How Cooking Can Help Relieve Stress

Making a home-cooked meal is a great way to ensure you’re getting the proper nutrients and nourishment you need. But what might not be as obvious is that cooking (or baking) can also be an effective way to relieve stress. It’s an opportunity to be creative, stimulate the brain, and even connect to the people (or places) you aren’t able to visit.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a master chef, simply stepping into the kitchen can be a nourishing experience for both your body and mind. Below are a few tips and recipes to help get you started. 

Get your hands dirty

The sights and smells of an active kitchen are a great way to engage all of your senses. Whether you’re chopping ingredients, listening for a pot of water to boil, or catching a whiff from something inside the oven, this sensory experience is an effective way to temporarily detach from the rest of the world around you.

It is less important what you make or even what ingredients you use, but it can be helpful to prepare even a portion of your meal. Simply cutting up a fruit or vegetable allows you to engage with the ingredients you’re working with. For some, chopping can even be meditative, and if that’s the case don’t be afraid to chop, slice, and dice extra ingredients so you can snack along while you cook.

Emotional release

For many, food carries an emotional connection. It’s a way to celebrate special occasions, observe cultural practices, or even serve as a comfort in sickness or mourning. Because cooking engages our senses, it has the ability to activate memories. The smell of a dish might remind you of your grandmother’s house, or perhaps your favorite restaurant or vacation. Allowing yourself to be immersed in these memories as you cook is a therapeutic way to relieve stress and boost your mood.

Cooking together with your family is also a great way to bond and make new memories. It allows you to interact with people in a new way and can be a fun activity to pass the time. However, don’t be afraid to call the kitchen your domain. If you find inviting additional cooks into the kitchen is a stress inducer, then it’s OK to say so. Cooking can be a therapeutic and personal experience and it’s important to do what works best for you. 

Get creative

Whether it’s experimenting with an original dish or recreating a favorite with new ingredients, try to get creative. The next time you go to the grocery store, choose a fruit or vegetable you’ve never used before and look up ways you could prepare it. Getting creative is a great way to release stress and stimulate different parts of the brain.

Right now, many people are experimenting with new ways to prepare legumes. This versatile ingredient can be used in a number of sweet or savory dishes. If you’re looking for a recipe to try, what about making dark chocolate hummus

Cook what makes you happy

While there is value in a nutrient rich meal, not everything you cook has to be “healthy.” Prepare meals you’re excited and interested in making. If you’re only picking dishes you know you won’t enjoy, what is supposed to be a stress-releasing activity can quickly turn into a draining, overwhelming exercise.

Don’t forget, though, almost every dish can be modified. For example, you could exchange pasta noodles for spaghetti squash. By slightly tweaking old family recipes, you can keep that emotional connection while giving them a nutritional bump.

Simple dishes to help get you started

Don’t let a fear of failure keep you out of the kitchen. Cooking a meal is a rewarding and stimulating experience everyone can take part in. If you’re worried because you’re a novice chef, start with meals that only include a handful of ingredients (think five). If you often become overwhelmed, try reading though the recipe and measure/chop/prepare everything that’s needed before you start mixing them together. Just remember, there is a recipe for everyone!

Need a few recipe ideas? Try one of the following dishes:

Right now, Dana-Farber’s Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living is also hosting weekly live cooking demos Wednesdays at 1:15pm. These webinars will cover how to shop, plan, and make new recipes, along with nutrition tips for eating well in challenging times.

This article was written by Hannah Dalpiaz, RD, LDN, senior clinical nutritionist at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center.