COOKING AS THERAPY – Rediscovering the Joys of Cooking

FYI looks at how cooking can be more than just a meal on the table, especially in the days of the Pandemic.

By: Tanvir Ahsan

A lot of us have been cooking these days. Some of us have been doing it because in the early days of the lockdown we didn’t really have a choice. Others, because even with the lockdown easing, we find we suddenly have a lot more time than we did. Hence, the discovery of hidden masterchefs within us, and the perfectly captured / hashtagged pictures on social media.

Cooking is given many avatars – an art, a profession, a passion and so on. But it is also therapy. At least that is what I have rediscovered recently. More than being my profession and even passion, I recognize cooking as one of my most treasured therapeutic measures out there. One that, as a food lover, I wish more and more people would embrace. Because it is a myth that you have to know and love cooking in order to utilize cooking as therapy. I think what is really needed instead is an open mind.

For it is my belief, and bear with me while I walk with you through my interpretation, that cooking can soothe jangled nerves, cure boredom, and even help alleviate insomnia and anxiety. In its purest form, cooking is so soothing because it encourages creativity.

“Cooking is a great de-stressor because it serves as a creative outlet,” says Debbie Mandel, author of “Addicted to Stress.” “And while stress can numb your senses, cooking activates them. It’s a sensory experience with aroma, taste, touch, visual delight and even sizzling sound.”

Psychiatrist Carol Lieberman agrees and adds that cooking makes people feel good because it’s a way for them to nurture others. “If you’re cooking for people you care about, you get nurtured by their appreciation,” she says. “Cooking is like giving birth because you are mixing things together to create something new and wonderful.”

If that sounds too ‘new age-y’ then how about this: cooking offers a way to feel better about life because it offers immediate gratification. That, and it’s one of the most honest pieces of work. And for many who indulge in this theory, the process of cooking helps clear their minds and makes them feel like they’re in control, in a world and life that otherwise feels increasingly out of control. Marion Burros, author of ‘Cooking for Comfort’, claims: “for some people it is not just the act of eating the meat loaf or lemon meringue pie that is soothing; it is the act of cooking them. Taking time to put something together offers concrete proof of effort. Cooking takes a certain amount of concentration; it’s hard to think of the complex and sometimes frightening problems of the day over which you have no control when you have to think about something over which you actually can exercise control – what you are doing right now. There is something magical about the process of transforming raw, solitary ingredients into a savory amalgamation of flavor, smell, taste, texture, and color.”

That, and during the process, even for a brief while, it is possible to forget, about less than pleasant aspects of life.

What is most important to remember however is that individuals cook for a multitude of reasons which are influenced by individual, societal and cultural attitudes. And the best thing about embracing cooking as therapy is to recognize this and treat it as an individualistic measure and not foist it upon as herd like view on everyone en-masse. For example, for some individuals, cooking is done as a leisure activity, while for others, in some cultures, it is a means of bringing people together, as it is an important part of cultural and religious celebrations. And for most housewives, cooking is an integral part of their primary productivity role.

So for someone who is expected to cook everyday because they have to, not necessarily because they have a choice – can cooking still be considered therapeutic? Especially when you have to not only get out pans, bowls, mixers et al but also have to clean and put them away again? It may not always be possible, but if you can, on difficult days, have your partner look after the children while you cook, close the kitchen door and tell your family not to disturb you, forget multi-tasking and just allow yourself enjoy cooking your favorite meal, then maybe it does become possible. This applies to those who don’t enjoy cooking at all in the first place even – just block out everything one day, allow yourself to create a nice ambience for yourself and try your hand at something. Even however simple a dish, a happy cook is almost always a good cook.

This kind of thought process of course works even better for those who don’t otherwise integrate cooking as a part of their daily routine. For these individuals, when the world beyond your kitchen is in chaos, you can create a zen-filled oasis, where chaos does not reign. In the kitchen, we can create harmony, order, wellness, the antithesis of everything in your lives that stresses and exhausts you.

All said and done, cooking has therapeutic value – physically, cognitively, socially and interpersonally and there’s a growing set of people out there who recognize this and offer it as actual therapy.  A general template for a brochure for a cooking program would essentially offer the following: physically, cooking requires strength in the shoulders, fingers, wrists, elbow, neck, as well as good overall balance. Adequate muscle strength is needed in upper limbs for lifting, mixing, cutting and chopping.

Furthermore, sensory awareness is important in considering safety while dealing with hot and sharp objects. The therapist can select recipes that provide the client with increasing challenges as their physical abilities improve. Cooking also requires problem solving through cognitive integration. Cooking can teach and enhance the skills of sequencing, time management, versatility, memory, attention and concentration. Sequencing involves planning, organizing and understanding how and in what order to carry out the required steps.

Time management is needed to allow completion of a task within a given time frame. Versatility is important in modifying recipes and techniques once the basic skills are acquired. Concentration is needed, as the complexity of new recipes increases and lastly, memory is important in remembering the sequence of steps, how to carry them out, time limits, and safety issues, while keeping in mind the end product of the activity. Cooking can also tap in to intrapersonal skills such as self-esteem, competence, and insight into one’s own abilities by providing a sense of accomplishment in creating a satisfying meal. Furthermore, cooking enables an individual to expand their social networks by hosting and attending social gatherings.

So whichever category you fall under, take a leap of faith at least once, and see for yourself if cooking can provide you a detox, distress therapeutic activity. At the most you won’t revisit the notion. But if it does interest you, I can assure you, you will keep going back for more and then some.