Through “culinary therapy,” you can be more present and intentional by focusing on the task at hand and letting all other worries go.
My whole life, cooking and eating home-cooked food brought me joy. I grew up watching my family cook. Growing up in Serbia, no visit was possible without bringing and sharing food, and no birthdays were celebrated without a homemade cake and snacks. I can close my eyes and picture the cakes that my mom used to make. One of her specialities was a delicious torte with delicate ground walnut- or almond-based layers with rich creams of vanilla, chocolate, or fruit in between. There were also the “kiflice,” my favorite — mini crescent rolls stuffed with cheese or jam. Cooking and baking is how we express love and care without words, as is the case in many other cultures.
When I immigrated to the United States in my 20s, I tried hard to assimilate and my diet changed, too. As an introvert, I like to connect to others on a deeper level. And cooking quickly became a way for me to share my story with new friends who wanted to know more about me and where I’m from.
Pre-COVID-19-pandemic, I’d have friends over to bond over meals. It was my way to express how much I valued and appreciated them. For me, it’s such an honor to be invited into someone’s home and a privilege to try the food they like to make and eat. Food can tell so much more about a person than what’s on the plate.
And since I love to travel, I think it’s impossible to experience other places and cultures without trying the local food. I would get to know people closely and intimately in their kitchen and learn about the food they grew up with. For me, the best conversations are in the kitchen or around the table. Because behind every recipe, there is a story, memory, or a feeling.
But, during the pandemic, I also realized how much I value my time in the kitchen. It’s my sacred and safe space where I can be free as myself — I can experiment, and be creative and innovative. It’s where I don’t have to live up to anyone else’s standards but my own. It’s how I connect to and nurture myself, both my feelings and overall well-being.
What Is ‘Culinary Therapy’?
Cooking has been around since the discovery of fire, and when we talk about cooking, we mostly think of techniques or recipes. But “culinary therapy” focuses on the mental and physical health benefits of cooking, and its mind and body connection.
I personally heard about culinary therapy, or cooking therapy, a few years back and realized I’d been practicing it unbeknownst to me. According to Dr. Michael Kocet, professor and chair of the counselor education department at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, 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 the emotional and psychological problems faced by individuals, families, and groups.”
Writer Margaret Brady feels similarly. “It [culinary therapy] activates our senses of sight, sound, and touch at the same time the brain is processing smell and taste,” she wrote in a Verily Magazine piece. “And the food itself almost instantly goes to work on the intricate hormone system that helps regulate our moods and sense of well-being.”
And a lot of the practices and lessons from cooking go beyond the kitchen, such as:
- Appreciating and enjoying the process of learning something new without the guarantee that it will work out. You can follow a recipe to a T and it can still turn out bad or opposite of what you expected.
- Being present — culinary therapy is a form of mindfulness. You can’t chop ingredients and think of something else; otherwise, you will most likely injure yourself or end up with a burnt dish.
- Learning how to plan and organize your work space. If you cook in chaos, it’s stressful, but if everything is in place and you prepare the ingredients beforehand, the process is much smoother. (After all, a clutter-free environment is important for introverts!)
- Getting the big picture. You should always read the whole recipe before you start. It’s like reading an instructional manual for the first time. Only, once you’re familiar with it, you can experiment and have fun with it.
- Lastly, applying creative problem-solving. It’s thinking about what you can make with the ingredients you have — or can substitute them with if you have a health restriction or don’t have all the “right” ingredient(s).
Why ‘Culinary Therapy’ Works for Me
When things are new or challenging, cooking helps ground me and bring me “home” or at peace. It reminds me of who I am, my strengths, uniqueness, identity, and that everything will be okay.
- As an introvert, I can’t relax in a restaurant the same way as when I am at home. At home, I feel more like myself. I am in control of preparation and what I put on my plate. Plus, I don’t have to worry about other factors either, like ambient noise or having to make small talk with those around me, whether they’re dinner companions or the waitstaff.
- Cooking is therapeutic and the ultimate self-care for me. I don’t do it for the likes or to become a food blogger or chef, I do it for me. I am the master chef, making my own favorite meals almost every day, because no one knows me better than me. I get to connect to myself on a deeper level and it’s my time where I get lost in my culinary world, solve problems, be creative, and dance around the kitchen if I feel like it — not to mention, it gives me plenty of alone time! It helps me be present and intentional, and regain my senses to see, smell, touch, hear, and taste.
- It’s a conversation-starter, either in person or online. Everyone has to eat. There is no small talk around food and you can learn so much about a person from the food they like to make and eat. When I ask people what their signature dish is, or to share a recipe, their eyes light up and you can feel the love behind it.
- It helps me appreciate the small things. Before I eat my meal, I take a moment and often snap a photo. On difficult days, it helps remind me that cooking is how I show up for myself. It motivates me to keep doing it and that I’m worth it.
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What Culinary Therapy Has Taught Me
The biggest lesson cooking has taught me is to be more patient with myself, to be more gentle and self-compassionate. As much as we introverts like to plan and be in control, it’s okay if things don’t go my way. Sometimes, we have the best intentions, and despite doing our best, we still don’t get the results we expected. If we are in a committed relationship with ourselves, we’ll keep trying our best and showing up for ourselves in every situation. It’s all a lesson, as in life.
Thanks to cooking, I’ve learned to:
- Enjoy the process vs. just focus on the end result. The act of cooking brings me joy. I like planning my meals, thinking about my next dish, and preparing it. If a dish doesn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, I still appreciate and commend myself that I took the time and risk to do it.
- Be more present and intentional. You can’t be at two places at the same time. Cooking helps me (re)focus on a task and occupy my mind when I have negative thoughts, problems, or feel stressed out. And as my fellow introverts know, we tend to overthink (or overanalyze) so it’s good to have tools to help us cope.
- Be thankful for what I have. When I see my plate, I feel grateful that I have food and am able, both physically and mentally, to prepare it for myself.
- Take care of myself, one meal at a time. It’s how I show up, even if all else fails that day. There is a meal to remind me that I matter and that, despite setbacks, I deserve care and compassion.
- Live by my own rules. I love cooking and use it to challenge myself, to experiment, and to have fun. I felt so much peace the moment I stopped comparing myself to others. I’m in charge of what I put in my body and how I prepare my meals. And as long as I show up for myself at the end of the day, it’s all that matters!
Just as there are many benefits when it comes to exercising, it’s the same with cooking. It doesn’t just happen — we need to plan for it and make time. And even if you only have five minutes to plan, chop or prep, it all counts toward managing our physical and mental health. It’s like having a savings account, accruing energy for rainy days. While it’s easy to just order takeout, which is okay from time to time, it’s so worth spending time in the kitchen. Think of that time as a chance to tune inward and reward yourself with something delicious. A win-win for sure!
If this resonates with you, join my Dishmeetup community and be surrounded by folks from all walks of life using cooking to nurture, heal, and feel better!