Cooking at home is a sensory experience. The repetition of the motions to slice and dice vegetables, the bubbling of a broth, the sound of adding pasta to boiling water, and the aromas that fill the room as you bring your meal closer to completion are just…satisfying. Throwing in a beloved podcast or album and a friend to help out just elevates the experience. But, can cooking actually help improve your mental health? In this article, we shall discuss the connection between cooking and healthy mental benefits.
It isn’t uncommon to hear the praises of cooking our own meals. Many applaud this practice because it can save money, improve our health, and deepen our cooking skillsets. Yet, despite these benefits, many can find cooking to be a bore.
This is understandable—with cooking comes daunting trips to the grocery store, dirty dishes galore, potentially setting off your home’s smoke alarm, and an inedible dish here or there. For these reasons, cooking can be a divided hobby: Some of us love it, and some of us hate it.
Regardless of which side you’re standing with, cooking is clinically proven to support our mental health.1 If you feel this is unexpected news, don’t just take our word for it. Read on to learn about the different ways preparing your meals can boost your mental well-being, plus some ideas on getting started!
Table of Contents
Cooking Supports a Brain-Boosting Diet
Did you know that certain foods can boost your cognitive functioning? A study conducted in 2014 illustrated a connection between poor mental health and unhealthy diets.
Conversely, a balanced diet void of processed foods can positively impact your memory and support proper neurotransmitter functioning. An example of a food option that can boost these mental health benefits is the Mediterranean diet. This diet focuses on healthy fats like olive oil, plenty of fruits and veggies, whole grains, fish, and minimal red meat.
It is essential to acknowledge that the term unhealthy diet can be riddled with much stigma and often negates the factors that lead to unhealthy food choices, including a lack of access and poverty.
If you find that fresh whole foods are inaccessible to you, consider checking out your local Community Supported Agriculture organization (CSA). This is an option offering fresh fruits and veggies weekly that are often more affordable than farmers’ markets and grocery stores.
In addition, some offer low-cost fruit and veggie boxes to support community members experiencing financial hardship. Give them a call to see what your options for support are.
Cooking Increases Social Connection
How often does a recipe yield just one serving? It is pretty rare. Food is meant to be shared, and cooking offers an easy excuse to build community. It can be as simple as hitting up your farmer’s market and chatting with some of the vendors for recipe ideas.
You could enlist a buddy to experiment in the kitchen with or invite some loved ones over to break bread. Regardless of your choice, there are plenty of routes to social interaction when it comes to food.
The socialization linked to cooking is grounded in recent research. A 2017 study published in the Health Education & Behavior Journal cites cooking as a great intervention used in therapeutic and rehabilitative settings.1 If you’re not sure where to begin, take a gander at some YouTube tutorials and get to experimenting.
Cooking Boosts Self-Esteem
When our mental health is suffering, it isn’t uncommon for how we feel about ourselves to suffer. If we think that our brain isn’t functioning correctly, that thought often snowballs into believing that we’re unable to do anything correctly.
Nailing a recipe you’ve been hoping to perfect can bolster your self-esteem significantly. Even if it is as simple as a three-ingredient pasta dish (noodles, butter, parmesan – voila!), cooking is clinically proven to be a significant confidence booster. This is because the feeling of creating something tangible that others can enjoy can be very gratifying.
Cooking Can Help You Build a Routine
Routine is so beneficial for our brains that a form of psychotherapy has been formed around it. Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy (IPSRT) is a form of psychotherapy most commonly used with those experiencing bipolar disorder.
This therapy acknowledges how stressful life events and shifts in one’s daily routine can trigger mental health concerns—in the case of bipolar disorder; it can contribute to the onset of a depressive or manic episode.
This type of therapy instructs folks to create a schedule of when they go to bed, wake up, and eat, among other daily activities. In following a routine, our circadian rhythm can become balanced.
The circadian rhythm is our bodies’ internal clock that regulates cortisol, a stress hormone, and melatonin, the hormone controlling our sleep-wake cycle. Cooking can become a pillar in your routine, thus contributing to your increased overall well-being.
Cooking Expands Creativity
A recent study states that incorporating creative activities into your daily life can significantly boost moods and overall well-being.
Another study qualifies cooking as a creative activity, going as far as to highlight the connections between cooking and mood improvement. So we can’t deny the science—donning your chef hat and courageously exploring your kitchen can lead to feeling better than ever.
How to Get Started
At this point, you may be on board with the idea of cooking to boost your mental health but may have no idea where to begin. Here are some ideas:
- Reflect on what some of your favorite foods to enjoy are. Perhaps you love food that feels extremely intimidating to attempt yourself, like sushi or filet mignon. That is OK—you can still use that as an idea of what flavors you might like. For example, you could try baking salmon in your oven or making a simple burger in a skillet.
- Consider a cooking class. You’re likely to be around others who are also gaining confidence in the kitchen, which may help the experience feel much less stressful. If you’re nervous about going alone, enlist a friend to join you.
- Reach out to your inner circle. Asking a loved one to show you a few tips and tricks for preparing your meals may be a comfortable way to get started. Plus, it offers some social interaction that may feel like great solace during challenging times.
In summary, regardless of how you choose to get started, don’t let fear or a lack of confidence intimidate you. Everyone starts somewhere and the mental health benefits of cooking provide plenty of reason to dig in.
I hope you find this article helpful.