How Cooking Improves My Emotional Well Being

eggs and crescent rolls on a wooden table to show mental health benefits of cooking

As a person who has been overweight most of my life, I always sought ways to deal with feelings through eating. Whether celebratory or in a state of mourning, food is an outlet. As my relationship with food changed, I focused more on mindful eating and cooking. I realized that cooking empowered me and improved my emotional well being far more than ordering American Chinese takeout or stuffing my face with Cheez-Its and Doritos ever could.

The further I dive into cooking as an art form and challenging myself with complex dishes or repurposing leftovers creatively, the happier it makes me. Cooking gives me confidence, soothes me, and allows me to express myself while improving my personal health.

Where Is the Data?

In a study about Positive Psychological Impacts of Cooking During the COVID-19 Lockdown Period, respondents backed up my claims with some findings of their own:

“I think cooking is a stress-relieving activity, and in this process, making dishes that I had previously consumed as ready-made but never tried to cook made me happy and encouraged” (Participant 20).

“At the end of a very entertaining and dynamic period, I felt the happiness of succeeding with the emergence of those beautiful products” (Participant 22).

“Trying new things and cooking my own food made me a little bit happy during these troubled times” (Participant 30).

Being forced into learning how to cook to pass the time, residual mental health benefits emerged for participants and many of their responses reflect this positive change.

Cooking Helps Me Focus On Mundane Tasks

I have struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder my entire life. Most of it boils down to control issues. I have a compulsory need to organize things in my home exactly how they’re “supposed to be.” I plan my drives to new places meticulously, mapping out every turn and where to park. Unexpected road closures or other obstacles send me into an anxious frenzy. Luckily, one interesting and positive symptom is that repetitive and detailed tasks soothe me.

Cooking often involves many forms of prep work: cutting, peeling, mixing, measuring, timing things out, maintaining temperatures, monitoring doneness. For an OCD person, these tasks give me a sense of purpose and focus that allow my mind to escape from anxieties. In these moments of quiet diligence, I am fully at peace.

Instead of frittering around the house nervously, I can step into the kitchen and start crafting a delicious masterpiece and it has made all the difference when I’m struggling.

Cooking Is a Form of Meditation

I am a huge proponent of meditation and mindfulness in everyday life. It’s important to recognize thought or behavior patterns and meditation can be a great way to train your brain to slow down during periods of intense emotion.

In the same way that sitting still and visualizing can help relax you, cooking can do the same. Allowing yourself to be poured fully into making an awesome meal, you can let the stresses of your life melt away for a few precious moments.

Wallowing and being idle are never the best ways to deal with dark thoughts and something as simple as stirring up the perfect risotto can distract you long enough to process. When my clinical depression is creeping in, maintaining physical and mental activity helps me to cope through the roughest patches.

Cooking as Creative Expression

Just like pen and paper or a block of clay, cooking can be a medium through which to express yourself. You can tell a story. You can explain your family heritage. You can splash the colors and flavors that define your sensibilities into a dish.

Whether the meal you’re preparing is a nostalgic piece of your identity or an expression of your religious or ethical beliefs, it’s a blank canvas to paint with your personal touch.

The ingredients you choose and where they’re sourced has meaning. The way you arrange the components together on a plate has meaning. The tastes you prefer and how they balance against one another on each forkful has meaning. Every part of cooking allows you to control the message and the meaning of your food.

My dad is Italian and my mom is Hungarian, so sometimes I want my food to honor both backgrounds: the bright and spicy flavors and seafood-heavy diet of the Calabrian region of Italy or the paprika-laden meat and winter vegetable mindset of eastern Europe.

I also use food as a way to explore other cultures. I currently love Tasting History with Max Miller and, looking back, Anthony Bourdain was the person who set me on the path to socio-political understanding through food.

Food elicits so many emotions and presents a narrative that defines both individuals and communities.

Cooking as a Way to Show Love and Connect

Just like the stereotype of a grandmother feeding her family at a holiday gathering, cooking is a way that people connect. It gives everyone a reason to get together. Cooking is a way of showing love.

As a young child, I remember cooking with my mom in the kitchen. Even though she’s Hungarian, she always made amazing Italian food. She’d let me help mix and roll out the meatballs and put together a homemade Sunday sauce. When she was baking, I’d lick the spoons. It always provided a loving connection to be together in the kitchen.

At Thanksgiving, hanging out by the stove with family provided a place to swap stories, rag on each other, and share some quality time.

I’ve always loved to entertain and I get a supreme sense of fulfillment and an ego boost when people compliment my meals and ask for a recipe. Although often derided, I love sharing my dishes across social media with some instructional summaries for those who want to follow along. I pour my best efforts into cooking and I’m proud of what I produce. I love when food I’ve prepared makes someone happy.

Any way you slice, bake, saute, or boil it, cooking has provided me with a creative outlet and a productive form of stress relief. All of its benefits have improved me psychologically and I can’t imagine a life without cooking 5-6 days a week.

How to Give a Meaningful Gift

For thousands of years, gift giving has been a part of the human experience. It is a multi-faceted practice, as it surrounds both joyous and sorrowful circumstances. Whether to celebrate accomplishments / momentous events or to ease pain, gifts are always appropriate and always welcome.

The problem arises, however, when it comes time to actually choose the gift to fit the occasion and, most importantly, the person. How are you supposed to know what kind of gift to give someone?

Consider the Event

If a tragedy or loss has been suffered, obviously the gift’s tone will be extremely different compared to an important and happy life event.

In the case of tragic events, lean toward objects that are warming, comforting, classy, and subdued. Flowers, food, nice picture frames, restaurant gift cards, or hand-made art or trinkets are all examples of loving gifts in a time of need.

The reasons behind sympathy gifts are to help take care of someone’s necessities during times of extreme stress or to show that you’re thinking about them and sending love and support.

All of this sentiment goes a long way in helping someone feel better.

For celebrations like birthdays, graduations, new babies, or engagements, colorful and loud gifts are more appropriate. You’re looking to express your excitement and congratulations in a tangible way, so now is the time for bright balloons, large packages with ornate wrapping, eye-catching housewares, bedding, kitchen gadgets, electronics, and other gifts designed to impress.

Always Approach with Practicality

Outside of my home office that’s filled with 80s / 90s pop culture toys, advertisements, posters, and video games, the rest of my home takes a very minimalistic approach. As someone who suffers from OCD, clutter is my number one enemy. I bring this up because the same principle can apply to gift giving.

Don’t buy something that will sit on a shelf and collect dust!

I cannot emphasize the above point enough because, as a gift-receiver, nothing annoys me more than having to hang onto something I will never display or use because of guilt. Don’t be the reason for someone’s unwarranted guilt.

Because of my clutter-free mindset, I much prefer gifts that get, at minimum, a weekly use out of me. My most treasured gifts have all been objects I use regularly: a Weber Smokey Mountain charcoal smoker, Super Nintendo games, cast iron pans, a nice gaming mouse.

The idea behind practicality is it ensures that your money was not wasted. The item you give adds actual value to a person’s life and its usefulness is reflected in how much it’s actually used. 

My dad constantly tells me how much he loves the hand truck that converts to a cart that I gave him years ago. He loves estate sales, garage sales, and antiquing and it’s been a huge help to a 65-year-old-man lugging heavy things around.

Understand Your Audience

Like one of those charlatans pretending to talk to dead relatives, ample research on your subject is a first stop in understanding what makes them tick.

Make sure you consider the thoughts, feelings, interests, and career of the person that you’re buying offerings for. What good is a gift that doesn’t fit a friend, family member, or loved one’s personality traits?

It’s like when your grandmother bought you those awful clothes as a child. It’s a nice gesture, but it would be a FANTASTIC gesture if she actually understood your style and bought something that didn’t have to get hidden in the far reaches of your closet.

In this day and age, this part should be easy. Check their Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, or anywhere they proclaim their thoughts, feelings, and interests publicly. Look at what pages and celebrities they follow, the clothes they wear or show off most frequently, and what types of lifestyle brands and products they’re most actively engaged with. It’s a treasure trove.

Get Something They Wouldn’t Buy for Themselves

The hardest portion of effective gift giving is figuring out how to buy a gift for someone that they wouldn’t buy for themselves, but you know that they’d want.

I often ponder this point the most obsessively because it’s never easy to put yourself in the shoes and mind of another human being accurately.

Personally, it’s why I tell people not to buy me electronics. Sure, I love electronics, but I have very specific tastes and have come to appreciate a certain level of audio-visual quality and I don’t want to have to receive an “inferior” gift that I then feel bad upgrading or giving away.

In this example, the best way to get me something I wouldn’t buy for myself is to look at tasks that would be made easier with some product I don’t currently own. It could also be some piece of my wardrobe I would clearly love and wear and I don’t currently own. 

This takes some nuance and skill and a deep level of understanding, but it can be done.

In the end, the old adage of “it’s the thought that counts” is not necessarily true. That would mean every lazy lover who bought a shitty gift should be lauded instead of lambasted. I disagree wholeheartedly because there’s a difference between just showing up and PERFORMING.

The People We Meet

Maybe I just have a face that makes people think I’m non-judgmental or a good listener, but random folks have always gravitated toward entering into open discussions with me. I’ve chatted casually about everything from asinine weather opinions to in-depth conversations about addiction histories or mental illness. Personally, I welcome the shoulder shake out of my daily routine and the fascinating humanization of people I wouldn’t otherwise notice beyond a casual glance.

What is it about the people we meet that leaves such a lasting impression on who we are and how we view the world?

In some ways, meeting new and strange people reminds us internally of our utmost biases and prejudice. We look at a person and based on their gender, affectations, clothing, hair style, height, and other arbitrary characteristics, our mind creates relational preconceptions. They’re low class. They’re high class. They’re intelligent, dirty, clean, high maintenance, gay, straight, liberal, conservative, sexually open or frigid. It takes active awareness to stop these notions from instantly forming and instead try to view people on a purely empirical basis.

It’s like when you’re reading a book and character, upfront, is entirely a villain. You see their actions through the main character’s eyes and you make snap judgments about their character and worth. You assume that they’re a concentrated ball of pure evil instead of a human being. It is only later in the novel when their motivations are revealed that you begin to see a fully-formed perspective of the person and understand why they are the way they are.

This concept is something I’ve struggled with in my life. I’ve always considered myself a fairly progressive person and above the trappings of misogyny and racism, but many people have caught me in casual conversation exhibiting signs of that kind of behavior and mindset. While veiled in humor or satire, in my own mind, you do not control the way others perceive your words. While to you these things may seem harmless or goofy, to others they could be painful reminders of a society that institutionalizes their outsider status.

I don’t speak jokes with maliciousness, but intent does not matter. What matters is that the eyes and ears perceiving these utterances have their own interpretations and it’s important to understand that words truly do matter. I’m a proponent of free speech in all avenues, but free speech does not simultaneously mean free of consequence. There is a ripple effect to any ideas and assumptions made publicly, whether in the negative or positive sense. This is something to keep in mind when meeting and speaking to new groups of people.

Just recently, I’ve met some interesting characters since my commute has shifted from the weekly travel schedule of a professional consultant to a daily Philadelphia commute via the regional rail transit system. Each day brings new surprises and new people and I’ve had both valuable and forgettable experiences in that space.

There was the man who works for Septa and was taking the late train home with me on a night that I had met some friends in the city for dinner. He looked like Herschel from the Walking Dead, prior to his amputation. Based on his dirty clothes and disheveled look, my brain wanted to paint him into a corner as a grunt worker with no college education. Visual cues are so inaccurate, though. He was a computer engineer who had designed entire systems and infrastructure for the company and had a brilliant mind that loved to talk. We had a great conversation before parting ways and I was left feeling good about our interaction.

I met a young woman on the train who looked like a hippie. She sported a t-shirt with moons on it to match the tattoo on her arm and cut-off jeans. She was a brilliant and positive mind who had gotten a full-ride scholarship to Penn’s business school. She talked of the positive outlook of her life philosophy and how much she loved meeting and talking to new people. She wanted to be an entrepreneur and open up a cannabis dispensary in Pennsylvania.

There’s also the barista at work who was celebrating his 21st birthday and wanted me to follow his drag persona Instagram. His friendly demeanor and personable attitude causes many people in my building to talk to him every day at length.

In each of these scenarios, I was going about my daily mundane business in typical fashion and fell into conversations with new and interesting people who I appreciated meeting. Whether I never see them again or they become somewhat regular fixtures of conversation, it’s worthwhile having met them. If I succumbed to the pitfalls of prejudice and being closed off from interpersonal interactions, I would have missed out on the experiential spontaneity of good conversation.

Even if the conversation comes from a dark place and the person just needs to vent, it’s important to be objective and listen once in awhile. Sometimes people just need an ear. You may be the only person that they interact with in their daily life. You don’t know how many people you could be saving from a bad day or a place of intense despair. You may be preventing someone’s loneliness.

Stop putting up walls and start trying to exist together. We only have so long.

3 Things That Make Me Incredibly Happy and Why

It’s easy to go through a normal week of routine and wallow in the pain of the moment. With so many minor pieces of your day and week that don’t go exactly as planned, it’s common for people to internalize and catastrophize small obstacles.

Instead of telling someone or yourself to minimize the seriousness of the struggle, instead focus that energy on remembering things that did go your way. Find aspects of your life experience to be grateful for. Be thankful for the myriad of good things and details that far outweigh the bad.

Like I’ve done below, grab a piece of paper and jot down 3 things that make you incredibly happy and the exact reasons why they elicit that kind of response from you. This exercise will go a long way in helping you realize that there are things in life to be happy about and the reasons they make you happy can teach you additional strategies for finding your happiness elsewhere by employing similar methodology or recognizing common threads. 

80s/90s Pop Culture

In times of trouble, I always find myself retreating back to the last sane moment I ever knew. I am grateful that my childhood was full of happiness and toys and sprite-based video games and parents who loved me. Because of this, when I’m feeling stressed, anxious, hopeless, or lost in a sea of negativity, I turn to 80s/90s pop culture to fill the emotional void.

In recent years, nostalgia has been a big business. Why would a flailing company or movie studio not lean on rebooting, re-releasing, or re-packaging their existing properties when they know there is a market of 30-40 year olds who will buy it up with grins on their faces?

I’ve just always held a torch for this era of pop culture and it spans many different mediums from the late 80s into the mid-late 90s. Whether it be advertisements, discontinued snack foods, movies, television shows, toys, music, video games, clothing, board games, or sports equipment, there’s a place in my heart for that whole aural ambience and aesthetic.

As you may or may not know, I’m “sort of” a collector of these kinds of material things and memories. I say “sort of” because I’m far to OCD and minimalistic to actually be a “collector” of anything. I’m not a completionist in that regard. I have having stacks of things. I hate clutter. I’m all about the aesthetic appeal in a controlled, manageable dose that makes me happy.

That’s what this whole post is about, things that make me happy. These trinkets on my desk, music on my Spotify, movies on my Amazon Prime, posters on my wall, and cartridges in my Super Nintendo make me genuinely happy and remind me of childhood times that were simple, happy, and care-free. Looking at, touching, and hearing all of these pieces of memory inspire me creatively and make me feel warm and fuzzy inside. That always seems to be the feeling that I’m chasing and it’s nice to have a few material objects that help get me there.

Driving down the Road in Autumn with the Heat On, Music Blasting, and the Windows Open

Even though fall is the most fleeting season of all, it’s also the most romantic. The smell in the air and the cool crispness of the breeze are extremely nostalgic and familiar to my senses. Football and Hockey return. A road winding into the distance surrounded by dramatically-colored leaves is a common sight. My weekends are filled with pumpkin patches, hot cider with bourbon, and lots of ginger snaps.

My favorite part of the fall season, however, is a very personal experience. Living out somewhere between truly rural and kind of suburban southeastern Pennsylvania, wooded roads are all around. There’s nothing like a cold, late October night, a great album, the windows rolled down and the heat blasting while you twist and turn down a dark road in your car.

There’s something about that experience that floods my head with so many layers of memories, inspiration, and outright joy. It is an experience unique to temperate deciduous regions of earth, but it’s a quiet moment that every living person should experience at least once.

Solo Hikes with Headphones On

Much like the above event, hiking by yourself is extremely personal. You’re breathing heavy and you’re sweating as the music pumps in your ears. You look around and catch a glimpse of a random bird, squirrel, chipmunk, even a wild turkey or deer on rare occasions. You walk up hills and alongside creeks. You stop to take a look at a family of ducks sliding through a pond. All is at peace and all is at one.

Not only are solo hikes great exercise and great for your mental wellbeing, they give you time to think and appreciate the minute details of life. All the trees and plants and animals are existing in this space with you and the serenity of the moment is a shared experience.

I don’t think I look forward to any type of exercise more than I do hiking alone.

Food Donations in Exchange for Overdue Library Book Fines

Library late fees have always been a reality of checking out books or other media. Sometimes you get so wrapped up in a book that you forget to return it, while other times it’s stuffed in a schoolbag or under a couch cushion and you don’t even know that you have it. Before, these fines could add up to hundreds and even thousands of dollars over a long enough period of time. It reminds me of the “Bookman” episode of Seinfeld. However, I recently came across this MSN article that sparked an interesting new way of looking at library fines: Food for Fines: Libraries Across the Country Will Let You Pay Overdue Fees With Donated Food.

“For a limited time this month, libraries across the country will be accepting an alternative form of payment from patrons with overdue books.

Bring pantry goods into a library with a Food for Fines program and you can pay your fines without further opening your wallet. Libraries will donate any unopened, nonperishable foods they collect to local food banks, and they typically waive $1 worth of fines per item. Some libraries even accept pet food to give to animal shelters in their area.”

This is a fantastic idea. Instead of only serving to donate money directly to the library to pay for your past due items, you’re instead helping members of the community. That seems like the ethos of libraries in general. They exist as information warehouses where the general public, with or without the financial means, can stay well-read, use computers, engage in free activities, rent movies, and better themselves without incurring cost.

It only makes sense that, instead of punishing people’s wallets directly, force them to empty out their pantries and donate directly to helping alleviate at least a portion of the hunger in their own community.

The article also states:

“In addition to providing food to communities, Food for Fines programs can get people to rethink traditional library late fees. Many libraries are moving away from fines all together in an effort to make their services more accessible to low-income families. At Los Angeles County public libraries, anyone under 21 can clear their late fee balance by reading more books.”

Again, this goes back to the idea of public spaces for information and culture and their ultimate goal–improving the lives of people in the community. Doing away with late fees entirely or finding alternative ways to wipe them clean are fantastic efforts to inspire positive change without further negatively impacting the economically under-privileged.