Here's Why Cooking A Huge Meal Can Feel So Therapeutic, According To Science

by Caroline Burke

Have you ever experienced a never-ending, terrible day, and gone home with a desire to cook a massive, bubbling pot of something delicious? Sometimes, whipping up a tasty, beautiful meal feels like the best way to relax, even if it takes a little while to prepare — or, in some cases, especially because it takes a while to prepare. But it's more than just satisfying your appetite with something yummy; cooking can literally feel like a meditation session, even if you're not usually one to experiment in the kitchen. So why, exactly, is cooking so therapeutic?

The first thing you should know is that you're totally not alone at all in feeling this way about cooking. In fact, there's basically a whole field of psychologists and therapists arguing (and proving) how therapeutic cooking can be: The Wall Street Journal reports that therapists are now using cooking courses as an actual strategy to treat depression, anxiety, and other psychological disorders in their patients.

The psychological impact of cooking a meal — whether it's for yourself, or for others — is multifaceted, and it can provide different people with different experiences, Eater reports, from the comforting sense of being in control, to the freedom of expressing creativity in the kitchen.

When you intentionally cook a meal for yourself, you're working on something that's in your control, and that can realistically be accomplished.

This task (though potentially small) can give people a sense of power and agency — one that they might not naturally have on their own in their daily lives outside the kitchen. According to Eater, this sense of accomplishment is well-noted by psychologists, who argue that "cooking and baking are therapeutic because they fit a type of therapy known as 'behavioral activation'."

And what is behavioral activation, exactly? Well, according to the outlet, it's basically all about practicing goal-oriented behavior and avoiding procrastination at all costs — which is why cooking is such an effective strategy here: You can't wait several hours or days to finish the meal you've started. You pretty much have to begin, and complete, the project that is cooking your meal, and even if you wind up hating whatever it is you made, you still accomplished the goal of whipping up some food, all on your own.

In addition to the satisfaction of feeling like you've done something right, cooking can be therapeutic for your creative senses, as well.

According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, people who spend time on creative goals live happier lives than those who don't, and cooking something new or out of your comfort zone totally counts as an act of creativity.

While something like a pottery class might feel a bit daunting to take on, tackling a new recipe in the kitchen (like this coconut curry chicken noodle soup from NYT Cooking) is a type of creative effort that feels a bit more approachable. Think of the most fun recipe you've ever tried: It was probably fun because of how each ingredient added to the recipe in its own unique way, and even if the dish didn't turn out perfectly (I once seriously butchered a vegan cupcake recipe), the journey of making something was probably still pretty satisfying overall.

What's more, when you're putting your creative efforts into a meal, you're essentially killing two birds with one stone: You're satisfying your creative urges, and you're doing something that's technically a necessary part of your day. Look at you, getting things done and living life like a real adult!

Cooking can also be a community-building exercise that helps you feel connected to the people you love.

According to culinary arts expert Michal AviShai, cooking for others satisfies a very instinctual urge to provide. He told Huffington Post,

Giving to others fills us in so many ways. And even more so when it’s cooking because feeding fulfills a survival need, and so our feeling of fulfillment comes not only from the good of the act of giving, but also the fact that we have ‘helped’ in some very primal way. We have given fuel.

This is why it means so much to you when your partner or your best friend surprises you with an amazing home-cooked meal, and why it can feel just as good to do the same for them.

So the next time you've had an absolutely awful day, and all you want to do is go HAM on a massive burrito from Chipotle, consider, instead, making this super simple homemade chicken fajita recipe from Greatist, which will satisfy your Mexican craving, while simultaneously making you feel happier, more creative, and maybe even more connected with the people around you.

OK, maybe one meal won't immediately solve everything — but it will definitely taste delicious and end your day on a better note.