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.