Can You Cook Your Way to Better Mental Health?

written by Skye Sherman - Oct 11, 2022
medically reviewed by Dr. Tolulope Olabintan, MD - Nov 28, 2022

Photo Credit: by Skye Sherman
Photo Credit: by Skye Sherman

If you are a person who does not spend a lot of time in the kitchen, cooking on your own may seem like a daunting task. Making your own meals might sound overwhelming, difficult, time-consuming, or just plain inconvenient.

But if you’re someone who loves to cook, then you know what a rewarding experience spending time in the kitchen can be. Not only does it make you feel good, it makes your body happy, too. Cooking your own meals at home can boost your brain and body health as you sharpen your skills and also end up with delicious, good-for-you meals as a result.

So can you cook your way to better mental health? Does dining out all the time really have a negative affect on your mood and physical health? The answer may surprise you.

Is dining out bad for you?

To many people, if you eat at restaurants regularly, it’s no big deal. You might think that as long as you order healthy foods when dining out, there’s no difference in cooking your own meals at home. But believe it or not, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

An article published in VeryWellFit explains, “Dining out is a great way to take a break from cooking, but some restaurant meals are high in salt, sugar, and fat.” When you eat out on the regular, you can’t control the ingredients, portion sizes, cooking methods, or the quality of the food being prepared.

The article also contains a very sobering fact: “A new study shows that those who dine out twice or more per day (compared with those who dined out less than once a week) showed an increased risk for early death.”

Even if you’re ordering healthy meals at restaurants, it’s better to cook your own food at home. That way you know exactly what you’re putting in your body and can make sure the food you consume is nourishing, balanced, and healthy for body and mind.

How cooking your own food can improve your mental health

Have you heard of the new trend of cooking therapy?

A report published in Psychology Today explains, “In a recent segment on ‘culinary therapy’ airing on CNN’s weekend news edition of ‘Staying Well,’ the claim was made that bringing your therapist into your kitchen, coaching you as you chop your vegetables and fry your fish, could produce significant mental health benefits by making you more mindful of your experiences.”

While this hands-on therapy experience sounds like it could have some benefits, that’s not the kind of cooking therapy we’re talking about here.

Instead, we’re simply talking about the therapeutic and rejuvenating effects of cooking your own meals. It starts with cooking confidence, or confidence in your own skills to be able to prepare your own meals and feed yourself. But after that, cooking your own food can dramatically improve your overall health because it will lead you to make healthier food choices.

The report goes on to explain a study that involved cooking interventions that resulted in “helping individuals prepare their meals with less sodium, sugar, and fat and higher amounts of fiber.”

In other words, the food you make at home will be healthier and you have the added benefit of building your cooking expertise and gaining a sense of personal satisfaction with each and every meal you prepare. No restaurant meal can offer you that!

The link between diet and brain health

As you may know, brain health is very closely linked to your diet. Consuming healthy fats such as olive oil, fish, and avocado is necessary for a healthy brain. Adequate balanced nutrition in the form of carbs, fiber, and protein is also vital to overall health and brain functioning.

As Harvard Health puts it, “Nutritionists emphasize that the most important strategy is to follow a healthy dietary pattern that includes a lot of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Try to get protein from plant sources and fish and choose healthy fats, such as olive oil or canola, rather than saturated fats.”

A great meal idea would be a nice filet of salmon grilled and served atop a bed of green, leafy vegetables with a complex carbohydrate such as quinoa on the side. Add some berries and nuts to that salad and you have the perfect meal for brain and heart health!

Because you can control the ingredients, portion size, and menu when you cook your own food, you can take back the reins of your health and improve your mental wellbeing through some healthy dietary changes.

Herald Extra explains it this way: “When you eat better, you feel better. … A variety of studies have found a connection between home cooking and improved mental health. People who cook for themselves may have better self-esteem, less anxiety and depression and increased socialization.”

VeryWellMind also points out the various ways that cooking at home benefits mental health, from supporting a brain-boosting diet to increasing social connections, boosting self-esteem, helping you build a routine, and expanding creativity. Cooking at home offers you an excuse to try new things, fail and succeed, earn a sense of accomplishment, be proud of what you’ve created, and share your experiences with others.

The article states: “Food is meant to be shared, and cooking offers an easy excuse to build community. It can be as simple as hitting up your farmer’s market and chatting with some of the vendors for recipe ideas. … [plus,] the feeling of creating something tangible that others can enjoy can be very gratifying.”

As you can see, cooking meals at home has a wide range of benefits to all the various aspects of your health and wellness. The food you eat affects your mental health, and so does the way it’s prepared (and who does the cooking).

Does eating breakfast really make a difference?

Don’t skip breakfast! It really is the most important meal of the day. Study after study has shown the importance of a balanced, healthy breakfast to start your day off right. But now it also seems that eating breakfast away from home can affect you negatively, too.

A report published in Medical News Today states, “Young people who skipped breakfast or ate breakfast out of the home had higher SDQ scores and a higher likelihood of psychosocial problems. The probability of having psychosocial health problems was higher for breakfast status (i.e., breakfast or skipping breakfast), followed by breakfast place (i.e. at home or away from home), than for type of food for breakfast.”

This is a big deal! This report shows that there is a link between where you eat breakfast and your overall life wellness levels. Instead of grabbing a sugary, processed breakfast item on the go, take a bit of time in the mornings to eat a nourishing breakfast and connect with the loved ones who share your home.

Some easy-to-make, cost-effective breakfast options include oatmeal, yogurt, fresh fruit, and wholegrain toast with peanut butter. Pair it with a tall, cold glass of unsweetened juice (such as orange or apple juice) to add even more vitamins to the mix.

Can cooking help with depression?

To some, it might seem like simple time spent in the kitchen is not a mentally stimulating activity. It seems boring, basic, or easy. After all, line chefs and domestic helpers are not always viewed highly in society, and they are usually the ones in charge of the cooking chores.

Moreover, in our modern world, many people are depressed. Patients around the world are prescribed antidepressant medications such as Trintellix, Celexa, and Lexapro. These prescriptions can help balance the body’s chemistry and return users to a sense of normalcy if they are struggling through major depressive disorder. Always consult your physician or health care provider before taking any medications.

But aside from prescription drugs, there are other things you can try to get a sense of relief. Believe it or not, making your own meals at home can help to relieve some symptoms of depression. That’s because cooking can help with depression in two ways.

The first is the fact that you are making healthier, more nourishing food and you’re cooking with less unhealthy oils and unnecessary amounts of salt and other seasonings. You can flavor your food to your liking and not make it all in big batches with recipes designed to save time and money while boosting flavor to appeal to a crowd.

The second way that cooking can help with depression is to provide a simple and relatively enjoyable task to start and finish. It might sound silly, but feeling purposeless is a major contributor to depression. If you feel a sense of purpose in cooking your own food and following a recipe, it can help give you a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Trying out a new recipe can help give you something to look forward to and a sense of accomplishment once you’ve completed it. Plus, when you’re done, you end up with a healthy and delicious meal to nourish your mind and body.



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While the above article is based on thorough research, we do not claim to offer a substitute for medical advice from a qualified healthcare provider. The article was written for information and educational purposes only. We aim to provide helpful information to our readers, but cannot provide a treatment, diagnosis, or consultation of any sort, and we are in no way indicating that any particular drug is safe or appropriate for you and your individual needs. To receive professional medical attention, you must see a doctor.