How Cooking Can Help Your Mental Health
New research suggests that cooking may offer mental health benefits.
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There are quite a few benefits to cooking and eating at home—many of which aren’t all that surprising, and some you’re probably familiar with.
Here’s one you definitely already know about: People who eat at home more frequently have a healthier diet overall, according to a 2020 study of more than 8,000 U.S. adults published in the journal Public Health Nutrition. Researchers found that folks who ate a home-cooked dinner seven nights a week had significantly better scores on the Healthy Eating Index than their counterparts who said they cooked dinner at home zero to two nights a week.
You’ll probably save some money if you cook at home, says a 2018 Forbes analysis. When Forbes crunched the numbers, they found that we spend five times more money ordering dinner for delivery than if we were to make a home-cooked meal. What if you’re using a meal kit delivery service? That’s more affordable than a restaurant meal but is still about three times as much as cooking from scratch.
And because cooking at home gives you full control over what you put into your meal, you can avoid allergens, and add or skip ingredients or nutrients you want to eat more or less of (think: tree nuts, gluten, salt, added sugars, saturated fat). See? Plenty of reasons!
This article is part of our ongoing series Eating For Your Mental Health.
A Surprising Reason to Cook at Home More Often
Now, new research shows there’s another benefit — this one is fairly unexpected — to cooking at home: it’s a mood-booster. In a new study, published in March 2022 in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, researchers in Australia found that when people took a cooking course, they improved their cooking skills and confidence, and also boosted their mental health significantly.
What exactly did the researchers measure mental health-wise? Their survey asked participants about how cheerful and optimistic they were, how good did they feel about themselves, how relaxed or confident were they, and did they feel particularly useful?
Overall, this small-ish group of Australian adults (just over 650) completed a seven-week cooking program, and each week’s course was 90 minutes long. The comparison group (aka the so-called control group) were similar adults who were on the waiting list for the same cooking class program, and not yet enrolled. The goal of the cooking course was to teach participants basic cooking skills, efficient food shopping, and how to make a simple meal that was fresh, healthy, and budget-friendly.
For the cooking class group, in addition to their improved mental health, they were also asked about their cooking confidence as it relates to following simple recipes, cooking new foods, tasting new-to-them foods, and whether or not their dish will turn out well. By and large, the feedback was positive.
Why Cooking is Good for Your Mental Wellness
Researchers of this Frontiers in Nutrition study suggested one reason why their findings were so positive for mental wellness: cooking classes are a group activity and social support and camaraderie has already been shown to promote mental health.
Cooking class participants also said that they enjoyed cooking more — for themselves and others — which may explain why the mood-boosting benefits of this study persisted well after the cooking classes concluded.
The Unexpected Non-Benefits of Cooking at Home
What didn’t change, however, after the cooking course was the healthfulness of participants’ diets. The healthy eating scores for veggie and fruit intake, as well as takeout or fast food, was no different between the so-called intervention group (those who took the seven-week cooking class) and the control group (those on the cooking class waitlist).
Other Research is Similar
This isn’t the only study to look at cooking literacy and mental wellness. Other published studies have shown similarly supportive findings. Here are a few examples:
- In Canadian youths, being a part of a so-called “food literacy program” led to positive outcomes for mental wellbeing.
- Poorer mental health and well-being have been associated with lower food literacy and an unhealthy diet. Alternatively, being more confident in the kitchen is linked with enjoying food more and relishing in the experience of eating.
- Taking virtual cooking courses has been found to both teach home cooking skills and improve study participants’ wellbeing.
- A review study of Australian cooking classes showed that despite cooking confidence increasing, overall diet habits weren’t any better.
Learn more about cooking and nutrition for your mental health: