As I stir chicken broth and garlic cloves into the simmering pot of bland-looking cauliflower, I smile and chuckle to myself. How will this concoction go over at the dinner table tonight? It doesn’t matter – I don’t even care. Because, right now, I am having fun.

That evening, assuming the usual mashed potatoes sit alongside his dinner of roasted salmon and leafy salad, my husband shovels a forkful of my experiment into his mouth.

“Are these potatoes?” he asks after swallowing. 

“Do you like them?” is my non-answer. 

“I do.”

“Good, because our culinary rut is about to change.”

Drowning in Sameness

For years, crammed between carpooling, meetings, and piles of laundry, I would race through the grocery aisles, grabbing spaghetti and chicken and broccoli – items from my memorized mental shopping list – and tossing them into the grocery cart.

Those were simple ingredients based on menus I knew my family liked; meals I could prepare on autopilot while I folded laundry, watched the news, or picked up the house. 

With my sons rushing between sports practices and homework, my job was to get dinner on the table in the most efficient way possible. Eat, clean up the kitchen, and move on to the next activity. 

Except – what is the next activity now? 

I no longer quiz a child with spelling words or sit in the bleachers at baseball games or pack lunches for the following school day. I don’t need to fling dinner together and move on. 

Could I slow down, take my time, and find joy in the cooking process?

Cooking and Me

In recent years, I’ve ogled luscious photos of bubbling lasagnas and seared halibut and confetti-sprinkled layer cakes. I’ve tapped hearts on foodie sites and pinned recipes to boards with labels like Holiday Foods and Weeknight Dinners and Healthy Eats.

Arranged in color-tagged folders on my laptop are instructions for Appetizers and Slow-Cooker Meals and Entree Salads. 

Seldom did I return to my organized stash of recipes and actually make any of these dishes. I relied on the predictable standbys, the same rotating menus. 

Here I go again, I realized. I’m drowning in sameness.

Instead of admiring the photos of foods other people make, why don’t I head to the kitchen and give some of those dishes a try? 

Based on the success of my pseudo-mashed potatoes, I began to tackle recipes I once labeled too much effort or not for me.

The healthy meatballs I prepared were delicious spooned over packaged pasta. Even better when I served them atop spiralized squash. Slice a sweet potato, drop it in the toaster, and slather it with almond butter? Who thought of THIS?! 

I bought ingredients I didn’t quite know what to do with – ghee and coconut aminos and almond milk – and explored the Whole 30 craze. I felt up-to-date and informed, engaged and curious – and I liked that me. 

I Can’t Cook and Worry at the Same Time

When I scooped the seeds and membrane from a red pepper for a lunchtime tuna melt or manipulated the fragile collard greens into a wrap, I forgot to worry about the lab test results and car troubles and elderly parents. While I chopped onions and grated parmesan, I let go of the little – and big – issues in my life. 

Like knitting, carpentry, or painting may do for other folks, cooking unfamiliar recipes gave me something to concentrate on besides my problems and concerns. 

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this process “flow,” and his research indicates this is one of the secrets to a happy life. In his book, Finding Flow, he defines a flow state as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.” 

My Perfectionist Self Let Go

My black and white cookie batter went into the garbage one gray, rainy afternoon. The confectioner’s sugar I grabbed from the pantry, instead of the flour, produced a runny, inedible, snow-white soup.

My perfectionist self surprised me. I didn’t grouse over the cost of ingredients or the wasted time in the kitchen. I allowed myself to laugh at my unfortunate mistake, make another (successful) batch, and enjoy my time in the kitchen. 

In her book, Lifting Depression, neuroscientist Dr. Kelly Lambert writes, “With today’s overly-mechanized lifestyle we have forgotten our brains crave the well-being that comes from meaningful effort. Whether planting a garden, repairing a lamp, or cooking a meal, you are bathing your brain in feel-good chemicals and creating a kind of mental vitamin.”

Cooking Can Produce Feel-Good Chemicals

Instead of grazing on cheese and crackers – or cookies – and calling it dinner, I tried new creations when I dined alone. Pesto, tomatoes, mushrooms, and avocados make for a fancy grilled cheese sandwich at lunch.

Sheet pan dinners are a breeze for one person. I fired up the stove or the oven and assembled salmon salads and turkey burgers – for my party of one.

Cooking gadgets became the gifts du jour for Mother’s Day and my birthday. As I unwrapped a pasta maker from my sons, I admit the words “work” and “mess” rolled through my mind.

And – yes – fettuccini from scratch was a flour-spattered production. But as I kneaded the dough and maneuvered the fussy strips through the machine, I realized I enjoyed my own company – and the challenge of it all.

Nowadays, I still enjoy a good dinner out, and most Friday and Saturday nights my kitchen is closed. I don’t make new recipes every day, and I’ve tried plenty I won’t make again. 

But when I do go into my kitchen to attempt a new dessert or salad or soup, I’ll feed my body – and I’ll also feed my soul. 

Do you have an activity that helps you experience flow? What hobby causes you to “lose yourself?” When was the last time you tried a new recipe? Please share with our community!

Let's Have a Conversation!