6 Tips for Overcoming Anxiety About Cooking

Do you avoid cooking? Try these practical strategies to overcome your fear.

Posted Mar 17, 2018

Source: Unsplash

Anxiety about cooking can arise in a couple of different circumstances.  Firstly, sometimes people have no experience with cooking.  They've never done it and therefore have no confidence.   If you've never cooked, even "basic" recipes may be intimidating. 

In another scenario, you might've cooked reasonably frequently in the past but you've gotten out of the habit for some reason.  This happened to me when I moved to the US.   I started eating a lot of pre-prepared meals, and the more time went on, the more daunting cooking anything from scratch felt.   This is a pretty typical pattern.  Whenever we avoid anything, our anxiety grows.   This can happen even in situations in which avoidance is unintentional.  For example, we lived in a hotel while we were house hunting so I didn't have access to a full kitchen for a few months.

Whichever category you fall into, here are practical tips for overcoming anxiety about cooking.

1.   If you lack basic cooking equipment, visit a dollar store.

You can get all sorts of perfectly functional basic cooking equipment at dollar stores.  For example, measuring cups and spoons, a spatula, mixing bowls, a can opener, aluminum trays for making lasagna or other recipes that require a huge pan, freezer containers etc.   By utilizing the dollar store you can buy all the absolute basics you'll need for under $15, creating a low barrier to entry.

If you need items like pots and a good chopping knife, try a discount store (like Ross Dress for Less or TJ Maxx in the US).  Why?  You'll be able to buy good quality, individual pots for low prices, without needing to buy a whole set.  Moreover, these stores usually have just a few choices, so you won't get completely overwhelmed by too much choice.  If you're starting from zero, I'd recommend buying one large pot (big enough to cook pasta in) and one smaller one.

2. Use tried and true recipes.

Many of the recipes you'll see online aren't well tested and ratings may be fake.  Ideally, ask friends for recipes that they make a lot.    As an example, this is a chocolate cake recipe that's very reliable.  The only thing I do differently is cook it on a lower temperature.

I love using YouTube for recipes but I utilize a couple of strategies to mitigate the risk of getting a bad recipe.  Firstly, If I'm going to use a recipe from YouTube I like recipes where someone makes and recommends someone else's recipe.  This way you know for sure that the recipe worked for another person.   Here's an example of this - a YouTuber makes another YouTuber's blueberry pancake recipe. 

Secondly, I "triangulate" recipes by looking at 3 different recipes for the same thing, to see if anything seems wildly off in any one version.  For example,  I look out for situations in which the recipes all have the same basic ingredients in similar qualities but one recipe has twice as much of one particular ingredient as the others, such as when a basic risotto recipe uses twice as much wine as most other risotto recipes for the same amount of rice.

Using these strategies will save you from unnecessary failures that would get you down.

3.  Start with prepared foods as a base.

Instead of making every element of a dish from scratch, an alternative is to start with prepared foods as a base.  For example: 

  • You love a red curry you buy from your favorite Thai restaurant.  However, there's always too much sauce.  You could cook extra rice, tofu, meat and/or vegetables and add these to the meal you buy so that you get extra meals out of it.
  • Start with jarred pasta sauce and add fresh herbs and extra vegetables.  For example, grill eggplant and zucchini to put in it, and add fresh basil.
  • Once you get to the point you want to cook curry on your own, instead of making the paste from scratch, doctor up canned paste with fresh lemongrass, ginger, garlic and herbs. 
  • When making a complex dish like lasagna for the first time, you can always buy jarred pasta sauce and even pre-grilled frozen vegetables to save yourself some steps the first time you make the dish.  Each time you make the dish, you can make one more element from scratch.

4. Start with the expectation that your dish won't be perfect the first time.

If a recipe I make is edible the first time I make it, that's a success.   It's usually the 2nd or 3rd try that I get the dish exactly how I like it.   The first time you make something, go light with ingredients that have the potential to overpower your dish, like spices or salt.  If your finished product is a little bit bland, you can always add more of an ingredient next time, or at the time of serving.   It's harder to recover a dish when you've added too much of something than it is to add extra oomph.  For example, I'll usually add extra lime and sugar at the time of serving when I make Thai recipes.  It's usually helpful to have some extra of ingredients used for flavoring (like lime or lemon) so that you can add these if the dish needs it.

Start with recipes where the ingredients aren't costly, like the chocolate cake recipe I linked above. Or, look for recipes where making a half batch seems like it would work.  Sometimes recipes dont work as well if they're halved or doubled, but mostly this'll be fine.   

5. Write down what you do.

Cooking is part art and part science.   There are always differences that impact your final product, for example, a banana bread recipe calls for 2 bananas when bananas vary substantially in size, or the size of your pan impacts the cooking time.

Write down exactly what you did, especially if you tend to deviate from recipes.  You'll think you'll remember for next time, but chances are you won't.

By writing down exactly what you did, you'll be able to get a recipe perfected to exactly how you like it.

6.  When you're starting out, allow yourself at least twice the time you think you'll need.

If you're new to cooking or just out of of practice, you'll probably need a lot more time to cook than you think you will.  You'll get stuck at various points when you realize you don't know how to do something, such as you don't know how to line a particular shape of baking dish with parchment paper, or what shelf in your oven you should cook your dish on. You can easily search Google or YouTube for answers to these questions, but this takes extra time. 

You don't want to be still cooking dinner at 11pm and starving because it's taken much longer than you expected.  This is when you can easily make mistakes that end up ruining your dish.  One strategy is not to eat what you cooked that same night  (many dishes taste better after they've been in a the fridge for a day anyway.)  You can always cook after dinner for the next night.  Another strategy is to cook on the weekends only.

Wrapping Up

Although this might seem like an odd topic for a psychology article, anxiety about and avoidance of cooking can impact people's lives.  You may feel embarrassed about it, or incur a lot of extra costs buying pre-prepared or restaurant meals.  When all sorts of delivery services are available, and supermarkets stock a wide variety of appealing prepared foods and freezer meals, not cooking is an easy habit to get into. Take a growth mindset approach to cooking.  Wherever you're starting from, you can get better at it, and when you do it'll feel much easier and less anxiety provoking.   As with any type of avoidance-related anxiety, you can typically overcome your anxiety much more quickly than you expect.  Even cooking a few times will likely leave you feeling much more comfortable and less anxious about it. 

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