Written by therapist Megan Hanafee-Major
Everyone has to eat. But everyone has a different relationship with eating, food, and cooking. Perhaps you have fond memories of preparing meals with family. Or maybe your mental health makes cooking feel like an impossible, yet necessary, evil. Wherever you may fall on this spectrum, using cooking as a mindfulness practice can benefit you.
The Goal of Mindfulness
The primary goal of mindfulness is to focus on the present moment. This can be done in a variety of ways like attending to sensory experiences, focusing on your breath, or moving your body. Mindfulness has been shown to decrease depressive and anxious symptoms, increase awareness of the self, and generally help encourage relaxation. As we move through our lives, we often zone out, think ahead about tasks we need to complete, or our mind wanders back to something in the past. In and of themselves, these are not bad things. However, any of them can become unhelpful, distressing, or distracting from what is happening here and now. Mindfulness practices help the mind and body connect to one another and what is happening in the environment to reorient us back to the present which helps calm us and, with practice, can even help alleviate physical and long-term symptoms of anxiety, such as racing heart and pain tolerance.
Mindfulness can be a stand-alone practice, like meditation or yoga, but it can also be integrated into everyday activities. Combining a daily, sometimes even mundane, task like cooking into a mindfulness practice allows a greater awareness of self, senses, and surroundings. Preparing a meal for this exercise doesn’t mean that you have to cook a five-course feast (unless, of course, you want to). This can be done with anything from a salad, to chicken nuggets, to tacos. The most important part of this meal is that it nourishes your body and you enjoy it. It is ideal to have elements of the meal to prepare by cutting, baking, stirring, etc. but if that isn’t a possibility for you for whatever reason, you can modify the exercise to fit your needs.
1. Take Away Distractions
First, carve out some time with no distractions during this practice. Even though you may plan to make a meal anyway, mindfulness requires time and attention. It will be helpful to set aside time with little to no distractions in the environment or on your mind to focus fully on the meal. For myself, I like to multitask while I cook. When my food is in the oven, I can do the dishes or a load of laundry. This is effective on a normal day, but if I am going to practice mindfulness while cooking, I prepare myself by blocking out enough time that I don’t feel the need to complete anything else at the same time. That doesn’t mean that anxiety or restlessness may not creep in during the exercise, but that I have done what I can to effectively challenge and manage these thoughts. It can even be helpful to mentally budget a little more time than you think you need so that you can assure yourself that there is no need to do anything besides prepare your meal slowly and carefully with your full attention.
2. Pay Attention to Your Senses
Throughout the cooking process, pay special attention to the sensory experiences you are having. What do you smell? What do you feel? Do you notice your stomach growling in anticipation? Honing in on what your five senses are telling you is a great way to practice mindfulness and stay in the moment. For this reason, it is best to prepare your meal without music. I know for myself, I often love to listen to a calming playlist or fun podcast while cooking, and typically that is a great way to indulge in self-care. But for this specific exercise, let yourself hear the sounds of the food, the stove, the sink, etc.
3. Acknowledge Your Feelings
It is also likely that you will notice your body and brain’s hunger cues throughout the exercise. Different people have varying emotions and thoughts about hunger, especially if they have a history with disordered eating or emotional eating. If this happens for you throughout this experience, try to notice the thoughts and emotions and then move past them without judgment. We often use food as a soothing technique. Sometimes, this is a great and healthy experience, like having a favorite meal after a hard day, or it can become a source of pain, like binging or restricting when feeling out of control. Like any coping skill, it can become unhealthy or maladaptive but can also be a great tool for some. Use this practice to notice what thoughts and emotions you experience while preparing food and if you observe negative thoughts about the food, your body, or yourself, gently redirect those thoughts to whatever cooking action you have before you.
4. Redirect Your Thoughts – Be in the Moment
Mindfulness can begin from the moment you step in the kitchen. While you chop, peel, or otherwise prepare ingredients, pay close attention to them. Try to keep your thoughts on the food. When you notice your thoughts wandering to other things, and in all likelihood you will, redirect them without judgment to the task at hand. Think about how your senses interact with the food you are using- the smell, feel, or sounds of them. When you take a pan out of the cupboard, really feel the cool metal in your hands. Examine each carrot, pepper, and grain, and take in the vivid colors you see. Listen to the crunch as you cut ingredients, the whoosh of pasta pouring into water, or the pop when you open a can of beans. Take a whiff of each spice before you add it to the pot or bowl. Notice what thoughts or feelings arise when you do this. Our sense of smell is uniquely tied to memories because of where each of these is processed in the brain. Because of this, things might come to mind vividly when smelling spices or ingredients. If this happens, it is completely normal. Accept the thought and then redirect your attention back to cooking. As well as you can, try not to rush through preparation steps. Slice or shred or stir ingredients deliberately. It can sometimes be helpful to narrate what you are doing and experiencing to yourself either aloud or in your mind. This can help slow down your movements, as well as keep your attention on the present moment.
If your recipe requires time on the stove or in the oven, resist the natural urge to leave or and engage in another task. Place a chair or stool in your kitchen so you can sit while food cooks if you are not comfortable standing. Use this time to reflect and meditate on the meal you are about to enjoy. Imagine each ingredient mixing together and the tastes you will experience. If you are sharing this meal with loved ones, think about the care and nutrients that the food that the meal will provide them and the time you will spend together. Perhaps the recipe you used is special to your family of origin, or makes you think of a happy memory, or maybe it takes you back to a special place or time. Meditate on these things and how they impact your feelings about this meal, cooking and eating in general, and yourself.
If you feel inclined, think about how feeding your body and feeding your spirit intertwine. Do you notice any parallels in your relationship with preparing food and caring for your soul? Perhaps both feel rushed in this season, and taking some time to lovingly prepare a meal to satisfy your physical hunger can encourage you to invest in quenching your spiritual hunger as well. Theologian Stephanie Pausell reflects, “in the midst of the ordinary activities of preparing and eating food we might touch something holy.”
This exercise takes time and energy, but can allow food preparation to nourish our body as well as our mind and soul. Consider integrating cooking as a mindfulness practice into your life in whatever way makes sense. Perhaps that is on Saturday or Sunday as you observe holy rest days, or once a month with a loved one to connect with one another while connecting with the self. If this topic interests you and you want to read and learn more, I highly recommend Meal by Meal by Donald Altman, which includes 365 brief food-based meditation prompts, Eating Mindfully and other books by Susan Albers, and the chapter Nourishing the Body in Honoring the Body by Stephanie Pausell which I have quoted above; a book of various Christian meditations focused on cherishing the body in daily life through ordinary acts.
Additionally, if this reading or practice brings up distressing thoughts or feelings about food, body image, or eating, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us here at Optimum Joy!