Dried pasta, tomatoes and tomato sauce on a white tablecloth

Food for Thought: The Argument for Cooking it Yourself

This evening, I feel discouraged by the stream of delivery drivers collecting meals from the Italian and Thai restaurants next door. The succession of drivers, mostly on electric bikes, is so steady that I can’t help but feel that this is the way we, as a society, have widely shifted to enjoy modern cuisine. I recognise the occasional take away meal is both necessary and harmless. However, I take issue with the repetition and passive ease of this kind of consumption, which appears to me as a collective obscuring of our priorities.

American author, Michael Pollan, who is known for his writing about where the human and natural worlds intersect, told the Boston Globe ‘cooking gave us the meal, and the meal gave us civilisation’. If this is true; might Michael Pollen regard the scene in front of me, the succession of helmets and orders and plastic containers, a gross example of our retrogression?

Baking has long been recognised for its therapeutic benefits

Food and emotional anguish are old friends. We see this in our post break-up desire to sit on the couch and self-soothe with a tub of ice-cream, or eat our way through impending deadlines by way of a packet of Allen’s snakes (guilty). There is no doubt eating is therapeutic (sometimes, too much so; see our blog on when eating becomes a problematic coping strategy).

However, researchers are now turning to the preparation of meals as a means of stabilising one’s emotional wellbeing. Baking has always been regarded as a soul-soother, possibly because of the measured ritual and fine technique that baking requires. It demands composure and quiet to correctly weigh out butter, sieve flour to the gram, crack eggs, whisk, beat, fold. There are now several personal accounts of how baking has helped people who struggle with mental health difficulties, including Irish novelist Marian Keyes’ Saved by Cake, and Bake It Till You Make It, a compilation of 43 different people’s experiences with baking (links below).

Cooking works in many different ways to promote wellbeing

According to researchers, it’s not just baking that has benefits, with therapists now prescribing cooking classes to treat anxiety and depression. Cooking has also provided positive results for those suffering from eating disorders, addiction, and ADHD, as well as those recovering from physical conditions such as cancer or burns injuries. Several psychologists told the Wall Street Journal that cooking helps ‘soothe stress, build self-esteem and curb negative thinking by focusing the mind on following a recipe’.

Expanding on this, preparing food benefits our mental health for a variety of reasons relating to how we engage with the world:

  • Cooking mirrors a type of therapy called ‘behavioural activation’; the process of preparing a meal alleviates emotional anguish by curbing procrastination and encouraging goal-orientated behaviour. Basically, by encouraging a person to focus on structured steps that must be completed in a timely manner, cooking offers a sense of power and control that a person may not feel in their life outside the kitchen.
  • Learning new recipes and cooking skills creates ‘mastery’, a psychological term related to self-esteem that means how confident and capable you feel to grow and develop new skills. In short, pulling off a recipe gives a mood boost via pride in one’s accomplishment.
  • Related to the above, choosing to ditch the recipe and instead make up a meal based on your available ingredients brings a degree of creativity to our day. Creativity is related to the concept of ‘flourishing’ (your sense of personal growth in life), as well as regulation of emotion. Regular recipe experimentation is a great way to bring creativity to our otherwise busy lives.
  • Cooking is an act of mindful focus; John Whaite, winner of the 2012 Great British Bake-Off, describes cooking as a way he can focus just on one thing, taking a break from the rest of his busy life. He credits cooking with helping him to manage his bipolar disorder.

Preparing a meal is a complex sensory experience that can also be an act of pure self-care and compassion

World class Italian chef Massimo Bottura believes ‘cooking is about emotion, it’s about culture, it’s about love, it’s about memory’. Funny that these are the big buzz words I spent last year studying in my university-level psychology course. Irrespective of emotional anguish or thought disorders, cooking is about self-care and self-love.

Often when I remark about what I’m cooking or what I made for myself last night, friends will dismiss me as ‘shmancy’, ‘indulgent’ or, worst of all, ‘bougee’. This rubbed off on me enough that I started to hold off the pureed cauliflower with ocean trout, prawn risottos, and lamb fillets on beds of ratatouille. Friends said that not cooking these complex dishes would allow me mental room, more time in my day. That I won’t feel compelled to venture to the market all the time. But the time this change granted me was meaningless; my days lacked the colour and energy that cooking permitted.

Nonetheless, I was grateful for this exercise. I recognised the entire ritual of cooking is important to me, in the same way a wine with Mum or swim at my local 50-meter pool is. Every step, from leafing through recipe books, perusing the aisles of the market, mincing garlic, grating zest (and, inevitably, some of my finger), to setting the table and lighting a candle, has a meditative and centring quality. These are all actions I take that give me pleasure, and a moment in my busy life to pause and just be me. For me, cooking is an important act of self-care.

Cooking for others engenders good old-fashioned altruism

There is also the additional benefit of cooking for other people, which is good old-fashioned altruism. I recall, in the wake of a nasty breakup, the way my sister and her partner nursed me back to good spirits. This wasn’t an explicit process; I didn’t visit their house to talk about my feelings, so much as to sit at their dining room table and share meal after meal, day after day. Watching or helping my sister cook, I remember feeling distracted from my interior world. I also remember the warmth and care I felt from them each evening as my sister passed me a plate of risotto or duck, and her partner poured me a drink. Today, my sister and I recognise that these meals had a nurturing quality for both of us. There’s a reason many cultures throughout history have revered the role of preparing a meal for guests; cooking for others, giving someone something that is necessary for their survival, fulfils our human needs in a very primal way.

We don’t need to live in a world where mealtime is reduced to an application on our phone

I recognise it is a privilege to have the time, space, and financial security to cook for yourself and/or others. However, I believe it is those of us with access to these luxuries (certainly money) who are creating the demand in food delivery services. It upsets me to see mealtime reduced to an application on a mobile phone, an underpaid delivery driver and a lot of single use plastic. It’s no good for the soul, nor for the environment.

Even in our busiest times, I hope we can live in the kind of world where one prepares at least one meaningful meal for themselves a day. And ‘meaningful’ can mean many different things. It might be sitting at the table without technology, consciously changing the form of an ingredient by way of science – how simple and delicious it is to make a raw egg into a delicious hot meal. It could involve venturing to the market, trying out a new recipe, or ditching the recipe altogether and indulging your creativity with ingredients. So long as the purpose is grounded in the process, it will nourish more than just your stomach.

You can read more on people’s experiences of cooking improving their mental health in Saturday Night Pasta, Bake It Till You Make It, and Saved By Cake.