Growing up, I never realized just how lucky I was to have access to good food and a family that took care to provide me with food that was nourishing and wholesome. That was until I got to college and found myself eating Hot Pockets and Easy Mac several times a week. Sometimes, I’d wake up with a hangover and realize I didn’t have any food, or money for McDonalds, and resorted to drinking whey protein for the bulk of the day’s nourishment. From that point on, I relished in the opportunities to have a home-cooked meal.
It wasn’t until later on that I began taking an active role in the preparation of my own food, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I now cook 2-3 big meals a week and have more or less sworn off fast food. After almost a year of cooking regularly, here are the effects I’ve noticed.
I’m more patient
Good things take time, and if you cut corners while cooking, you’re only doing yourself a disservice. When I first started on this journey, I’d put a roast in the oven and just stare at it. I wanted it to be done NOW. But with each successful and (more often) unsuccessful attempt, I started to pump the brakes. My Dad, who also loves to cook, says it best: “you have to let the food do its thing sometimes”. You can’t stir things too much, for example, or the food will start to break down and turn to mush. Cooking is a science as much as it’s an art, and you only have so much control over the chemical processes going on in the oven or on the stove. All you can do is facilitate the change and wait for the outcome.
I have more energy
By delaying gratification, we become more involved in the process (cooking) rather than the outcome (food). Through this process-oriented approach, we are more readily able to experience the flow state, which is often characterized by a sustained, energized level of focus. In addition, cooking serves as a behavioral therapy technique.
Behavioral activation is a mechanism employed by therapists to break cycles of depression, which are characterized by low activity levels and consequently feelings of low motivation. The basic idea is that by initiating positive action, the process can be reversed so that motivation increases (1). If you want to start feeling better, you have to DO something, even if you don’t want to.
Whenever I get home and feel like melting into the couch and watching reruns of Family Guy, I remind myself of this principle. Even the simplest recipes have a big impact on my state of mind.
I have more free time
Contrary to what you might believe, cooking gives me more time to get things done. By entering the flow state during the process of cooking, I’m able to slow things down and take a few moments to be completely present with the task at hand, be it chopping, sautéing, or blending. This is consistent with research showing that flow state is accompanied by decreased activity in parts of the brain that perceive time. If you have experience meditating, running, skiing, or playing music, you probably already know what I mean. Time becomes a non factor when you become completely absorbed in activities that require skill and interest, and cooking is no different.
My self-image has improved
Cooking is much more than just food preparation; it’s self-care. Each time you prepare a meal for yourself that takes time and effort, you’re not just preventing starvation. You’re also secretly telling yourself “I am worthy of this effort. I deserve to eat well.” Think about how that self-dialogue might compound over time.
Personally, I’ve noticed that this type of self-talk makes me more likely to do other things to take care of my mental and physical well-being (more on that in another post), whereas before I might not have seen a reason to bother.
My relationships are stronger
Cooking with other people is both challenging and uniquely rewarding. People take on certain roles in the kitchen that reflect the roles we play in life. My sister and I, for example, cook well together. But it hasn’t always been this way. When we first started, I’d get angry with her for not knowing how to do things that I thought were obvious. I didn’t want to have to explain anything to her, I just wanted her to know how to do it. Luckily, she had thick skin from growing up with me, and I soon realized I was being a total douche. Over time, I’ve become more mindful of how I act towards her, and I’ve grown more patient with her outside of the kitchen too.
This is the most profound effect in my opinion. There’s a very distinct bond you can create with someone by cooking with them. You both understand the end goal very clearly, and the stakes are relatively low. The result is that you’re free to express yourself and take creative risks in an environment where it’s ok to fail, learn, and grow.
Whether you have no experience cooking, or you’ve been doing it five nights a week for the past ten years, these effects are ready for you to experience. Find some quality ingredients, some good friends and a kitchen, and let the rest take care of itself.
(1) “How To Use Behavioral Activation (BA) To Overcome Depression.” Psychology Tools, Psychology Tools, 2 Aug. 2019.