Could cooking therapy help your mental health?

Cook what you love – not what you should 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’ll be really good for me’ or ‘that looks really amazing and I want to cook this clever dish’. That won’t connect with you and you want it to mean something and bring comfort.

“Perhaps a dish reminds you of something or someone and you’re going to take the time to reflect whilst you’re cooking. This is time for nourishment, not just eating a meal.”

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

Practice mindful eating (and even washing up)

Mindful eating is a tool for relaxation and awareness, taking your time to focus and appreciate the food you are eating. Kocet explains: “I do a chocolate meditation where I have students eat the food very slowly. Years ago, I did this when I was a therapist in a psychiatric hospital working with adolescents. I gave them a small chocolate and then I guided them through taking the wrapper off, smelling the chocolate, then putting it in their mouth and not chewing it. I explained that when we eat mindfully, we can eat slower, it’s better for our digestion. But, it’s also better for our mental wellbeing – as it’s a form of meditation.”

“After you cook, instead of just throwing the dishes in a dishwasher, use it as a meditation tool too,” adds Kocet. “Hand-wash the dishes and just be aware of the water and the soap. Wiping every dish can also be a symbolic representation of cleaning our emotional space as well as the dish itself.”

Think outside of the physical act of cooking

Whether it’s reading a cookery book cover-to-cover to help soothe you, or talking about your favorite childhood food, “Cooking therapy does not necessarily have to involve cooking,” says Kocet. “It can just be discussions around food and eating and a person’s relationship with food.”

You can take it a step further, carrying out your own food-related homework. “There’s a children’s book that was published years ago called Tear Soup,” says Kocet. “I typically will read that story whether I work with children, adolescents or adults. It’s about a woman who experiences a loss and so she must make tear soup as a way to cope… After I read the story, I have my students write their own recipe for tear soup and what that means for their own grievance.”

The result isn’t the point

“When you see little kids, they don’t know they can’t cook so they’re brilliant. They just get stuck on in. They don’t worry about whether something’s perfect or not… Think about when you make a mud pie as a child, no one told you how much to add or what to do,” says Hastings, explaining that to improve your wellbeing through food, you should remove the pressures associated with the end result.

Kocet agrees and explains that even if you do make a mistake it can be a useful tool for helping improve your self-confidence and resilience. “In one class, a student was assigned a pear cake. He messed up the recipe and I could see he was very dejected. I encouraged him to make something else with the ingredients. At the end, when we were sampling 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 originally didn’t work out, turned out really well.

“That epitomized why cooking therapy can be so powerful. If you make a mistake cooking, how can you turn it around? It’s also a metaphor for other parts of your life. It’s okay to make a mistake, whether that’s professionally in your work or relationships,” finishes Kocet.

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