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How To Enjoy Cooking More – Don’t Make It A Chore

by | Sep 24, 2023

For many, the kitchen stirs up feelings of frustration, overwhelm and dread rather than creativity and pleasure. Diet culture’s rules and rigidity often clash with the desire to simply enjoy food without fuss. If cooking feels like a guilt-laden chore dictated by unrealistic standards, you’re not alone.

Whether you’re entangled in the web of diet culture, perfectionism, or simply lack the time or desire to cook, but you do actually wish you found the will to cook more, I think there’s hope for you.

That said, cooking isn’t everyone’s favorite activity. And that’s perfectly fine. You don’t have to feel passionate about cooking. However, with the right approach and mindset, I do think you can cultivate more enjoyment out of it and find ways to make it make sense for you and your life.

The reality is, unless you have an unlimited budget or personal chef, most of us need to do at least some cooking to eat delicious, nutritious meals. So if you want to cook healthier foods but struggle with resistance or a lack of enthusiasm for cooking, this post is for you.

Cooking Inspiration Can Be Found In Unusual Women

M.F.K. Fisher, who’s body of work I’m currently devouring, wrote How to Cook a Wolf, which is luckily not about how to cook a wolf, but about how to eat delicious food that utterly pleases you, even when food is rationed and money is tight.

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, known as M.F.K. Fisher, wrote eloquently, colorfully, and enthusiastically about eating and cooking in the last half of the 20th century. Her food writing is sensuous and hilarious, and I totally relate to her devotion to flavor.

She was a white lady from a “good family” in California with access to plentiful food, but she was also known to encourage women to think for themselves, and was a rule-breaker herself. She wrote to the country during World War II and encouraged people to eat really well (attention to quality and satisfaction, not about cutting calories, btw) with what they had, even when times were tough.

She insisted that food didn’t have to be complicated to be delicious, that one could find dignity by caring about what they ate, and that cooking an egg perfectly was worth the attention and time it took. I tend to agree.

In Gastronomical Me, which I’m currently reading, she tells the story of how cooking came to feel essential to her. The first thing she cooked was “pure poison” and gave her mother “great, red itching welts”. Her next adventure included way too much curry and burned her and her sister’s mouths to blisters. Hilarious. She carried on.

“From then I ruled; temporarily I controlled. I felt powerful, I loved that feeling… I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them against the hungers of the world.”

M.F.K. Fisher
MFK FIsher sitting back in her chair, grainning, with an empty plate in front of her.
M.F.K. Fisher

Is Cooking A Hobby Or A Necessity For You?

As a non-diet dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor, I talk to people every day about their reluctance to cook. I won’t lie, I love to get people excited about cooking, but I also understand why our culture makes it really difficult to find the time, skill, patience, and desire to do this.

For some people, cooking is a hobby. And for others, it’s a practical tool like cleaning that we just gotta do. Thing is, when we are “supposed” to do something, it can become awfully loaded, especially for anyone prone to dieting, disordered eating, or food perfectionism.

Ever Wondered Why You Hate Cooking?

When you cook, do you actually like what you make for yourself? Are you cooking for a family and only cooking what they want to eat? When you order food out, do you choose what will be the most satisfying for you in that moment or choose based on some externally imposed food rule?

So often, since we are overly focused on things being “healthy” or “easy” (or the opposite, we’re “being bad”), we forget to make things delicious. And one thing that’s for certain – eating food that is deeply satisfying and doing so with full permission can improve your relationship with food.

How Diet Culture Harms Our Relationship With Cooking

If you’ve fallen victim to diet culture’s unrealistic expectations and moralistic food rules, your thoughts about cooking are likely tainted by that mindset. Diet culture ruins everything. You will probably enjoy cooking more if you don’t put rigid rules or expectations on yourself about how it gets done.

Food rules about what to cook

One major barrier I often see is the rigid rules people believe they should follow when cooking. If they can’t adhere to those strict standards, they feel like failures committing immoral acts against their health.

The rules might sound like: “You must eat fresh, organic, whole vegetables – nothing pre-chopped from a bag. That’s for lazy people who don’t care about toxins.” Or “Only lean proteins and green veggies are allowed. No butter, no starch. Anything else is unhealthy.”

These black-and-white food rules make home cooking incredibly stressful. For those dealing with disordered eating or binge behaviors, having such restrictions around can feel triggering. Understand that denying yourself foods will likely not aid recovery; be compassionate and seek support if needed.

Too much nutrition misinformation

Our media is inundated with alarmist headlines about every tiny piece of nutrition research. But the thing is, nutrition research is notoriously hard to conduct. We’re humans, after all, with social environments and lives too busy to drop everything and eat in a uniform manner with thousands of other people. But that doesn’t stop news outlets from wanting to cover incomplete nutrition findings.

People click on these headlines and so the media outlets keep publishing them. Read more about my take about America’s collective food anxiety problem here.

TMBI (too much bad information) —> indecision —> overwhelm —> no groceries —> order takeout. Maybe I’m hyperbolizing a little here, but hopefully, you see my point. 

You Don’t Have Enough Time

If you are working a very demanding job with long hours, you have kids with after school activities, you have a social life, and other responsibilities, it’s likely that fitting in a regular cooking routine is going to be challenging.

There’s no sense in sugar coating it – cooking does take time. But it does not NEED to take forever. You want to make sure you’re not being unrealistic with your time or overly ambitious with the types of foods you plan to cook if you are really busy.

Diet culture has placed morality on using processed and prepared foods as part of a regular, healthy diet. This is a problem. If you can’t find time to chop fresh broccoli, and so you never cook at all, your beliefs about what types of foods are okay to eat are standing in the way.

Consider – if you allowed yourself to use frozen broccoli, or pre-chopped, or have some kind of partially prepared broccoli dish in the freezer, it would be a lot easier for you to eat that broccoli.

Cooking Is A Privilege

Let’s face it – fast food is cheap and when you’re too busy to cook, it is the easiest option. First of all, the people who need to use fast food to survive do not deserve judgement. We get way too much bad information these days due to anti-fat bias, diet culture, and our government and medical system being in bed with big food and big pharma. 

People being told they need to lose weight by every doctor and health guru around can grow confused about whether it’s okay to make pasta for dinner without feeling guilty about it. People not having the time to cook, or the resources to buy the ingredients they need, make cooking a privilege. Fast food is cheaper than fresh food.

bag of green beans that says "bagged veg are good veg" showing that cooking can be easy if you use prepared ingredients

How To Enjoy Cooking More – Don’t Make It A Chore

Here are a few basic tips to help you loosen up your frustrating feels about cooking and enjoy cooking more. I think of cooking like I think of exercise – make it pleasurable or you won’t be happy doing it.

Make something simple with ingredients you love

Allow yourself to do it slowly and deliberately, even if it’s only once in awhile. Don’t let your inner demon and perfectionism that tells you you should be cooking more often keep you from doing it occasionally.

If you want to check out a couple previous recipes of mine, that are simple and nutritious, but not boring, here are a few faves. Lebanese ground turkey and spinach with lemon and pine nuts is so delish and unusual, although not difficult. Or you can check out this super simple sweet potato coconut curry.

What to cook? Decide on something that makes your mouth water to think about

Do you love pasta and red sauce? Make your own sauce and buy fresh pasta from the grocery store. Buy some nice lettuce and dress it with real lemon juice that you squeezed from a real lemon, olive oil, and salt. Have it with a glass of wine if you wanna. Or if that doesn’t appeal, ask yourself…. what do I love to eat? Make that. Cook it for your family, or for just yourself.

Consider what you love to eat out at restaurants

Consider making things at home that you already love. This is actually my favorite tip on here because it’s how I started cooking back in my 20’s. You can read that whole story here.

Try the simple side salad that is always indescribably perfect. Or a simple curry. Do you love the meatballs at your fave Italian spot, make those! Always follow your taste buds and the foods that give you that totally perfect sense of satisfaction. Then simplify.

Build your skillset & Toolset

Just like anything in life, things are more fun if you’re reasonably good at them and if they don’t cause a ton of stress or overwhelm. If you don’t like cooking because everything you make turns out soggy or all wrong, then take a look at the kinds of foods you’re making. Is there a way you can simplify? Are you trying to do too many things at once?

Make sure you have the right tools. A couple good knifes are a must, as cutting into anything with a dull knife will make you lose your mind. I think a big, heavy cutting board is also a smart move. You want to have a few big prep bowls (like these) for putting ingredients in once you’ve already chopped them.

Since I believe it’s the little things, the simple, quality ingredients that can make cooking more enjoyable, I am a firm believer in finding ways to make this easier. First up: a garlic press and a citrus zester. After my knife and cutting board, these are the two tools I use more than anything. The zest of a lemon can make almost anything 10% better. And there’s really nothing quite so savory as fresh garlic.

I love using cast iron pans when cooking meat on the stovetop, a nice, big saute pan for stir fries, and the perfect tiny fry pan for toasting things or for frying an egg.

Utilize partially prepared foods and freezer staples

Try getting creative with how you can use foods that are partially prepared. Right now, I’m in a pretty intense bagged salad phase. Grab one of the Asian blend salads with cabbage, make some rice noodles, grab a rotisserie chicken, and call it a day.

Go to Trader Joe’s and explore their extensive selection of prepared and partially prepared foods. These foods can sometimes make up a whole meal, and can sometimes just be the base for a meal, or the main entree that you can throw a salad with. Judging prepared foods as unhealthy or bad can really limit the amount of cooking you’ll end up doing.

Last week, I ordered garlic eggplant and mapo tofu from my new favorite Chinese restaurant. At home, I cooked some chicken thighs and broccoli and had a perfectly balanced meal that lasted for a couple days.

Don’t let nutrition information overwhelm you

There’s a fine line between using nutrition knowledge to gently guide your choices and letting diet culture prevent you from cooking foods you truly enjoy. While I advocate for more whole foods and home-cooking, we all have different limitations, skills and interests in the kitchen. Cooking every night may not be realistic, and that’s okay.

If prepping whole, uncut vegetables feels overwhelming, buy the pre-chopped bagged versions instead. Frozen and canned produce are nutritionally sound options too. They may not provide the same delicious browning as fresh, but they work great for quick meals or in soups/stews when time is tight.

Yes, canned vegetables tend to be higher in sodium, but they’re still better than no vegetables at all. Most of our excessive salt comes from eating out frequently, not home-cooking. Staples like canned tomatoes and beans are part of every cook’s kitchen essentials.

Don’t judge yourself in the process

Be open to making cooking work for you – whatever that means. Remember that you’re trying to learn something new! It took me years to find a routine with cooking that felt natural and enjoyable. Let your curiosity guide you and try really hard not to judge yourself for “not being there yet”. Finding joy in cooking might take some time, practice, and experimentation.

Get curious about what you haven’t tried to find a routine that feels sustainable. Our culture does a great job of imposing rules to judge ourselves by, but don’t forget that you can choose to ignore them.

Don’t let cooking be a chore. Don’t make things if you don’t enjoy them. Don’t let what you “should” be doing keep you from doing one small thing. Obviously, one meal a week won’t get all your food needs met. But riffing off simple pleasures, I believe, is a great way to think about filling your house, your fridge, and your body with great food.

Do You Have To Like Cooking To Be Healthy?

There’s a pervasive notion that cooking at home is virtuous while eating out is shameful. This is simply untrue. It’s absolutely okay to not be a passionate home cook. Not everyone needs to channel their inner M.F.K. Fisher or Julia Child to have a healthy relationship with food. The key is finding a balance that fits your time, lifestyle and allows cooking to meet your needs for nourishment, convenience and, ideally, some enjoyment – without pressure to love every minute of it.

Think of cooking like laundry – you may not love it, but having a routine makes it manageable, even mildly satisfying when folding warm towels. The goal is integrating cooking into your life in a sustainable, undaunting way that aligns with your tastes and health needs without requiring you to become a culinary master. Aim for cooking to be a comfortable household acquaintance – familiar and reliable.

How I Think About Cooking As A Non-Diet Dietitian

Over my years of helping people eat better, I end up talking less and less about how to cook. This is fine, this is what the people who I love to help need from me.

Being a non-diet dietitian means I help people find their food and nutrition truth, not that I force mine on them.

But the truth is, I really love cooking. It connects me to myself. I let it slow me down.

I learned to cook in my 20s (still learning, really) when I was working at a restaurant in NYC. I realized that the food they were making was delicious and simple in a way I had never experienced. Only lemon juice, salt, and olive oil to dress unusual salads. And I was drooling over them. Fennel, celery root, parmesan, and parsley with toasted pepitas was my favorite.

Marinara sauce with just 4 ingredients: tomatoes, salt, garlic, and olive oil. It was the most perfect thing I’d ever tasted. And I had never given two shits about tomato sauce. 

I was spending all of my money on rent, so even with the employee discount, I couldn’t really afford to eat there much. I started learning their recipes. Really, it was just assembly and some simmering, no skillets involved. (I believe that skillets scare people off – timing! oh my!)

I talked to the kitchen staff – a bunch of adorably silly, often shy young men, mostly from Puebla, Mexico. These were not their recipes, these were Italian. But they learned to cook them perfectly and could explain them to me in Spanglish. It made my heart sing. 

Here’s what I learned:

  • Simple ingredients make the best food
  • Don’t skimp on the things I love
  • It’s worth buying real parmesan & chopping my own garlic
  • I enjoy cooking more if I allow myself enough time to make dinner an ordeal whenever I want

The key is not forcing it.

I find that if I have enough time to slow down and not rush the cooking process and if, and only if, I’m truly excited about the meal at the end, it’s totally worth it a million times over.

Final Thoughts On Enjoying Cooking More

I hope this has inspired you to look at your relationship with cooking and ask yourself – what do I want to eat? Now get out there and make something great. I know you can do it. 

If you want some hand-held help in developing a relationship with cooking that you love, I’d love to work with you. Heal & Nourish, my highly individualized nutrition therapy program has ongoing openings. And if connecting with a group of anti-dieters making peace with food and their body calls to you, join my 6-month group coaching program, The Love Food Again Program. Check it out.

About Emily

Emily Van Eck, MS, RDN specializes in Intuitive Eating, eating disorders, body image, women’s reproductive health, and healing from years of weight-bias and disordered eating. She helps people find balance, consistency, and peace with their eating habits so they can feel confident to get outta their heads and into their bodies. Emily is a registered dietitian and certified Intuitive Eating counselor with a master’s degree in nutrition science. Read more about her practice, values, and experience here.

Emily Van Eck on couch with cereal bowl

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Hey there, I´m Emily

A non-diet and weight-inclusive dietitian, intuitive eating coach, and body image healer. Here on the blog, I focuses on exploring intuitive eating, gentle nutrition, the complex arena of body image and feminism, anti-oppression, and all the ways these things intersect. I want us all to be free to own our appetites, and our desires, and eat really, really well. 

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