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 is 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?
Is Cooking Good for Mental Health?
Sometimes, cooking is actually used as therapy. It goes by a few names in professional circles—therapeutic cooking, culinary therapy, and culinary mindfulness—all of which embody the same belief: cooking at home can benefit your mental health.
“Cooking at home, or other places are good for your mental health because cooking is an act of patience, mindfulness, an outlet for creative expression, a means of communication, and helps to raise one’s self esteem as the cook can feel good about doing something positive for their family, themselves or loved ones,” Julie Ohana LMSW and founder of Culinary Art Therapy in West Bloomfield, Michigan, tells LIVEKINDLY.
It should be stated that cooking is not a replacement for therapy. If you’re struggling with mental health, it’s best to get in touch with a professional. But, here are some science-backed ways that cooking at home can help you feel happier.
Feelings of Accomplishment
When you cook for yourself or other people, you’re setting an achievable goal for yourself. This fits within a type of therapy known as “behavioral activation.” Used to treat depression and anxiety, behaviorial activation is a focus on increasing “the patient’s contact with sources of reward,” according to the Society of Clinical Psychology.
It also combats procrastination with positive, goal-oriented behavior. In the context of cooking, homemade food is the positive outcome. And as Ohana mentioned, accomplishing something in the kitchen can raise your self-esteem.
Exercise Your Creativity
Getting creative in the kitchen can have positive effects on your mental health. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that people who engage in creative pursuits — writing, doodling, singing, cooking — appear to lead happier lives.
Cooking at home gives you the opportunity to experiment in the kitchen and discover how each ingredient plays a role in the dish. Even if you’re following a recipe, try swapping ingredients — for example, use sweet potato (or your choice of orange veg) instead of carrots in the first vegan mac and cheese recipe here. The best chefs say that recipes are suggestions, anyway.
Like the proverb says, “patience is a virtue.” This rings particularly true in the immediacy of the digital age, when we can interact with people halfway across the globe, watch entire seasons of shows in just a few sittings, and other forms of instant gratification.
Dr. Judith Orloff, psychiatrist and New York Times bestselling author, wrote in Psychology Today: “Patience doesn’t mean passivity or resignation, but power. It’s an emotionally freeing practice of waiting, watching, and knowing when to act.”
Cooking at home requires patience across multiple steps. It means taking the time to mince garlic, onion, and ginger for optimal flavor or waiting for vegan cookies to cool before taking the first bite (Trust me, it’s worth it to wait…but not always.).
Connect With Others
Cooking for others can be an extremely rewarding experience that helps build your self-esteem. But asking others to take an active role in the kitchen can create a sense of community and also improve communication. If you’re cooking with family or friends, deciding who’s taking on which task can be a lot of fun and a practice in delegating tasks.
Improve Your Relationship With Food
Learning to cook at home can have a positive impact on your relationship with food. According to Dr. Susan Moore, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, children whose parents invite them to cook with them think positively about healthy food.
Many people (myself included) were raised in households where they were never taught culinary skills. Taking the reins and teaching yourself how to cook can not only lead to improved confidence but also eliminate that feeling of dread when dinner rolls around and you’re not sure what you want to do.
If you do have health goals, try cooking at home a few nights a week. People who cook at home tend to eat healthier than those who go out to eat weekly, according to a study from the journal Public Health Nutrition.
Planning or prepping your meals in advance is also effective, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Ninety-five percent of your serotonin — the neurotransmitter that regulates sleep and appetite, mediates mood, and inhibits pain — is produced in your gastrointestinal tract and studies have found a connection between gut health and mental health.
Once you’ve nailed the basics, cooking at home for the majority of the week can help improve your organization and mindfulness. Take a glance at what’s already in your pantry when you’re doing your meal planning. Then, try to figure out what you can make from that. It doesn’t have to be a perfect system, but knowing what you want ahead of time can help you better manage your grocery budget and eat healthier, if that’s one of your goals.