Experimenting in the Kitchen Increases Our Flexibility and Creativity (Especially For Control Freaks Like Me)

Kathryn Dillon

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“Life is trying things to see if they work.” — Ray Bradbury

Do you consider yourself a flexible person?

I wish I could say that I am, but sometimes I think the word “rigid” was created to describe me.

I like spreadsheets and project plans. I’m early to just about everything (except parties because I know from the host's perspective how much that throws me off my game!).

I have trouble shifting gears when a plan goes awry, and I struggle to live in the moment because I’m always planning ahead.

Even in the kitchen, I tend to be organized. I follow recipes with only minor adjustments, at least the first time through. I make multi-tabbed spreadsheets for parties and holiday meals. Heck, even my grocery list is compiled in Excel, with items ordered according to the layout of the store!

But sometimes…

Sometimes, I wander into the kitchen without yet knowing what I’m going to make. It’s a welcome feeling of liberation.

No cookbook or recipe card or printout from a cooking blog.

No spreadsheet, or planning ahead.

No mise en place, because how could there be without a specific dish in mind?

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Those of us who tend to want to control everything, often have a difficult time relinquishing that control.

“Must keep juggling,” we tell ourselves frantically. “Otherwise, these balls are going to drop and then they’ll all shatter and everything will be horrid…”

And, and, and. And the world will probably end if we forget something on our to-do lists. Or worse yet, someone might be disappointed in us.

Control freaks are often people-pleasers, too.

In the kitchen, it’s no different. I’ve melted to the floor in a puddle of tears when dinner hasn’t come together as planned. This baffles my husband, who is always appreciative of what I cook but doesn’t expect it of me. Why am I getting so worked up over something I don’t even have to do?

Control, my friends. Plain and simple. Ceding even a modicum of that control is something that has to be learned and practiced.

Something that should be learned and practiced.

Psychological flexibility has numerous benefits, not the least of which is that it helps us handle the inevitable changes in our lives, both on a day-to-day basis and on a broader scale.

Imagine (or maybe you already know from experience) the utter stress of desperately needing everything to go according to plan.

First, there’s the worry. You know it’s impossible for everything to always be perfect, so you fret incessantly about what might happen. It’s basically like holding your breath, all day, every day, waiting for the sky to fall.

Then, there’s the actual occurrence. When the plan fails, as plans so often will, do you surf with aplomb, or shatter into a thousand jagged shards of panic?

Finally, there’s the aftermath. "I’m a failure, I couldn’t keep it together, I’m worthless," you tell yourself.

Rinse, repeat.

“Water flows because it’s willing.” — Marty Rubin

There’s actually a biological base to cognitive inflexibility — the part of the brain called the anterior cingulate gyrus is overactive in people who have a hard time relinquishing control.

When it’s working correctly, it allows us to shift focus. When it’s overactive, we tend to tunnel into one particular thought pattern. We can seem stubborn, anxious or uncooperative — even argumentative. We may also have addictions, eating disorders (like I do), or OCD.

There are ways to improve mental/emotional flexibility, such as exercise, writing down solutions, thought stopping, and building serotonin levels through nutrition.

I also have a theory that when we practice taking ourselves out of our comfort zones, our flexibility improves, and our need for control decreases.

“Try things against your grain to find out just what your grain really is.” — Irwin Greenberg

One of my favorite ways to do this is in the kitchen. Because I’m already pretty comfortable in the space and with the tools, the real challenge comes when I take away the cookbooks and the recipes.

I simply open the cupboards or the fridge or the freezer, and think “What do I want to make right now?”

Believe me, I’m usually not getting too crazy with this. I’m not whipping up elaborate concoctions sans cookbook. It’s enough just to sit mindfully, decide what basic type of dish I’m in the mood for (eggs? stir-fry? salad?), and then make it happen in whatever way it seems to flow the most naturally.

Normally I do my menu planning in advance, so there’s rarely contemplation of what I’m in the mood to eat. I feed myself whatever’s on the menu for that particular day.

So this exercise not only stretches my creativity, it puts me in tune with my body, my mind, and my tastebuds.

Steps for experimenting in the kitchen (for those of us who need help with it)

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“Yes, natural is good and healthy, and whole foods are important. However, experimentation is important too.” — David Chang, founder of the Momofuko restaurant group

1. Pick a time when you naturally have very little pressure.

For me, that’s weekend mornings. I’m typically only cooking for myself, as my husband is a late riser. Quite frankly, my creative juices just aren’t flowing when I get home from work on a weeknight. I’m lucky if I feel like cooking at all, so I’m not messing around.

On weeknights, I get right down to business. Weekend mornings, I can be more leisurely.

2. Glance in your cupboards, freezer, and fridge to see what’s available.

This will help guide your mind, in step three, to the foods that are already at your disposal. (You don’t want to make a trip to the store in the middle of all this unless perhaps you can easily walk to a Farmer’s Market.)

3. Close your eyes, sit quietly for a moment, and envision yourself eating.

Acknowledge whatever pops into your head. What variety of food is it? Do you see a particular ingredient, a specific dish, or a more general cuisine? Are you imagining the aroma or flavor of an herb or spice?

4. Assert your creativity around what you just envisioned.

Did you see patterns, where ingredients come together, such as eggs and smoked salmon melding into a simple omelet, or roasted vegetables atop a bed of greens? What seasonings might work with those combinations?

5. Finally, just do it!

It doesn’t have to be perfect. You know 99.9% of the time it’s at least going to be edible, and frequently, it will truly be delicious.

But best of all, for a few minutes, you weren’t following a preconceived plan or agenda — not even your own.

“There’s no such thing as a mistake, really. It’s just an opportunity to do something else.” — Ralph Steadman

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I live and write in Northeast Ohio, about everything from food to mental health, pets to relationships, music, art, and sports. My articles usually have a personal slant because I believe we as a society and as individuals grow stronger through truth-telling and connection.

Cleveland Heights, OH
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