Ready, steady yourself, cook: How cooking can help you stay calm

Jill Dupleix
Stir that rice, grate that cheese, and cook yourself calm.
Stir that rice, grate that cheese, and cook yourself calm. Photo: William Meppem

Take a deep breath. Slowly exhale. You are in your kitchen. Everything is going to be all right.

The wonderful thing about cooking is that it transforms us at the same time as it transforms our ingredients. The very act of cooking slows us down, as we focus for half an hour on something other than our predicament, while ensuring we also have a nice dinner ahead of us. I'm calling this form of self-love 'Compassionate Greed'.

And now, in this new world order, we have more time – to think about food, to plan what to cook, and to organise a supermarket sortie with the strategic force of a multinational power at war, returning home triumphant, as if back from the crusades, with a can of tomatoes

Over the years, I've made 'too-busy-to-cook' an art form. I race into the kitchen, chop an onion while heating a pan, roast on the highest temperature available, and make a dressing and toss a salad while simultaneously plating up, sipping wine, setting the table, lighting the candles and sorting the music.

Now, my cooking is slower, and more meditative. I want to savour things. I want to be there, in the same zone – not just delivering the goods, but making it count. Here are a few tips I've learnt so far, home-delivered to your door.

Ready, steady, cook

Keeping your kitchen clean and cooking-ready is up there with making your bed every morning. It makes you happy and gives you a sense of being in control. So, clean as you go. Make it a nice place to be.

Wipe down dusty bottles, rearrange jars, build pyramids of cans, sweep the floor daily and keep the stove-top gleaming, so that when inspiration strikes, you don't kill it stone-dead by having to clean up last night's dishes first. 

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Clear out a couple of shelves – yes, top kitchen drawer, I am looking at you – and give yourself more pantry and storage space so you can find things more easily. Bring those cookbooks out from the back shelves and pile them next to the couch, the bed and the stove. They're going to get you through this.

Three Blue Ducks' Paris mash (creamy mashed potatoes).

Butter makes it better: Creamy mashed potatoes aka Paris mash (recipe here). Photo: Christopher Pearce

Cook foods that make you calm

Everyone has different foods that make them feel calm. For me, it's rice. I like cooking it, I like smelling it, and I really, really like eating it. 

For my husband, it's noodles. And eggs, in any form. And potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, peas and corn – anything that goes with butter, basically.  It seems that by virtue of our protracted marital negotiating, we both achieve a balanced and varied diet.

For you, it might be lentils, beans and chickpeas, avocado and toasted sourdough, miso soup, dark chocolate, cabbage or cupcakes. Whatever you have to hand that calms your anxiety and makes you feel better, eat it. This does not mean chips, biscuits and fizzy drinks, however. Anything full of sugar and salt will have the opposite effect, and make you feel jittery again.

Choose ingredients that reduce stress

Officially, the following foods help reduce stress in the body: whole grains, yoghurt, salmon (for its omega-3 fatty acids), cooked or roasted tomatoes (for their lycopene), and capsicums, which actually work to reduce cortisol, the stress chemical, in our bloodstream. Put them all together in one meal and you may as well give yourself a massage.  

Waste not, stress not

If wasting food makes you feel tense, get bloody-minded about saving, re-using, recycling and all the rest of it. I'm taking the time to wash out plastic bags, get the last squeeze from a lemon (and the zest), and plan ahead so I'm not wasting herbs, salad greens and random things such as carrot tops, which I can turn into pesto. It's one square of paper towel, not two. It's saving the cooking water for the pot plants. And I'm definitely not wasting any wine.

Photography by William Meppem
Styling by Hannah Meppem

Jill Dupleix recipe - Lamb, red wine and rosemary pot pie

Jill Dupleix's lamb, red wine and rosemary pot pie (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem

Something old, something new

There's comfort to be found in cooking old family favourites time and again, and equal joy to be found in trying something new. Shake it up a bit, so that you are doing both. But don't be shamed into doing something you don't need to do. 

Right now, everyone on Instagram is #stressbaking perfect loaves of bread, except you. Relax. Applaud their efforts, then go and buy your bread locally, thereby supporting your community and keeping a small bakery in business. 

Enjoy the humdrum

Cooking has many small rituals. The chopping of an onion. The skimming of simmering stock. The kneading of dough, when making pastry. The drawing in of egg yolk into flour, when making pasta. The scraping of the cake batter from the bowl into the pan. The grating of the cheese. There is comfort to be had in these small, mundane actions, if we take time to appreciate the smells and the textures, and look forward to the end result.

If you don't do this for your own sake, then do it for those around you. A child will feel safer when a parent is slowly and calmly spooning muffin mix into paper cases. An aging parent will be soothed by the smell of chicken soup in the house. A tetchy teen could turn out to make the best pizza you've ever had. All these are wins.