person holding sliced vegetable
Anxiety, Christian Living, Depression, Health, Intentional, Mental Health

The hidden benefits of kitchen therapy

how picking up a spatula helped me with my mental illness

When I was at my lowest point with my anxiety and depression, it took all of my mental energy to convince myself to get out of bed and move through my day. Most of my days I went through the motions of getting the kids off to school, working my secretary job, and being back home in time to welcome the kids home from school. Outwardly, I did my best to hold myself together when inwardly I was vacillating between wanting to cry in the dark or scream into a pillow.

photo of man leaning on wooden table

Yet, as days tend to do, they just kept moving forward and we’d find ourselves at dinner time prep once again. We kept a tight budget so we meal planned and I made just about everything from scratch. Though I wished for pre-made frozen dinners and take-out that was just a call away, I stayed diligent to the budget and cooked from our own kitchen.

Though it felt a bit crazy with 3 young elementary kids expelling their pent up energy from the school day and struggling through homework, I found a bit of solace amidst the chaos as I played worship music in the background, pulled out the cutting board, and began prepping vegetables for that night’s stir-fry. The next 30-45 minutes were filled with steaming noodles, sizzling meat, and chopped veggies. And, as I stirred and flipped, a bit of that angst that threatened to drag me down all day was eased just a bit.

A blessing in disguise

What felt like budget-keeping then, I now see as a gift from God. Those small daily sessions in the kitchen allowed me reprieve from dark and racing thoughts and instead allowed me to center back on Him.

At the end of a long, stressful day, the last thing you want to do is think about having to cook something. These days, it’s easier than ever to just pick up your phone and order your dinner through an app or pull a frozen dinner from the freezer. Almost zero prep-work on your end and the satisfaction of a meal within minutes. We have heard countless times how fast food and frozen dinners may not be the best route to good health, but have we considered in the process of giving in to convenience, have we also sacrificed a bit of our mental health as well?

A recent study published in the Frontiers of Psychology Journal found that people who frequently take on small, creative projects like baking and cooking report feeling more relaxed and happier in their everyday lives. They found that when people spent time in the kitchen preparing and cooking a meal for themselves, they felt more enthusiastic about their pursuits for the next day.

little girl cooking

Another reason to put down the take-out menu

Chopping, dicing, mixing and preparing a meal can help refresh your spirit. Stress numbs us and wears us down. But cooking awakens our senses to smells, colors, textures and tastes that refresh us. Allowing our mind to be creative in the kitchen helps us feel like we are “flourishing.” This is a term psychologists call the “feeling of personal growth.” When we allow our minds to stop focusing on the stressful and heavy and instead on the practical steps of a recipe, we let our brains light up in different areas and allow other portions to rest.

When you’re cooking, you have to focus and plan out the timing of different steps, which helps keep your mind off of things that it may need to take a break from focusing on. It’s a bit like meditation, only with a spatula in one hand. When we feel anxious we tend to run the same thoughts over and over in our head. These anxious thoughts create pathways that are hard to get out of. Think of a narrow bike path in the woods that has been rode on by many people. You can try to get out of the deep path, but it’s tricky and takes effort. This is what cooking and creating in the kitchen can do for that anxious rut you are stuck in! It can help you jump off the track and forge a new trail.

helping ourselves – and others, too

Not only does cooking for yourself allow a lifting of the spirit, but when you bring others into this practice you create community and connection as well. Community with others helps us to see that we are not alone, our lives matter, and we do belong. Taking the step to invite a friend for an impromptu cook session or setting up a date to potluck with a group of friends can lift the heart and give the mind something positive to look forward to.

4 practical ways you can add “kitchen therapy” into your life:

    Find a favorite family recipe and ask a family member to make it with you.

    Research foods from a different culture and learn how to make a dish from there.

    Make a batch of cookies and deliver them to a neighbor.

    Pick up a cookbook from your local library and choose a few new recipes to try.

Questions to ask yourself:

    •  When you feel stressed at the end of the day, do you reach for the take-out menu or prepackaged meals?

    •    What is keeping you from cooking for yourself?

    •    How do you feel when you create a meal from scratch for yourself and sit down to eat it?

Looking for more on the topic of mental health and nutrition?

check out Megan’s blog Jordan Crossings where she writes on the topic of mental health with a Christian perspective.

4 thoughts on “The hidden benefits of kitchen therapy”

  1. What a great take? As I read your words and I felt a tugging on my own heart. Often, I find myself hating cooking dinner, but yet I do it every night. My why is my kids and healthy meals.

    1. Same! I don’t always enjoy cooking but I find the motivation more when I tap into my why (healthy meals for growing kids!) and have good ingredients and a meal plan at the ready. It takes a bit of work on the front end to plan but it helps in the day to day when it feels mundane.

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