Cooking - with all of its scents and flavours and sounds - is an engaging activity, and one that is known more and more frequently for its therapeutic abilities. In this piece, Mandy Wright explores the ways that cooking can encourage positive mental health and be an act of self-care.
Think, for a moment, about preparing your favorite meal. Perhaps…
You lift your knife to slowly, rhythmically chop-chop-chop an onion for dinner. The fresh beef tips are salted and peppered, and you can tell the skillet is hot by the way the melted butter pools in the middle. With a pair of tongs, you gently lay the beef in the pan, one by one, and you listen to the crackle, the sizzle and watch the meat shrink before your eyes. After turning the beef over, you add the onions to the pan and suddenly, they no longer make your tears stream but rather waft upwards the gentle, sweet scent of caramelization….
Moments like this in the kitchen can clear your mind. And not just because you’re so hungry that food is all you can think about.
Cooking healthy, well-balanced meals can certainly improve the health of your overall being. We know that certain foods are better for you than others and, especially if they contain things like omega-3 fats, B vitamins, and amino acids, can help to improve your mental health and the functioning of your brain (think blueberries, salmon, walnuts, and even pumpkin). But for me, and for a growing number of people around the world, the physical act of cooking does much more than that for your mental health. According to Psychology Today, ‘culinary therapy’ is on the rise, and can treat mental health conditions like ‘depression, anxiety, eating disorders, ADHD and addiction’. Here are some of the ways that preparing food can work in your favour, mentally:
The therapeutic side of cooking largely involves mindfulness. Being mindful, especially about basic things like the nourishment your body needs - the deep green of spinach leaves, or the bite and chew of sourdough, or the smell of baking cookies - can help to clear your head and focus your senses on experiencing the world right in front of you. And when you’re cooking, you’re basically forced to be mindful - not only to savour all the scents and colours and flavours, but also to prevent you from cutting your finger or burning something in the oven.
Just as a painting, a song, or a certain essential oil may soothe you, cooking touches all of our senses to relax us. As with mindfulness, when you're caught up in the sights and smells around you, your thoughts and attention are focused and stress levels decrease. But sensory stimulation, and smell in particular, can also activate certain memories. Is there one recipe in particular that you associate with a special time? Why not make that dish and allow yourself to be absorbed into the aromas, sounds, and tastes of happiness? Lastly, it’s said that sensory stimulation can increase creativity as well….
Reader's Digest says that being creative every day is necessary for your mental wellbeing. The brain is like a muscle, and cooking at the end of the day allows you to flex and strengthen the right, or more creative, side of your brain. To challenge yourself even more, make dinner from scratch - and scrap the recipe! Not only does this get your brain working, but you can make exactly what you’re craving. And after a long day of classes or at work, you want to follow your own rules, not someone else’s.
There are further benefits that come with cooking for other people, whether it be for a partner, your family, or a large dinner party with friends. This sort of altruism makes you feel 'connected' to others, and it’s no secret that social interaction reduces cognitive decline, strengthens your immune system, and makes you feel more in touch with the world.
Lastly, working with your hands - like cooking, crocheting, and cleaning - can be very soothing. According to Dr Sanjay Gupta in Everyday Health, ‘modern people use their hands less than our ancestors, and also experience higher rates of anxiety and depression’. Using your hands to produce something - especially something that you and/or others can enjoy - helps you to feel satisfied with having worked hard and having created.
Cooking is an act of self-care, not only in the peace and clarity it brings to your mind, but in providing yourself the nourishment you need to properly function. Hopefully, preparing food in the future will help you to appreciate what your mind and body, and the world around you, can do, and how it all can work for you.
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