Cooking As Therapy?  The Culinary Benefits of Forced Isolation

Cooking As Therapy? The Culinary Benefits of Forced Isolation

7 minute read

Why Cooking Is An Important Life Skill

Your ability to cook for yourself and your family is hands down one of your greatest resources right now. 


Why? Well, for one, we can’t just stroll on down to your favorite sandwich joint and lazily munch a chicken pesto panini with Monterey Jack. Nowadays, if we want such delectable meals, we have to make them ourselves.


For some of you, there’s no better way to spend your time than in the kitchen trying out new recipes. For others, even the thought of that is a nightmare. If you’re used to pantry-style eating, where pasta comes from a box and sauce comes from a jar, you’re not alone. It’s what most of us do because we have things like kids and jobs and basement renos to give our attention to.


Food is just fuel anyway, isn’t it?

You’re a Living, Breathing Heap of Compost 

If you are what you eat, what would you be - a leaf of kale or a cheese doodle? 


Obviously, that statement isn’t literal. What it really means is that our bodies are composed of food. Our bones, tissues, tears, and toenails are the organic products of food matter. We’re like compost bins with a pulse. And because food supplies the energy we need to live, our thoughts and emotions are also the subtle consequences of food. That means we also act what we eat.


In that sense, kale is the superior choice because our bodies can recognize it better than bloated cornmeal sprayed with refined oil, powdered cheese, and tartrazine food dye #5. And there’s so much we can do with kale! 


Don’t worry, we’re not trying to turn you into a kale lover. What we want to share with you here is the evidence-based multi-purpose power of food.

Food Boredom Strikes

Since the beginning of time, food has brought people together in celebration. Today, it’s one of the easiest and most common ways to connect with people. Haven’t seen a friend in a while? Meet up for brunch. Signing a new client? Lunch is on you. Family pizza nights. Thanksgiving dinners. A first date. Food is often at the center of our favorite leisure times.


For the past several weeks, however, meals have become a bit, well, utilitarian. Every day our kitchen pantries and refrigerators confront us with the same lackluster options. As a culture born and bred into abundance, the effect of food boredom can be psychological.


If the current state of the world disturbs you, you’re not alone. You’re also not the only person suffering from food boredom––and you needn’t feel ashamed for it. These times of lockdown and isolation are bringing up all sorts of difficult and conflicting emotions for all of us. 


Turning our attention back to the basics, like food, can offer a kind of therapy during these uncertain times. After all, eating is one of the most fundamental ways we care for ourselves, and we all deserve fresh, wholesome, nutrient-dense food. 


Arguably, good food has never been more vital than it is right now for preserving our sanity, maintaining social connections, and keeping our bodies primed for disaster (#jokingnotjoking). 


How Food Affects Psychological Health


In addition to the noticeable benefits of good clean food on our physical bodies, proper nutrition can improve mood, decrease anxiety, and even help prevent the onset of depression in people predisposed to mental illness. For example, the authors of The Psychobiotic Revolution: Mood, Food, and the New Science of the Gut-Brain Connection examine the fascinating impact of probiotics on mental health. 


Probiotics are the live beneficial bacteria present in every part of our body, and most prolific in our gastrointestinal tract. They also live in most of the food we eat––various plant species, fermented and cultured foods, and many other sources of nutrition. At a basic level, probiotics improve mental health by outnumbering the pathogenic bacteria in the gut (1).


But probiotics aren’t the only source of psychogenic nutrition available to us. What we don’t eat can also impact mood. Avoiding or limiting refined grains and sugars, inflammatory foods like gluten and commercially-processed dairy, and hydrogenated oils creates space for more wholesome choices. That may mean sacrificing a bit of convenience to make way for healthier eating habits.

Cook Your Way To Well-Being

Of all the various types of therapy available, you may not have guessed that something as age-old and everyday as cooking could have such a powerful effect on mental health. But researchers in Maryland did. They recently performed a systematic review of the literature that examined the impact of cooking intervention on psychosocial outcomes. Their study reveals that whipping up homemade meals can help reduce anxiety and improve our sense of well-being and quality of life (2).


This is what they discovered:


The repetitive nature of cooking presents an opportunity for mastery, which has psychological benefits on the sense of control we feel in our lives. It can increase self-esteem, particularly as it concerns learning new skills and acquiring healthier habits.


Cooking involves multi-tasking, which relates to executive functioning, a set of mental skills, including flexible thinking, working memory, and self-control. So yes, cooking can make you smarter


By cooking our meals, we connect to food, making our culinary efforts mindful endeavors. We become curious about the nutritional value of certain foods, more aware of the shape, textures, and colors of different vegetables. 


As mandatory lockdown measures continue and we have more time at home, we can give ourselves to the process of washing, cutting, cooking, and even massaging food––like kale*. It’s like we’re getting a free crash course in culinary creativity. Each of those acts leads to more conscious choices about what we’re putting in our bodies every day. Are we nourishing our bodies or simply feeding the hungry beast? Food awareness naturally leads to healthier eating, which can elevate mood as we wean ourselves off of ready-made processed foods that have low nutritional value.


Cooking with others can improve social relationships. Create a cooking community in your kitchen. Invite your family to share ideas, participate in the preparation, or get on a Zoom chat with a friend and make the same meal in virtual communion. Such interactions can reduce feelings of social isolation, anxiety, and depression, especially for those who live alone (3).


Get Curious in the Kitchen

The whole world sits in uncertainty right now, and staying home is a mandated reality for everyone. That means a lot of extra time on our restless hands. Has there ever been a better time to get curious about cooking? 


Cooking doesn’t have to be complicated or carefully planned out. The word of the day here is experimentation. Some of the best meals come from throwing yourself into the act and art of cooking with reckless abandon. The benefits aren’t in the result, though an ooey-gooey chicken pesto panini has major reward value! They’re in the process––enjoy it!


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*Massaging kale leaves until they just begin to wilt tenderizes them so they’re easier to chew and digest. 


References & Resources


  1. Scott C Anderson; J F Cryan; Timothy G Dinan (2017). The Psychobiotic Revolution: Mood, Food, And The New Science Of The Gut-brain Connection. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Partners.
  2. Psychosocial Benefits of Cooking Interventions: A Systematic Review
  3. Can You Cook Your Way to Better Mental Health?
  4. Foods Containing Yellow Dye 5 or 6 (Tartrazine, Sunset Yellow)

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