I can’t be the only one who spends a lot of time over the oven when I’m stressed or depressed — there’s something about the routine of measuring out ingredients, working with batter or dough, molding it into something great, and waiting as it bakes that’s very soothing. It turns out that my love for baking might be more than just a sweet tooth: it could be an instinctual knowledge of the benefits of cooking therapy.
A psychiatrist working in London, Mark Salter, suggests that cooking and baking activities could be therapeutic for patients with depression. They can stimulate cognition, get people working on memory tasks and allow patients to connect with a feeling of nurturing and protection. I’d argue that cooking and baking have another benefit: the possibility of sharing, and the enrichment of interpersonal relationships that occurs as a result.
His claims are supported by some counselors, therapists and mental health treatment centers which use cooking therapy as a tool for their patients. In addition to helping people learn skills for independence and self-care by teaching them how to cook wholesome, balanced meals, cooking can also help patients get more active, grounded and connected with their environment. And evidently the focus on tasks can be beneficial for a brain in turmoil.
Other researchers have issued the inevitable buzzkill for those of us with mental health conditions who want a good excuse to waltz into the kitchen and whip up some cupcakes. The field of psychology and psychiatry has long been aware that routines, repetitive tasks and non-stressful structured environments can help patients feel better. Numerous therapies in fact rely on just that, including art therapy, music therapy and other approaches to helping mental health patients work through psychiatric crises, express themselves and develop coping skills.
So cooking might not be the only choice for patients who need a way to find more balance in their lives through a routine and comforting task. But it’s certainly an option, and it’s one with a lot of interesting potential. One common issue for mental health patients is trouble eating well, especially on medications associated with appetite loss or gain. Enrolling in a cooking therapy program could help a patient rebalance her diet and learn some tips and tricks for feeding herself well, like freezing healthy meals, prepping vegetables when she has more energy and keeping certain danger foods out of the house.
Sometimes, you really do just need to make a batch of cookies or bake a pie, so you might as well learn how to do it well, have fun doing it and expand your recipe repertoire in the process. While some therapists caution that cooking therapy could lead patients down a dangerous path (too may sugars and an imbalanced diet can come with their own health problems, including psychiatric ones), there’s no reason patients can’t share the bounty of what they’re cooking, join cooking clubs and find other ways to turn cooking into socialization. Given the isolating effects of many mental health conditions, an excuse for getting out and about could be just what the doctor ordered.
Photo credit: Frédéric BISSON.