Three Ways Cooking Can Improve Mental Health


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In 2020, a study of more than 8,000 U.S. adults revealed that people who ate home-cooked dinners seven nights a week had healthier eating habits than those who only ate them once or twice a week. In fact, Americans spend five times more money ordering dinner for delivery than cooking a home-cooked meal. These are the more familiar reasons why cooking and eating at home can be so beneficial for nutritional and financial health. Growing evidence suggests that cooking at home, and more specifically, cooking together can positively impact mental well-being by increasing confidence in the kitchen, promoting healthy eating habits, and fostering social connections.

“Community-based cooking programs are a reliable solution to promote healthy eating …”

To better understand cooking confidence, it’s important to talk about food literacy. This refers to understanding the impact of our food choices on our health, which plays a crucial role in shaping our outlook regarding nutritional decisions. Research suggests that poor mental health and well-being can lead to lower food literacy and an unhealthy diet. On the other hand, having more confidence in the kitchen is linked to enjoying food more and savoring the experience of eating. Community-based cooking programs are a reliable solution to promote healthy eating and enhance food literacy skills. This approach can encourage people to prepare more nutritious homemade meals, leading to notable improvements in their overall health and well-being.

One group of researchers conducted a 7-week cooking program on 657 healthy Australian adults to assess its impact on behavior around food, mental health, and cooking confidence. The intervention group exhibited significant improvements in cooking confidence and satisfaction, whereas the control group did not show any such improvements. Specifically, the participants stated that they enjoyed cooking more after the program ended, which may explain why they experienced improvements in mood. Therefore, by focusing on building confidence in the kitchen, either by improving cooking or food skills, it is possible to experience greater enjoyment of the eating experience. As a result, individuals with higher cooking confidence are more likely to make better nutritional choices such as prioritizing healthier foods over processed foods.

“Nutrition education programs…are an effective way to improve food literacy and dietary behaviors in low-income communities…”

The purpose of nutrition education programs is to promote dietary change. One way to achieve this is to enhance food literacy skills in areas such as planning, management, selection, preparation, and consumption of healthy foods. To study this, a team of researchers created a free four-week nutrition and cooking program called Food Sensations for Adults (FSA) to help individuals with low-to-middle income from Western Australia improve their food literacy. The program increased scores for planning and management, selection, and preparation domains. Additionally, self-reported fruit and vegetable intake increased significantly, specifically by ¼ serve/day of fruit and ½ serve/day of vegetables on average. Increased consumption of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is associated with greater levels of happiness and mental well-being. These results suggest that FSA is an effective program for improving food literacy and dietary behaviors in low-income communities. While further evidence is needed to understand how food literacy and confidence impacts other communities, these findings reinforce the importance of increasing cooking confidence for improving dietary choices and mental health outcomes.

“…telemedicine culinary coaching is an effective method for teaching home cooking skills … as a coping strategy in times of stress…”

Cooking classes and other community-based cooking activities add a very critical component to mental health – social connectedness. The impact of social restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health and health behaviors is a perfect example of how social connections play a crucial role in mental well-being. Interestingly, a team of researchers found that even virtual cooking classes can improve mental health. To assess the effects of culinary education on home cooking practices, coping strategies, and resilience, a randomized clinical trial was conducted with 28 adults. The intervention involved 12 weekly, one-on-one, 30-minute telemedicine culinary coaching sessions. The intervention group reported a statistically significant higher average use of self-care as a coping strategy compared to the control group. Participants in the intervention group reported using home cooking skills, such as meal planning and time-saving techniques during the pandemic, to cope with the stress. These findings suggest that telemedicine culinary coaching is an effective method for teaching home cooking skills and promoting self-care as a coping strategy in times of stress, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Being able to create a meal from scratch comes with nutritional, mental, and behavioral benefits. Cooking programs demonstrate how learning through observation, interaction and reflection can foster the confidence needed to initiate behavior change. Practicing cooking at home, whether alone or with a group, gives you full control over what you put into your meal, allowing you to avoid unwanted allergens and food triggers that could otherwise be sneaking into processed foods. While more data is needed to fully understand the impact of community cooking programs on long-term dietary habits, these research studies emphasize the importance of practicing cooking skills to increase cooking confidence and promote healthier eating habits. Most importantly, it demonstrates how cooking can be used as a self-care tool by enhancing social connections and reducing stress.

Monica Echeverri holds a Master of Science in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine from the University of Western States and currently works as a food photographer, writer, and recipe developer.

This article was reviewed and approved by Emeran Mayer, MD