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What Is Culinary Therapy & How Can You Practice It at Home? Two Experts Tell All

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At the risk of sounding like a quarantine cliche, I too have turned to baking as a source of comfort. But upon polishing off my third loaf of banana bread in two weeks, it dawned on me that perhaps I was turning to cooking for more than just emotional and physical sustenance. My nightly ritual had started to border on meditative — I began to savor my time spent listening to music and losing myself in chopping, mashing, folding, and mixing. This made me wonder: Is culinary therapy a thing? If so, how does it work exactly?

This revelation led me to Michael Kocet, Ph.D., LMHC, and Julie Ohana, LMSW — two “culinary therapy” professionals who confirmed that cooking can indeed be a form of mindfulness meditation. Both have dedicated their careers to the development and practice of cooking as therapy — Kocet as a department chair at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and Ohana as a practicing culinary art therapist in Michigan.

“It dawned on me that, in the mental health field, we have art therapy, dance therapy, drama therapy, play therapy. Why hadn’t anyone created culinary therapy?” said Kocet, who spearheaded the practice at his university. “There's a lot of research out there that focuses on mindful eating, but people have not focused on mindful cooking.”

Below, find everything you need to know about culinary therapy and “mindful cooking,” plus how to practice it yourself during quarantine and beyond.

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What Is Culinary Therapy?

Kocet actually developed a textbook definition for this budding practice. According to his research, culinary therapy is “the therapeutic technique which uses culinary arts, cooking, gastronomy, and an individual's personal, cultural, and familial relationship with food to address the emotional and psychological problems faced by individuals, families, and groups.”

In other words, “it’s the idea that cooking and baking can provide the lessons and life skills that can help a person,” adds Ohana. “It involves problem solving, time management, communication, teamwork, and my personal favorite, mindfulness. All of these things can help a person become more grounded, happier, less anxious, and so much more.” When practiced frequently and in combination with mindful eating, culinary therapy can also offer individuals a sense of accomplishment and improved self-esteem.

How Do You Practice Culinary Therapy?

Like any mindfulness practice, culinary therapy is about living in the present moment. “Your mind shouldn’t be wandering to all your worries, your job, the state of the world — it’s about being present in the here and now, and appreciating the ingredients and flavors you’re creating,” explains Ohana.

Since cooking requires your full mental and physical attention, losing yourself in the process is surprisingly easy. “You can practice with something as simple as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” Kocet explains. “Don’t rush through it — slow down and pay attention to the act of spreading the peanut butter and jelly on the bread, cutting the sandwich in half, and putting it on a plate. Pay attention to the feeling of the knife in your hand, how it feels to slice through the bread — every step.”

It’s also important to read through the recipe in its entirety and prepare all of the ingredients beforehand. This is a culinary concept known as “mise en place,” which is French for “everything in its place.” “Mise en place can help eliminate some of the stress associated with cooking,” explains Kocet, who was introduced to the concept when taking classes at the Culinary Institute of America. “If you have all your ingredients chopped, measured, and ready to go, you won’t be running around the kitchen trying to find things. This centers the cook and makes for a more therapeutic experience. After that, it’s just about putting the pieces together and stirring.”

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Applying Cooking Lessons Outside of the Kitchen

Cooking graduates from a mindfulness practice to a form of therapy when you’re able to apply the lessons learned in the kitchen to your personal life. “I use a lot of cooking metaphors with my therapy patients and clients — you can transfer so many principles to life experiences,” notes Kocet.

Take mise en place, for example. At its core, it’s about breaking a task up into smaller chunks so it’s not as overwhelming. “This concept can be applied to many things in life, like procrastination,” he explains. “People often procrastinate because of fear or feeling overwhelmed, so by breaking it into manageable chunks, it can help reduce that anxiety.”

Cooking can also shape our approach to failure and setbacks. “If I were with a patient who cooked something that didn’t turn out well, I would encourage them to look at the experience not as a failure, but an opportunity for growth,” notes Kocet. “This applies to everything in life. It’s important to think about what you can learn from a negative situation, or what you can do differently next time, rather than seeing it as a colossal failure.”

Tips for Practicing Mindful Cooking at Home

Whether you’re a seasoned mindful chef or a cooking novice, there are many ways to set the stage for a successful self-guided culinary therapy session. Heed Kocet and Ohana’s expert tips below:

  1. Pick a simple recipe with ingredients that you are familiar and comfortable with. Even chopping some vegetables for a salad can be a great place to start.
  2. Set the stage for a positive experience. Make sure you have enough free time and space, and prep ingredients beforehand to reduce stress. You don’t even have to serve your dish to anyone but yourself if that eliminates anxiety.
  3. Remember to have fun! Let yourself get creative; it’s not about perfection. Put on some music and enjoy yourself.
  4. Always pat yourself on the back for trying. When you end up with a dish that’s just okay, make it again. Try new things, take small risks, and practice.
  5. When quarantine is over, consider sharing your dishes with friends and loved ones. Sit down together and enjoy the moment. Be proud of your hard work and effort.
  6. After cooking mindfully, slow down and eat mindfully, too. Enjoy your food and the flavors. Take time to smell your meal and savor each bite.
  7. Honor the cooking process by doing the dishes by hand afterwards. This can become a mindful, enjoyable practice as well.
  8. Remember that it’s impossible to cook and eat every single meal mindfully — and that’s okay. Acknowledging that you’re stress-eating or scarfing down a meal is still mindful eating.