How Cooking Can Help Boost Your Mood And Improve Your Mental Health

In recent years, we've all been just a bit more cooped up in our homes. The stress, anxiety, and uncertainty of the times have taken their toll on all of us, and we've all been looking for something to alleviate that toll on our mental health. There have been some good things to come of the COVID-19 pandemic, though — one of them being more home cooking. In the same home that you've been going stir-crazy in, you'll also find a potential answer to improving your mental health.

Sure, we all know that home cooking has long been lauded for its health benefits, being a budget-friendly option to eating out, and helping us develop good cooking skills. But home cooking can be so much more than just creating healthy meals. The simple act of cooking can help us feel accomplished, stimulate our creativity, engage us with our family, and reduce depression, among many other benefits. Yes, cooking can actually improve your mental health!

It's not just the ingredients that you're using in your cooking (which are important too), but the acts of chopping, stirring, mixing, and (patiently) waiting for something to be done that can also be very good for your mental state. So if you needed just one more reason to dip into cooking or baking at home, consider this your call to arms.

It manages your stress

While many different activities can help you manage your stress daily, such as exercising or meditation, cooking can also help in that department. And since we all have to eat sometime during the day, you might as well multitask. Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Texas, tells Delish that baking (or cooking) provides not only a momentary distraction for people but also draws us into a routine that helps us to relax. 

And technically, managing stress through baking can be broken down in many different ways, but each one works together to relieve the worries we feel daily. When you focus on putting ingredients together and creating a recipe just so, you're usually putting any other thoughts or problems out of your mind, thus relieving your brain of stress — even if it is just momentary. 

Valerie Van Galder, the owner and baker at Depressed Cake Shop, a "digital resource" helping people to "bake their way through hard times, tells Delish,"Baking is super absorbing, so it's very difficult to have anxiety. It chases bad thoughts away because you have to focus on making sure that you measure your flour. You have to have exactly the right amount of baking powder and exactly the right amount of baking soda if you want the result to be what you're aiming for."

It gets you to (re)focus

Lisa Bahar, a marriage and family therapist, tells her clients in Psychology Today to "practice mindfulness in the kitchen" by focusing on the present moment and taking in all the details of the cooking process. She tells of focusing on a tangerine when making a fruit salad. "Start by observing its skin — the color, the touch, the smell," she says. Then, pay close attention to "the moment-to-moment sensations" — from the smell to the taste — as you work with the tangerine.

Focusing on the small details of your cooking or baking can help to bring your mind into the present, especially if you're a worrywart. Plus, research published in 2019 in Frontiers of Psychology found that practicing mindfulness and being aware of your present situation reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Another study conducted in 2016 in the Journal of Research in Personality found that learning to focus on the present moment not only helped with feelings of stress from a singular event but also helped a person to cope with stress in the near future — whether later in the day or the days to come. 

Cooking stimulates creativity

Cooking, along with other creative activities such as drawing and singing, was found to be a good indicator of higher happiness in individuals, as reported by The Journal of Positive Psychology. While cooking or baking might not be everyone's cup of tea, it can be a fun and fairly easy activity to flex your creative muscles if you're not otherwise creatively inclined.

"Using our creativity, we can also practice releasing and letting go of what could potentially become toxic to our mind, heart, soul, and body," mental health clinician Kim Nguyen tells Diversus Health. Nguyen also elaborates that working on something creative can help us enter a "flow state," a sort of euphoric state that some also refer to as "being in the zone."

Stimulating your creativity through cooking doesn't have to mean making anything fancy, either. Simply following a recipe and seeing the result is enough to trigger your brain into doing a happy dance and releasing feelings of happiness. If you're feeling adventurous, you don't have to make up anything on the spot — you could simply tweak a recipe a little bit, such as adding chocolate chips to a banana bread recipe.

It encourages new skills and expands knowledge

Some of us can whip up a triple-layered, fully-decorated cake in hours — and then there are those of us who can't even boil water right. Whatever your cooking level might be, there's always something else you can learn in the kitchen. And learning something new to cook is not just for your tummy's benefit either.

"Learning is great for your brain at every age," life wellness coat Dennis Buttimer tells Piedmont. "As you take on a new skill, the mind begins to reshape itself because the physical brain is malleable. Previously, it was thought that it was only malleable until adolescence. However, now the research shows it can keep changing throughout our lives, and for the better, so you have fewer fear responses and a more positive mindset."

So learning something new will help your mental state, not only through rewiring your brain to learn new skills but also by allowing you to be less fearful in your overall life. Knowing that you can master new recipes and make good food will help you feel more confident when you try other things in your life and reduce your fear of uncertainty. In turn, this will boost your mental health.

It reduces depression and anxiety

There's a good reason why Van Galder's Depressed Cake Shop is doing well — and why she even started the cake shop in the first place. In fact, according to Today, these shops have started to pop up all over the world, in places like Scotland and India. This is because cooking not only stimulates mental health but also brings out our creative side.

Tamlin Conner, a psychologist with the University of Otago in New Zealand, tells Smithsonian, "There is growing recognition in psychology research that creativity is associated with emotional functioning." Conner also found that the same study subjects reported the feeling of "flourishing" — basically that they were growing as human beings and accomplishing "personal growth."

But what does all this have to do with reducing depression? Well, when you're flourishing, learning, and overall enthusiastic about the future, it can lower the feelings of depression. It might not be a cure-all, but getting your hands dirty in the kitchen or mastering the art of the soufflé could be a small daily step toward the right direction to overcoming depression or anxiety. You might not be the world's greatest chef, but telling yourself, "I made this," when you're taking a bite is a feeling of satisfaction that no one can take away.

Cooking engages you with family and friends

There's almost no activity that engages a whole family together as much as cooking at home does. The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior published a study on 8,500 secondary school students in New Zealand and found that those who were somewhat proficient in home cooking also had "better mental health indicators" and "stronger family connections."

Cooking together as a family, or even with your partner or friends, can improve connection and form bonds between members. It can also help teach problem-solving to younger participants and help cooks learn or improve their planning and organization. All these skills help to improve a person's mental health. A study published in Frontiers in Nutrition found that a seven-week "food literacy cooking program" helped participants increase both their mental and general health while also improving "cooking confidence" and satisfaction.

Lastly, cooking together with your family or partner will increase the chances of you eating together once your creation is finished. The Harvard Graduate School of Education says that only about 30% of families eat dinner together daily. Dinner time can be prime time for connecting socially, sparking creativity in younger participants or even older ones, and potentially getting a break from technology. These can all help you with your mental health and reduce the chances of any kind of mental health problems.

It disconnects you from technology

Putting the phone down might not be a standard practice since a lot of people still use their phones, tablets, or even the television while they're cooking. But if you're the type to multitask, then consider doing two things that are good for you at the same time: While preparing a home-cooked meal, give yourself a mini "digital detox" as well.

The Cleveland Clinic says there are many benefits to taking a break from technology. Although digital detoxes refer to a more extended period of not using electronics, you can still put the devices down for an hour or two and reap the benefits. These benefits include sharpening your focus as you'll be able to be present in the moment, deepening relationships with family and friends (especially if you're cooking together), and learning to control your impulse desires — AKA, not checking your phone 20 times because you're absentmindedly wanting to do something.

A review published by Cureus in 2020 even found that social media use was linked to poor mental health, which is just one more reason to put down your phone. A social media break is more important than you think, and engaging in cooking or baking can give you the perfect opportunity to do this — especially if you do it more than once a day. It can give you 30 minutes to two hours of uninterrupted mental flow and relaxation.

It betters your diet for your brain

There are two different ways that cooking at home can impact your diet in conjunction with your mental health. The first is through mindful eating. When you prepare a meal yourself, you're more likely to find yourself slowing down and appreciating it as you eat it. This is because you know the time and effort that went into creating that meal, and as such, you implement mindful eating without even being fully aware that's what you're doing.

The more you do this, the more your mind becomes used to it, and mindful eating becomes commonplace. In turn, Dr. Axe says mindful eating helps to relieve stress and gives you mental (not just physical) satisfaction from eating, which can also translate to eating more nutritious meals and even reaching your diet goals. The second way cooking at home can impact your diet is that eating more home-cooked meals allows for more control of what goes into your body and, thus, can improve your mental health through the foods you eat.

For example, one UK study shared in Social Science & Medicine found that an increase in the consumption of fruits and vegetables helped with participants' "mental well-being." Another, published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, found that those eating 7 to 8 servings of fruits and vegetables in one day showed significant improvements in their overall happiness levels.

Cooking gives you financial relief

Forbes reports that, as compared to getting takeout or eating out, cooking meals at home is five times less expensive. Of course, there is a tangible connection between financial well-being and mental well-being. So, just what is that connection?

Let's run through it: When you're not financially stable, this usually leads to stress about your situation as you try to figure out how to reach your financial goals. You may begin to worry, overthink, and stay up at night. Insomnia, over-analyzing, and constant hormone production of cortisol — the stress hormone that induces fight or flight — will cause your mental health to spiral down quickly.

To save money while also keeping your mental health in balance, consider planning your meals, make a shopping list and stick to it, eat locally and in season, buy frozen organic fruits and veggies, and never shop on an empty stomach. So if you can check at least one thing off of your financial list, it can greatly benefit your mental health. Knowing that you're saving some money by preparing meals at home (or even if it's just your morning coffee at home) can ease the stress you feel over your financial situation.

It boosts your self-esteem

We all love the feeling of being praised and awarded; after all, it boosts our self-esteem and confidence. But unlike the culture of "everyone's a winner," cooking homemade meals will give you true satisfaction. Psychology Today says that while "unearned praise" might feel good temporarily, it doesn't actually help us to change behavior or to make good decisions in the future.

So when you cook a meal and see the results of it — whether the satisfaction of good food, your family or friends appreciate the meal, or mastering a tricky skill — you get a boost of self-esteem that translates to lasting changes and future desires to replicate that feeling. Celebrating those little moments of accomplishments can boost your mental health by reducing anxiety, making you feel less overwhelmed and, thus, more productive.

While cooking something might not seem like a big deal (everyone's gotta eat anyways), it can give you a sense of having accomplished something and make you feel better about yourself. This feeling becomes even more pronounced when you take on more complicated recipes or projects and master difficult skills such as poaching, browning butter just right, or even mastering gluten-free baking.

It creates a routine

Lastly, but certainly not least, cooking at home can create a routine. Routines, or habits, can be both good and bad for our mental health, and you have to distinguish between what you've been doing for your mental health that is considered good and bad. But creating a new routine or habit can be quite rewarding.

"Creating a new habit can be a source of pride because you realize you have the power to improve your life, which can help bring you closer to being who you want to be," Stephani Jahn, a licensed mental health counselor, tells Healthline. The pride in your new habit, in turn, boosts your mental health and makes you feel accomplished, confident, and more likely to continue it in the future. Plus, there are even more benefits to making a habit out of cooking at home, like making your life just a bit easier.

For example, if you get into the habit of making your coffee in the morning at home, not only will it be easier on your wallet, but it will also cut out a trip to the coffee shop every day and give you a few extra minutes to get ready. You're also more secure in your actions every morning as you don't have to worry if you'll have enough time to grab a coffee or end up sitting in line too long. Building a new habit gives you simplicity, structure, and a feeling of security. These will all translate to a lighter mental load, boosting your mental well-being.