Kitchen therapy: Here's how cooking at home can help your mental health

Spending time in the kitchen can help boost your mood, relationships and much more

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published December 7, 2022 12:05PM (EST)

Young friends socialising over breakfast (Getty Images/Bobbi Lockyer/Refinery29 Australia)
Young friends socialising over breakfast (Getty Images/Bobbi Lockyer/Refinery29 Australia)

There are not many activities which bring me more joy than a leisurely cooking experience on a weekday afternoon or evening, entirely soundtracked by a particular Spotify playlist (which I recently maxed out and had to make a second one) that was specifically curated to perfectly match the vibe of these languorous cooking jaunts.

No matter what I'm cooking (whatever it is, it probably has an inexplicable amount of cheese) or how delicious it is, the experience is truly the most enjoyable part, epitomizing the whole ethos of "is the journey or the destination most important?" In many instances — even when the food itself is downright superb — the destination is more fulfilling and enjoyable, whereas sometimes the meal or final product is a bit of a letdown or hours upon hours of "work" results in a quickly-eaten dish. 

Cooking can be a salve for so many and is an often underutilized form of art therapy for mitigating mental illness symptoms and concerns. It can be a centering, soul-satisfying experience that offers a tangible, tactile "end product," allowing oneself to become grounded in the process

Cooking and baking offer an immediately solvable issue or task at hand and the restorative experimentation that comes with it can help crystalize the insular nature of cooking. It's a place in which you can capitalize on inherent tastes and natural talents, as well as turn a natural impulse (eating) into something artful and expressive. In other instances, nostalgic recipes or food-splattered recipe cards that have been passed down from generation to generation can also help tether you to days of yore, to lost loved ones and an errant, familiar taste or smell may help to bridge that gap even further. 

There is something comforting about knowing that for the next hour or two, your primary concern is this food, these ingredients and this cooking process.

There is something comforting about knowing that for the next hour or two, your primary concern is this food, these ingredients and this cooking process. In addition, you're learning about techniques, utensils, cooking vessels, history, culture, ingredients, plating and more. Cooking can act as a panacea and should be embraced as such more often, instead of the rush-rush energy that often accompanies the thought of "weeknight meals." Having the privilege and access to a kitchen can open up a world of anxiety-reducing tasks and options.

Cooking is a sometimes overlooked means of centering oneself, focusing on the task at hand and alleviating any anxieties that aren't immediately pressing and in the kitchen. It can also act an embrace of finding joy in the act of something that is a necessity for all, regardless of culinary stature: feeding oneself and one's loved ones.

When I was in college, I took a positive psychology class. One of the primary concepts we studied was about "flow," which I wrote about at length in a final paper for the class.  As defined by Verywell Mind, flow is "a state of mind in which a person becomes fully immersed in an activity." It is said that flow only occurs in occasions in which the person is fully, wholly satisfied and complete, enjoying the precise experience to the fullest. I would argue that the only times I feel "flow" is when I'm cooking and when I'm writing. 

This goes far beyond my kitchen, though. 


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I spoke with my friend Alex Waidelich, a Licensed Associate Counselor based in New Jersey, about the concept and notion of mental health awareness in the home kitchen. She spoke about how executive functioning — a fast-burgeoning concept and tenet both within and outside of education — which has to do with standard, everyday tasks and how equipped a person feels about going about them.

"Tasks, planning ahead, ADHD, children, time management..." Waidelich listed. "There is lots of planning involved in order to achieve an end goal (i.e a recipe), along with instructions to follow." 

She also notes that cooking at home, whether singularly or with family or friends, could be a great way of minimizing anxiety, regardless of where that anxiety might be arising from. "Cooking and baking are a good outlet for that kind of energy to be released," she said. "Get up and go in the kitchen, cut and mix instead of just scrolling your phone, walking around or feeling unsure of what to do with yourself. This can result in a positive surge of energy and help you to feel accomplished upon finishing the recipe. It's also time consuming, which can be really helpful in case of loneliness or boredom."

"Get up and go in the kitchen, cut and mix instead of just scrolling your phone, walking around or feeling unsure of what to do with yourself. This can result in a positive surge of energy and help you to feel accomplished upon finishing the recipe."

Being actionable — and possibly even producing a delicious item — can help boost your confidence and self esteem, not to mention give you something terrific to munch on. It also doesn't hurt to help minimize jitters or high blood pressure due to über-high anxiety, as Waidelich notes.

Furthermore, if you are cooking with a friend or family member, this act of a joint task and general socializing can result in a boost in mood, strengthened relationships and bonds and making positive memories.

According to Waidelich (and me!), music is one of the strongest components of a leisurely cooking experience, too, which helps to foster an enjoyable, positive and relaxing atmosphere. If you're not a music person, many also advocate for running a favorite show or movie in the background, playing a podcast, or so on. Waidelch also states that it can be "satisfying for some to clean the kitchen afterwards, which helps them feel in control. Cooking (and cleaning) can both feel like a way of taking back control: my life may be a less, but now my kitchen is clean and I feel better."

Waidelich notes that it can even be therapeutic to wash the dishes. "You're smelling the soap, feeling the dishes getting washed and the running water and it's all bringing you into the present," she said.

This brings to mind the technique of grounding, which Waidelich espouses. This technique involves pointing out things in your immediate atmosphere, noting "I feel ____, I smell ____, I hear ___, I see ___." This can help mitigate anxiety, depression or intrusive thoughts.

Waidelich also references food shopping as someone actionable and something "to get out of bed for."

Generally, she notes that it can build confidence and boost self-esteem to increase your kitchen skills and the activity allows for general self expression within seasoning, plating and general creativity; it's not strictly about taste. "It feels good to know you can make something good," Waidelich said, which is a perfect encapsulation of the myriad techniques at work while cooking at home and the many ways in which might help improve your general mental state. 

This notion is further discussed in this in Psychology Today article by Linda Wasmer Andrew.

"At the end of a long workday, one of my favorite ways to unwind is by slicing and dicing vegetables for dinner, Wasmer Andrew wrote. "The steady chop, chop, chop of my knife against the cutting board quiets my mind and soothes my soul. Cooking is meditation with the promise of a good meal afterward." 

In the same article, marriage and family therapist Lisa Bahar, LMFT, LPCC speaks about mindfulness during cooking, nothing the particular experience of peeling a fruit

"Start by observing its skin — the color, the touch, the smell ... then , as you peel and section the fruit, notice the moment-to-moment sensations, such as the spray of juice when you break through the peel," Bahar said. This can help to minimize outside concerns, worries or trepidation, allowing you to focus on that singular orange and this particular meal without being aware of bogged down by any sort of issue occurring outside of the kitchen. 

In this Seattle Times story, Dr. Negar Fani, an assistant professor at Emory University and clinical neuropsychologist, speaks about how kitchen activities and cooking allow for an "outlet" for certain frustrations or negative energy. "The physical outlet that cooking can provide — kneading dough, grinding stuff in a mortar and pestle — can be used as emotional regulation strategy," he said.

Furthermore, he notes that "through cooking, we can engage ... pleasure enters directly. When we are smelling things, our olfactory bulb — the center where we get the smell — is connected to pleasure centers in the brain. it is a way to directly access feelings of pleasure"

Clean Eating also notes that cooking at home can result in a "healthier diet overall," as well as some money-saving strategies versus ordering-in or dining out. Furthermore, this seven-week study study, conducted in Australia, also found that people who took group cooking classes had improved mental health, in addition to improved "cooking skills and confidence," as noted by Clean Eating.

Cooking for yourself can also boost your relationship with food at large and also help improve your patience and skills overall. Everyday Health references a 2021 study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, noting that "people found both happiness and relaxation in cooking and that gaining confidence in the kitchen made the feel more self-reliant overall." 

Clearly, cooking at home is a pretty win-win situation. 

So, to sum it up: If you're feeling down in the dumps as you peruse this story, perhaps set a plan of action for dinner. It can be a minor, 15-minute affair or a 3-hour, super-involved occasion. No matter the length of the cooking process or the dish you have in mind, spending some time in your kitchen should do good things for you and boost your overall mood. 

So get to it! It doesn't matter if you're microwaving a store-bought macaroni and cheese or embarking on a holiday expedition to make the perfect croquembouche, set the intention, put on your favorite playlist and get to it! You might enter flow, you might feel a loosening and a grounding and who knows — you might even produce a profoundly delicious end product. You never know.

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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