How to Build a Cooking Habit

by | Jan 8, 2014

Photo by Ben K Adams

David Spinks is the CEO of Feast, the home of the Feast Bootcamp: a 30-day online program that helps you build a habit of cooking while taking you through the fundamentals of practical, healthy home cooking. He also writes about life improvement, health, habit building and happiness on the Feast Blog.

I’m not personally affiliated with Feast in any way, I just happen to think it’s a fantastic tool to help build an unstoppable healthstyle.

How to Build a Cooking Habit

by David Spinks

Have you ever said “I should really learn how to cook” but still can’t bring yourself to do it?

You’re not alone.

Millions of people consistently struggle with the same problem.

If you’ve been a regular here at Summer Tomato and you’ve read Darya’s book, you already know cooking is good for you. And if you don’t already cook regularly, you probably want to learn.

Maybe you’ve tried to follow recipes or have even gone to a cooking class or two, but you just can’t seem to get the hang of it.

This is the problem we set out to solve over a year ago at Feast, and after working with thousands of people to figure out why they can’t learn to cook, we’ve discovered a lot about the real problem.

We now have an excellent idea of why you consistently fail to achieve your goal of cooking and what you can do to finally make the change in your life.

But first let’s talk about what “learning how to cook” actually means. It’s different for everyone. Take a second and think about the answer to this question:

At what point will you have officially reached your goal of learning how to cook?

Is it when you can cook for large groups?

Is it when you become a chef?

Do you need to open your own bakery?

Do you need to be able to cook something really fancy?

For most of you the answer to all of these questions is probably “no.”

No… you don’t need to be a chef, to replicate what you see on the Food Network or start a business in order to consider yourself a cook.

Most of our students discover that what they want is much simpler. They want to:

  • Feed themselves regularly without stressing out
  • Open up their fridge, see random ingredients and be able to whip up a healthy meal
  • Eat out and order in less
  • Simply be comfortable in their own kitchen

Which means what they’re looking for is less about “learning how to cook” and more about…

Building a habit of cooking

In order to be a cook, you just have to do it regularly. That’s it! Simple right?

What’s that? Not so easy? True. Cooking every day is no easier than building any other habit, no matter how good it is for you.

But there’s a very simple reason that you’ve failed at creating the habit.

No, it’s not because you’re too lazy to go grocery shopping, you hate washing dishes, you don’t have the time or because you’re just not a “natural.” Those are all excuses that are disguising the true cause.

It’s the same cause that makes it so hard to get into a routine of working out, flossing, reading, waking up earlier and pretty much any other habit you’ve wanted to take on:

You’re doing too much.

Whenever we want to adopt a new lifestyle it’s very tempting to try to jump in with both feet. We try to run 5 miles every day, we try to floss all our teeth every morning, we want to read 3 chapters, or write a full blog post. And for cooking, we try to cook the perfect recipe every time.

Think about every time you’ve tried to cook in the past. Did you just whip up whatever you had laying around or did you spend 20 minutes searching for a recipe, 40 minutes shopping for ingredients, an hour cooking it and another 15 minutes cleaning up afterward? It’s no wonder you gave up so quickly.

What if instead of running 5 miles, you start by just put your running shoes on every day. That’s it, you wake up, put your shoes on and you’re done.

What if you just flossed one tooth in the morning instead of your whole grill. Pretty doable right?

Maybe you could just read one page or write for 5 minutes before going to bed.

For cooking, in the Feast Bootcamp we tell our students to put a pan on the stove when they walk in the door. That’s it, you don’t have to cook, or put anything in the pan yet. Just take it out and place it on the stove every day.

This is what’s known as a “tiny habit“, a phrase that was coined by BJ Fogg, one of today’s most respected psychologists focused on behavior change.

The idea is as simple as its practice. By starting incredibly small and doing that tiny habit every day, you can build the foundation for a habit.

You’ll start to cook after the habit starts forming not because you’ve forced yourself to cook, but because you’ll feel so eager to finally do something with that damn pan instead of just putting it on the stove. The activity will start pulling you into it instead of you having to push your way in.

The Habit Building Process

Here’s the basic process you can apply to building any habit into your daily life.

1. Identify a Trigger

The trigger could be something like closing the door. Remember in the movies when a character gets hypnotized and the sound of a bell makes them think they’re a dog? That’s essentially what you’re doing here, but in a more practical fashion. When you close that door it will trigger the routine and the part of your brain responsible for habits will take over.

2. Change the Routine

Put the pan on the stove. Every day. That’s it. Eventually your routine will be to put the pan on the stove, add some oil, dice up veggies and start sautéing like a boss. But for now, just stick to the pan.

3. Reinforce with a Reward

In order to reinforce the habit, your brain needs to think that whatever you’re doing is good. You can do that by rewarding yourself. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg recommends experimenting with different rewards to figure out what’s actually driving your existing habits. If you’re eating out it could be because you enjoy the social interaction, so your reward for putting the pan on the stove could be to call a friend. Maybe you just like spending money, so go online and order some groceries. Maybe you tend to get good desserts when you eat out, so have a yummy snack as a reward. If you can’t find the perfect reward, even something as simple as doing a dance or yelling “WOO HOO!” out loud will do the trick.

Keep at your simple habit for about a week and then start to add the next steps to your routine.

Once successfully creating the habit, cooking will no longer take a great deal of willpower, it will just happen naturally. Your mind will be trained to make cooking the response to your hunger. The stress will fade away and you’ll be well on your way to living the healthy, happy life of a cook.

p.s. Here is a recent radio discussion on KALW with Darya, BJ Fogg and Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinctabout New Year’s resolutions, habits and behavioral change.

Do you have a cooking habit yet? What’s your excuse?

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10 Responses to “How to Build a Cooking Habit”

  1. Cactus Wren says:

    The educator John Holt decried the all-too-common concept of separating “learning” from “doing”. In connection with his own playing of the cello, he wrote that at the stage he was then at, most people would describe what he was doing as “learning to play the cello”; but this, he pointed out, implied that he would go on “learning to play” until he “had learned to play”, at which point — and only then — he would begin “to play”.

    But learning is a part of doing! Would, say, Itzakh Perlman say that he had at some point stopped learning about the violin? Has Stephen Hawking stopped learning about how the universe works? Of course not: they’re still learning, and conversely the veriest beginner is doing as well as learning. When you come into the house and put a pan onto the stove, you are cooking. Maybe not cooking as well as you’d someday like to cook, maybe only cooking at a beginning level, but as soon as you start that “tiny habit”, take those beginning steps … at that moment, you have ceased to be “a person who can’t cook”.

  2. Trevor Ash says:

    Awesome post! I always tell our customers to start slowly and just do what they can…and also to be okay with that. That’s very important. Progress is progress even if it’s incremental. And it starts to add up a lot quicker than most people think.

    Even cooking one meal more in a week is a step in the right direction, and before long you’ll be cooking another, and then another for yourself…until you end up where you want to be.

    Do what you can and be okay with that, and you’ll get there sooner than later.

  3. David Spinks says:

    What an awesome comment.

    The distinction between learning and doing is a great one. I agree that both happen concurrently. At the same time, you can focus on achieving one which leads to the other. So at the very first stages, I think focusing on doing is important and leads to learning. But focusing on learning can sometimes make it hard to just do.


  4. Dee says:

    I never (well rarely) used to enter kitchen before jan2012. Cooking started soon after the advent of my weight loss journey, when I realized that to have more control of what I eat and to have real food available when required, the most efficient thing for me to do was to cook and depend primarily on home cooked food.

    Now I’m more adventurous in cooking, my food tastes much better, I’m cooking faster – less hassle, I can confidently prepare meals for others and, I pack my daughters lunch everyday.

    I would suggest to Anyone wanting to get familiar with kitchen, without cooking, start with salads, boiled eggs, canned salmon etc… Then move on to something else… Stir fry for eg.

  5. Michael Kariv says:

    I have read recently somewhere ( sorry can’t point to the source) that Americans cook less and less and buy ready made stuff ( the book recommended by Darya does not call it food) .

    I am happy someone fights the good fight to counter this trend.

  6. Frank says:

    Thank you for adding this – what a great way of putting the ‘journey’ in context!

  7. Cassie says:

    FEAST bootcamp is an AMAZING program! I had no interest in cooking (it took “too long” and I was never very impressed with what I made), but my husband enjoyed it and I was tired of being a spoil sport. 30 days later and I absolutely loved cooking. It’s FUN to experiment with spices and try new ingredients. I can look in my fridge and pantry and find something delicious and healthy to make. 🙂 I cannot thank David and Nadia enough!

  8. Mike says:

    Thanks for the article. It sounds like good advice. I wish I knew what to put in the damn pan without spending 20 minutes searching for a recipe, 40 minutes shopping, spending an hour cooking and 15 minutes cleaning up every time. 🙂

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