on my apron (so to speak; I didn't have an apron), I gave myself lots of time and space to follow the recipe. Sometimes the food tasted fantastic. Other times, the recipes were duds and I was left with a pretty bland meal on my plate. But those flubs didn't feel like the end of the world anymore. Soon, I was cooking with (and for) my other roommates, and saving recipes I found online and in magazines to try later. I became a person who really, really likes to cook.
Learning to love to cook takes practice
"Getting over hangups is about letting go of a certain outcome," Dr. Cirbus says. "It's about letting go of the perfectionism of it and getting comfortable with a less-than-stellar result." I did that for myself by making the food just for me (rather than say, for my mom on a very important occasion). If I messed up, it might not taste good, but it wasn't like I was about to ruin someone else's day. In addition to lowering the stakes to help with your nerves, Dr. Cirbus says you can separate the experience from the outcome by asking yourself, "Why do you want to do this thing? What do you want to get out of it?"
To overcome your culinary anxiety, Dr. Cirbus also recommends finding a way to make the kitchen your happy place. "Read through a simple recipe of your favorite food. Try making if for yourself while you’re listening to music you love. Create a space for joy in your cooking," she says.
I've been a regular cook now for seven years, and while I'm not about to compete on Chopped any time soon, I do know how to make a pretty beautiful loaf of braided bread (that's 300-level stuff right there!) and have hosted multiple dinner parties. I love planning what I'm going to make for dinner, and I love the feeling when you follow a recipe and it turns out exactly like (or even better than) the photo in the cookbook. Not everyone will love cooking, and that's okay. But if the thought of using the stovetop gives you cold sweats, I assure you that there's hope.
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This week on Well+Good, we’re launching Cook With Us, a new program designed to help you do just that. We believe that cooking is an important piece of the wellness puzzle and that everyone can make magic (or at least some avo toast) happen in the kitchen. Sometimes, you just need someone to show you where to start, and maybe a few others cheering you on. It doesn’t need to be complicated, or every day—like most things in the wellness world, a little goes a long way.
Cook With Us is kicking off with a series of stories that’ll inspire you to sharpen your knives, plus introduce you to healthy recipes we’re sure will become weekday staples at your house (like this sweet potato gnocchi and these gluten-free chicken fingers). And stay tuned for the launch of our new digital community, a place for you to chat, learn, and share your favorite recipes with other wellness-minded home cooks. Think book club takes the kitchen.
Make a promise to start cooking tonight (maybe snag a copy of our cookbook) and meet us in the kitchen.
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