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How Cooking Can Benefit Your Mental Health

We spoke to Julie Ohana, a culinary therapist based in Michigan, to get a better understanding of how cooking can help patients combat depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

Many of us who spend time in our home kitchens on a regular basis are well aware that cooking can be a therapeutic experience. In recent years, health care clinics and therapists have begun using cooking as a tool to help patients combat depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Culinary therapy, which is similar to other creative therapy techniques like music therapy and general art therapy, takes the "food as medicine" approach to self-care very literally.

READ MORE: Learning to Cook Is Helping Me Battle Depression

I spoke to Julie Ohana, a culinary therapist based in Michigan, to get a better understanding of how this technique works.

MUNCHIES: Can you walk me through what culinary therapy is? Julie Ohana: A general definition—how I see "CAT" [culinary art therapy]—is the practice of preparing and cooking a homemade meal for a "therapeutic" purpose. Therapeutic is a very broad term in this sense because it can mean a traditional emotional curative sense, or just a way to offer someone a more creative toolbox of skills to use in their everyday life. It can help a person on an individual level, a family can learn to communicate better, or a group of people can strengthen a team by coming together and cooking.

Can you describe what you have seen using behavioral activation therapy—both positive and negative—in your experience with clients? Behavioral activation—or maybe better known as traditional cognitive therapy—is a very general and popular treatment method for therapists. It has become so well known and used because it is an effective way for many people to identify a problem and work to find a solution and coping methods. However, there are some people who are looking for an alternative method that is more creative—less talk, more doing, in a way. Also, in this modern-day world where all of us are so focused on multitasking and killing more birds with fewer stones, CAT might be more appealing. Who wouldn't want to be more emotionally sound, a better communicator, work better with a group, and at the end of it have a delicious meal ready to eat?!

Could you talk about some of the benefits of culinary therapy? In a nutshell, CAT combines emotional wellbeing with a very practical real need that we all have. We all need to eat. And certainly we are all better off if we know and not only feel comfortable in the kitchen, but if we can actually enjoy our food prep time and it makes us a better person. That is a whole lot of pluses in my book.

You work with patients in both a group setting and individually. Can you walk me through both of these settings and tell me what a patient might experience in your sessions with them? An individual session is more of a hands-on experience from the early stages. Depending on a client's comfort level, I would let him or her decide if they would like to do the grocery shopping (based on a list that I give them), or if they would like the groceries brought to them (time-saver and a small extra cost). Depending on their answer, the session would start at different points. For a group, I always do the shopping and even some food prepping, depending on where the cooking is taking place. So far, each time I have done this as a group session it has been in an office or other non-kitchen environment, so I need to do some preparing, like boiling pasta instead of bringing dry pasta—things like that.

When working with an individual, that one person has their hands in each and every dish. With a group, they are divided into smaller group—no more than four or five—and each smaller group is responsible for one dish of the larger meal. The courses/dishes all depend on the group size.

After all the cooking is done—with me guiding, helping to encourage, answer questions, and give general support—the group then comes together and eats as one large group. Either while eating or after the meal, I facilitate a group discussion about the experience: how they felt going through the process, what they enjoyed, what they struggled with, etc.

With an individual, it is best to help support this person serve and eat the meal with others. Usually their family or a friend is invited over. This helps the person with confidence-building. It isn't as fun to ooh and ahh over your own food. Meals are generally an experience shared with others and should be done as such with CAT.

Do you talk to your patients about sensory awareness? Would you agree that paying close attention to what is in front of them while cooking is actually a form of mindfulness? That is a great point and definitely something that will come up in the conversation. A huge piece of coping and managing anxiety and depression is living in the moment and being aware of that. Life and cooking is a balancing act of thinking a few steps ahead, but also focusing on what is in front of you in the exact moment.

Thanks for speaking with me.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.