Cooking Up Some Good Mental Health

Hello my little lightbulbs! 

It’s been a while! Between broken laptops, GCSE grading and keeping on top of my own personal development, I’ve not had much time to write! I’ve been handwriting ideas and posts in my journal so fear not – there’s plenty on the way! How’ve you been anyway? What have you been doing/ what are you planning to do this week to nourish your personal growth? 

Interesting that I used the word nourish because today’s focus is ALL about food, glorious, food! (and the benefits of cooking it). 

Organic linguine and vegan ragu with roasted mixed tomatoes – me!

Our body needs food to survive. That’s a fact. So whatever your relationship is with food; if it’s complicated, if you’re high maintenance or if your a culinary player – keep reading.

It’s important to remember, before we get into it, that whatever your relationship is with food- it’s likely to change over time; as we experience new things, learn more about ourselves and naturally change our tastes with age. Remember when you were a kid and you hated cheese or mushrooms or olives? I still hate two of those three, but over time I grew to like eating mushrooms because my tastes changed. Another example is green tea. I’ve had a sweet tooth for as long as I can remember and so I never really liked bitter things. Flash forward to my time in Japan where I’d be offered green tea in every house I visited and I eventually came to like it. Nowadays it’s something I look forward to every morning.

Another reason that our tastes change is mindset. Being told about the benefits of eating/drinking something can really train your brain into helping you enjoy the taste! Perseverance is key. The reason I’m talking about your changing relationship with food is that there may be times when you view food based on it’s colour-coded packaging, calorific content or badness/ dirtiness alone. Just as with the positives, focusing on the negatives of food can develop a more negative relationship with food. Negative associations with food can be a sign of a developing eating disorder so it’s something to keep an eye on. I’ll be mentioning a little about eating disorders in this post, but not in detail; the main point I want to make is that fussy eating is not an eating disorder and reducing them down in that way can be pretty damaging.

One method that I’d recommend for literally anyone to improve their lives, if you have an eating disorder, if you’re feeling low, isolated or like your life is a little out of your control is cooking. It sounds mad I know. How is cooking going to change your life? Well, buckle up and I’ll tell you how!

Some of us hate cooking, some love it and some have never tried it – but it is the best way of getting whatever nutrients you need into your body in the way that your body needs it. Growing up, I had some good cooking role models. My mum has always been a consistent cook. She would home cook most days; alongside juggling me, my sister Beck, the pets and her career. My dad was less prolific in his cooking, but was super skilled. He’d cook the most amazing meals, using every ingredient in the house and every utensil. My mum and Beck always tell me that I’m my father’s daughter when it comes to cooking and I have to admit, I am a messy cook!

I’ve had a lot of time to perfect my chaotic cooking ways, since I’ve been vegetarian for about 8 years now and a very picky eater before that. When I couldn’t have cheese on pizza and the thought of bean juice and tinned tomatoes mixing on a plate knocked me sick, it was a godsend to be able to create and arrange meals exactly how I liked them. I got better and better at cooking and, despite my amazing Gordon Ramsay impressions, I’m probably the Jamie Oliver of the group.

Check those slippers

Cooking gives you independence

One of the first things we have control over in our lives is the food that we eat. As children we may not be able to decide where we live, what we wear or who we spend our time with but we can definitely decide what we eat. So we do just that. We cry, we throw chicken nuggets across the room, we smush mashed potato into the floor and spit sweetcorn at the wall. 

Growing up, we get to have more and more control over the food we eat and spitting foods at walls becomes less socially acceptable. We can decide to go vegetarian, vegan, pescetarian, reducetarian, to cut out gluten, to eat Dominoes 4 times a week- it really is up to us. We further that control even more through cooking as it lets us decide literally everything that we eat, every ingredient. If you love pizza but hate cheese, that’s fine; if you love spicy food – ramp up that chilli; if you like sweet foods pour in that cinnamon. 

If you wanted to super own it- you could even try growing your own food! This is something I’d love to do, but need some more practice first- I’m still a gardening noob!

My grown-from-seed chilli baby ; the only survivor of 8!

Cooking lets you listen to your cravings, and appease them properly

Cravings are the places where our feelings and the physical needs meet. It’s super common for us to crave sugary and carb-loaded foods. This can be due to hunger, like when we’ve had a busy day in work and need something quick to eat, the most accessible option is fast food which tends to be carby or sugary. We can also seek out these foods as stress relievers; creating links between feeling comforted and eating ‘comfort foods’. It also turns out, according to runtastic.com, that there are some bodily reasons that you may be craving certain foods. 

‘Women, in particular, often crave chocolate. This can be related to their menstrual cycle: women lose magnesium, a mineral found in cacao, during their period. Thus, chocolate cravings are the body’s way of trying to restore its magnesium levels to normal.’

-Runtastic.com

Mystery solved ladies!

Cooking can help with cravings because, instead of denying what your body wants, you can lean into it- in a more mindful and healthy way. 

If you’re craving carbs, you can cook pasta. You can choose gluten free options, or decide to throw in some kale to pad it out. You can roast tomatoes and peppers to make the pasta sauce even more delicious so that, when you come to eat, you’re satisfying that craving fully and with control. Cooking also makes your body wait a little before appeasing the craving, which helps to train your mind to be patient and grateful to yourself! 

Home, UK

Improving a skill gives you confidence

Any type of improvement builds confidence and cooking is no different. Going from burnt toast to something edible to a dinner party showpiece is a big deal. It’s such a good feeling when someone else enjoys the taste of your food! And even if it’s for no one else- you can be confident in your ability to feed yourself and nourish your body.

You can also feel confident in your growing knowledge too. Learning which flavours work and what ingredients to use is a process and along that process you’ll gain a lot of knowledge- expanding out from cooking to include culture, religion, history etc. Cooking classes are good for this as they not only show you the ingredients to use, but also the order that you use them, with some bits of extra info dropped in as you go.

This is a vegan class I tried in Asagiri (in full Japanese!)

Cooking improves relationships

Food is a very social part of life; it’s ingrained in almost every culture. We break fast together in Ramadan, eat soba noodles to welcome the new year, catch up with family over dim sum or cure a late night with a massive fry up. We, as people bond over food, so of course cooking food for/with someone will help improve your relationship. Making dinner for friends and family is one of my favourite things to do, especially when I know they’ve got a lot going on. Having a delicious meal waiting for them is one less thing to worry about!

Throwback to my onigiri-making session with Keilyn @Hostel_Cue_Taketa

I’d cry so much when my host family would bring me homegrown vegetables or my students would bring pancakes that they’d cooked in food tech class for me to try or even getting biscuits from someone who’d thought of me on their latest trip. It means a lot! Plus, the bonus of food gifts is that once they’re eaten, they’re gone and only the lovely memory remains. If you’re like me and not really a fan of clutter, food gifts are the best (alongside fresh flowers!)

Cooking can also help our relationships with people who aren’t here any more. I feel closer to my dad in the kitchen, especially when I’m poppin’ stock pots like there’s no tomorrow and cranking up the tomato puree ratio. If there’s someone you miss, I’d recommend trying to recreate their signature dish – even being in the kitchen trying to retrace their steps can be a big comfort.

My first successful sweet and sour tofu dish- thanks to Keilyn’s Bosh! recipe book

Mindful cooking improves health

Our bodies are essential for life; as much as we like to belittle them to just accessories for social acceptance. Your body is the reason that you’re breathing and pumping blood. The amazing memories, relationships, ideas and mad imagination you have wouldn’t be possible without your body’s hard work- so be a good gatekeeper for it. Creatively controlling what goes into your body is liberating and empowering.

It can be especially empowering for those of us who have struggled with eating disorders. If there are foods that feel dirty for you to eat, that’s ok, you’re in control and can swap out those foods for nutrient-rich, clean alternatives. Meal planning is a really good idea! Your struggle is not one that needs to happen alone, my email and inbox is always open to you.

Cooking is also a great tool to boost your mental wellness. Eating well means feeling well and when I say well, I mean that appropriately to your bodily and mental needs (not other people’s expectations). Food has been drenched in shame for such a long time, which is terrifying when we realise how essential it is for life. Please be gentle with yourself.

Emotions and food are already closely linked, so why not use those links; thread them together! That’s a skill I’m trying to practice more and more. When I’m feeling low and don’t want to binge eat sweets, I’ll bake protein chocolate cookies or make a hearty, homemade soup packed with veggies. When I’m feeling lonely I’ll cook a fancy pasta dish and have a Jess date. When I miss my students I’ll eat mochi or cook yakisoba and reminisce about the summer festivals. How are you feeling right now and what kind of food would match or boost that mood?

Food is one of the many brushes in our set that help us to paint and redesign our individual mental health stories. 

What are you making for dinner tonight? Do you have any favourite meals/ recipes that you use? If you do, share the love and the knowledge in the comments!

Stay Positive.

Love,

Jess x

Sources

Women’s Health – How often do your tastebuds change?

Runtastic – Listen to your body: What your food cravings mean

Megan Warin – Abject Relations

Feature Image from Unsplash

3 thoughts on “Cooking Up Some Good Mental Health

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