how i learned to stop worrying and enjoy cooking
May 25, 2020 6:31 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone else get 'cooking anxiety' and how do you handle it?

I have a weird thing - anxiety and shame around cooking. Does anyone else have experience of this, and how do I get over it and start to enjoy cooking? Or at least not let it make me feel actively awful?

This was kind of a weird question to write.

I would love to be the kind of spontaneous cook who intuitively throws together delicious meals out of whatever they've got lying around. I feel like confident cooks are just, like, better at life? Or there is a general perception that they are.

I am a constantly bean-plating, anxious, over-planning cook who cannot cook unless I have a clear game plan, all the ingredients to hand, a day that is clear of all other obligations, and a clear clean-up, leftover storage and usage strategy, and I also have to be in a calm and centred mindset from the beginning. I live alone and don't have a dishwasher, so clearing up falls to me and takes a while.

When I lived with other people I enjoyed cooking meals for big groups of people, but when I cook for myself it just seems like a depressing hassle. Left to my own devices entirely I'd stick with ramen, omelettes and toast, but I feel like this isn't "proper eating".

When cooking I am constantly on the brink of being overwhelmed. When things go wrong I get very upset. I also get very anxious about food safety. I dislike dishes that involve too much multitasking and tend to stick to the same 4 or 5 dishes I'm comfortable with. All this combines to make me feel very ashamed and inadequate.

Lockdown has exacerbated these things for me because all my meals are at home. Also all my friends are huge foodies and they keep sending me photos of their exquisite home-made meals. Right now I'm stressing because I need to finish up some ingredients before they go off, and I am just not in the right state of mind to cook but I have to but I don't want to...

It's not that I can't cook or am a bad cook. It's just that it creates a lot of anxiety for me, and I'd like to enjoy it or at least reach some kind of peace with it, given that I have to do it regularly.

I come from a non-Western culture where food is the social and emotional centre to life (though I don't think that this is too rare in the West either), and I think a lot of my sense of inadequacy comes from that.
posted by unicorn chaser to Food & Drink (48 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I could have written this myself! If I had the money I would never cook again!

Left to my own devices entirely I'd stick with ramen, omelettes and toast, but I feel like this isn't "proper eating".

The biggest thing for me to realize is that as long as I'm putting good nutrition into my body, there is no such this as "proper eating." I can eat scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast and ramen for dinner as long as I eat fruit and vegetables too. And by vegetables I mean carrot sticks and hummus- nothing that requires cooking in any way shape or form.

I know there are a lot of cultural and family expectations around food (non-Western and Western). But life is too short to battle this anymore. Since I've taken the pressure off myself, I now occasionally get bitten by the bug to cook something that involves more than one pot. And when that happens I go ahead and do it and enjoy the end result a lot more. Cleaning up is still a pain, but if I'm happy enough with the experience and what I've made it doesn't bother me so much. Hugs to you!
posted by Mouse Army at 6:52 AM on May 25, 2020 [17 favorites]

This may not work for your budget and it won’t address the specific cuisine of your background, but have you thought about trying one of the many meal services out there that will, for a premium, ship you a box each week containing ingredients for several recipes, along with recipes? My partner and I did this recently and we’ve learned a lot. Some of what we’ve learned is “try some new technique” stuff, not necessarily challenging just things we didn’t know or wouldn’t have thought to try. Some just “oh! That’s a neat recipe, let’s cook that again.” We last week reduced our subscription from 4 meals a week to two, to save money, but we’re definitely continuing to use some of the ideas in our own cooking.
posted by Alterscape at 6:54 AM on May 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

(To avoid abusing the edit window: my big challenge was being overwhelmed by choices and not sure where to start. Having training wheels a bit has helped me through some of that that. My father gave me the America’s Test Kitchen cookbook years ago, and it’s great, it’s just also impenetrably huge for a newbie!)
posted by Alterscape at 6:57 AM on May 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm kind of like this. One thing that helped me was my therapist asking questions like "what happens when you don't clean up, and leave the dishes in the sink overnight?" (The answer is nothing. Nothing will happen. It will be ok, if you are too tired or just don't feel like doing them.). This can extend to all kinds of household chores or other things I beat myself up for not doing.

Covid has helped me to realize that with cooking (baking is a different beast), you can make a shitton of omissions and substitutions, and more than likely get something that's pretty tasty. I'm not going to go to the grocery store for apple cider vinegar, if I have 3 other kinds and/or some lemons at home. Also, not everything has to be perfect to be edible and provide a few meals for you. I was trapped in this way of thinking for a while too. I have a CSA, and felt like I needed to have the best recipes to use up this beautiful produce, but that meant that it would wilt and go bad in my fridge before I had a chance to use it. Now I'm more committed to just eating it, and not being too precious.

It's also totally fine to eat what you are able to make at any given time. Humans have evolved to be omnivores and survive on anything, so don't beat yourself up too much about not having a complete nutrition profile every day. If all you can manage is some boxed mac and cheese, that is fine. It's food!

So, to summarize, learn to give yourself some slack. It takes practice. One of my best ways to get over it is to pretend like one of my best friends has done what I did, for example - has a fridge full of ingredients to make a salad, and ended up eating chips and salsa for dinner. -- would I judge her for it? Nah. So, why am I doing it to myself?
posted by Sparky Buttons at 7:08 AM on May 25, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Cooking and food come with so much baggage. But I have realised recently I'm a meticulous cook, and everything has to be ready, in the right place and quantities and be exactly the right ingredient. Then it will go ok. I only realised this because now there are people all over the kitchen and I'm dammned if I'm going to tangle with their systems so ... I've not been cooking. From what you wrote above maybe you also need everything to be just how it ought to be? Like, if you can get into the headspace that all your preferences are justified and just what you need, and you've an absolute right to them, maybe it will help? And ramen, omelettes and toast absolutely are proper eating, they need care to cook and when done well are heaven. Simple food needs a lot of care if it's going to be nice. Mashed potatoes for instance, if not made with attention, aren't worth it.

Guilt about cooking, it's all part of the same bullshit where women are conditioned to never feel they've done enough. It's hard to shake, and ime traditional societies have so many abstruse rules about what makes you an inadequate cook and therefore a bad woman, full of little details of behaviour that are quite irrational. It's very anxiety producing.
posted by glasseyes at 7:11 AM on May 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I could have written this question, despite generally enjoying cooking and especially baking.

Some ideas:

1- My (culinary school-trained) husband taught me that you don’t need to make a whole meal. Want to have ramen, but also have some vegetable that needs to be used up? Then roast or steam that veggie and have it as a side to your ramen, or even as an appetizer. You don’t have to prepare a Whole Dinner from scratch!

2- If you’re a planner, you may prefer baking (I do). I’ve been baking more savory stuff lately (casseroles and meatloaves) and find the process much nicer. I can prep everything at once with some planning, then clean up while it’s baking. No running around between different pans, bowls, etc.
posted by shb at 7:12 AM on May 25, 2020 [4 favorites]

I mean, it’s normal to hate cooking and eating alone, only for yourself. It’s depressing and actually pretty difficult because you have to pare everything down and do a lot of thinking and math to avoid wasting food.

I have semi solved this problem by trading food. I cook for four and pass along half to my parents, and they do the same. It makes everything a lot easier and more fun. Maybe there’s another person or small family who you could do this with?
posted by rue72 at 7:12 AM on May 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you're worried about food safety in regards to meat, get a meat thermometer! Helped me stop worrying about "is it really cooked."
posted by kingdead at 7:18 AM on May 25, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Emotionally I'm pretty much the opposite of this, so maybe I have something to add. I'm definitely a confident, spontaneous cook and it doesn't stress me out at all. But I think I got that way by not putting pressure on myself. I don't mind at all having just a few simple dishes in my repertoire, but over the years my repertoire of simple dishes has grown, so that now, many decades later, I've made so many simple things that I'm fluent in them and can look at a fridge with a few random ingredients and know what to make. I tend to find something I like and make it a lot, then move on, but it stays in my head so that even if I'm not making it all the time anymore, it's there and can be called up. Repetition is good! Simple is good! Easy cleanup is good!

Complicated recipes are the devil. I mean, I make them from time to time. But yeah, they're stressful and expensive and make a lot of dishes and in general I get a lot more satisfaction out of things I know how to do without having a recipe on the counter and that don't wreck the kitchen and it actually has turned me into a very good cook. So I think your natural tendency toward simple, low fuss foods is what is actually going to get you where you want to go. Just embrace it.
posted by HotToddy at 7:52 AM on May 25, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: The thing that helped me get past my cooking anxiety the most was to have my "improper" eating meals be the back-up, which gave me permission to try other recipes and maybe bungle them because I could always eat ramen if my attempt didn't work out. It took the pressure off and I started to enjoy improvising more. Now I can put together meals from whatever's available in the pantry.
posted by pendrift at 8:00 AM on May 25, 2020

I can definitely relate to some parts of your post. I come from an Indian family and my mom has a wide reputation as an excellent cook. I...did not inherit her skills. For most of my life I've been a very mediocre cook and I've felt a lot of shame about that. I've only started really improving over the past few years (in my 40's), with lots of practice.

I mainly want to address one part of your post:

I would love to be the kind of spontaneous cook who intuitively throws together delicious meals out of whatever they've got lying around. I feel like confident cooks are just, like, better at life?

My partner is a confident cook after working for several years in restaurants. He is very skilled and in control when it comes to actual cooking. However, he is not a spontaneous cook. He is not able to just "throw together" meals with whatever is lying around. He likes a game plan, and order. We make a good team because I like to plan and he's good at executing. So: go easy on yourself. You don't have to be good at all the things. Work with your strengths and forgive yourself your weaknesses. If you're solid at executing 4-5 things, that's awesome! Maybe the next baby step is picking one new dish you want to become good at, and master that.
posted by yawper at 8:08 AM on May 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

Anxious cook here as well. But I enjoy it.

One way to cope is to make a positive virtue out of cooking the same things with few ingredients. For e.g. I like to talk up how you can cook pretty much any veggie with olive oil and garlic and it will taste good.

I *still* am always running late, feeling flustered, and apologizing to my wife for the food. So fun and anxiety aren't mutually exclusive.
posted by splitpeasoup at 8:11 AM on May 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

Honestly, practice is the biggest help to this. And more than you might think. But even if you never get to the point that you can just spontaneously whip something up off the top of your head, that's okay. I think the kind of thing you're describing when it comes to making up recipes - "the kind of spontaneous cook who intuitively throws together delicious meals out of whatever they've got lying around" - calls for a lot of practice, a lot of repetition and habit, and a lot of trial and error and study. The only way that a person can open their fridge and say "let's see....I have some beans, some kale, some sausage, and I think there's some garlic - that's the basis of a lovely beans-and-greens soup, I bet!" is if they made that beans-and-greens soup before, a ton of times, maybe trying different greens on the way or trying different beans or maybe adding some chopped herbs at one time and deciding they didn't like it.

I freely admit that I may have had a head start on you; I've been cooking with minimal supervision since I was about ten. And yet, I still didn't get improvisational with recipes for years. I'm stlll not. I'm a bit more than I was - but only to the point that if I'm making a particular kind of soup, and there's a single ingredient that I don't have, I figure out if I can do without it, and if I can, I do. Or, I'll make up a vegetable soup based on "what vegetables do I have." That's as far as my improvising has gotten.

I recommend the Moosewood Daily Special cookbook a lot - but there are several reasons why, and one of them is that it is what helped me get improvisational. It's nothing but soups, stews, and salads, some of them hearty enough to be a meal on their own and some of them meant as side dishes. And many of them go together - the Moosewood restaurant has a couple of soups of the day and a couple salads of the day, and their "lunch special" is a cup of your choice of soup and a bowl of your choice of salad. So it's a whole book of mix-and-match combo plates in the making; and any of them can also be side dishes to a simple piece of meat, too. I started using it a lot in the summers, when there was really good fresh produce and I was looking to jazz up my bag lunches at work; I made a couple salads and a couple soups and just left them in my fridge, and then over the course of the week, when I needed a meal I'd just open the fridge, pick something, grab a serving and eat. There was enough variety that I didn't feel deprived. And - after a year of slavishly following the recipes in that book, that's what made me finally have an epiphany one day that "wait....these are all the same recipe, but just with different ingredients." And that repetition and realization is what let me become more improvisational myself; but I needed that repetition and rote learning to get to that point. ....And fortunately, the lessons were tasty.

I'm recommending it in your case for those reasons, but also because soups and stews are pretty forgiving; if you cook something a little bit too long, it's not going to ruin it. They're also often better the next day.

Trial and error and practice are the way to get there, and soups and stews are a safe place to explore. And hell, even if you never graduate out of having to use a cookbook, that's perfectly okay - I haven't! These days I use them more as a reminder of "how many onions should I chop" or "what's all the ingredients in that sauce again", but it still took me 50 years to get to that point, and at the end of the day, I'm fed, and that's what matters.

Good luck!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:25 AM on May 25, 2020 [6 favorites]

Hey, I’m also like you in a lot of ways! I definitely can’t throw something together spontaneously. I have 4-5 dishes that I’m most comfortable with and tend to go to those, and want to have all of the ingredients together and my evening free before I attempt them. I don’t like cooking just for myself so I’ve been eating the same thing daily in quarantine.

BUT I feel pretty proud and unashamed of my cooking skills! I think that description of skills and preferences is totally the norm (at least for me and among my 30-something USian friends). To be honest with you, I think the people who are cooking a ton on quarantine are just bored- they’re not necessarily better at life.
posted by quiet coyote at 8:26 AM on May 25, 2020

I am not anxious about cooking and I do throw things together. But I also accept that sometimes I buy too much, sometimes a new recipe just isn’t as nice or goes wrong, cleaning up is a bore and my defaults are not very complicated dishes. I like good quality ingredients in simple recipes.

For example, I got side tracked and turned pasta into mush on Friday and ended up having a sandwich instead. I cooked some fab pasta salad on Saturday to use things I wanted to use up and decided to invest in a new gadget because my grater sucks for what I wanted to grate.

I also tried a new recipe for quiche on Sunday, which was great and will go into heavy rotation, in fact the leftovers will furnish three more meals this week. I also tried a new cake recipe and that looked great but the taste was only ok and apparently I undercooked it in places despite checking. So the cake won’t go into heavy rotation. I already have other cake recipes I like better. I only ate some of the done cake and decided not to keep the rest because I knew I just wouldn’t eat it. And I only cleaned some of the stuff this morning.

Currently debating what veg in the fridge is going to go into my salad tonight and when I need to get out the quiche to reheat.

What I am trying to say is that these people sharing their food pics etc are only sharing some of their story. I spoke to a friend last night who requested a cake pic, she was impressed and I haven’t reported back yet that it wasn’t as nice as it looked and was undercooked in places. So perhaps challenge your assumptions about these accomplished chefs, they get it wrong as well.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:31 AM on May 25, 2020 [5 favorites]

There's a lot of pressure that can come in from completely different directions. Worrying about food safety is different from worrying about a meal that doesn't taste good, which is different from worrying about cleanup, which is different from worrying about storage and leftovers.

You can try to eliminate a few of these so you're not dealing with them all at once.

Cooking with foods that are safe to eat raw can eliminate food safety anxiety and give you more flexibility about deciding when things are "done." That way, you can decide things are done when they seem tastiest to you, regardless of what any instructions say.

There's nothing wrong with the simple things you're making. If you want to expand your repertoire, don't think about adding a list of dishes so much as adding a technique with multiple variations.

For instance, making a sauce, and then cracking eggs into it and covering it--you can use that technique with wildly varying ingredients in the sauce to end up with shakshuka, or something like huevos rancheros, or some unnamed dish that uses up leftover marinara and some herbs.

Just like you don't have to have dozens of cocktail recipes memorized if you know that mixing 2 parts gin with .5 or 1 part of something funkier (vermouth, sherry, amaro) will make a decent cocktail, regardless of what some recipe writer called it.
posted by pykrete jungle at 8:32 AM on May 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you cook some vegetables in the microwave, or stir-fry them for awhile, and then dump them on/into your ramen, toast, or omelette, you are OK.
Maybe a one week rotating meal plan that includes your go-to meals (including ramen, thing on toast, things in omelette), plus a few other flexible recipes would be helpful ? It might make daily planning less stressful and help you realize you don't have to reinvent the wheel every single day or week. You can repeat meals!!
There are Mad-Libs like resources like "play this game, plan your dinner" and tools like Supercook and Yummly that can suggest a recipe with what you've got. Good and Cheap has a quiche recipe that is delicious and takes 3-4 cups of whatever veggies are still hanging around in the house (plus it has various toast recipes since you mentioned liking toast). You can't go wrong with Budget Bytes as another good resource for trying a new recipe once in a while. But just stick to what you like and what is least stressful for the most part.
If there's any way you can set up breaks from everyone else's exciting Instagram-ready culinary times, I'd do that. If these communiques are part of a particular website or platform, you could use tools like Cold Turkey or LeechBlock to block off a part of the day where you can't be exposed to it.
posted by sacchan at 8:32 AM on May 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First: Maybe this is just a coping mechanism, but when I see people showing pics of their quarantine projects, I kind of figure they're using those projects to cope in some way. Like putting in an herb garden as an excuse to take a break from the rest of the family, or baking an elaborate cake while they put off calling grandma. It's silly but it helps me.

Second: there is absolutely nothing wrong with cooking simple meals. Like you, I live alone. I eat a lot of stuff on toast - just about any veggie can be chopped, sauteed with onion and/or garlic, and then popped under the broiler with a bit of cheese on top. I have at least one question about good and simple food in my Ask history, if you're interested.

Third: I actually have a reputation for being a "cook" to the point that some of my friends have let me know they find it intimidating. I remind them that for every successful dish that I share on social media, there's an uninspiring experiment that I choked down (or just tossed in the trash), a night when I ate cheese for dinner.

Fourth: I can cook freely, experimentally, and have a lot of fun. But not all the time. It takes energy and it's really hard to do when I'm anxious and stressed. I have life phases where I cook a lot, and phases where I rely heavily on yogurt and hummus to make meals out of pre-cut produce and chips. I'm finally sort of accepting this.
posted by bunderful at 8:35 AM on May 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

It's weird. I read the title and thought maybe I could give advice because I enjoy cooking. But I actually recognize a lot of your worries! I just worry less about the worrying, maybe. It definitely helps that I come from a meat-and-potatoes North American family where whipping up big meals or using particular techniques is not a priority, at all. My mother considers me a culinary genius because I use fresh herbs. So I understand that cultural baggage is definitely important.

Cooking for one is hard. A lot of recommendations for easy meals, especially sandwiches, don't scale down well at all. A slice of tomato is not worth it when you have to think about what to do with the rest of the tomato. And you can't be all that spontaneous when everything you buy is in danger of going off all the time. After moving in with my boyfriend I still marvel at least once a week that we can run out of food! Imagine using an entire head of lettuce without eating salads for every meal!

I learned to enjoy cooking by making lots of soups and stews. They're very forgiving and I find the endless chopping calming. I also never worry about meat being cooked properly in a stew. You don't even need meat to make a satisfying soup. I also like feeling that I have food for several days. I like cooking, but not doing it every day.
posted by pierogi24 at 8:39 AM on May 25, 2020 [8 favorites]

I would love to be the kind of spontaneous cook who intuitively throws together delicious meals out of whatever they've got lying around. I feel like confident cooks are just, like, better at life?

I'm that kind of cook. I'm pretty terrible at life.

FWIW, I pretty much never care how my food looks and I mostly cook for myself, and both those things probably help. Nobody's food pictures to compare myself to either. I come from a very food-oriented culture but most of what I cook is from outside of that culture so there's no weight there. I throw things together because it takes less patience than following recipes. Thinking about it, cooking to me is mostly taking ingredients that I like and either frying them, roasting them, or boiling them for a soup with the idea that there's a limit to how bad tasty ingredients can come out. Sometimes I burn things or overcook them but it's not the end of the world, hopefully some good taste can be salvaged out of it, and if not I'll just eat something else.

When I have energy I like cooking, and when I don't I do the minimum (fry whatever I've got with some eggs, stick things in the oven with pretty much no preparation and come back an hour later, etc.) Or just eat loose fruits/vegetables/nuts/cheese, or something out of a can.

I think if you can get to the point where cooking is less "let me create a beautiful oil painting upon this canvas, much like those at the museum" and more like "ooh, yellow crayon, red crayon, how nice" you'll probably enjoy it more, but if you don't, who cares, there are other life skills to be good at and other ways to eat well.
posted by trig at 8:54 AM on May 25, 2020 [10 favorites]

tend to stick to the same 4 or 5 dishes I'm comfortable with. All this combines to make me feel very ashamed and inadequate.

I stick to the same 4 or 5 dishes generally. And for entertaining, there's really one or two I go to/am asked for. I started out game planning those dishes, but am able to throw them together now.

Once I got to the point of being comfortable with a dish, I felt comfortable experimenting with that dish. Originally they were planned experiments, but eventually I became more comfortable with looking at what I have and then taking a shot. And from there I felt more comfortable trying new recipes in general.

So, practice is what helped me feel less anxious during cooking. I wouldn't say I felt confident as a cook or like a person who is good at it until, oddly, I had a disaster. I was supposed to make dessert for a dinner with friends and it failed spectacularly. It wasn't one of my go to recipes, but it was something I'd made before with some success. But I screwed up. So I bought cupcakes on the way to dinner. My first works after hello were I failed miserably and we had to resort to cupcakes from the bakery.

And they were fine with it! And expressed shock that I had a failure, because apparently they think of me as a good cook (based mostly on the two entertaining dishes, so very small sample size). Between a kitchen disaster happening and not ruining everything and learning that people are less judgemental of my cooking skills than I am (which duh), cooking just seems less stressful.
posted by ghost phoneme at 9:00 AM on May 25, 2020

Wow, yep I totally experience this too! My cooking anxiety comes from my mother, who was very territorial in the kitchen, and therefore never let me learn to cook (note: I'm not saying she should have taught me herself, just that I didn't have access to the kitchen). Looking back, perhaps her own anxiety about cooking fed into that, but I didn't know that as a kid.

At university, I felt so much shame that I couldn't cook. I even got teased about eating frozen meals all the time. This lack of skill carried over into my marriage - luckily my spouse is a great cook, so I didn't even need to learn then. Plus, in a warped stage of feminism, I was proud that I couldn't cook and that he did; however, I now view it as a life skill that everyone should learn.

What changed me was having kids, and time being precious, as part of the parental unit I needed to step and learn so he didn't have to cook every night. Funnily enough, I have always enjoyed baking, and can happily follow a recipe, and so I took that one skill and applied it to the problem.

The solution? For me, it has been a weekly Hello Fresh/Mindful Chef/Blue Apron type delivery service. I'm not exaggerating when I say they have been life-changing for me. I can now take on half the responsibility of providing dinner, but without the meal planning, grocery buying and other extra work that goes into it. It has also given me more confidence in the kitchen, I'm learning what foods/flavours go together, and how to do simple techniques that I struggled to learn from intimidating cookbooks. The cost honestly pays for itself in total time spent, mental health and food waste. I can't recommend them enough for your situation!
posted by atlantica at 9:10 AM on May 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you live alone, then any food that keeps you healthy and happy is "proper."

That's it. Those are the only criteria. Healthy + happy + within budget = the entire goal.

Cooking is a ton of work. Making varied meals is fun IF you enjoy it. Otherwise, it's a lot of wasted energy. Criticizing yourself because your friends are sending you food photos? Even more waste.

Just respond with a "yum!!" -- because your friend wouldn't be texting you that stuff unless she needed external validation that her work is admirable -- and enjoy the extra hours that you have gifted yourself by not messing up your kitchen. (By the way? If you were to text her back a photo of something equally impressive THAT WOULD KILL HER BUZZ.)

Seriously, all the comments telling you to go plan MORE and cook MORE are killing me here. You don't like it. You don't have to do it. Stop it.

If you want, cut up some bell peppers to go with your omelette and toast. Voila, a "balanced" meal with fiber and vitamins.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:39 AM on May 25, 2020 [6 favorites]

I used to have this, and one day I was looking at a recipe I wanted to make and freaking out about it and getting ready to not actually make it and I thought, wait a second. I could just make this and see how it goes, or I could panic and just have pasta with cheese, and they would take the same amount of time. So I made the recipe and have been a much calmer cook since.

Also, and this may not be helpful and I am really sorry if you're in recovery, but when I was at my aunt and uncle's for the holidays, my uncle asked me to help my aunt with some stuff in the kitchen because I like cooking and she's anxious about it. So I went in and I said, "hey, let's have some wine while we cook," and I had a sip and set it down and got started because I knew she would drink more of it before setting hers down, and by the time she'd had half a glass or so it was easy for her to relax and cook with me because I was already relaxed and cooking. So if you can find a way to trick yourself into chilling out, that could help too.
posted by bile and syntax at 9:49 AM on May 25, 2020

I used to have this! A few things helped.

1. I worked for a huge cooking-focused women's magazine and my desk was next to the kitchen! Seriously. So...professional cooks have failures. Tons of failures. Their failures often came home with me to feed my family, either because they weren't quite tomato-y enough or whatever, or because the fudge did not set and so I got to use it on ice cream.

Also at that time when media still had staff and money, whoever wrote the recipe could not test the recipe because they had to make sure all the steps were actually in there, because a lot of recipes are written by people who have been cooking a long time. And so they leave information out. Which is why you should NEVER JUDGE YOUR COOKING BASED ON A BLOG RECIPE, because bloggers do not have testers or editors (with a few exceptions.)

2. Even so mistakes were made.

3. I realized the price of any cooking mistake is a) the ingredients and b) the can of beans or soup I would open for the meal instead. Like, honestly. If it doesn't work, throw it out. It's ok. IT'S OK.

4. Practice.

5. Setting the stove on fire. I mean who can top having to actually use the fire extinguisher. Once you've done it, there's a whole new bar.

6. Nthing a meat thermometer.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:58 AM on May 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

What 4 or 5 dishes do you stick with? Maybe changing those slightly will help you expand.

I find if I cook from recipes I get more stressed. So I tend to decide what I want to try (ie a new recipe) and I check out a few recipes on line. Decide on whatever I'm going to do - and just write down the quantities I need. So rather than printing the recipe and method, I just have quantities on paper. Then use my memory for how to cook. I don't know why that works but it does for me.

Also, I remember when single, I was finding cooking too much. I decided to make chili as it makes a lot of servings, and I wouldn't have to cook for a few days. For whatever reason, I had a timer on , and it made me realize that I had chili on the stove bubbling away in 15 minutes. It made me realize that even though it felt onerous and time consuming, my brain was tricking me.
posted by Ftsqg at 10:04 AM on May 25, 2020

It sounds like you have some idea about what is or isn't real cooking that you might want to challenge. You don't need meat. Fancy salads count! Cut up that bell pepper and eat it with cheese.

I just noticed that you were talking about cooking all day and cooking for 15 people and if you're making three curries and a rice biryani, or a whole roast and potatoes and a vegetable, those are the meals that I think of. Those are totally not the meals I'd make alone.

Creative cooking for one, I think of putting some raw spinach and an egg into my ramen and letting them cook. Or mixing in a little soy sauce and ginger with my rice, or roasting a sweet potato and frying an egg to go on top. Looking in the fridge for veggies close to going bad and then roast those, squeeze some lemon on top. So you should give yourself some room to improvise and mess up.
posted by Lady Li at 10:08 AM on May 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

I forgot to say that one other thing I think helps is knowing how to rescue food that doesn't come out great. If it's bland, that can mean adding salt/spices (spice mixes can be great for this)/lemon juice or vinegar/cheese/herbs/hot sauce/whatever, until it starts tasting good. If it's too spicy, it can mean mixing in something bland like rice, pasta, potatoes, etc. If it's too mushy, find some nice texture to eat it with (pieces of toast, pasta, etc.) At best you come up with some nice combinations this way, and at worst it gives you some things to remember or avoid for next time.
posted by trig at 10:19 AM on May 25, 2020 [7 favorites]

Agreed that 20 minutes cooking and 5 minutes eating is an unsatisfactory rhythm.

"A clear game plan, all the ingredients to hand" is a time-honored technique called mise en place. Embrace it.

Let the calendar pick the menu for a day or two each week. I mean the "Taco Tuesday" or "Sunday Morning Pancakes" sort of thing.

I find that using the microwave reduces uncertainty because it gives repeatability that the stovetop doesn't have. We put our veggies and a little water in one of these and (mostly) zap for thee minutes. No need to look, no need to stir, no need to worry.

Treat yourself now and then. Make something you really like, not just things that are quick and easy.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:26 AM on May 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

some small practical tips from managing adhd and autism in the kitchen:
keeping ingredients as dead simple as i can - i buy frozen veggies, or i buy fresh ones i can chop and freeze, or i buy ones i can leave in the fridge for a month; meat i can cook from frozen
baking truly is easier than watching three different pots on the stove, even if it still involves a lot of dishes or putting something in at a different time
sheetpan meals, one-pot meals, crockpot meals
cooking for a day or two of leftovers so i have a day off
rewriting a recipe shortly in my own words before i start is making a huge difference in not getting lost in the steps
basically anything to simplify, simplify, simplify to head off the overwhelm. i still manage to make some fancy dishes (just cause i want to! imagine!) sometimes because i have things streamlined to make it possible.
now i do enjoy cooking ....... sometimes. most of the time, it's still a drag. most of my meals are an intentional routine of stuff like your go-tos. i think that makes the new/spontaneous stuff more fun and satisfying.
posted by gaybobbie at 10:31 AM on May 25, 2020

Best answer: I am a gleefully chaotic cook with an extremely anxious partner, and for him at least the hardest part is living with the possibility of failure, where I honestly don't give a shit. Very few of my meals are high-stakes, mostly it's just dinner because humans require food. I might "ruin" it (not a lot of cooking ruins food to the point of inedibility, usually it's edible it just may not have met your initial expectations), which is why there's always a couple of frozen dinners or pizzas in the freezer. Food might go to waste, which I know has been the focus of the culture as Very Bad but it's not really individual humans who are the problem, it's industrial food waste that is significant. If you are at all able to afford losing a little bit of the food you buy, let that go guilt-free. It's a learning experience that will probably improve your shopping skills.

At the very least, declare that you're going to spend the next year improving your cooking planning/processes/experience and for that year you're going to have to screw up some or you're not going to learn anything. Stock in 5 Plan B things so you can lower the stakes when you're cooking - a couple of frozen meals, a few cans of soup, ramen, frozen pizza which can double as a "cannot face the kitchen tonight" treat as needed. Slow down, write out the plan if you need to, put on a podcast or TV show while you work, remember that you're JUST feeding you, there's nobody else dependent on you to stay alive right now, there's no pressure, you're just focusing on learning and improving right now. You may eat a few sandwiches and tins of soup in the process, no big deal.

Maybe reframe expectations for yourself as a sort of game: for the next 90 days, your goal is simply to spruce up your basic comfort items - ramen or omelettes, but at first just make a protein to go with, or one vegetable (and then be efficient: make enough omelette one day to use leftovers cut into strips in your ramen the next day). Your 4-5 comfort dishes, made over and over until you've concentrated on every aspect of them and leveled up any level-able components. Maybe then find some recipes that are similar to your 4-5 comfort dishes, but enough different that it'll challenge you partially but the rest will feel familiar.

I'm convinced that this kind of cooking, usually as teens or young adults, is how most relaxed cooks got that way - we weren't born riffing entire banquets; we were zhuzhing up frozen pizza, making pasta/noodles with jar/packet sauce, learning to scramble eggs and then make omelettes. Baking experiments from reliable simple recipes first before branching out. Baby steps. High success rates because they were simple projects, watching cooking shows just to glean basic skills, lots of repetition, lots of iteration, slowly leveling up. This allows actual interest and curiosity to grow and develop, which makes cooking a lot more fun and productive.

As far as food safety, pick one country's guidelines and learn the rules and get a meat thermometer. Temp everything over and over until you build a brain database that will tell you by sight/sound/texture that something is sufficiently cooked, while you also read up on what "sufficiently" means, as it doesn't actually take much for all but a few higher-risk foods. Also understand that food poisoning is not guaranteed, it doesn't actually happen that often! Many people eat chicken well under the gross chewy US-mandated 165F every day, literally every day, and never get sick their entire lives. Very few foods are truly time bombs anymore, there's likely nothing you might cook on a regular basis that's actively high-risk, assuming you have a working refrigerator and freezer and buy your food from sources you trust. Most food poisoning comes from mishandled restaurant food (often malfunctioning fridge/freezers, or left to sit out way beyond guidelines, or in worst cases handled/prepped by someone with a communicable illness after the food is cooked); you can buy a very cheap fridge thermometer (spend another $10 and you can get one that will beep if it fails to maintain low enough temperatures) and wash your hands frequently and shop at stores that seem reliable and your risk there is negligible. The professionally-beloved Thermopen food thermometer is routinely on sale for a very reasonable price, and their cheaper slightly slower Thermopop, which I have, is a modest price for a solid piece of equipment.

My final message: USE HELPER FOODS AND TOOLS, you're not going to get into heaven any faster for never microwaving a broccoli! You aren't a better human being if you always make pasta sauce from scratch. We live in an age of modern wonders and you can get a cooked potato on your plate in less than 10 minutes. You can buy an entire machine that watches your rice cook for you (and if you're maintaining a small natural disaster/power outage/pandemic pantry, you can buy pouches of already-cooked rice and if you're having a rough night, go get one of those out of the emergency stash). Ignore your friends cherry-picking their absolute best work for social media, if you are spending two weeks really perfecting cooking chicken breast and you eat it with microwaved steamed veggies every night, the education you are receiving is more important than the likes it won't get online.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:49 AM on May 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You're cooking for yourself! What are the stakes here? Who is this invisible judge you've invited into your kitchen?

I also cook for myself. On a daily, basically involuntary, basis I find it drudgery (on a free-will basis, to try to make something extra-tasty for myself, it can be fun). But really the only goal is to get some reasonably edible nutrition inside me. That means a meal can be disappointing, but not shameful. If it's downright inedible, fine, we'll be having eggs this evening, life goes on. Confidence/ability to improvise is just a function of (a) experience and (b) ability to tolerate failure, because, again, who is there to judge you?

Cooking is just the codification of people's practices, not some divinely-inspired intuition of the truth. Setting aside food safety issues (and unlike with baking), there are no rules, though some practices/ingredients may get you closer to what you want than others. There is no one actually standing over you with a scorecard. No one to take off points if your sandwich is a little soggy, or you use one green instead of another, or the texture of your grain is not quite appealing. Kick that imaginary critic out of your head!
posted by praemunire at 11:19 AM on May 25, 2020 [3 favorites]

This is a bit of a wild-card idea, but it may be irreverent enough to short-circuit the critic - remind yourself that whatever it is you cook is going to be turned into poo within twelve hours after you eat it anyway, no matter what. So it....kind of isn't worth getting overly fussed about. Are you just eating ramen again? That's fine, it's still just going to be poo anyway. Is your steak just kind of "meh"? That's okay, it'll all just be poo. Did you put the noodles in the boiling water a little too late? Don't sweat it, it'll all be poo soon anyway.

Of course, if you do cook something well, enjoy it. But if the anxiety is starting to creep in while you cook, maybe trying to remind yourself that "this is all eventually just going to be poo anyway" may short-circuit the anxiety. Or, at least, make you chuckle for a moment and give you a second to catch your bearings again.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:43 AM on May 25, 2020

Best answer: I come from a non-Western culture where food is the social and emotional centre to life (though I don't think that this is too rare in the West either), and I think a lot of my sense of inadequacy comes from that.

So I immediately wondered about culture of origin when I started reading your question. Is part of the issue that you feel inadequate about perhaps preferring to be a cookbook cook despite being raised in a "non-cookbook" culture?

For example, my culture of origin is one that doesn't really do recipes or measuring instruments; how to cook a dish is about flexible verbal instructions, maintaining room for substitutions, and developing a feel for what works. Because of the inherent flexibility in our cooking, we get accustomed to things not being perfectly reproducible. I didn't learn to cook my culture of origin's food from written recipes, and the culinary sense that I developed from their way of cooking is stuff I can apply to most other cuisines...but there's a limit to that. That's where recipes come in! They give you a safe template to work with, validate and remix.

I don't really like making this generalization, but a lot of foodies in Western cultures develop much of their diverse cooking intuition from, well, cookbooks. What looks like pure improvisation is variations on a lot of learned themes. If you grew up in a setting where most people only ever cook their own culture's cuisine, you may have internalized that a good cook never uses a cookbook, which simply isn't the case in Western cultures. You can expand your repertoire more organically, but it sounds like some of the foundational cookbooks mentioned in earlier answers might help you get there in a less stressful way?
posted by blerghamot at 12:37 PM on May 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would extremely recommend reading some of Ruby Tandoh's work (I really like Eat Up and her twitter account). She's from the UK and was on British Bake-off, and writes really accessibly about the culture and judgement around food and eating.

Her series of Good Food Things brings me a lot of joy and is all about how the best parts of food and eating and cooking aren't fancy michelin star experiences.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 12:40 PM on May 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm a pretty confident cook who can look at what I have around and intuitively know...what cookbook I want to flip through or what combination of ingredients I want to google. Recipes work for me!

I have struggled with that weird shame though. My best advice is give yourself permission to take it slow. Set aside one night a week for what you see as a formal cooking experience.

Also, what do you like to eat? What would you enjoy seeing on a plate? Maybe make some simple version of that thing five time in a row. Once you're sick of it, then worry about finding a second new thing. Living alone gives you the freedom to get into weird ruts.

Oh! Here's one thing that really helped me early on. Don't buy anything fresh unless you know exactly how you're going to use it. Nothing like a bunch of gently rotting produce to really up your anxiety levels.
posted by fairfax at 4:26 PM on May 25, 2020

What worked for me, living alone and keeping weird hours, was seeing an appealing vegetable at the market and cooking that and eating it for a while. Or pasta with a sauce. This would be eked out with the kind of more or less instant food you describe. Even today, the main reason I look at cookbooks is not to find recipes to follow but to think, "Oh, artichokes! I haven't made those in a while."

My advice? Just take a break from cooking for a while and then cook something that will be a treat.
posted by BibiRose at 6:03 PM on May 25, 2020

I have The Anxiety, which generally comes from being overwhelmed by cooking and all the steps and 15 ingredients and all that baggage, and also the extreme judging that comes from others eating your food. My parents got into screaming matches in the kitchen (and everywhere else in the house really) so I associate cooking with screaming and judging, not love and a warm belly or whatever everyone else does. It is Not Fun and I got terrified about potlucks and most of the time I just got takeout or a bag of chips or something so nobody would complain about how I fucked up buying watermelon again (which happened).

I live alone (and will for life now, thanks pandemic) so I don't HAVE to learn how to cook for other people and how to please them. If nobody else is eating it, who gives a shit, is generally how I feel. But also, I don't want to put too much work into it because I want out of the kitchen as soon as I can. I would totally be fine with ramen/omelettes/toast (except I'm out of 2/3 of that) all the time, really. Cooking for one is, as far as I can tell, a totally different experience than "for a family of four" and has its own difficulties. Why the hell do I need to buy ALL THAT STUFF just for me?

You don't have to Instagram your dinners, though! Fuck that! The best thing about cooking alone is that nobody else has to know if you fucked it up! Or just ate omelets for days!

I do feel like there needs to be a cookbook/website for people who hate cooking and only use a few ingredients, except people who love cooking would not be into that and people who hate cooking don't want to write a cookbook. I have a few that are "four ingredients or less" but are still so complicated that I've never made one dish out of them. Cooking really isn't designed or intended for people who don't love doing it and going through all the work and process for multiple peole, I think.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:02 PM on May 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

I just lost a long comment. Serves me right for overthinking etc.
You seem to be in a very good place from a cooking perspective. You can cook for many people, you eat food (omelette, ramen and toast are well within the range of real food IMO), and you have no food-making obligations.
These days, with all the cooking shows and the internet sites, there does seem to be a tendency towards more complicated and technically difficult food, and obviously to instagram presentations. Don't let that distract you. Simple, nourishing food is still delicious, regardless of what media brings. Put some frozen peas in the ramen pot, or fry a tomato along with your omelet. Season well.
And I'm sure everyone in your family will agree (if they give it a thought) that no one should set out to make several dishes for each meal when they live alone. That's just wasteful. Maybe having some good condiments in the fridge can spice up your basics and create variety, and maybe you already have those.

I do feel like there needs to be a cookbook/website for people who hate cooking and only use a few ingredients, except people who love cooking would not be into that and people who hate cooking don't want to write a cookbook.

I started making such a thing for my kids, but they grew out of it faster than I could make and test the recipes.
posted by mumimor at 8:01 AM on May 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

There is the classic I Hate to Cook Book.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:18 AM on May 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: here's one that looks pretty good too, more recent than the Bracken.

But I keep coming back to your question and wanting to hug you, because you've told us you DO know how to cook, you just don't enjoy it. And that's no more shameful than, like, not enjoying bricklaying in the hot sun.

EATING a home cooked meal is nice. Cooking that meal because you have to, on the other hand, is drudgery. I've said this before in another thread about cooking, I think it was on the blue -- there is a reason that for most of human history, if you had slaves, your cook was definitely one of them; after that, if you had servants, your cook was MOST definitely one of them. It's boring, it's laborious, it's incredibly frustrating when it goes wrong, and it takes a ton of time. Not wanting to do more of it than you have to is 100% rational.

Maybe it would help you, upon receiving aspirational food photos, to remind yourself that you're not seeing the photos of the backache, the clock ticking the hours by, the kid who takes one look at the result of the hours and hours of mommy's work and says "ugh, what's this, yuck" and the ensuing misery at the dinner table, followed by a big old sink full of dirty dishes and later a crisper full of rotting leftover basil.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:39 AM on May 26, 2020 [3 favorites]

I'm a foodie and I failed to make dinner tonight. I love hotwings and there were organic chicken wings at the local discount store, and I made a marinade of sambal oelek and soy sauce and lime juice, and they were just too hot for me. This never happens and then it does. Apart from the wings being too hot, I don't know if I can ever clean up the pan again. (I usually use another brand of hot sauce for this and did no appropriate tasting or testing, it's all my own fault).

As fingersandtoes says, there are lots of failures behind the successes. Inspired by their comments, I googled I Hate to Cook and it has been a fun rabbit hole to explore. I recommend.
posted by mumimor at 10:58 AM on May 26, 2020

I have one reflection and one practical suggestion.

The reflection: It sounds like you want to be a perfect cook. I suggest abandoning that. Being a good cook is enough for those of us who don't make our living in the kitchen. In other words, aim be a satisficer, someone who's content to do a good job, rather than a maximizer, someone who has to do the best job.

The practical suggestion: Get a set of fridge/freezer containers and get in the habit of preparing several servings of whatever you make and freezing it. I have a large freezer in my basement, and at any given time it will have a couple dozen servings of things that I cooked and set aside for later. Much of the work of cooking and cleaning is independent of the quantity you make, so having ample leftovers is a way to, at the very least, reduce the amount of time you spend with your cooking anxiety. As someone with a demanding professional job, I find it a relief to come home after a long day and know I can just pop something out of the freezer. (I also recommend square containers that stack well, to make better use of freezer space.)
posted by brianogilvie at 1:31 PM on May 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yes, I totally agree with the freezer suggestion, and also suggest picking your favorite cuisine and sticking with it. Every cuisine has set of common techniques, ingredients, and flavor combinations and once you learn those you're free to improvise. It also drastically cuts down on food waste because you're not buying weird ingredients that you don't know how to use outside of the one recipe you bought them for.
posted by HotToddy at 5:23 PM on May 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think you are doing GREAT!

For what it's worth, when I think of fabulous cooks who can whip up amazing things spontaneously: when I imagine them cooking for themselves, I pretty much always imagine them making a simple omelet, or a very slightly fancy sandwich (like, a regular sandwich but grilled or toasted for a minute). I get this impression from movies (like I'm pretty sure at the end of Big Night the chef cooks himself a scrambled egg with a slice of baguette), so it may have some basis in reality.

I think I have a milder version of what you're describing, and some things that have been helpful for me are:

Being totally, totally fine with cooking what I want, no matter how simple or how few ingredients. I love an egg, friend in butter, over (microwaved reheated) rice, with black pepper. That's what I like, and there's nothing at all wrong with that. I can add a piece of fruit or some veg for extra nutrition if I want, but egg over rice is a perfectly fine meal all by itself.

Positive self-talk: while I'm prepping, sometimes I'll say to myself, "What a nice thing this is I'm doing for myself, making myself some food I'm going to enjoy."

Also, practice - especially practice of these mindsets - really, really does help. I feel like I've gone from "can make something basically edible" to "has a small repertoire of things I enjoy and look forward to", and really it was just the process of doing it more that helped me relax into it and almost even enjoy the process of cooking sometimes.

Good luck - you're doing GREAT!
posted by kristi at 10:20 AM on May 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, guys. These answers have all been very helpful and interesting and I've also been doing some thinking about what triggers me about cooking. I've best answered the answers that talk about embracing simple dishes and not being ashamed of being satisfied with very simple things.

Prior to posting this question I had been using one of those meal subscription services recommended upthread and I found that they were the things that really made me spiral into anxiety/anger. I have lots of traumatic childhood food memories about not being allowed to eat what I wanted, and I think that for me, having a meal subscription service is kind of like someone else telling me this is what I am going to eat regardless of what I'm in the mood for or how I am feeling. But I recognise they are a boon for many, many people, so it just goes to show: different strokes for different folks! - and I still thank folks for suggesting them thinking they might be helpful to me.

I've found that the idea of embracing that I can eat whatever I want and it all counts as a meal even if no "proper cooking" is involved has been really helpful. So for the past few days I've been making weird stuff like egg mayonnaise and just having it in a bowl alongside a chopped up avocado and even though that is weird, like eating a sandwich filling without the sandwich, I've enjoyed it and managed to not feel ashamed about not making a proper meal. But I've also made some elaborate dishes from my home country because I felt like it, and those were nice too.
posted by unicorn chaser at 5:13 AM on June 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

FYI eating sandwich fillings without the sandwich is a standard way to eat low carb, and considered aspirationally healthy by fans of that diet style. Feel free to photograph your creations, post them to instagram with a rhapsodic description, and monetize that shizz as a keto lifestyle blog.

Have fun!
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:03 AM on June 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So for the past few days I've been making weird stuff like egg mayonnaise and just having it in a bowl alongside a chopped up avocado and even though that is weird, like eating a sandwich filling without the sandwich, I've enjoyed it and managed to not feel ashamed about not making a proper meal.

You may want to read the essay "Alone In The Kitchen With An Eggplant" by the late Laurie Colwin. It's a kind of a celebration of the funky things people eat when they're only cooking for themselves Like, she says that if you ask people what they make for themselves when they're cooking alone they may say that they made themselves nice proper little meals, but if you were to spy on them you'd find they would be eating things like peanut butter with their hands, sardine-and-peach sandwiches, or an entire bunch of raw carrots. She points out that a lot of times these creations are things that people discover when they're on their way to figuring out what they like and who they are as cooks, and so she celebrates them; it's where you find the most creativity, she says. It's a fun essay.

I've been getting to the time of year when I'm all "the hell with cooking" as well, so I feel you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:28 AM on June 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

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