I tried to quickly scrape the burnt sugar topping off before the kids came downstairs. It was a task I knew well. Sometimes I had enough time to scrape, clean the sink of the black film of crumbs, and then cover the toast again with a new layer of butter, sugar and cinnamon. More often, they caught me.
“Mom, did you burn the cinnamon toast AGAIN?!!!
I’d tried to use the “I’m from Louisiana and it is gourmet blackened toast” excuse. They were not impressed. The kitchen was not a native environment for me. Though I grew up in a culture known for its cuisine, somehow I landed on the East Coast after college bereft of the ability to do much more than make a mess in the kitchen.
Growing up my two younger sisters seemed to know what to do in the kitchen. When I was in the kitchen, “things” happened. Messy things. My sisters became my mom’s helpers and I was assigned laundry duty.
I didn’t particularity care. I didn’t really like food. It was fuel and preparing it and the cleanup seemed a hassle. In college, most of my meals were either popcorn or a broiled (often burned) corn tortilla with salsa. I could boil pasta successfully on occasion and then I would pour premade pasta sauce on top and microwave it.
After regular cinnamon toast and grilled cheese burnings, my children wanted to nominate me for the “Worst Cooks in America” reality TV show. Did I mention that the kitchen was not a native environment for me?
My children learned how to cook for themselves, which has been a handy skill as they have ventured off to college. Cooking for myself didn’t seem worth the effort and I could make a very healthy smoothie and was drink butter coffee for energy. While I did not have an unhealthy diet, I still held the belief that preparing food and cleaning up was a hassle. Underneath, I realized, was the fear of another looming kitchen disaster to once again prove my inadequacy.
Finding My Strengths
While there are many things in life we do not have control over.However, one morning I woke up to realize that how I fed myself and how I nurtured myself or did not nurture myself with food, was within my control.
In my studies of Positive Psychology, one of the most powerful tools I discovered was the VIA character strengths. You take a short scientific survey to discover your greatest strengths for the purpose of building on them so you can thrive. When I took the survey my top skill was Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence.
Those who express an Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence notice and appreciate beauty, excellence and/or skilled performance in all domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience.
People high in Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence are responsive to these three types of goodness:
Physical Beauty: This may include auditory, tactile or abstract. This type of goodness produces awe and wonder in the person experiencing it.
Skill of Talent (Excellence): This is often energizing and compels a person to pursue their own goals. It inspires admiration.
Virtue or Moral Goodness (Moral Beauty): Virtual goodness makes someone want to be better, more loving and creates feelings of elevation.
When I took the survey I did not read this description. It felt like the results were indicating I like pretty, well-made things, which in fact I do. It was unclear how this strength was going to be of any help in my life, much less with my kitchen and cooking challenges.
A Year-Long Commitment
Last month I completed a one-year nutrition program with Precision Nutrition. My sister had successfully done the program and I wanted to learn more so I decided to make the commitment to do it myself. It was not until just this week that I realized what had unfolded over the last 12 months and how my strength of Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence had shown me the way to success.
The program introduces a new habit every two weeks and comes with daily emails and the support of a coach to talk with. Coach Ryan was my sister’s coach and the first hint of the need for a mindset shift came as we got started and I shared my food is a hassle belief. Then I added more. I was trying to minimize the amount of food I ate.
I suddenly realized that besides the hassle belief, I also thought that food was dangerous, something to be wary of, something to be controlled.
Uncovering a new fear is never fun and this was the first time I truly understood this limiting belief. This food as hassle and danger mindset had lead me to drink butter coffee and smoothies and collect injuries from working out that would not heal. My hip and arms hurt. This was not where I wanted to be.
Ryan did not say anything right away. We reviewed my goals: to have more variety in my diet, eat more vegetables and to get physically stronger and hopefully have the hip and arm pain go away. Then Ryan gently mentioned that eating real food might be another goal.
I knew that eating real food meant more time cooking, more planning, more time at the grocery store and more kitchen messes and disasters. At that moment, I realized I’d untethered myself from my familiar harbor and we were heading out toward the open seas. I had initiated this journey and now had to trust Ryan to be my co-pilot to make it through this voyage.
A Food Museum Experience
I was excited as I went to Whole Foods. Recipes in hand, I made my way through the store feeling good. A few months into the journey I had discovered the first way my Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence strength was going to help me and it had to do with grocery shopping.
I used to shop at Giant. Why not? Things are a bit cheaper there so why would I spend more at Whole Foods? I did not like grocery shopping when I went to Giant. It made me cranky, but it is hard to cook if you don’t go to the grocery store. I realized why I had defaulted to so many smoothies.
At Whole Foods there are trees in the parking lot, it has a nice eating area along the sidewalk and the items in the store are well displayed and well lit. The pasta case makes me feel like I am in a food museum. When I stopped to look and admire, I became curious about all the different kinds of pasta with interesting colors and shapes. New items began to fill my cart each time I shopped which inspired me to try new dishes.
The entire experience of shopping at Whole Foods makes me feel happy. Shopping is a critical step in cooking and I realized I’d pay the bit extra to have a beautiful experience that included wonder and delight.
New Purple-Pink Pots
My next discovery was that my cookware lacked inspiration. It was a jumble of mismatched pots and pans and my Tupperware was even more unruly. I ordered three beautiful glass purple-pink pots (with matching lids) that I really love using. I replaced my old horrible-looking cookie sheets with new ones. Standard-sized glass storage containers and jars allowed me to gleefully jettison all the Tupperware containers. All of my cabinets, as well as my refrigerator, became orderly and organized. It felt good to have my kitchen looking nicer and working better. I began to want to spend more time there.
As I cooked, I realized I liked to listen to music or a TED Talk, but my favorite thing to hear is a wonderful podcast called Meditative Stories. These are “a completely new kind of listening experience that blends intimate first-person stories with mindfulness prompts, enveloped in beautiful music composition.” They are wonderful inspiring stories of real people, real struggles and the sweetness of the experience of being human.
In one of my favorite “Meditative Stories,” Arianna Huffington talks about her childhood in Greece and her mother’s cooking as the constant ribbon of love that wrapped around her and her sister. As I listened to the story, I felt shame about my own inability as a mother to do this for my children.
Then I remembered that during this past year, I have shared a lot of food with friends. We had eaten together, shopped together and spent time cooking together. These have been the times that have meant the most to me, times where we connected in meaningful conversations and around our desire to continue learning how to nurture ourselves and each other. I could not change the past but a new path was evolving ahead of me.
A Mindful Cooking and a New Mindset
Mindful cooking and eating have become that path. I have become curious about making new things and becoming boldly creative about substituting ingredients when I forget one for a recipe.
Preparing food in smaller steps during my day, chopping kale or making a salad dressing, has become mini-breaks providing the needed time away from my computer. Washing the dishes lets me breathe and find peace at the end of each day.
The last way that I realized my strength has helped me was within the last type of goodness of Moral Beauty. It is described as virtual goodness that makes someone want to be better, more loving and creates feelings of elevation.
My new mindset is that cooking beautiful, healthy food for myself and others makes me happy. It brings me joy to be master new skills and connecting with people who matter to me to spread love and feelings of elation.
Maybe there is something in your life that you’d like to shift? Here’s the VIA Character Strengths Survey to learn about the superpowers you already possess to make that happen.
What’s Your Cooking Mindset Status?
Maybe the kitchen is a native environment for you. Maybe you are a master chef and have known the treasures of this mindful cooking mindset. I bow to you and your wisdom in already knowing the enriching art of cooking.
If you are like I was, perhaps the kitchen is still a toast-scraping place of calamities. So let’s start small. Here are two discoveries that helped me shift.
My New Morning “Coffee”
I needed a revamp of my butter coffee habit. First I discovered cashew cream to make my coffee nice and creamy, eliminate dairy and add protein. I make it ahead and store it in the refrigerator. When I am ready to add it to my “coffee” in the morning, I put it in a small jar and then place it in a bowl of warm water in the sink to warm it up.
The other part was the switch to a tea that tastes like coffee. I realized I was drinking way too much coffee and it was disrupting my sleep. My desire was to eliminate caffeine and also the acidity of coffee. I found this Teeccino Dandelion “Herbal Coffee” With Chicory, which has a touch of sweetness from dates within it, so I also eliminated any additional sugar.
A Cozy Soup
The second suggestion was prompted by Rebecca Katz and the amazing soups in her “Clean Soups” cookbook. I learned how easy it is to make her Miracle Mineral Broth vegetable broth as the base for soups.
I hope you can discover some mindful time in your kitchen. Enjoy!