Culinary Therapy

Culinary therapy, or the act of preparing and cooking food as therapeutic process, is an area that intrigues me. There is somewhat of a parallel process of culinary therapy to psychotherapy in general in that there can be group, or communal culinary therapy, in addition to individual culinary therapy. Culinary therapy can be used as a cognitive restructuring tool around food and eating habits, to gain a better understanding of the nutritional aspect of well-being, and to release stress.

At my practicum site, the students participate in “culinary” elective once a week. During that time, they prepare and cook what will be lunch the next day. Supervising this activity allows me to gain further insight into how they interact with each other and enables some of them to discover new talents for which they could be praised. For example, one student who has a documented history of aggressive behaviors is a culinary whiz. Not only is he creative in the kitchen, but also he is kind and patient with peers who may not be as capable with an apron on. This gives his staff and peers the opportunity to see him and appreciate him in new ways.

On a personal level, my kitchen, even with my electrical stove (one day I’ll have a gas range that will be the envy of Julia Child’s ghost), is a peaceful place for me. Ruth Reichl, a well-known food critic, writes about cooking as an activity that is demanding but that “also rewards you with endlessly sensual pleasures. The sound of water skittering across leaves of lettuce. The thump of the knife against watermelon, and the cool summer scent the fruit releases as it falls open to reveal its deep red heart. The seductive softness of chocolate beginning to melt from solid to liquid. The tug of sauce against the spoon when it thickens in the pan, and the lovely lightness of Parmesan drifting from the grater in gossamer flakes. Time slows down in the kitchen, offering up an entire universe of small satisfactions” (Reichl, 2005). I love this quote from her Garlic and Sapphires book because that slowing down of time is exactly how I feel when I’m in the kitchen. I can spend hours there, tasting a bubbling soup or piping icing on a birthday cake. The focus necessary in cooking and baking gives my mind a break from the activity of daily life or the occasional stress of being a graduate student and all of the obligations that go along with it. Sometimes, I abstain from eating much of what I have made. Rather, I get joy from feeding others; after all, my mother always said that the way to someone’s heart is through their stomach. So, really, for me cooking is a stress relief and a way of “providing” for those around me whom I love.

I realize that not everyone enjoys cooking. Some may see it a chore. For those of you in this camp, I encourage you to give it a try when you’re not tired at the end of “hump day,” with the sun setting at 4:15 and the brisk late fall chill in the air. Give yourself an afternoon, pick a recipe that looks fun, use some ingredients you haven’t before, and allow yourself to get lost in spices, herbs, and confectioner’s sugar. If you still don’t like it, let me know, and maybe I’ll just whip something up to deliver! 

Some of my past culinary therapy creations are featured below.
Clockwise from top left:  yellow curry, pasta white beans with garlic and rosemary, salted caramel apple tart, pumpkin whoopie pie with caramel icing 

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Reichl, R. (2005). Garlic and Sapphires. New York, NY: Penguin Books. 

For more blog-based information on culinary therapy:
http://rileyjennifer.blogspot.com/2010/05/cooking-therapy.html
http://www.ualberta.ca/~shesmail/Cooking2/index.htm

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