Real Talk 19th April 2023 by Jade Hayden
Homecooked Healing: Why I Find Cooking Therapeutic
I’m not the only one.
As a woman who loves to cook, I do a lot of it. As a woman who also experiences frequent anxiety, I like finding ways to quell that. Therapy was one way. Keeping myself busy has become another. And in a somewhat unexpected twist of events, so has cooking.
The chopping, the prepping, the methodology of it all. The tasting, the trying, the adding spices until your eyes are watering. The creation of something new, and the sense of pride after you’ve done so. The eating and the enjoyment – and the slow realisation that yes, I am actually quite good at this.
Making and enjoying food has become one of the key pleasures of my life. But my journey into the world of cooking came later in life. Studying for my Masters and still living at home, my soon-to-be best friend insisted on showing me the basics. The extreme basics. I was 23 years old and I wasn’t confident in my carrot peeling abilities. I knew how to work a Zoom recorder but I hadn’t a clue how a garlic crusher worked. I was obsessed with food, but I didn’t know how to make it.
Smash cut to two months later and I was whipping up a different stir fry every night of the week. I was trying my hand at baking. I was perfecting pasta. Suddenly rustling up a meal from scratch was becoming the highlight of my day. I looked forward to the chopping, the seasoning, the consistent stirring. I enjoyed spending time making meals to my own taste, and creating something new. In what I’d later recognise to be the height of a string of poor mental health months, cooking made me feel better. It gave me something to do that wasn’t just going to work, commuting, and going out. It calmed me down.
Maxine Walsh – IACP (Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) Accredited Counsellor and Psychotherapist – says that cooking is a creative process, but can also become a mindfulness practice if it is done while fully engaged.
She says: “Being fully present while creating even a simple evening meal can allow everyday worries and pervasive negative self-talk to melt away leaving the cook feeling – even if only temporarily, relieved and lighter.”
Maxine also points to “the self-esteem boost of practising and preparing a meal to the very best of your ability, and seeing the finished dish looking very appetising and even better – enjoyed by the person you have prepared for – even if that person is you.
“With the cost-of-living crisis upon us, a lot of people simply can’t justify the cost of buying materials for the more expensive hobbies. However, cooking as a hobby can be done with simply the food we buy every week for ourselves and our families. It’s very accessible and something most of us can already do to some degree, so perfecting that skill of course is going to be a huge confidence boost.”
It was the arrival of the pandemic that took my grá for food to the next level. For the first time in my life, entire evenings stretched out before me, endless. There was nothing to do except sit in the house, Zoom my friends, and go for one 2km radius walk per day. Oh, and cook, of course.
Pre-Covid I had yet to venture far beyond the realms of my standard recipe options. I made things I had seen other people make, dishes I felt comfortable with, meals I was pretty sure I could nail on the first go. Once the routine of the pandemic set in, I threw the rulebook out the window. Or rather, the cookbook. Every night, I set myself the task of making something new. Whether it be the simple pasta dish I had been meaning to try for months, or the elaborate curry that required 20 ingredients and counting, I wanted to make it. And even if it didn’t go completely according to plan (or was entirely inedible), I was glad that I tried. It was something to do, after all.
According to a 2021 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, participants who spent a lot of time cooking during the pandemic found the practice relaxing. Many said cooking made them feel happier and allowed them to become self reliant. Similarly, a 2016 study from New Zealand published in the Journal of Nutrition Education Behaviour found that cooking ability was linked to increased mental well-being, lower levels of depression, and better family and friendship connections.
But as it turns out, cooking isn’t just therapeutic when you’re doing it at home. It can also be beneficial when you’re doing it with an actual therapist. Culinary therapy is a new practical kind of practice, where a patient cooks alongside a registered therapist. Although it has yet to take off in Ireland, it’s proven popular in some parts of the world like the States and Canada.
Maxine says that although culinary therapy isn’t common here yet, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be. “Many countries in the world, along with Ireland, are experiencing mental health emergencies,” she says. “I am not surprised that culinary therapy is gaining popularity.
“I do think this practice could take off in Ireland, there would have to be an ethical framework and adequate training for anyone who is going to provide this kind of therapy. So once that is all in place I see no reason why it shouldn’t be an option along with many other creative therapies. The more choice we have, all the better.”
My curiosity for cooking may have been born from a desire to learn the basics, but it has since grown to a genuine love. Give me a day off with nothing to do and I’ll dominate it with a dish. Whether it’s a comfort bowl of creamy penne or an extravagant tofu creation, I’ll whip it up – and most importantly, I’ll enjoy doing it too.
So the next time you’re positively dreading settling in to make yourself some dinner, consider the benefits that cooking could have for you. It could be relaxing, you might feel fulfilled, and you’ll definitely (maybe) end up with something incredibly delicious to eat.
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