Perhaps it shows through your fidgeting, your nail-biting, or your sleepless nights. You feel as if you are under a great deal of stress, and you are searching for relief. While there are many stress reduction strategies you could use, including medication, perhaps one of the best is one of the easiest: cooking. Even if you are fairly sure this is not for you, please read on and give it a try.
Cooking is an art as well as a science. It takes a great deal of patience and persistence to become an excellent cook, and some of your experiments will inevitably end up in the bin or down the waste disposal unit. Yet there is something very relaxing about sautéing onions, grilling chicken, or barbecuing when the weather is good. You can become mesmerized by the scent of your culinary creations. The process of stirring, chopping, or slicing in itself can be therapeutic. You can feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of a good meal which can further reduce your stress level.
If you plan to take up cooking as a serious hobby, it is best if you begin by purchasing a good cookery book. (There are even books that promise you stress-free entertaining!) Selecting a book can be a relaxing experience in itself. Usually cookery books are full of interesting, eye-catching pictures. You can also pore over delicious recipes, imagining how you might prepare them in your kitchen.
Next, you might need to invest in some sensible equipment. This will help to alleviate your stress when the time to cook arrives. Make sure that you have an apron, a grater, a good knife or two, a colander, a casserole dish* and a collection of interesting plates to serve your creations on, and if you will be using a conventional cooker some sauce pans and a skillet or a frying pan as well. The better prepared you are, the less stress you will experience in the kitchen. This probably sounds expensive, but apart from the knife you should be able to buy all the rest in your local charity shops. Look around. And remember that food preparation doesn’t necessarily involve cooking at all. Fresh salads can be delicious, and raw fruit and vegetables, (make sure they are washed thoroughly before you eat them), usually contain more vitamins and other nutrients than their cooked versions, especially if you grow them yourself. A pot on a windowsill can provide space to grow cut-and-come-again lettuce or spinach, or delicious fresh herbs. (Gardening is for another article, but think about it.)
Then it’s time to head to the grocers or supermarket. Write a shopping list before you go, based on the recipes you intend to cook. This will save you time, stress, and probably money. But make sure that you allow enough time – you don’t want to be rushed. In addition to the items needed for your recipes, you might be able to pick up a few items for your store cupboard. For instance, try to maintain a constant supply of flour, sugar, milk, eggs, and some herbs and spices. Start off with a packet of mixed herbs and one of mixed spices – you can branch out into the individual ingredients as you gain more confidence and experience.
In order to minimize your stress level, start by preparing meals just for yourself. Take your time, enjoy the process, sit down and really savour the food you have prepared. After you have practised for a while you might offer to cook for close family members or friends. Positive feedback is a great boost, encouraging you to experiment further. You might even want to graduate to a dinner party, but don’t try to produce a seven-course meal during your first few attempts at gourmet cooking. Choose courses that appeal to you; the chances are they will appeal to your guests as well. Feeding other people can be expensive. You could try a “pot luck “ lunch or supper, where each of the people who will be eating together provides part of the meal. The results can be interesting and very enjoyable, if surprising.
Another possible stress-reducer is a cookery class. You will sometimes find classes being offered at local community centres, YM/WCAs, or community colleges and schools. Don’t take the course for the credits – take it for the experience and for fun. The idea is to have a relaxing time in the kitchen, with an experienced teacher on hand to help and support you. You could find you enjoy camaraderie with other students – you might even socialize with them after the class. Don’t be put off by MasterChef. Most of us will never be able to cook like that, nor would we want to. And don’t forget that cooking the perfect egg is a genuine achievement, and nothing tastes better than bread you have baked yourself.
It is true that cooking can be stressful. After all, if you have fussy children to feed, you’re low on food, you have a baby who’s crying, meal-time can be stress time. However, if you are able to allow yourself the time to prepare a meal, you choose recipes that you enjoy, and you look at it as a hobby rather than as drudgery, cooking can be relaxing and can actually help to lower your blood pressure.
*The advantages of the Casserole are that the meal can be prepared in advance, it can be cooked in the oven/microwave, all the ingredients are in one pot so there’s less washing up, and lots of vegetables can stretch it to feed more people – one slice of steak will feed one person if grilled whole, or five or six with onions and other veg in the pot.
One thing you need to watch when cooking is portion control. If you make too much pasta, you might be tempted to eat it all at one sitting, causing weight and other health problems to start building up. Save the extra for a pasta salad, but have the recipe to hand before you start to cook – cold pasta glued together is not very appetising. Become an expert on using leftovers, saving time and money. It can be very expensive to cook single portions as surplus ingredients frequently go to waste, so consider cooking larger quantities and freezing individual portions. In the long run this will save you time and money. Also, try to cook meals that are heart-healthy, not loaded with fat, sugar and calories. If you cook plenty of vegetable dishes, limit the number of puddings you prepare, and keep track of how much you eat, cooking can be a pleasant, stress-reducing experience. And a money-saver.
The more experienced you become, the more you will look forward preparing and cooking food, and the less stressed about it you will feel.