- A new study suggested that cooking classes may support mental health by fostering a sense of community and building confidence in the kitchen.
- Even for participants who didn’t make any dietary changes after the cooking program, they reported seeing mental health improvements.
- Cooking in a group, even if it’s through a virtual classroom, may help ease feelings of isolation.
Cooking classes may offer more than delicious meals. A new study found that participants of a 7-week cooking program gained “cooking confidence” and mental health improvements.
Researchers in Australia conducted this study with 657 adults, who took the healthy cooking course and completed a survey after the program. People who participated in the program saw significant improvements in general health and mental health, compared to the control group.
Participants also reported an increase in cooking confidence, the ability to easily change eating habits, and overcome lifestyle barriers.
“The aim of the program was to help people prepare simple, fresh, healthy food quickly and cheaply, in a fun hands-on setting,” Jo Rees, PhD, lead author of the study, told Verywell.
Researchers suggested that cooking programs could improve nutrition-knowledge outcomes by offering information sessions with nutrition professionals to explain why certain foods are more nutritious than others.
But even for people who did not make any dietary changes after the cooking course, they still reported improvements in mental health. Rees and her team explained that they could not determine if the mental health benefits were related to building cooking confidence or being involved in group social activity, but the results are promising for mental health professionals regardless.
“Sharing and caring for one another through food is common in many cultures and is empowering,” Rees said.
How May Cooking Class Improve Mental Health?
Some culinary instructors and public health advocates have also observed similar mental health benefits when conducting their own cooking and nutrition courses.
Dayna Altman, MPH, founded Bake It Till You Make It, a community-based organization in Boston, to normalize mental health conversations with cooking workshops and demonstrations. She encourages students to talk about something uncomfortable or scary while they’re baking together side-by-side. Food can be an “entry point” toward healing, she said.
“I have had people come to cooking workshops with an interest in learning a new recipe and leave looking for a therapist,” Altman told Verywell. “I also use ingredients as metaphors to talk about more complex emotions and feelings that may be harder to explain.”
Elizabeth Lees, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian with Embark Behavioral Health-Doorways in Phoenix, also uses cooking and nutrition lessons to support her clients in their “recovery journey.”
Lees leads weekly nutrition courses as part of an eating disorder outpatient program, where she teaches participants how to apply nutritional knowledge to their day-to-day life.
“Simply providing a list of meals to follow in a day does that person a disservice as they are not learning those fundamentals of how to cohesively put foods together to build a balanced and tasty meal,” Lees said. “And typically that does not honor someone’s unique taste or cultural preferences.”
She said that cooking classes can offer social and mental health benefits, especially during times of isolation.
“COVID-19 was a prime example of how damaging social isolation can be on mental health. We have seen some of the highest rates ever of depression, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, and other mental health conditions,” Lees said.
Hosting virtual cooking classes is also one way to support mental health during the pandemic.
Gender Differences in Cooking Confidence
In addition to studying mental health benefits, Rees and the study researchers also compared how men and women differed in their responses to questions about cooking confidence.
At the beginning of the cooking course, 77% of the women in the study reported they were confident about cooking, while only 23% of the men responded similarly.
Cooking is still seen as a highly gendered task. A study conducted before the pandemic showed that, globally, women cook more meals from scratch than men. A lack of cooking confidence may be one reason why men tend to cook less than women.
However, Rees and her team found that both men and women in the study showed equal levels of cooking confidence by the end of the 7-week program. The researchers suggested that cooking interventions could help bring “gender balance” to home cooking.
More research is needed on how exactly cooking classes can improve mental health outcomes. Rees is currently working with other researchers to further study the connection between the gut-brain axis, diet, and mental health.
What This Means For You
Cooking may be one way to support your mental health. Contact your local food bank or community center to see if there are any cooking programs in your town or city. You can also look for virtual cooking classes online. However, if you are in need of immediate mental health support, reach out to your healthcare provider for help.