Can Cooking Therapy Help Your Mental Health?

Cook what you love – not what you should to make

“Make something really simple that you really like,” suggests Hastings before adding, “Don’t fall into the trap of thinking ‘oh, I’ll cook that because it’s really good for me’ or ‘that looks really good. great looking’ and I want to cook this clever dish.’ That doesn’t suit you and you want it to mean something and bring comfort.

“Maybe a dish reminds you of something or someone and you start to take the time to think while cooking. This is time for nourishment, not just eating a meal.”

If you’re struggling with a bereavement, this can help, Hastings says. “We can connect with those memories [through making dishes that remind you of loved ones]† It allows us to recognize that when someone is in your heart, they are always with you. I do this when I make recipes associated with my grandmother – it helps to remind me of what she meant to me. Not just what she taught me while cooking, but actually how she took care of me and that nurturing I got.”

Practice mindful eating (and even washing dishes)

Mindful eating is a relaxation and awareness tool where you take the time to focus and appreciate the food you eat. Kocet explains: “I do a chocolate meditation where I have students eat the food very slowly. Years ago I did this when I was working as a therapist in a psychiatric hospital with adolescents. I gave them a little chocolate and then I guided them through removing the wrapper, smelling the chocolate, putting it in their mouths and not chewing it. I explained that if we eat mindfully, we can eat more slowly, which is better for our digestion. But it is also better for our mental well-being because it is a form of meditation.”

“Instead of just throwing the dishes in the dishwasher after cooking, use it as a meditation aid as well,” adds Kocet. “Wash the dishes by hand and watch the water and soap. Wiping each dish can also be a symbolic representation of cleaning our emotional space and the dish itself.”

Think outside the physical act of cooking

Whether it’s reading a cover-to-cover cookbook to help calm you down, or talking about your favorite childhood foods, “Cooking therapy doesn’t necessarily have to involve cooking,” says Kocet. “It could just be discussions about food and eating and a person’s relationship with food.”

You can take it one step further by doing your own food-related homework. “There is a children’s book that was published years ago called Tears Soup,” says Kocet. “I’ll usually read that story whether I’m working with children, adolescents, or adults. It’s about a woman who experiences a loss and thus has to make tear soup as a way to deal with it… After I’ve read the story , I have my students write their own recipe for tear soup and what it means for their own grief.”

The result is not the point

“When you see little kids, they don’t know they can’t cook, so they’re brilliant. They just hang in there. They don’t worry if something is perfect or not… Remember when you were a kid making mud pie, nobody told you how much to add or what to do,” says Hastings, explaining that to improve your well-being through food, you need to release the pressure that comes with the end result.

Kocet agrees, explaining that even if you make a mistake, it can be a useful tool to boost your confidence and resilience. “In one class, a student was assigned a pear pie. He messed up the recipe and I could see he was very depressed. I encouraged him to make something different with the ingredients. At the end, when we were tasting all the food, the class said their favorite was the spontaneous dish he made. The look on his face was pure shock—that something that didn’t work initially turned out really well.

“That embodied why cooking therapy can be so powerful. If you make a mistake while cooking, how can you turn it around? It is also a metaphor for other areas of your life. It’s okay to make a mistake, whether it’s professional at work or in your relationships,” Kocet concludes.

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