In 2006, Michael Kocet, PhD, now a professor and chair of the counselor education department at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, started taking recreational cooking classes.
“When I would tell people about the classes, they would say, ‘Oh, cooking is so therapeutic for me,’” he says.
That got him thinking about various therapeutic techniques used in mental health care, from art therapy to music therapy to drama therapy to play therapy. Dr. Kocet says, he thought: “Why hasn’t anyone done anything with cooking?”
So in 2014, he developed and began teaching a graduate course on culinary therapy to counseling, social work, and psychology students at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts.
Although he only taught the class for two years, Kocet has been interested in developing an evidence-base and a clinical foundation for culinary therapy ever since. And in recent years, emerging research has started to show that cooking is indeed good for the soul. Here’s what to know about how home cooking impacts your mental and emotional health.
What Does the Science Say About Cooking for Emotional Well-Being?
Let’s start with the obvious: there’s lots of research that healthy eating is linked to a lot of short- and long-term health benefits. And home cooking can be one way to adopt healthier eating habits.
Beyond that, although there’s limited research on how cooking improves emotional well-being, the studies that exist are promising.
For a small, qualitative study published in 2021 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, asked researchers study participants questions about their experiences cooking during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Overall, they found that people found both happiness and relaxation in cooking, and that gaining confidence in the kitchen made them feel more self-reliant overall.
“It really provided an emotional relief,” one study participant said about cooking, according to the paper. “I can say that it eliminates the bad psychological effects caused by constantly dealing with mobile phones and television.”
“In this period, I understood more clearly that there is no limit to what I can do,” said another participant, attributing this realization to home cooking and becoming more comfortable in the kitchen.
Cooking can also be a great way to foster social connections. In a study published in January 2016 in the Journal of Nutrition Education Behaviorresearchers surveyed 8,500 adolescents in New Zealand and found that their cooking ability was positively associated with better family connections, greater mental well-being, and lower levels of depression.
And, a review published in the journal Public Health Nutrition found that a lot of evidence suggests that community cooking programs help boost socialization and curb feelings of isolation.
For a more recent study, published in March 2022 in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, researchers observed the impacts that a seven-week cooking program had on adult participants. In addition to improving their cooking confidence and satisfaction, participants also reported improved general and mental health, even though their nutrient intake didn’t change significantly.
Joanna Rees, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at Edith Cowan University in Joondalup, Australia, who served as lead researcher on the study, says that learning how to cook well has wide-ranging positive health impacts. “Being confident [in the kitchen] not only improves cooking satisfaction and enjoyment, but also self-efficacy, all of which are beneficial for mental and physical health,” she says.
What Might ‘Cooking as Therapy’ Look Like?
If there’s evidence that cooking can help people with mood and well-being, does cooking therapy exist? Kocet says not yet, but he hopes that the current literature starts to build the evidence base, and that efforts like his (including the course he hopes to relaunch and start teaching again soon) will foster interest.
More research is needed, he adds, that shows that cooking interventions can actually improve mental health (like the study published earlier this year from Rees’s group). Kocet, for example, is getting ready to launch a qualitative study looking at cooking and baking as a mitigating factor for stress and anxiety during COVID-19.
“A preliminary definition for culinary therapy is: The therapeutic technique which uses culinary arts, cooking, gastronomy, and an individual’s personal, cultural, and familial relationship with food to address emotional and psychological issues faced by individuals, families, and groups,” he says.
It involves an exploration of an individual’s relationship with food, and how food impacts relationships, as well as psychological and emotional well-being and functioning, he explains.
To further develop culinary therapy as a practice, Kocet is taking cues from similar forms of expressive therapy that merge healing with creativity.
For instance, a review published in 2021 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology on art therapy — the kinds that use painting, drawing, drama, dance, and other forms — found that this type of creative therapy can help patients with mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment, dementia, schizophrenia, and autism, when done in conjunction with other treatments.
Drama therapy has been found to be linked to more self-awareness, self-expression, interpersonal skill, and decision-making ability when used as part of group counseling for college students, according to a study published in October 2019 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
And it’s worth noting that research also shows that doing fun, meaningful activities you enjoy (something psychologists describe as “behavioral activation” when used as therapy) has also been found to boost well-being, including for people with depression.
Just as an art therapist might have a patient draw something related to their trauma as a way of processing it, Kocet might have a culinary therapy patient do the same with food. “The spices in their dish might represent the feelings involved, for example,” he says.
Kocet says he’s used this technique with patients he counsels on grief; he’ll have the patient cook a dish that reminds them of the person they were grieving. “Having the person create the dish and all of their senses being activated by it can really help that person feel connected to the person they’re grieving, in a way that’s helpful to the process overall,” he says.
Tips for Reaping the Emotional Health Benefits of Cooking
While the research shows that increased kitchen confidence leads to more confidence and self-efficacy overall, you don’t have to be a great cook to harness the mental health benefits of cooking.
Here are three tips to get you started:
1. Start Simple
The simple act of making something — anything — for yourself to eat can help you reap these benefits. “If you’ve never successfully cooked anything, and you decide to cook something super simple that turns out to be edible, that alone can be helpful for self-esteem and self-worth,” Kocet says.
2. Do It Mindfully
Bringing mindfulness into your cooking practice can help, too.
In the graduate course he developed on culinary therapy, Kocet taught a whole lecture on mise en place, a French term that describes how chefs prepare and neatly set out all of their ingredients and equipment before cooking in order to make the process more seamless. Doing this at home can be meditative and make the cooking process a more mindful experience.
3. Make It Social
And if you’re looking to reap the social benefits of cooking, invite others to cook with you or just to eat the food you cook. It can be a great way to bond and even share cultural food traditions that make you feel closer.
“Don’t be afraid to get into the kitchen,” Rees says. Doing so will help you meet one of your basic needs (food), while also improving your mental and emotional health in a variety of ways.