While we all know that cooking healthy food is beneficial to our bodies, there’s evidence that the act of cooking itself can benefit our minds as well. Mental health experts credit cooking with helping to relieve depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other conditions, and many counselors are now using cooking or baking as therapy tools for people suffering from mental-health problems. Culinary therapy involves everything from cultivating a garden and planning grocery lists to preparing meals, and the process been shown relieve stress, improve focus, advance social skills, and aide in sensory awareness.
“Cooking without a doubt nourishes your psychological well-being; it soothes the soul and the mind,” says Zipora Einav, a chef to celebrities like Mariah Carey and Pierce Brosnan and author of Recipe for a Delicious Life. “At its core, cooking is comprehensive meditation with the assurance of a good, healthy meal as the reward.” Family therapist Lisa Bahar told Psychology Today that a mindfulness on the moment – think kitchen tasks such as chopping and stirring – makes the act of cooking meditative. “You are present in the task, doing something physical, and not distracted by the stresses of the day,” adds Zipora. “It’s a nourishing, centering act that gets you to slow down.”
And while it may seem like a chore -- the last thing you want to do after a long day -- preparing meals can also help you feel more content and happy in your everyday life. A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that tasks like cooking made people feel more enthusiastic about things the next day. “Cooking is an innately rewarding experience,” says Zipora. “You feel a strong sense of accomplishment when you’ve prepared something satisfying, and that confidence will surge and spread into other areas of your life.”
Still, the clearest link between cooking and mental health is in the nutrition. There is no shortage of studies showing that compounds like antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin and minerals found naturally in food can help protect brain function. “It’s easier to control the quality of your diet when you prepare much of the food yourself,” Zipora says. Whereas, even healthy-sounding takeout orders are often filled with added sugar, sneaky sodium, loads of fat, or harmful microbes. Even the containers fast food comes in has recently been linked to chemicals associated with negative health effects.
To reap the brain benefits of cooking therapy, Zipora suggests enhancing the experience with things like music. “Classical puts me in a zone when I’m cooking. When I’m enjoying working in the kitchen and listening to my favorite music, all of a sudden I’m not just cooking,” she says, adding that it's more of an art. “Explore new areas of cooking, perfect recipes, come up with new ones, and let your creative juices flow.”