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November 20, 2018

As a late twenty-something, I’ve come to learn that there are two types of people in my life: Those who cook, and those who don’t.

I love both types equally because even the ones who don’t cook, love food—and that is the common denominator that we all share. But recently, I realized cooking isn’t just something that distinguishes me from my peers and loved ones, but a necessity in my self-care practice.

Sometime in the last year, my body crossed a threshold where it could no longer handle extremely late nights of partying, spicy foods, and anything remotely greasy.

I’m sure many have had this experience, where they’re forced to mourn the resilience of their younger years and younger body, due to some kind of chronic health issue that makes itself known one day seemingly out of the blue. For me, the chronic health issues were tied to digestion, something nobody likes to talk about but something everyone can probably relate to.

Sometime in the last year, my body crossed a threshold where it could no longer handle extremely late nights of partying, spicy foods, and anything remotely greasy.

First, it was isolated incidents that felt like food poisoning.

I omitted certain foods from my diet in an attempt to understand what was happening, and found no results. I saw a gastroenterologist and had a colonoscopy, which provided little insights besides a diagnosis of an asymptomatic parasite (which was responsible for my first panic attack ever). Because it wasn’t supposed to be causing any symptoms, I couldn’t even necessarily use it as a reason for my chronic pain.

I took a step back and started paying attention to how I was feeding myself and what I was putting into my body. I was living in a cycle of chaotic stress tied to work, social obligations, and not making the time to consistently cook for myself.

I realized I felt better when I cooked because I could make foods that were both healthy and comforting, as they mimicked the food I was raised on: a blend of Egyptian and American cuisine and flavors.

What I found when I started making cooking a daily ritual: Not only did cooking help improve my chronic digestive issues, but it also mellowed me the heck out. It ties to a concept my mom refers to as نفّس, or nehfis, which is the Arabic concept of cooking with your heart and soul.

نفّس, or nehfis, is the Arabic concept of cooking with your heart and soul.
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I realized my energy while cooking directly impacted the meal I created and my digestion process.

If, for example, I cooked a meal feeling like a ball of stress, my meal wouldn’t come out tasty or it’d make me feel unwell. When I feel a heartfelt connection to the food I make, I feel nourished, not bloated, relaxed, and peaceful with clarity.

All that’s to say: I firmly believe in the healing powers, both physically and mentally, of cooking. Here are a couple of tips you can keep in mind when cooking to help you stay mindful and embrace nehfis.

Savor the Process

There’s a reason recipes exist with detailed instructions—it’s a process, like anything in our lives. Each layer to your meal, whether it’s making a pizza or making sushi, deserves equal respect and attention. This is common sense, but respecting the process of a meal is another way to keep yourself mindful.

There’s a reason recipes exist with detailed instructions—it’s a process, like anything in our lives.

Whenever I’m struggling with putting myself in the present, I tune into my senses and how they’re interacting with what I’m doing.

How do the onions smell when you throw them in the pan?

How’s the garlic adding to that?

Can I have a small taste of something when I think it’s done, and does it make me salivate in anticipation of the completion of this meal?

These are tiny reminders that you are here preparing a meal for yourself, and that is a huge achievement in itself.

If you need help getting present while slicing and dicing, the Shine iOS app has a cooking meditation you can listen to while you’re cooking to help you tune into the moment.

Choose a Soundtrack

I love using music to help ground me in my cooking. I find it to be rather therapeutic, especially if it’s a soundtrack that makes me want to dance. I’m probably my happiest when I’m dancing (no professional by any means, but I think there’s a certain level of legitimacy to being able to move freely and honestly in your body). I like to pour the energy that music gives me through dance into the food I’m cooking.

I like to pour the energy that music gives me through dance into the food I’m cooking.

I like to listen to music that I can either sing or move to—oftentimes, arabic music, soulful house, funk, or some kind of R&B. If cooking is the sense of peace and happiness you seek, music can help get you there.

Cook Vicariously

If you feel like you’d prefer to experience the calm of cooking from the comfort of your living room, make cooking shows your go-to.

One of my favorites is The Great British Bake Off, if you need somewhere to start. Something about the gentleness of the competition, the careful feedback, and the passion that is channeled into the foods being prepared encourages me to be more present in my own cooking and also makes my mind feel like it’s being guided into the present with imaginary smells and mouth-watering visuals.

Tap Into Your Creative Side

You may not even realize how creative you are until you get in the kitchen.

If you remember certain seasonings or herbs from your childhood (mine are cumin and coriander), try adding those to a recipe you’re following. That may open doors for even more exploration and discovery, which is all a wonderful way to help you feel even more grounded in executing the task of feeding yourself.


Read next: Kindness Isn't Just Fluff—It's an Act of Self-Care

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