Cooking Can Be Therapeutic: How Culinary Arts May Improve Mental Health And Self-Care

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated February 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

For many people, cooking is simply a means of getting the proper nutrition daily, which is essential for almost everyone. However, preparing food can also act as therapy that may help you live in the present moment. It could involve making your favorite meals and enjoying them with loved ones, or it might mean following a diet recommended by a healthcare provider. However you go about it, cooking therapy—with the help of a licensed mental health professional—may help ease symptoms of several mental health conditions and provide you with an interesting creative outlet.

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What is cooking therapy?

Cooking therapy, also called culinary or kitchen therapy, is a therapeutic technique that mental health professionals sometimes recommend. It combines the culinary arts, gastronomy, and personal, cultural, or familial relationships with food to tackle emotional and psychological challenges. It has gained popularity as an alternative or complementary approach to traditional mental health treatment methods.

Often, cooking provides an opportunity for self-expression, personal growth, exploration, and increased self-esteem. Creative projects in the kitchen can help promote behavioral activation and goal-oriented behavior, which can help people curb procrastination and other mental blocks.

As self-care, cooking therapy may help improve overall mental well-being in several ways.

For example, people may experience a sense of accomplishment, focus, and mindfulness while cooking. By working with food, individuals can connect to cultural roots and family memories, which may boost comfort and belonging.

The link between cooking and mental health

Cooking has long been considered a therapy that may offer many physical and mental health benefits of creating a meal. One systematic review found that cooking interventions, such as community-based cooking classes, can improve mood, social isolation, and symptoms of depression.

Mental health experts have also suggested that cooking can help reduce anxiety and relieve mental distress. Turning to the kitchen may allow for behavioral activation and serve as a meaningful self-care activity that improves quality of life.

When you include cooking as a regular activity, you can improve your body's health with good food and your mind's health by feeling proud and in charge. Knowing how vital cooking is for a healthy mind, let's explore the benefits of cooking therapy.

How cooking therapy might help you

Acts as a form of self-care

Cooking can often be a healing hobby that helps you focus on caring for yourself. Preparing tasty and healthy meals can show kindness and love toward yourself. After a busy day, for instance, preparing and enjoying a home-cooked meal can help people feel refreshed and satisfied. 

Supports connections with others 

Eating with friends and family can help build connections and deepen bonds. Cooking as a group may improve this by offering everyone a cooperative and enjoyable activity. For example, having a weekend potluck where each person brings a dish they made can promote togetherness and help make lasting memories.

Provides an avenue for better health

Home cooking may give you greater control over what goes into your meals and cooking improves the flavor of food, which can help you stay healthy. By using whole, nutritious ingredients, you might improve the health of yourself and others. For instance, experimenting with a new recipe with colorful veggies and lean protein might be a fun way to focus on eating well.

Stimulates physical activity

While cooking meals is less physically demanding than a workout, it requires you to be up on your feet and moving around the kitchen. Chopping, mixing, and cleaning up may help break up sedentary habits. Consider making homemade pasta, for example. You’ll need to knead the dough by hand and carefully roll it out with a rolling pin before you shape it into noodles or ravioli. 

This physical activity can also help give your body and brain a break from the day's stresses. As you focus on the task, you may become more relaxed and energized after meal preparation.

Promotes goal-oriented behavior

Setting and achieving culinary goals can help build confidence and a sense of accomplishment. 

Whether learning a new cooking technique or mastering a challenging recipe, these achievements may motivate you to pursue personal growth. For instance, setting a weekly goal to try one new recipe can help increase proficiency and satisfaction.


Adding cooking therapy to your life

Choosing between baking and cooking

While they may both be therapeutic, cooking and baking usually offer different benefits and processes. Cooking may allow for more creativity and self-expression, as you can experiment with various ingredients, flavors, and cooking techniques. Baking often requires dry heat from an oven and is ‌more precise, as it typically follows specific recipes with exact measurements and instructions.

Deciding whether to focus on cooking or baking may depend on your preferences. However, both techniques can be beneficial for increasing goal-oriented behavior that may help promote better mental health.

Choosing dishes to cook

When picking recipes for cooking therapy, it's often necessary to select ones that promote personal growth and spark your imagination. Consider looking for dishes that are challenging enough to make you feel proud but not so complex that they cause stress. Trying new ingredients and methods may also add to the healing power of cooking.

As you make cooking therapy a regular part of your self-care routine, the abilities you gain in the kitchen may help you in other areas of your life. For many people, cooking improves emotional intelligence by helping them combat procrastination and build self-confidence. 

Online therapy platforms

Therapists may recommend integrating some cooking therapy into your treatment plan, especially if cooking interests you. You might work with a therapist in person or in group settings. You may also work with a therapist online who helps you use cooking therapy. For many people, online therapy helps reduce logistical issues common with in-person treatment, like finding transportation and taking time off work.

Often, you may combine cooking therapy with online therapy or other treatment methods. One relatively ubiquitous therapy type is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which involves problem-solving and reframing specific thoughts and feelings more positively. A recent study concluded that online CBT is often as effective as traditional face-to-face CBT.

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Cooking is therapeutic for many people; the culinary arts may serve as self-expression and personal growth while offering much-needed structure and purpose to everyday life. 

Creating something from scratch can be a form of behavioral activation and self-care. It may help individuals to focus on a specific task, momentarily putting aside their worries and curbing procrastination. Cooking can provide a medium for self-expression, as participants can choose recipes, ingredients, and styles that reflect their preferences and cultural backgrounds.

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