The recipe for better mental health could be a home-cooked meal

Stephanie Alexander at the Rouse Hill Town Centre with children from Hebersham Public School.

Stephanie Alexander at the Rouse Hill Town Centre with children from Hebersham Public School. Photo: AAP

Those who make the kitchen their sanctuary may be onto something, with recent studies indicating that preparing a home-cooked meal can also improve mental health.

A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found those who frequently participate in everyday, creative projects like cooking lead happier lives.

Researchers following 658 people for two weeks found everyday things like cooking and baking made the group more “enthusiastic” about their pursuits the next day.

In another study, UK researchers found baking classes boosted confidence and concentration for 12 patients in a mental health clinic, according to the British Journal of Occupational Therapy.

Australian chef Stephanie Alexander told The New Daily cooking was “challenging and relaxing” and had seen the mental health benefits of children engaged in her Kitchen Garden Foundation program.

“We can talk about expanding children’s palettes, expanding their sense of flavour and textures, but it’s very important in forming new habits of behaviour and it affects them socially too,” Ms Alexander said.

“It’s definitely a stimulating activity for me and I can see with the children the amazing things it does for them.”

University of Canberra clinical psychologist Vivienne Lewis, who researches body image and eating disorders, said cooking could be helpful for people experiencing anxiety and depression.

However, Dr Lewis said cooking was not beneficial to those suffering an eating disorder who try to control what they’re eating. She said people with eating disorders work to control their food consumption and the cooking process was quite stressful from a mental health condition perspective.

Researchers found things like cooking and baking made people more “enthusiastic” about their pursuits the next day. Photo: Getty

“Cooking, looking up recipes, can further an obsession with food, and for that population, is not beneficial,” she said.

However, Dr Lewis said there was a lot of research looking at how any “doing activity”, such as cooking, has great mental health benefits for many people.

“Cooking is about focusing on the here and now and being totally immersed in what you’re doing. It supports what psychologists have always said – don’t focus on the past or the future on what is to come,” she said.

“Doing the right here and now, brings people’s anxiety down, their mood up, along many other mental health benefits.”

University of Canberra nutrition and dietetics assistant professor Nenad Naumovski, who specialises in the psychological effect of different foods, such as how green tea can improve cognition, said we should no longer look at food merely for its nutritional benefits.

“Food is not just about nutrition or to satisfy hunger or nutritional needs. It’s about the whole process of food gathering, pre-preparation and preparation,” Dr Naumovski said.

The former Newcastle chef said society’s interest in food had also changed and attributed renewed interest to cooking programs such as MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules.

“In the 1990s, people would go out to have a meal, would compliment the chef and go home. Nowadays people go to the restaurant, go home and recreate the meal,” Dr Naumovski said.

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