By Jan Bruce
You already know you're better off eating wholesome foods -- fresh vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and proteins. And that's reason enough to whip up some simple meals at home. But here's the twist: Actually cooking that food yourself is not just good for physical health, but your mental health, too.
That's the gist of "A Road To Mental Health Through The Kitchen," a recent Wall Street Journal article. Therapists across the country are using cooking lessons as a stress relief tool for people who experience anxiety and depression.
There are a couple of reasons why cooking can work as stress relief: The activity focuses your mind and curbs procrastination. You get to experience present-moment awareness and feel a sense of reward and accomplishment when you complete the meal.
Look, I know: Cooking and baking take time. It makes a mess that you're going to have to clean up. The concept of stress relief doesn't mesh with the frantic 30 minutes you have to get something on the table for dinner before someone goes off to play rehearsal or homework or a meeting.
But it comes down to this question: What are your priorities? Chances are, family and health are up there at or near the top. The intersection of those two priorities is healthy, home-cooked meals with family, so I'm going to make time to cook and share that food. Doing so matters to the quality of my life.
Thankfully, cooking from scratch can mesh with a busy, modern life. It actually can be a lot simpler and more efficient than you may think. Here are four ways to boost the positive effects of cooking while you stir, steam, or saute.
At meQuilibrium, we refer often to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, a classic bit of psychology research that shows how too much stress negatively affects performance. What you need, really, is just enough stress to make the task at hand interesting and engaging. In other words, don't cook for a big dinner party right away (unless that idea thrills you). Cook a nice breakfast on a Sunday morning, or prepare a homemade bean dip for lunch. Set yourself up for success.
Opt for meals over treats most of the time.
Cookies and brownies are fun to bake and eat, but too much of that particular stress relief can have a decidedly stressful side effect: extra pound -- and maybe even an increased chance of poor health. Instead, cook with foods that truly nourish your body. Try taking a class in Mediterranean cooking (think seafood, vegetables, whole grains, herbs, and olive oil). Buy a bag of red peppers and find a recipe for them. Make a batch of low-sugar granola (it's easy!). The healthier the ingredients you cook with, the healthier and happier your body will be.
Give yourself permission to quit.
And toss the dish if it doesn't work out. Listen, as long as the ingredients aren't terribly expensive, this is a wonderfully low-stakes adventure. If the red wine reduction reduces all the way to nothing, oh well! You gave it a shot and you know better for next time. The great thing is, it's still adventure. It's still challenge and risk, learning and engagement. Remember, if things go kablooie, you'll have another chance to eat and cook tomorrow (and the day after that).
Share the deliciousness.
The Wall Street Journal article noted that sharing home-cooked food contributed to people's well-being. Really, what could be more primal and satisfying than nourishing a loved one and yourself? We've long known at meQuilibrium that those with strong social networks bear up under stress far better than those without. Invite a friend over for that balsamic blueberry grilled cheese you've been dying to try. Share your slow cooker split-pea ham-hock soup with your co-worker. Food often tastes better together.
Maybe you'll never can bushels of green beans, make your own ketchup, or grind your own hamburger. And that's fine. Cooking in your kitchen doesn't ever need to be an obsessive big deal. All it needs to be is a chance for you to enjoy yourself, learn something new, and feel good about what you've done.
Learn more useful information about stress and your health! Pre-order our forthcoming book, meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer, and Happier, co-authored by meQuilibrium CEO Jan Bruce, Adam Perlman, M.D., Chief Medical Officer, and Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer.