I watch, transfixed, as brilliant saffron yellow swirls into creamy white.
Then I add a rusty hue and a dash of maroon. The colors blend into a pigment-dusted tie-dye, and I notice how much it looks like the milky way.
No, I’m not painting. I’m cooking.
Even a task that seems as mundane as making your next meal can turn into an opportunity to slow down and savor the moment, but cultivating this kind of relationship with making your food isn’t always easy.
Like many busy moms, there are times when I can’t wait to get those onions browned and the next ingredient in the skillet.
There are times when I can’t say no to the microwave or the pre-mixed spice packet, despite my best intentions.
Even though things get hectic sometimes, I still look for the opportunities to infuse my cooking routine with mindfulness.
After all, if you’re going to do something three times a day, you might as well be present while you’re doing it!
Here are some tips to put the world on hold and make your meals a little more mindful.
In the past, I’d get excited about planning my next meal and think up an elaborate, several-course spread.
Nearly every time, something went wrong.
Sometimes, prep took longer than expected and I ended up serving my meal 3 hours late. In other cases, I failed to time things properly and my main dish got cold while waiting for the sides to cook.
Other times, things got spilled, oversalted, or burned (myself included).
To remedy this, I keep it simple.
I’d rather make one dish well with presence and no stress than have a table setting ready for the next full-page spread in Martha Stewart Living.
One easy way to spruce up a simple dish and make it a mindful exercise is to be aware of the colors going into your recipe.
Eating food that’s a monochromatic beige is way less interesting than eating a dash of green, a shock of red, and a burst of yellow.
Adding color to your meals brings your senses into the experience. Your eyes get to engage and enjoy the food as much as your mouth does.
Next time you’re making a spinach omelet, take a moment to notice how satisfying it is to your sense of sight to throw in the vibrant red of a cherry tomato and the crumbly white of a bit of feta cheese.
An integral part of mindfulness is enjoying the beauty in simple, everyday things. Focusing on the color of your food is one way to attenuate the senses to the sensual pleasure of mealtime.
This is the “wax on, wax off” of cooking.
Whether you’re moving onions around a pan, blending spices into a soup, or for the real pros, whipping cream into a frothy dessert topping, the repetitive parts of cooking are opportunities to sink in, focus, and savor.
Yeah, sure, it might take you longer than you’d like, your arm might be getting sore, or your kid might be asking for the third time when dinner will be ready.
Instead of giving in to your impatience, use these moments as opportunities to show up and be present.
Breathe in the aroma of the simmering spices, feel the warmth of the flame under the pan, or watch the bubbles in the water as they slowly come to life in a boil.
By giving yourself fully to the task, you can start to take notice of all the little wonders happening underneath the “chore” of cooking.
Mr. Miyagi would be proud.
It’s not just the food that deserves your attention. Your body is right there with you, making it possible for you to make your meal in the first place.
As you stand over your culinary creation, take a moment to feel your feet on the floor beneath you. If you’re sitting, feel your sit bones in the chair.
Notice the sense of stability that comes from that awareness. Notice how it feels in your body as you cook.
Is your stomach growling hopefully? Is your mouth watering in anticipation? Is the process bringing you a sense of warmth in your chest?
There’s no right or wrong answer. Tuning into your bodily sensations as you cook is simply another way to bring you into the present moment.
Similarly to becoming aware of the body, cooking provides a great opportunity to notice the breath.
When I’m rushing through a meal, I notice my breathing is shallow. This is because I’m focused on the end result rather than committing to the process.
When I relax and allow myself to sink in, my breath becomes expansive and rhythmic. I feel it in my whole belly and chest, and breathing itself takes on a sweet quality.
I watch my inhale and my exhale, and then dissolve the watching part of me and simply feel the breath as it comes in and moves out.
You can even time your breath with an action, like inhaling as you wheel your rolling pin to the top of your baking sheet and exhaling as you bring it back down.
This may require setting aside more time than you actually need so you don’t have to constantly watch the clock.
That way you can move from task to task without the sense that your hungry family members are twiddling their thumbs and tapping their feet while you work.
If you’re cooking for yourself, get started way before you’re hungry. Chances are you’ll be ready to eat when the food is ready for the table.
When it’s finally time to sit down to your meal, take it slow. Chew your food thoroughly and methodically so you can savor each bite and stretch out the pleasure of eating.
Take the time to taste the nuances of the flavors as they hit your tongue and smell the scents as they waft up from the plate.
Invest at least 20 minutes into the process of eating, from beginning to end.
Ritualize the process of cooking from beginning to end.
Start with a bouquet of flowers on the table to bring some visual warmth to the room.
Bring the sense of hearing into the process by putting on your favorite music and swaying along as you stir.
Just make sure to keep it low enough that you can hear the food sizzling, bubbling, and coming to life.
These sounds can be a sort of music in and of themselves, and like mentioned above, get the digestion process started.
Whatever does it for you, let yourself get lost in the process.
In his books “Beyond Boredom and Anxiety” and “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined flow as, “a state of peak enjoyment, energetic focus, and creative concentration experienced by people engaged in adult play, which has become the basis of a highly creative approach to living.”
A 2011 study showed that flow state activities may lead to cognitive improvements in older adults. Another study indicates that flow can result in improved motivation, skill development, and performance.
By making your cooking a form of play, you just may find yourself triggering a state of flow.
Cooking is an everyday opportunity to practice mindfulness. Rather than seeing it as a chore, we can embrace it as a chance to become more present.
Practices that integrate meditation with normal activities are some of the most powerful. They teach us how to sink into the present moment no matter what we’re doing.
One of my favorite Buddhist proverbs advises, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
It implies that presence doesn’t take place under extraordinary circumstances. Instead, it emerges spontaneously from the simplicity and wonder of everyday life.
Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for self-care through online courses. You can find her on Instagram.