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Opinion: Cooking can boost your mental health — here’s how

Feeling burnt out about the prospect of making dinner? 5 tips and a little attitude might change your mind

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A daughter and mother spend quality time baking muffins together in their kitchen at home.

The COVID-19 pandemic led many Americans back into their kitchens. Is the American home chef coming back, or will alternate options win out?

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Despite the ease of restaurant takeout, food delivery services and frozen grocery store pizzas, the American at-home chef is making a comeback.

The convenience of alternative options draws many busy Americans to the drive-thru or the DoorDash app. But now Americans are shifting their priorities from time saving to money saving — and unintentionally, mental health saving.

The IFT 2023 consumer trends report finds that “Consumer interest in affordability has gone up by 70%” over the 12 months preceding July 2022. The report also states that many consumers are cutting back on dining out because “an in-home meal is on average about a third of the cost of a restaurant meal.”

But inflation is not the only actor here; cooking popularity has been heating up since the early days of the pandemic. “An IRI OmniConsumer survey in July 2022 finds that 78% of meals are prepared at home, compared with 48% in 2019,” the IFT report states.

And money is not the only motivation to dust off our pots and pans. As many of us may have felt during the pandemic, cooking can unlock mental health benefits and promote well-being — if we go about it correctly.

Yet despite the uptick in at-home meals, many Americans are now facing kitchen burnout. Thirty-five percent of Americans report feeling the pandemic has exhausted their cooking drive and 45% feel too busy to cook, according to a survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Home Chef, as reported by People.

So where is the mental health magic of cooking?

How to meal prep with a no-stress attitude

If inflation makes it necessary for many of us to cook more at-home meals right now, how do we reconcile the burnout and busy-ness with the burning hole in our wallets?

We need to bring back the art of cooking. And for this, we need to look to the resident expert Julia Child and modern research on cooking and mental health.

Julia Childs holds up aplatter of salade nicoise in her kitchen.

American television chef Julia Child shows a salade nicoise she prepared in the kitchen of her vacation home in Grasse, southern France, in this Aug. 21, 1978, file photo. Child made accessible the high-class recipes that used to intimidate the average home chef.

Associated Press

Child approached food in a revolutionary way, forging a path for the layperson into the previously unapproachable kitchen kingdom of high-class cooking. In her very first cookbook, co-authored by Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, “Mastering The Art of French Cooking,” the foreword on ingredients proclaims, “Except for wines and spirits, and possibly foie gras and truffles, all the ingredients called for in this book are available in the average American grocery store.” What a relief to anyone who has been intimidated out of cooking by the daunting column of unknown herbs, liquids and solids.

Child brought enjoyment to cooking by removing the need for anxiety. We could all benefit from her attitude toward kitchen mishaps: “I would far prefer to have things happen as they naturally do, such as the mousse refusing to leave the mold, the potatoes sticking to the skillet, the apple charlotte slowly collapsing. One of the secrets of cooking is to learn to correct something if you can, and bear with it if you cannot.”

Anxiety in the kitchen is not uncommon. I used to feel such intense anxiety about sharing my creations that I once cried over lemon bars when someone commented that the crust tasted wrong. Yet, a research article written by Nicole Farmer and Elizabeth Cotter published in Frontiers in Psychology points out that cooking has the effect of mitigating symptoms of psychological distress.

So are we doing cooking wrong if, unlike Julia, we feel increased distress in the middle of meal prep?

The answer to that may actually be yes.

5 tips to make cooking a mental health boost

Farmer and Cotter point to five key ingredients that need to be present to promote well-being during cooking: positive emotions like gratitude and optimism, engagement without distraction, connection to other people, meaning in the task and a sense of accomplishment. And I think Julia Child would add that we also need to give ourselves permission to make mistakes. “Always remember,” she said, “if you’re alone in the kitchen and you drop the lamb, you can always just pick it up. Who’s going to know?”

In order to have cooking experiences that boost our mental health, we need to first connect the experience to gratitude, love and optimism, Farmer and Cotter say. We can express gratitude for the ingredients we have, love for the bodies that convert our food into energy, and optimism that mistakes are part of the art of cooking. How we think of cooking actually changes how our bodies respond to it. By eliminating distractions and focusing cooking time on relationships and creativity, cooking moves from a chore to an activity.

Many people find enjoyment in cooking because it is an activity that connects us to others. Whether we are making food with someone or as a gift for someone, this relationship-building adds meaning to the process, and we can find love, purpose and accomplishment in the act.

The mental health benefits of cooking have been overlooked for far too long. Farmer and Cotter suggest that the motor skills involved in cooking interact with neurobiological pathways, including pathways traveled by dopamine and serotonin, the “happy hormones.” They also emphasize the parallels between cooking and important life skills such as planning and problem solving that also contribute to “psychosocial competence,” or a person’s ability to manage the demands of everyday life well.

So rather than stress about the chore of it, we can bring back the art of cooking by incorporating the five elements of well-being and some of Child’s stress-free enthusiasm. There are many paths that lead to dinner. They may not lead to the Pinterest-perfect dinner, but a meal made with love and creativity has health benefits worth the effort.