Five Steps to Go From Chaos to Calm in the Kitchen
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My mother was the ultimate “hostess with the mostest.”
When she entertained, she planned her meal not just with recipe cards, but colored sketches of the filled dinner plates to guarantee an attractive range of colors. When she said, “lunch will be served at 1:00 PM,” lunch was served at 1:00 PM, give or take ten seconds. Hot foods hot, cold foods cold. She pulled it all off effortlessly, never breaking a sweat or allowing anyone in the kitchen to help.
In stark contrast, I spent decades serving monochromatic meals, an hour (or two) late, hot foods tepid, and me mere moments from a melt-down. My every attempt to reproduce my mother’s skill in the kitchen felt like a total disaster. And by the time my guests arrived, the last thing I wanted to do was eat or attempt conversation. All I wanted to do was hide in my bedroom until they were gone!
Reading Bible verses admonishing me to “offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9) only made me feel more guilty and ashamed. I constantly berated myself:
- What’s wrong with me?
- Why can’t I do something as simple as fixing and serving a meal for a few guests?
- It’s not that hard!
Then, a decade ago, I learned that I’m an HSP — a Highly Sensitive Person. Suddenly, my aversion to the kitchen, and all the chaos I associate with it, made sense.
The high-intensity meal preparation that comes so easy for natural hostesses, like my mother, turns out to be completely overwhelming for HSPs like me. Despite our best intentions—This time, everything will go smoothly!—preparing for guests can send us into sensory and emotional overload without us realizing how quickly or completely it’s come over us.
For those of us who get caught up in kitchen chaos when we’re trying to practice hospitality, here are five intentional steps we can take to create kitchen calm, instead:
1. Take breaks
It may feel counter-intuitive to think about taking breaks before you’ve gotten started. But breaks are vital to self-soothing when chaos starts creeping in.
Breaks aren’t a luxury, something we’ll do if there’s time. They’re a necessity.
Taking a break simply means getting out of the kitchen for a few minutes and …
- …praying for your guests, for your family, for your own heart.
- …sitting in a favorite chair with a good book.
- …reclining on the couch (with or without a purring cat!)
- …writing in a gratitude journal.
- …listening to quiet (or upbeat) music.
- …taking a brisk walk.
- …whatever else works for you!
The goal of a break is a change of state. Think of it as “cleansing the palate” of your head and heart before you move on to the next stage of meal preparation.
2. Make a written plan
I used to trust my intuition to tell me when to start preparing my various recipes and which order to put them in the oven. But I always ended up with some dishes done an hour too early and others a full hour away from being ready.
So now I employ backwards design. I figure out how long each dish needs to bake, cook, set, or chill. Then I do the math to calculate when I need to begin, factoring in all my breaks (see #1).
When I first started making a written plan, I was shocked —It can’t possibly take that long! And even embarrassed—I should figure out ways to shave time off that total.
But calculations are far more realistic than gut feels or guilt-filled “shoulds” will ever be. Instead of berating ourselves, we can assure ourselves—It takes as much time as it takes.
3. Prepare ahead
Back when I dreaded hospitality, I procrastinated everything until the last possible moment. Which, of course, caused a ton of kitchen chaos which kept the whole self-reinforcing cycle spinning.
Now, part of my written plan (see #2) includes figuring out everything I can do ahead of time.
Like the house cleaning. I used to try to whip my house into shape on the same day I was doing all the cooking. Talking about sensory overload! Not to mention going all day without a single break. No wonder I was a wreck when guests arrived. Now, I schedule all house-cleaning for the days prior and do strategic touch-ups on the day of.
Preparing in advance includes:
- buying pre-made ingredients rather than making everything home-made.
- doing all the chopping, slicing, and dicing a day or two ahead.
- taking the first step of a recipe (such as cooking the rice for a casserole) the night before.
Fixing a meal feels so much less daunting when everything is ready to “throw and go”!
4. Accept help
I used to mimic my mother’s habit of shooing everyone out of the kitchen. Partly because I didn’t want to admit that I needed help. But mostly because I was flying by the seat of my pants so badly, I couldn’t even articulate the help I needed.
Now, when someone says, “How can I help?” I refer to my plan (see #2) and give them a specific answer.
It’s a reciprocal gift when we’re prepared to say
- “Could you peal and slice the carrots? Everything you need is laid out overs here.”
- “Would you put those rolls in that basket and cover them with one of these napkins?”
- “If you could pour the drink—it’s on the top shelf of the frig—that would be wonderful!”
5. Clean as you go
This is one of my mother’s habits that I’ve embraced as my own. Before each break (see #1), I quickly scrub and rinse everything in the sink and set it all in the dish drainer to air dry. When I return, I use a towel as necessary and put everything back where it belongs.
For some, this might feel like adding extra work in the middle—why not save clean-up to the very end and do it all at once?
But for others, pausing to tame the chaos is a smart step toward sanity. Starting the next stage of meal preparation in a clean kitchen automatically creates a sense of calm.
A little intentionality goes a long way to calming kitchen chaos, enabling us to be truly “eager to practice hospitality” (Romans 12:13) and to receive the many reciprocal blessings God has in store for us when we open our homes and hearts to others.
What steps do you take calm kitchen chaos?
I agree with all your tips and I’ve used them all over the years Now we have “Thanksgiving “ the week before to ensure I can see everyone at the same time. Everyone brings a dish and I provide the bbq tritip and chicken from our favorite restaurant. No more back breaking experiences in the kitchen and everyone seems to appreciate a non-traditional menu.
These are so important to remember! I took a lot of stress off myself when I did part of #3 and gave up on homemade, complex dishes everytime. Sometimes I’m just serving spaghetti or pizza because that’s what I have the energy for!
I’m a chef for a sorority and I understand pressure and timing but I forgot to take those little breaks over time, thank you for reminding me!😁
Thanks for your post! I HATE cooking. Ways I’ve found to still entertain is to entertain with meals I know I can do well. It doesn’t have to be a 5 course meal. My crock-pot roasts are earning me a good reputation so I keep doing it. I just don’t tell anyone that is….the only dish I make for company….Also like you said, doing prep helps, planning dishes that can be done hours before help a lot. And also realizing that there is a lot more to hospitality than food. Touching hearts with my HSP heart is something I’m good at.. not food so much. In realizing this, I’ve even bought take’in bake pizzas so I can love people without the food stress.
Cheri, this is so freeing! I never thought that the reason cooking is stressful for me is because I’m Highly Sensitive! Admittedly, just cooking for my husband and I is stressful for me, but I will definitely start employing these strategies! I see that planning is the key. Thanks so much for writing this!
I was “gifted” by my mom and mother in law with hosting the family gatherings at age 22! I was naive enough to believe it was my job. Now 40 years later I’ve learned SO much. The most enjoyable part for me is setting a nice table so I do it a couple of days in advance to be sure I have everything including seating. I turn the plates upside down to keep them clean as my mother in law taught me to do. Afterwards I put slips of paper in each serving dish of whatever will go in it. I write the menu down and check it off as we put the food out because way too many times I find a salad or casserole still in the fridge after the event has ended. I assign specific dishes for others to bring and like one commenter said, I lose my place when interrupted so I don’t like others in the kitchen when cooking. I even assign certain ones to answer the door or ‘guard’ Aunt Betty or ‘babysit’ their grandmother…personalities I know will get bossy and throw me off. After serving coffee I sit down and don’t move even when others start clearing the table. I know I need to rest before finishing the clean up after all go home.
As my mom got older and the family got larger, I watched holiday meals get crazy. I realize now, she was probably an HSP. She wanted everyone to have their special food. And everyone to be happy. It would never have seemed right to her to ask people to bring something although she always offered to bring a dish. And would accept a dish if it was offered.
I simplified things a lot when I took over the dinners and I did hear complaints from her grandchildren that I didn’t do things “right”.
My schooling in this hospitality thing has been ongoing for 43 years now. This is what I have to offer:
I’ve always kept a notebook with the menu, guest list (food allergies/hates) and my fails or triumphs. (this is the plan; it doesn’t always happen)
For holiday meals and large groups:
I always try to plan well ahead and set the table a day or two ahead. I get out the serving pieces and utensils and put slips of paper in each one so that anyone helping during the mad rush to get everything to the table knows which bowl and serving utensil to use.
Whatever I am using for decoration is usually present a day ahead.
I do use the backward time planning concept and integrate all the items to be prepared that day.
I have a written menu in plain sight to make sure i don’t leave anything in the frig or oven!
I now also plan ahead to have containers ready for leftovers and to-go boxes.
And just for me, I have a stool that I tuck out of the way. When everyone arrives, they congregate in the kitchen to chat, I pull out out stool, take my break and review the lists.
I do the clean as I go – mostly – and I am extremely grateful for a very quiet dishwasher. This little servant is busy washing plates and whatever while dessert is being plated and served and everyone lingers over coffee and conversation.
Finally, I never go to bed before things are truly cleaned up. My daughter thinks this is a bit over the top, but I have found that I need the calm and clean the next morning.
Actually, I think the process kind of cleans me up too. I can deal with any negatives and be happy with the positives and go to bed content.
I also write down how long everything will take and then cook accordingly. That has made a huge difference in my stress of making meals for guests. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one that feels like this!
I realized that whatever the recipe says, it will probably take me about 15 minutes longer! So that extra time has to be factored in – usually it’s some kind of interruption from my kids gets me off track.
I also have to cook the way I think, which means that if anyone tries to help me in the middle of a meal prep, I will loose my train of thought! If I actually take the time to picture myself doing all the steps of whatever I need to do, it goes smoothly.
We NEED to remember that each one of us has different gifts and abilities. Hospitality is a way of reflecting Christ’s love and delight in and to other people, not just a narrow set of homemaking skills.
I really needed to read this because I’ve struggled with these same issues – just this past weekend! Thank you for the practical tips! I come from a family of (seemingly) effortless hostesses, and somehow I never learned their secrets.
Like Elisa, I’ve simplified the menu, even for holidays. I accept I’m not a baker and hot apple pie tastes wonderful, even when it’s store-bought. I have my husband do the dishes as I go. 😉
These are good ideas. How do I know? Because they are hard-fought survival techniques that it has taken me years to discover. I have learned that I just cannot tackle “big” projects, so doing things ahead in small bits and scheduling the day of (which, because I’ve done small bits ahead, allow me to take breaks without worrying that I’m not getting something done) have made all the difference. I’ve gotten some teasing from people, but it works for me. I would add one thing when it comes to offering hospitality: give yourself a break. I discovered an interesting thing several years ago when some friends invited us over for burgers that evening. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Except for holiday meals, I don’t plan special menus. I serve whatever I had planned on making for dinner for my family that day. That was a revolutionary thought that changed how I looked at “entertaining.”