Many of us did it unknowingly in lockdown: turned to cooking to assuage the anxiety of the unknown. While I didn’t start baking bread, I did learn every type of pasta recipe conceivable and attempted – a few times – the perfect parmigiana. Grilling 30 pieces of aubergine was a way to kill the time (the endless expanse of time) but it was also a distraction from the thoughts that I, like many of us, was having: Will I lose my job? Will I give someone in my family COVID? When will lockdown end? We didn’t know the answers. But we could more or less control the outcome of what we were putting in the oven, which is why cooking became a collective panacea.
When lockdown ended, some people began cooking less, eating in restaurants more (if they could afford it) or just busying themselves with other things. I started cooking more. This has become something of a joke among my friends and with my partner: my "elaborate meals for one". I will wake up, leaf through a recipe book, find what I want to make, go out and buy the stuff and make a dish that takes three hours to prepare (often just for myself). I don’t do it because I am indulgent (although I am). I do it because it is the best possible treatment I have found for my mental health – specifically anxiety and intrusive thought obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I only fully comprehended this when I recently read this line in the book Hunger by Roxane Gay: "Cooking reminds me that I am capable of taking care of myself and worthy of taking care of and nourishing myself."
For me, the physicality of making something in the kitchen allows me to step outside of my head, out of cycles of self-critical or repetitive thoughts. (Rolling pasta works best.) It is soothing. When it goes right, it is rewarding – it makes me feel, if even on a small scale, like I have achieved something that day and gives me permission to praise myself, an experience that is more valuable during a period of intense self-flagellation. When it goes wrong – which it quite often does since I am incapable of properly following a recipe – cooking teaches me that I can’t be in control all of the time. That creative failure is to be expected is a lesson I can take back to the rest of my life and to my work as a writer – the main cause of self-flagellation and not necessarily the best job for someone with OCD, given that it necessitates being alone all day in my thoughts.
As a society we often talk about "comfort food" – how a ramen or a Dr. Oetker pizza (it’s the Speciale for me) cheers us up after a long day. We talk about "brain food" – smart foods and nutrients. We talk about wellbeing diets – the acai bowl that’s meant to make you feel better about yourself. Rarely do we talk about how preparing meals might benefit our mental health. Food sustains us. It’s an expression of culture and a means of connectivity. It’s how we host. But what if making food could also be universally understood as a way to improve our wellbeing? Unlike exercise, or what we eat, right now it’s not.
Perhaps one reason is a lack of research in the area. "An important focus of cooking research to date has been on cooking’s association with nutrition and dietary quality," reads a 2021 paper on the subject. It summarises that less focus has been placed on how cooking itself might foster the qualities that mitigate psychosocial distress and promote wellbeing. While research is slim, a 2018 review article in the journal Health Education & Behavior explained how cooking has been found to improve self-esteem and psychological wellbeing while decreasing anxiety. As further evidence of this, a handful of therapists now offer "culinary therapy" as a treatment for anxiety – like art therapy, but with gastronomy.
Without wanting to sound like Jamie Oliver, or throw cooking onto the scrap heap of self-care rituals that place way too much pressure on us to self-optimise, the mental health benefits of cooking are under-explored.
Paola Casotti Cook, a psychotherapist and psychodynamic counsellor working in London, agrees that for some of her clients, cooking can very much help with mental health issues. "Cooking is grounding," she says, "in that – as much as it is also a way to express your creativity – it can help us stay in the here and now. The grounding side of the cooking process gives us a sense of control," she explains. "So if you feel particularly anxious, out of control, panicky, can’t think straight or are catastrophising, following a recipe or cooking something pushes you to think more realistically and feel more present."
It’s not just anxiety or OCD where it can be a help, she adds. "When there’s a problem with decision-making, cooking may help as you have to plan and then act without necessarily knowing the outcome." For addictive thoughts, cooking can provide distraction and structure, and for those experiencing negative thoughts, it can help gain a sense of achievement and purpose, even if in the smallest way. Plus, for people experiencing grief, it may help you connect to a grandparent or parent, she explains.
When it comes to OCD specifically, I’ve learned that coping mechanisms are important and so are replacement rituals. During a very bad mental health episode in 2015 I discovered exercise, specifically running, as a way to switch off my brain. It helped, as has medication, but over the last few years cooking has overtaken exercise as my go-to home treatment – probably because I enjoy it more. That’s relevant, says Paola, who suggests that there probably has to be a basic interest, enjoyment and inclination towards cooking for it to be a salve not a stressor – and that it may be most effective if you’re able to find space to use it to take time for yourself (as opposed to, say, cooking as a carer). Paola also caveats that, while cooking may help many people, it won’t work for everyone. For instance, some people living with eating disorders may find it builds a more positive relationship with food, while others with eating disorders may feel more ambivalent. "You have to investigate the person and make an assessment," she says.
If cooking was a balm for many of us during the pandemic, it may not be as accessible during the looming cost of living crisis. Inflation means food prices are rising, along with the gas and electricity needed to turn on the oven. Research shows that the number of people in the UK struggling to buy food went up by 57% between January and April this year, and one in seven households have cut back on food or skipped meals in the last month. A lot of people don’t have access to enough food generally, let alone the privilege of cooking for their mental health. And with a lack of concrete government support to enable people to access food, the internet and especially TikTok is proliferating as an open source manual for how to cook meals for under £5, or offering hacks to make your own food cheaper than takeaways or what you can buy in the supermarket. As Paola suggests, for those who can, cooking might be a way to dispel financial anxiety or regain some autonomy when so much is out of our control: planning what you will spend or how you will use what is in the back of the fridge, or how you might host at home rather than going out.
Without wanting to evangelise, or sound like Jamie Oliver, or throw cooking onto the scrap heap of self-care rituals that place way too much pressure on us to self-optimise, the mental health benefits of cooking are under-explored – not just by scientists and psychologists but by all of us. I truly believe there are a lot of people out there who, like me, might discover it helps – even if just a little – to alleviate the symptoms of conditions like anxiety and OCD. Unfortunately for my mental health, I will probably always be a writer of some kind but when I am in the kitchen, chopping a tomato, I can at least escape into the fantasy of one day becoming a chef or opening my own restaurant. The irony, of course, is that I could never handle the stress.