Reading: Can You Cook Yourself Happy?

Mind Health

Can You Cook Yourself Happy?

Chopping manages anger. Stirring teaches patience. Meatballs can start a meaningful discussion.

By Debra Borden, LCSW

Eggs on a counter ready to cook yourself happy
Photo by Gaelle Marcel

Imagine this: What if every time you prepared a meal, snack, or even a sandwich, you could also clarify a relationship issue, explore a baffling behavior, or change a communication style?

What if you could do it all in your own kitchen and for no more than the price of a meal?

What if, in your busy day, you could get that entrée of grilled salmon with a side of self-esteem?

In these days of tablets and tech, emails and electronics, healing through food may be the new Prozac. So, ice the hot yoga, delay the detox, kick the kava to the curb, and explore this trendy new way to improve your life. Cooking therapy is my jam (pun intended), and as a therapist, I’ve been cooking with clients for years. In food terms, this experiential therapy gets five stars for ambiance, affordability, and customer satisfaction. And the clinical evidence is mounting.

At www.culinaryarttherapy.com, Julie Ohana, an MSW and pioneer in ‘CAT,’ uses her cooking therapy sessions to help clients gain insight and increase communication skills. She writes, “…cooking can provide the opportunity to be mindful, aware and learn how to make good choices for yourself and those around you.” Washington Post reporter Jeanne Whalen, who until 2018 reported on cooking therapy for the Wall Street Journal, describes the modality as “…a way to focus your mind on something positive, curb negative thinking and boost confidence.” And an article in the Huffington Post goes even further, exclaiming that “Culinary Therapy can change your life!”

Confidence? From cooking? Yes. I notice the pride boost at the end of every cooking therapy session. It’s an easy way to script mastery into every day. Many of us give so much mental airtime to our failures that we offer surprisingly little applause for our triumphs. I still remember the time I lost an election in middle school. But multiple accomplishments since then? Not so much. Often, women especially report feeling that self-celebration is egotistical or unladylike. The concrete mastery in cooking therapy is tangible and not easily dismissed. So, sift flour. Add water. Stir together.
We might end up with bread. Or a sense of ourselves. Maybe both.

But what if you hate to cook?

I hear you. Some of us may already have a spiritual connection to the process. Buddha said, “When you prepare your own food you give to the food and the food gives back.” But if you’re not feeling it, take heart. You need not be a foodie or the next Bobby Flay to love CAT. You can do it while tossing together a salad or scooping ice cream.

Think of it this way: I can’t draw. Everything I draw looks like it came from a four-year-old. But I can do art therapy because I can draw my pain, frustration, or joy. Cooking therapy works the same way.
This video demonstrates a session using five ingredients — watch for the surprise at the end.xt

As you’ll see, CAT employs a liberal use of metaphor, equal parts purpose and process, a pinch of mindfulness, and a full cup of mastery. Similar in creative expression to art therapy or equine therapy but less expensive and more accessible, cooking therapy is one therapy you can and should try at home!

What is a Sous Therapist?

I first stumbled onto cooking therapy while working for the state, delivering counseling to clients in their homes. These clients were frequently unwilling to engage face to face but became self-reflective while playing games, walking, and eventually, while cooking. Studies now show that experiential modalities don’t replace, but can augment traditional talk therapy. In fact, the entrepreneur Steve Jobs preferred “walking meetings” to sitting across from employees or colleagues at a desk. He discovered that everyone was more creative and solution-focused without eye contact. He wasn’t alone. This method was endorsed by Aristotle, Freud, Dickens, and Harry S. Truman.

Now entering the mainstream, cooking therapy is being incorporated into treatment centers for psychiatric and substance disorders. A May 2018 story in the New York Times called “The Doctor is Cooking” reports that physicians recognize “…the kitchen may also be a way to encourage self-care, through the mindfulness inherent in food preparation.”

At CRC Health, a national mental health and addiction organization, cooking therapy is used to treat anxiety, depression, even autism. They assert, “Cooking can be therapeutic for a diverse group of people (and) can provide stress relief, improved self-esteem, and an increase in planning and organizational skills, among others.”

Most celebrity chefs acknowledge the Zen of food preparation. Rachael Ray states, “You know, food is such — it’s a hug for people” and Wolfgang Puck compares cooking to writing or painting. Thomas Keller advises young chefs, “Patience and Persistence. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.” Seems like more than roasting is at work. In her article “Cooking Up Mental Health” for Psychology Today, Linda Wasmer Andrews reports that culinary therapy can also help couples. “Cooking together can spur communication and cooperation.” For another example of this, view my recent appearance on The Scripps Network show, The List TV.

Every Mistake in the Kitchen is an Opportunity for Growth

Cooking therapy treats situational issues as well as emotional ones. My clients sometimes identify the source of their deepest feelings accidentally. That’s where I can draw on the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy such as mirroring or reframing, to reflect, highlight negative self-talk, or elicit insight. For example:

Jenna* was a teen who was struggling with her parents’ divorce. Her dad and his new wife had just had a baby and Jenna was acting out in school and at home. Despite my best efforts she continuously expressed that everything was “fine.” Then, while using her hands to blend ground turkey for meatballs, she blurted out, “this is what I’d like to do to my new baby sister!”

My response? “Tell me more.” Meatballs became an unlikely tool for opening up our discussion.

Donna*, a middle-aged woman experiencing a persistent malaise she couldn’t name, accidentally added flour instead of sugar to the butter we were creaming for a cake. Trying unsuccessfully to scoop it out and obviously frustrated, she suddenly looked up and announced, “This is exactly like my marriage. It’s terrible and I can’t fix it.”

There are no failures in cooking therapy. That bread that didn’t rise? Might make some damn fine crackers or pita. Cookies too hard? Crumble them over yogurt! Just as the Chinese sign for CRISIS is made up of two smaller signs, Danger and Opportunity, you too can turn a setback into an opportunity that makes reinvention not only possible but exciting.

Four Basic Analogies

    1. Chopping works well for anger, mincing too. Both can be very diagnostic. (Hmm, you made every piece exactly the same size!)
    2. A slow and constant stirring while waiting for a sauce or pudding to thicken can be used as an intervention for patience and calm.
    3. Cracking eggs? Perhaps you can set your intent to grow in a new way.
    4. Preheating the oven? Come on, use your imagination.

Titles Do Matter

Naming the recipes is an essential part of cooking therapy. The process helps cement the session. You are more likely to remember “You are NOT an Icebox cake” than “refrigerator roll.” And “Tune-in and Talk to me Tacos” says it all. I’ve also used “Life is Sweet and Sour Meatballs,” “Masterbaketion,” and lately, with a nod to the #metoo movement, I’ve been chopping up a lot of sausages for “Girl Power in a Pan.”

The Power of Unplugging

Cooking therapy is versatile; you can do it alone, as a couple, with kids, or with a group of friends. Don’t underestimate the benefit of the disconnect. Therapists are seeing anxiety and stress in record numbers. FOBO (fear of being offline) and OCS (On-call syndrome) are real and have negative effects on our internal sense of peace. PAS (partially aware syndrome) describes being physically present but only partially aware (you know, it’s that family in the restaurant, all on phones, or concert-goers videoing the band rather than enjoying the music).

Cooking therapy can be an antidote to our over-wired brains

  1. Francine Gingras

    Cooking at the end of a word day alwats brought back zen into my life. It got me ready to face the evening shift of parenthood.

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