Before I had kids, I thought of cooking as my playtime: it was always an opportunity to experiment, try out new recipes and ingredients. It was an expression of my creativity.
But somewhere between one kid deciding not to eat "birds," one becoming a vegan in her teens and every kid having their moments of "I don't like that any more," cooking stopped being fun. I found myself dreading the nightly struggle to satisfy picky palates and my need to feed them nutritious meals.
I decided to take the mindfulness practices I use to reduce stress in other areas of my life and apply those tools to the evening meal. Because the stress around dinnertime was feeling really out of sync with my core values (especially the core value where I don't spend every evening resentful and pissed off at my children).
Mindfulness has taught me that it's important to focus my attention on what I wish to increase. I wished to increase the ease, joy and love I find in my kitchen and at my dinner table. But for me, "ease" was never going to come from a meal planning spreadsheet.
Perhaps ironically, it was going to come from lingering over the experience of cooking, rather than trying to rush through it. It might come from playing music in the kitchen or gathering fresh green herbs from my garden at that magic hour when the sun casts a golden glow across everything.
I now realize I can choose to rush around to get three different dishes on the table, or I can ask my family to come join me in the kitchen, lend a hand or just keep me company. I set an intention to make this a part of my day that I loved.
I reframed the act of getting food on the table by starting with these mental steps:
1. I stopped planning meals and started fantasizing about them.
What is the most delicious vegan side dish I can imagine? If "birds" are off the menu, what other proteins can I experiment with? By remembering that food can be luscious, even when it is simply prepared to satisfy young taste buds.
2. I changed my approach to grocery-shopping.
I've always loved to shop seasonally. But I learned to take an even more mindful approach not just to cooking, but also to the gathering of food. I found that by keeping a running list of what we were about to run out of on the fridge, I wasn't rushing to the store five times per week. I was able to make time for fewer, less hurried trips to "gather" my family's food.
3. I made a firm commitment to stop going to the store on my way home from work.
Less time spent at the store when everyone else is in a mad dash means less crowds and less frantic energy. It also forces me to get creative with what we have on hand, which means less wasted food. That's a win for me, our food budget and the planet.
4. I started caring about how the food looked, not just how it tasted!
When I felt resentful about all the changing food needs of my kids, I wasn't in the mood to make pretty food. To change the tone of the dinner table, I had to start by not giving up the part that made me happy — a plate that didn't just taste good but looks nice, too.
Sometimes I'm the only one that wants the handful of fresh herbs or the red pop of a few sun-dried tomatoes. That's OK, my pretty plate makes me happy. This helps me stay in a positive frame of mind when the inevitable "What are those green things?" question comes up.
5. I made a conscious choice to stop seeing my picky eaters as annoying and ungrateful.
I choose to view them now as unique souls expressing their needs through their food sensitivities. They trust and honor me as their mother to meet their needs, even if some days I might feel cranky. The truth is that I care very deeply about what they eat and wouldn't give up that part of mothering to anyone else.
I can choose to see the daily act of preparing dinner as my honor or my burden. In fact, I get to choose how I approach each part of my life, not just how I show up on my yoga mat or in meditation, but also in the daily rituals of gathering, cooking and feeding my pesky-but-lovable little family.