Zen Cooking: How Culinary Endeavors Can Decrease Depression

While I’m visiting my parents in for the holidays, we hosted a dinner party for a couple of neighbors. For the occasion, I cooked my lemon-basil chicken, a Giada de Laurentiis recipe (minus the capers since my Mom is on a low-salt diet). As a side dish, I baked potatoes au gratin, which were a big hit at my friend Jake’s Friendsgiving and at the Thanksgiving dinner I enjoyed with my nephew, sister, and brother-in-law.

Grating two-and-a-half cups of Gruyere cheese takes forever, but when you are either cooking or baking, there’s something about prepping a recipe that is soothing. You see colors come alive, you hear the sound of sizzling olive oil, you smell tantalizing scents like melted butter, you munch on ingredients as you go, seasoning your tastebuds.

“When I’m in the kitchen, measuring the amount of sugar, flour, or butter I need for a recipe or cracking the exact number of eggs, I am in control,” says John Whaite, who won The Great British Bake Off and who has bipolar disorder. “That’s really important as a key element of my condition is a feeling of no control.”

There is even a website devoted to the art of cooking as a means of therapy. And a study from 2017 touts the benefits of cookery: socialization, as well as increased self-esteem and better quality of life. That’s right: Cooking can be a bit of a panacea for depression and stress.

“Preparing a meal is unlike anything I do in the course of a day,” food writer and author of Feeding the Hungry GhostEllen Kanner told Psychology Today. “It’s a nourishing, centering act that gets me to slow down and focus.”

After the dinner party, the aromas wafting from the kitchen lingered all night and into the next morning. And I must say, it was, as it is always, a true pleasure to cook for others.

I live alone so I eat a lot of takeout and, if I’ve gone to the store, pears and bananas. I don’t like cooking for one because I like sharing my culinary creations with others.

Cooking is kind of like practicing yoga: It’s filled with all kinds of techniques that make you feel marvelous. The ritual of dicing the onion, cracking the eggs, squeezing the lemon juice, marinating the steak, salting and peppering the chicken is a passion for me in the same way that music is a passion.

Being deeply absorbed and laser-focused on slicing the ingredients or sauteéing the vegetables is remedial. You’re creating something unique and, when dinner is served, you feel a sense of accomplishment. You’ve created something! And it feels great!

I use all fresh ingredients including fresh herbs; rarely do I cook with dry spices. I like labor-intensive, time-consuming recipes I can savor, just like I can savor the food. They may take longer but they always turn out better. I’ve often said that a home-cooked meal is more pleasurable than going to a restaurant because you can serve the food at the perfect temperature and you can take pride in what you’ve made.

Last week, I made another poultry dish just for Mom and Dad: Moroccan chicken with couscous.The couscous had the obligatory raisins plus dried pineapple, which I included to give it a Hawaiian flair. It was a bit on the bland side, so next time I’m going to use the optional cayenne pepper. Cooking can sometimes be trial and error, but it is definitely tranquilizing.

If you’ve got some free time or just want to pick up a new hobby, try cooking. Free your mind, free your soul, challenge your palate, and don’t forget to leave room for dessert.

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