Two experts weigh in on how cooking can help you de-stress.
When we’re stressed out, we find we turn to one of three things: copious amounts of tequila (usually followed by karaoke), an extreme fitness class, or cooking. Bet you weren’t expecting that last one, but believe it or not, a lot of us here at Cov HQ turn to the stove to decompress and wave goodbye to our worries. There’s something about losing ourselves to the creative process of cooking that is super healing for us. We’re convinced we aren’t the only ones who use cooking as a form of personal therapy, and want to spread the knowledge on just how remedial it can be, so we reached out to culinary nutritionist and health consultant Mikaela Reuben, and Amie Valpone of The Healthy Apple, to bring you guys some information and tips on the matter. Preheat your oven now, because you’re going to want to get cooking immediately after reading this.
Founder of The Healthy Apple
Her experience with using cooking as a form of self-therapy:
“In my 20s I went through ten years of chronic illness and felt lost with what to eat. I lived for eight years on steamed organic chicken and spinach (anyone with serious gut and health issues can relate, I’m sure) because I became allergic to every other food I tried to put in my mouth. A few years ago, something inside of me started to shift—I stopped reading every book on how I should eat and what I should eat and learned to embrace a style of cooking that nurtured me. I started getting out of my head and into my heart—I stopped trying to think my way into healing and started feeling my way there. I played music, danced around my kitchen, cooked all my meals [and] felt human for the first time in over a decade. This, to me, was my therapy. I learned how to stop being in the victim role with my health and started to use my positive energy to create a lifestyle therapy for myself to help me feel more, taste more, and enjoy more. My hormones started working; I wasn’t as hungry and my body started to change right before my eyes. My skin started glowing more, my memory got better, my energy increased, and I started to feel like I had discovered a world that was right underneath me this whole time.”
Cooking alone vs. cooking with friends:
“I love cooking by myself, it’s a form of meditation for me, especially if I have really soft, beautiful music on and I light a few candles. It puts you in a relaxed state, but there’s no need to just cook alone. I love hosting dinner parties for my clients, which allows us all to enjoy the time together creating something delicious. To me, it’s the feeling of coming together with the people I love in my kitchen to laugh, share, be vulnerable, and create something delicious that makes it a therapy for all of us.”
The meals she finds the most therapeutic to make:
“I find that when I make slow-cooking meals like roasting butternut squash, making homemade tomato sauce, or a chili recipe, I get more gratification out of it because it’s a slow, relaxing process versus something that’s speedy (like pasta), which doesn’t leave you much time to relax and get into that therapeutic flow.
“[To start out, try] something simple like a pureed soup or roasted veggies. Don’t think that cooking has to be complicated. Trust me; I keep things as easy as possible.”
How to make your cooking environment that much more therapeutic:
“[Add] candles! I love the new candles from Keap Candles in Brooklyn—they’re made from coconut wax. I avoid soy candles and chemical candles, so these are fabulous. Also, a must is an amazing playlist on Spotify! There’s a lot of singing and dancing when I’m cooking—try it. It will make you feel alive.”
If you’re unsure of how to get started:
“When you’re in the middle of a dark period in your life or you’re feeling down, remember that this is a part of your healing. I learned this through my 10 years of chronic illness (everything from Lyme disease to hypothyroidism to C-diff colitis to polycystic ovarian syndrome and much more). Instead of shoving those yucky feelings deep down inside ourselves, which many of us do, feel those feelings, let yourself cry and release them, then reach for something that feeds your soul. To me, cooking fed my soul and my body (and trust me, I never thought I had the patience to cook or bake). Let yourself get lost in the creativity of life. Allow yourself to unravel; it’s about letting go in the best way to untangle all the knots that have held us back for so many years. The next time you find yourself needing a pick-me-up, focus on what you can create in your kitchen with your own hands and let yourself have fun. This is the best form of therapy I’ve ever given myself. Why? Because you learn to let go of the labels and should-haves and the external world and you let yourself be who you were always meant to be and go inwards to heal and nurture yourself.”
Her favorite recipe this season:
“This one is fabulous. If this is the only dessert you make this holiday season, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Plus, there’s no added sugar or inflammatory ingredients.”
Culinary Nutritionist & Health Consultant
Her thoughts on using cooking as a form of self-therapy:
“In general, cooking is a very therapeutic activity. In combination with other forms of therapy, [such as] talk therapy, cooking can be useful in relaxing and focusing on something outside of what is going on in your head. For some it could alleviate stress and build confidence, making it a useful tool for human growth and development. It can be an easy task with a low-stress outcome where you produce something with your hands, complete meditative, repetitive tasks, and achieve small goals.”
On why she believes it to be so effective:
“The brain releases dopamine when a skill is achieved—this dopamine rewards the motor pathway, and as you successfully complete the task, you build and reward more pathways, and the brain learns how to complete the task successfully. I have seen crossover [with this] as small medial tasks are successfully completed in the kitchen and how this confidence then translates into day-to-day activities. The execution of smaller goals helps build confidence and stamina to deal with conflict and challenge in everyday life.
“The quiet and repetitive aspect of cooking can [also] calm the nervous system, and by using the hands, it can also ground someone into their body and force them to focus on the present task and not on the chaos [around them]. It can be a time of reflection, which is often hard in our culture as we squeeze as much stimulation as we can into all of our moments.”
How to make the most out of using cooking as a self-therapy tool:
“Plan in advance so that you remove the stress of cooking. If you are preparing for a dinner party, [plan] a few days ahead and break it down into simple and achievable steps. Don’t try to balance a million things at the same time—make cooking the only focus and allow it to be relaxing, creative, and enjoyable rather than chaotic.”
Her experience with using cooking as therapy:
“Sometimes being forced to stay alone in a kitchen with my hands busy when I am going through something in my life has helped me stay with my feelings rather than trying to completely distract [myself]. The simple non-stressful task of chopping still acts as enough of a distraction so I am not completely overwhelmed by the personal experience I am going through.”