At a time when kitchen appliance companies are starting to sell water-resistant, voice-operated tablets powered by Google Assistant, my advice puts me at risk of coming across as either curmudgeonly or perhaps quaint. Yet, in the face of the irresistible pull of technologies that compete for our attention and consumer data, I invite you to attempt a courageous act of resistance: kick smartphones, tablets and computers out of your kitchen, and practice mindful, screen-free cooking.
Reclaim your attention and autonomy with screen-free cooking
Before we dig into cooking specifically, let’s take a step back and think about our digital devices more generally. Our phones and tablets, as well as the apps they are running, are designed and built to make it more attractive for us to spend more time using them. More truthfully, they are designed to be addictive: a former Google employee has coined the expression “a slot machine in your pocket” to describe our phones. In the attention economy, the most valuable commodity isn’t gold, but every minute your eyeballs spend staring at a screen. Many of the social media services we use, such as Facebook and Instagram, appear to be free to us, but that’s because we are the products. For every minute we spend scrolling down our feeds, social media companies can show us more ads – and make more money.
Obviously, it’s working. The average American spends nearly 4 hours using a mobile device every day, and for younger people it’s about twice that, or more. Many of us are spending half of their waking life actively using mobile devices. Thus it’s suiting that half of the world’s biggest companies (measured by market capitalization) are those commandeering the online space: Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Facebook.
In his manifesto Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, computer scientist and author Cal Newport reviews the deep implications of our mindless use of connected devices. (You can listen to a deep conversation with Newport on Rich Roll’s podcast, or of course borrow the book from your library.) He highlights how the small benefits we may gain from constant device use are dwarfed by the overwhelming tide of digital clutter that invades our life in return.
When it comes to cooking, the trade-off isn’t any more beneficial: phones and tablets in the kitchen slow us down and dumb us down too. Newport’s solution of a “30-day digital declutter” may be too radical to many of us. But can I perhaps convince you to try a one-week kitchen cleanse to start? No special juices to drink! Just keep your screens out of the kitchen and observe what happens.
Do you really need to follow the recipe?
The number 1 reason why people say they want to bring their devices into the kitchen is because they want to consult a recipe. What if I told you that you actually don’t need a recipe?
If you are brand new to cooking, or to cooking without animal products, of course I can understand that some guidance is welcome. Recipes are great for that! But here is a revolutionary approach to learning: carefully read the recipe you want to cook before you step into the kitchen. Pay attention to the list of ingredients and make note of where they appear in the instructions. Perhaps head to the kitchen, recipe in hand, and pull out the ingredients and tools you’ll need. Seeing them there will serve as reminder of the steps you need to take. Visualize how you’ll measure ingredients if needed, especially in cases where some require a teaspoon and others a tablespoon: it’s a big difference. The good news is that if you make a mistake once, using 1 Tbsp salt instead of 1 tsp, you’ll have learned your lesson forever.
If you need a safety net, you can always jot some key steps and measurements on a sticky note to jog your memory.
Once your mental setup is done, put your phone away, preferably in another room or under a couch cushion, and focus on cooking.
These initial steps will take you a “long” time the first few times you take them, and you may be slowed down by the extra caution you’ll exercise before adding some ingredients. However, it will not add an hour to your cooking time; more like 10 minutes. (Unless you get distracted by the constant pings of a group chat conversation.) The upside is that you will be learning so much faster than if you just mindlessly followed the recipe, which in turn will enable you to cook faster – without recipes – in the near future.
If you are an intermediate plant-based cook with a few years of experience, I bet you know a lot more than you think about cooking. With a well-stocked fridge and pantry, and a few minutes to look at what you have and think, I’m absolutely sure that you’d be able to cook up a sizzling stir-fry, make a heart-warming chili or curry, or assemble a bowl with a luscious sauce. Notice I wrote ‘think,” not “browse Pinterest.” There are delicious meal ideas within you! But they will only come out if you give yourself a chance to express them. If your mind is abuzz with the noise of all the beautiful dishes you could be making (as seen on social media), there will be no chance for your own knowledge to surface. (See section on food porn below.)
Making something complex for the first time, say aquafaba macarons? Reading the recipe before you start is even more important! But you have my blessing to print it out. Better yet, transcribe it on a sheet of paper. The process of writing it down, preferably paraphrasing into your own shorthand lingo, will further embed the new knowledge into your brain and body. The result? You’ll be more likely to (successfully) make macarons again. What’s not to like?
“But what about cognitive offloading?”
Smart devices are helpful when it comes to storing for us information that some might think otherwise clutters the brain. Phone numbers, appointments, and lists of past presidents are safely stored in those mini-encyclopedias we stuff in our pockets. Memorizing trivia is no longer needed! This is called “cognitive offloading”: delegating the task of remembering something to someone, or something, else. It doesn’t have to be a phone! Phone books and personal planners did the job quite well, but using connected devices instead offers genuinely practical new features.
Offloading facts to digital devices: I am all for it! But skills that we need on a thrice-daily basis? Not so much. And, yes, I consider the amount of spice to add to a chili to be a skill, not a fact: there is no right or wrong answer to “how much cumin should I add?” Clearly, “1 cup” is too much, but you shouldn’t need a recipe to tell you that after you have made chili even once – as long as you were paying attention. It is up to you to discover whether you like 1 teaspoon or 2 tablespoons.
There may be immediate benefits to offloading recipe keeping to your phone or tablet. However, as far as daily cooking is concerned, those benefits are insignificant compared to the deleterious side-effects. Far from making it faster to put dinner on the table, closely following recipes – and exposing yourself to the many distractions and temptations of your device – slows you down and dumbs you down.
Multi-tasking slows you down
You are preparing to enjoy your version of Every Mom’s Bolo sauce on pasta tonight. You prepared the sauce during the weekend’s batch cooking session and it is now warming on the stove. You set a big pot of water on “high” and it is now boiling. You dump in the pasta, give it a stir, and set the timer on your phone for 10 minutes.
What do you do next? Set the table? Wash whatever dishes accumulated in the sink during the day? Or, since your phone is already on, do you check your Instagram feed to give some “love” and reply to comments?
Kitchens are the birthplace of multi-tasking. To successfully prepare meals on a short timeline, home cooks must remember to start cooking the rice before they heat up the skillet and chop their veggies. There are multiple tasks to juggle at once. We have to constantly shift our attention from “watch those fingers!” to “is the water starting to boil?” to “I’m running out of balsamic vinegar.” For many of us, there are extra tasks like preventing little children from running through the kitchen, greeting family members who are returning home (and listening to the stories they spontaneously start telling us), and repeatedly pushing back on requests for snacks because “dinner is going to be ready in just 5 minutes!”
No wonder we’re looking to offload some of the cognitive action in our brains!
My suggestion is to offload those recipes to well-worn path in your nervous system by creating habits, instead of relying on mobile devices.
Because once the device is on the countertop – or even in your hand! – and the screen is on, you have added an extra layer of tasks that require mental energy: deciding whether to act upon the many red notifications on your screen and the urge to check if something important (on email) or interesting (on social media) has come up in the last 12 minutes since you last checked your phone. Every time you switch from the hot stove to your cool phone and back again, your brain needs time to get back to the task in front of it. Give yourself a break and stick to cooking.
Nothing can go really wrong
When I used to cook meat, I would always forget what was the safe core temperature for pork roasts, because I didn’t make them often. That, I would agree, is information that can be offloaded – whether it is to an authoritative online source or to a piece of paper posted to the side of the refrigerator. Thankfully, I no longer need to know that.
One of the many benefits of cooking strictly plant-based foods is that very little can go completely wrong. In particular, food poisoning is a much less likely hazard. There are only three critical threats to your meal`s edibility: excessive heat from the stove or from chili peppers, and excessive salt. Under-cooked tofu will not cause trichinosis or salmonella. In fact, you may discover it’s delicious.
As you cook, you will encounter questions or problems. Asking Siri or Alexa for the solution is tempting. Resist! I challenge you to take note of the issue and think of a suitable solution all by yourself. I trust your intelligence and intuition, and know that you will come up with reasonable steps that will lead to an edible dinner. In the meantime, notice the problem, remember the solution you came up with, and observe the results with curiosity. For particularly complex situations, you may even jot a handwritten note on a pad of paper to look something up on the Internet – or a book! – after your meal.
If the struggle defies your wits, consider calling your mom (if you are lucky enough to have her), or a friend with strong kitchen chops. It might save your dinner and enhance your relationship at the same time. Everyone loves feeling helpful.
Plus, your phone and tablet are dirty
You already know this: mobile devices are dirtier than public toilet seats. You should be washing your hands before you start handling food, and again every time you use your device while you cook. Isn’t that a bit absurd? Just put the phone away until after dinner.
Food porn is bad for you
What is food porn? It’s that slick food styling and photography of food found in cookbooks but, more pervasively, on social media, especially Instagram. It’s those appetizing blog images, the best of which are picked to feature on Pinterest.
Explicit videos are a poor substitute for sex education. In the same way, food porn makes a shaky foundation for cooking education. It creates unrealistic expectations about what weeknight family dinners should be like. The infinite variety of those images make it harder for us home cooks to settle on one “good enough” dinner plan. Moreover, their sheer abundance of appealing imagery gives the impression that such culinary results can be reached effortlessly… whereas hours of preparation and multiple attempts have probably been required to get the shots to look just right.
When you stumble upon a mouth-watering dish on a blog or social media, read the recipe carefully and tease out what make it different (or not) from other similar dishes you have cooked in the past. Is it just the food styling and photography that makes it look amazing, or is there something genuinely different about the ingredients and techniques used in the recipe? How can you apply that learning to your own cooking? Also read the comments to see whether others have actually tried cooking the dish and what they thought about it. Consume online food content (and cookbooks) mindfully, and take the lessons you learn into your kitchen – without your device!
Learn new cooking skills online, then go offline to put them to the test
In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport suggests not that we should shut the Internet out of our life entirely, but rather that we should make intentional choices about how we use it. In fact, digital media has made obscure knowledge and pointed skills accessible to all. The key is to know our purpose, carefully choose the content we will consume accordingly, and then disconnect to put our new skills to the test.
For example, I recently acquired a second-hand flat-bottom cast-iron wok. I spend about 30 minutes reading a few threads on specialized cooking forums about how to make the most of it, absorbing the experiences of others who were kind enough to share them with strangers on the Internet. I spent another 15 minutes watching a couple of videos about cast-iron wok cooking technique – which is a bit different from regular wok technique, because the thing is a solid 12 pounds, so not exactly something I can flick with my wrist to flip my tofu cubes over. Then – without my phone – I stepped into the kitchen. Wok cooking is all about high heat and speed: it would have been counter-productive to try to watch a video and cook at the same time. I needed to have all my attention in one place to avoid ruining dinner. (In case you wonder: the resulting stir-fry was great!)
If you are interested in learning a new cooking technique, go ahead and read about it! Watch some highly-rated, authoritative experts show you how in a video. Perhaps even sign up for an online course about it! While you are reading, read. While you are watching, watch. While you are taking the course, take notes and learn. Then, do.
Why we “escape” to social media
What triggers you to pick up your phone while you are (supposed to be) cooking? Understanding what pulls us away from what is right in front of us, and what makes us so willing to let our attention be kidnapped, is key to changing our behavior in favor of greater presence and mindfulness.
I’ll be brutally honest here. At 5 pm, I am tired and a bit hungry. My children are tired and very hungry. My husband is likely on his way home from work. As a work-from-home mom at the mercy of my kids’ school calendar and unexpected tummy aches, there are times when I feel jaded not to have been able to do all the work I wish I had done in the day. I admit to sometimes even being resentful about having to plan, prep, and cook dinner, and clean up, night after night for an audience that is often not grateful for my efforts – especially the little people.
So what do I do? Between bouts of chopping, stirring or cleaning, I seek connection with others who I think “get it.” Maybe I connect with a remote friend by text message. Maybe I compulsively check whether my email subscribers have been reading the newsletter I sent a few hours ago. Maybe I scroll through my Facebook feed looking for questions I can answer in plant-based cooking groups. Instead of being where I am, I try to escape to a different part of my reality where I hope to feel more appreciated. But those interactions remain fleeting and not-so-satisfying.
What can I do instead? When I put away my phone and shut down my computer, I am able to be more present with the task at hand – cooking – and get it done faster. Sometimes, I manage to think of a little something I can do to make the meal more appealing to my kids, so they are more likely to eat. While I wait for the broccoli to finish steaming, I can wash the lunch boxes, so that I will be able to step out of the kitchen sooner after dinner. Being present with the task of cooking now means that I can be more present with other aspects of my life later.
If you also have a habit of escaping to a world of remote connections through your phone, including while you are cooking, you may want to ask yourself “why.” Once you know, and assess your success at fulfilling your needs that way, you’ll be better positioned to make decisions about whether that’s a practice you want to continue or curb.
Cook screen-free for one week
I challenge you to cook screen-free for one week. Decide ahead of time where you will store your phone while you are cooking. Consider shutting down notifications or setting your phone into “airplane” mode. Plan your meals, pull out your ingredients and jot down notes if needed. Then, get cooking and keep cooking. Perhaps plan to keep the phone off until you are done eating and cleaning up, too.
Let me know if it changed anything to your kitchen life.