Coach's Corner

Cooking as Self-Care

The Case for Cooking at Home

Posted in

Jeni O'Neill

May 28, 2024

Man cooking a healthy meal at home

    When you think of self-care what comes to mind?

    Do you imagine a bubble bath, yoga, or a beach vacation? How do you define self-care? Oxford Languages defines self-care as: “the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.” Since cooking at home offers physical, emotional, and relational benefits, we ought to recognize cooking as an important form of self-care. With the right motivation, resources, and perspective, the cooking process itself can be intrinsically rewarding in its own right.

    The Health Benefits of Cooking

    Can Cooking at Home Prevent Chronic Disease or Lower BMI?

    “I think cooking is really key because it’s the only way you’re going to take back control of your diet from the corporations who want to cook for us. The fact is, so far, corporations don’t cook that well. They tend to use too much salt, fat, and sugar – much more than you would ever use at home.” — Michael Pollan

    Healthy Meal at home, vegetables and boiled egg

    We now have a growing body of literature showing the health benefits of eating food prepared at home. Eating healthy home-cooked meals more frequently is associated with lower body-mass index (BMI), reduced risk of type-2 diabetes specifically, and chronic diseases generally. One interesting study, done on elderly people in Taiwan, found that those who cooked at home were significantly more likely to survive the 10-year study period.

    There is even a program, “Coping with Cancer in the Kitchen” designed by the American Institute for Cancer Research that uses a scientifically-proven approach to reducing cancer deaths with nutrition.

    Why is Cooking at Home Beneficial for our Health?

    A few of the reasons that home cooking is more nutritious include:

    Woman Chopping Vegetables Preparing Homemade Meal

    1. We have better control over our ingredients.

      When we’re selecting food for ourselves and our loved ones, we choose higher-quality ingredients. We’re more likely to toss out that moldy strawberry, wash our produce more thoughtfully, buy organic when we can, and opt for real versus processed food. Even smart choices when eating out contain way more calories, salt, and sugar than you would use at home. Commercially prepared food is made to stimulate your taste buds, not nourish your body.

    2. When we cook real food at home, we use far fewer chemicals and non-food additives.

      Pick up any packaged food product from the middle aisle of the grocery store and you’re likely to find a long list of unpronounceable ingredients that aren’t in your pantry at home.

    3. Chopping Leafy Greens

      The process of cooking prepares our bodies for digestion.

      Preparing food signals to our bodies that food is on its way. Our senses take in the sight, smell, and feel of the food and our autonomic nervous system signals our digestive system to get busy. Even though those around you may not be directly involved in the preparation, their sense of smell is also at work preparing them for food. Our senses play a huge role in digestion.

    4. We eat more nutritious foods – including more vegetables and fiber.

      People who cook real food at home tend to eat more nutrient-dense meals, which include more healing phytonutrients from plants, more quality protein, and more fiber to aid satiety and feed the gut microbiome.

    Real food prepared at home is truly powerful medicine.

    The Emotional Benefits of Cooking

    While it’s clear that preparing meals like roasted chicken and Brussels sprouts at home is healthier than dining out, the act of cooking offers more than just nutritional benefits. There are intrinsic, immediate emotional rewards involved in the process itself.

    Chopped Vegetables

    Cooking is a Sensory-Rich Activity.

    In modern life, we spend so much of our day engaging with our world in a very limited way. Many of us spend hours each day looking at our computer or phone screens, hearing sounds from one speaker, and touching plastic keys or screens. Preparing food engages all of our senses: we see the vivid colors of fresh produce in three dimensions, hear the chop, boil, or sizzle, feel the various textures and temperatures of our ingredients and tools, taste our creations as they progress, and smell the inviting aromas that fill our kitchens. These sensory experiences can be profoundly soothing and grounding.

    If you’ve ever chopped herbs, garlic, and lemon zest, you know exactly what I’m talking about. As we interact with these vibrant products of nature, they communicate with our biology before we ever take a bite.

    Cooking Chopped Vegetables

    Cooking Provides an Opportunity for Mindfulness.

    When life becomes overwhelming, the methodical and meditative actions of cooking can provide a rhythmic grounding experience. Cooking can be like a home base, a grounding ritual during the day. A time that you prioritize nourishing yourself and your loved ones in a very personal, intimate way.

    Sometimes used as a form of meditation, preparing food demands mindfulness and presence. This practice of mindfulness can be a sanctuary from the day’s stress, providing mental space for reflection and daydreaming.

    As Michael Pollan beautifully states, “Much like gardening, most cooking manages to be agreeably absorbing without being too demanding intellectually.”

    Cooking is a Satisfying Form of Creativity.

    Even when following a simple recipe, the act of transforming basic ingredients into a delicious meal is creatively fulfilling. Tweaking a dish to suit your tastes or experimenting with new flavors is fun and can lift your mood.

    Beyond its nutritional value, cooking enriches us emotionally, grounding us in the present and providing an opportunity for creative expression.

    Mother teaching her daughters there way in the kitchen

    Sharing Meals at Home Promotes Family Bonding

    Cooking is more than just a means to prepare food; it’s a potent activity for bonding with family. When families cook together, they engage in a shared activity that encourages cooperation and communication. A study by the Family Dinner Project shows that sharing meals enhances family relationships because it provides a daily time for the whole family to connect, communicate, and share experiences.

    The kitchen can also be an excellent classroom for teaching children and other family members life skills such as nutrition and cooking. Work from the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior highlights that children who participate in cooking are more likely to make healthy food choices. What better motivation to spend time in the kitchen than to inspire a future generation to nourish themselves with quality food? 

    As with most worthwhile things in life, cooking may not ALWAYS be pleasant at the time. The drive-thru calls, the kids in the back seat whine, DoorDash is tempting, and a myriad of other priorities clamor for our attention. But time spent in the kitchen is always time well-spent – for our relationships as well as for our long-term health.

    The Economic Benefits of Cooking

    I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the obvious financial benefits of cooking at home. A single meal out at a restaurant these days can come with a staggering price tag – often equaling the cost of ingredients needed for several days’ worth of home-cooked meals.

    As a reader of this blog and a follower of RIFM, you know that quality is king when it comes to food and nutrition. The money saved on dining out could be spent on higher quality ingredients like organic vegetables, pasture-raised meat, quality fermented foods, and healthier fats and oils.

    Cooking at home also plays a crucial role in reducing food waste. Last night’s roasted chicken can become today’s chicken salad for lunch and a gut-healing bone broth for the week.

    Prepped Meal at Home

    Practical Tips to Incorporate Cooking into Your Self-Care Routine

    What would it take for you to prepare more meals at home? Do you need some inspiration to get started? Here are some ideas that my clients have used to make cooking at home more streamlined and stress-free:

    1. Make an appointment with yourself each week (yes on your calendar) to plan for meals and shop for ingredients. Thursdays seem to be a popular day for this task since weekend plans are solidifying and this allows time to get the ingredients you need to do some preparations for the following week. Honor this appointment like you would a doctor’s appointment. As we’ve seen, it’s just as critical to your health.
    2. Take some time, perhaps over the weekend, to do some batch food prep. Chop the vegetables you bought, prep some chia pudding or an egg frittata. Set aside some time for this, play some music, and enjoy your favorite beverage while you set yourself up for a smooth, nourishing week.
    3. Consider using a prep-ahead meal planning subscription like PrepDish to make this much easier. You can get a free two-week trial using this link.
    4. Try some new recipes. Danielle Walker has excellent cookbooks and I love The Paleo Running Mama and Unbound Wellness for tasty, healthy recipes that my family enjoys.
    5. Try an app to corral all of those recipes you’ve bookmarked. I like MealBoard, but there are many others in this post on meal planning.
    6. Most importantly, start where you are. If your family is used to eating dinner out or getting take-out regularly, think about how you could make small shifts toward preparing foods at home more often. Perhaps you could supplement a current take-out meal with your own side salad and some berries. Or you could make your own pizza or Thai food at home and do something fun with the money you save. All efforts toward more home-prepared foods are worthwhile, so celebrate each one!

    Reframing Cooking as Self-Care

    From better health to a calmer mind and stronger family bonds, cooking offers something for everyone. Consider this as an invitation to reframe your time in the kitchen from a chore to something you look forward to. So, brew some green tea, play your favorite music, and take up that cutting board and knife with a fresh perspective on nourishing your body and soul.

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