Comfort food.

Even if there wasn’t a Food Network show to tell us, we’d know what it was. Spoonfuls of buttery mac and cheese, steaming bowls of chicken noodle soup, or pots brimming with hearty beef stew all make a body feel good, especially when the doctor says it’s the flu but your reflection in the mirror clearly says: plague victim. In fact, one of the biggest trends of the last decade has people rediscovering that food—usually the non-comfort kind—can be like medicine, and that a dose of vegetables or a prescription for whole grains can benefit the body in countless, long-lasting ways.

But true health goes beyond the body to touch on our relationships and our emotional well-being. Believe it or not, the way we eat can play a role on that side of life, too. Across the United States, a little-known form of counseling called culinary therapy is increasingly being used to help people comfort—and heal—their minds, hearts, and families.

What is “cooking therapy”?

Dr. Michael Kocet, professor and chair of the counselor education department at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, developed one of the first graduate courses in the field. He defines culinary or cooking therapy as “a therapeutic technique which uses culinary arts, cooking, gastronomy, and an individual’s personal, cultural, and familial relationship with food to address emotional and psychological problems faced by individuals, families, and groups.”

“Around 2006, I started taking professional cooking classes at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts near Harvard,” Kocet told me. “I’d also taken recreational ‘boot camp’ classes at the Culinary Institute of America. Almost everybody—family, friends, colleagues—who I shared with that I was taking cooking classes, they’d say: ‘Gosh, cooking is so therapeutic.’ I'm a licensed mental health counselor and in our field there’s art therapy, dance therapy, drama therapy, but no cooking therapy. Nobody had yet developed this or done much research around it.”

Art therapy has its roots in the 1940s when professionals first started describing how they were using creative arts to help patients. The idea is that the expressive process, not the final product, is what matters. These art forms help people learn about themselves and their feelings. That’s especially helpful when it’s a struggle to find words to accurately tell your counselor what you’re going through.

Of course, when developing new forms of treatment like culinary therapy, counselors must proceed with care to make sure clients aren’t somehow harmed by the techniques being tried out. “I teach a graduate class in mental health ethics, and our code of ethics talks about how counselors can create innovative approaches,” Kocet explains. “As an exercise, I would tell my students that if I wanted to develop this culinary therapy idea, how would I go about doing it? . . . We would have those conversations, and my students would say, ‘Dr. Kocet, you could do something with this.’ So, I took the plunge, and I developed a graduate level class called ‘Culinary Therapy.’” At his previous school, Bridgewater State University in Boston, he taught the class in the alumni center’s kitchen.

Although much more research needs to be done, there are some studies that show the effectiveness of culinary therapy, for everything from improving emotional functioning to improving nutritional choices, especially combined with, and not as a replacement for, traditional forms of therapy.

How cooking therapy helps

If you think about it, using cooking in therapy makes a lot of sense. Regardless of education, ethnicity, relationship status or social standing, every man, woman and child has a lifelong, every-day experience with food: needing it, loving it, avoiding it, sharing it, or all of the above. That means patients have a daily opportunity to practice the skills that are learned in this kind of counseling, and for many it may be less intimidating than trying out unfamiliar arts like dancing or sculpting.

Cooking therapy also stands out among art therapies, in that it has an unparalleled potential mind-body impact. It activates our senses of sight, sound, and touch at the same time the brain is processing smell and taste. And the food itself almost instantly goes to work on the intricate hormone system that helps regulate our moods and sense of well-being. It doesn’t just stop with dopamine, the “pleasure chemical” that rewards your choice to eat a pizza. Ghrelin, a hormone produced mostly in the stomach to stimulate appetite, has a potential link with mood disorders. Cortisol, which the brain pumps out to try to level off your blood sugar when you’re hungry, makes people anxious and aggressive too.

Dr. Kocet points out one of culinary therapy’s most powerful benefits: as a tool to teach mindfulness. “It’s really about listening to our bodies and getting a sense of when we’re full. We get early messages as kids to eat everything on our plate . . . and sometimes food can be a coping tool in a negative way,” he said.

In Dr. Kocet’s class and with clients, he has used an exercise called “chocolate meditation.” In this technique, a patient carefully unwraps a piece of candy, and instead of gobbling it up, takes time to look at it, smell it, then place it in his or her mouth and feel the chocolate melt, paying attention to any emotions or memories that come up for them as they do so. “To go a healthy route you could use an orange or a tangerine,” Kocet says. “Have the client slowly peel the rind off the tangerine. What emotions does it evoke—[the memory of] Mom or Grandma making fresh orange juice in the morning, for example?”

Everything in the right place

There’s a French cooking term mise en place. It translates to “everything in its place,” and means that cooks should pre-measure all needed ingredients, and prepare the pots and pans and kitchen tools ahead of time when starting a dish. This leads to a less stressful and more efficient cooking experience and means you won’t get halfway through a recipe only to discover the carton of eggs in the fridge actually expired a few months ago, prompting a panicked, huffy trip to the grocery store (I’ve done it). In cooking as in life, it’s to our advantage to slow down, take notice of details, and prepare.

Even the process of preparing to cook can be helpful in bringing emotions to the surface. If you’re given an assignment to cook a cherished family recipe or a traditional dish from your ethnic culture, it might hit you that you come from a family that was too busy barely surviving to pass down such knowledge. You could realize you have a fractured relationship with your heritage that’s left you feeling lost. On the positive side, gathering the ingredients for such a meal could remind you that you do have support and a connection with a whole tribe of people who “loved you into being,” as Mr. Rogers would say.

The social aspect of cooking and eating means culinary therapy could also help people struggling in their human relationships. Drifting away from a significant other? Licensed professional counselor Allison Carver of “A Taste Of Therapy” offers couples recipe packages to address everything from communication problems to trust issues. On the other side of the world, the award-winning Bread Houses Network in Bulgaria aims to heal communities through therapeutic bread-making. “All we knead is love,” their website proclaims.

Dr. Kocet described how culinary therapy could be used to help families. “Say an adolescent was the client with the main issues, and the parents were dragging their child to therapy, I might make the adolescent be the head chef and the parents be the sous chef [the second-in-command cooks]. This shifts the roles, the parents have to give up control because their child is taking the lead on making the recipe. Switching those roles can be a very powerful approach to helping that family look at their communication style.”

Julie O’Hana, who practices culinary therapy in Michigan, told me that most of her clients are actually families or other groups. She is passionate about the importance of the family meal. “I think it is because it is such a simple, inexpensive, easy way for families to connect with each other. . . . [I]t is really just about getting face time with your kids, your spouse or other loved ones to connect. A time where we leave all the busy elements of our lives and focus on what really matters—the people we care about. ‘Breaking bread’ has always been a great way to do this,” she says.

What if you—or your loved ones—are terrible in the kitchen? “You definitely do NOT need to be a chef in order to benefit from [culinary therapy],” O’Hana told me. “You do, however, need to come to the session with an open mind and a willingness or desire to experience this opportunity. There is a lot of room to learn and grow, even for a novice cook. But for someone who absolutely hates being in the kitchen, this may not be the practice for them.”

Sometimes, the cooks with the least skill can have the biggest breakthroughs.

“I had a student who was assigned to make a pear cake, and halfway through the cooking process, he burned it. He was very upset,” Dr. Kocet told me. The professor encouraged him to come up with something else to make from the leftover ingredients, even though there was no recipe.

“At first I could tell he was stressed, but he made a dish. After all of our students cooked their respective assigned dishes, we were eating at a big table. I asked the students, “what’s your favorite dish?” and a number of them said it was the pear dessert that he made. You could see him going from being really upset that his dish got burned, to his new creation which was spontaneous, and how his confidence level increased because his peers said how delicious it was.”

It’s not hard to draw the connection between adaptability and creativity after a mishap in the kitchen, with the same skills that make us more resilient in the wake of life’s misfortunes.

Close to home

While I haven’t had an official culinary therapy session, I tried out some exercises for the sake of experimentation. When doing a chocolate meditation, I noticed that most of my emotions were positive. The taste and texture of the melting candy reminded me of Christmas and chocolate Advent calendars (especially the one I just did with my daughter). As the sticky sensation faded, though, I noticed a bit of negativity emerging. By paying close attention to my emotions and memories, I caught myself putting myself down about eating the chocolate. I wonder how often I’ve had that reaction without realizing it, and if that negativity turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy: I feel bad that I ate candy, and I mindlessly eat another piece in an attempt to get a sugary mood boost. And the cycle continues.

The practice with mindful eating gave me other insights, too. Later I noticed that when someone near me opens a metal can of soda pop or sparkling water, my whole body tenses up. I even spontaneously fill my lungs with a quiet, deep breath when I hear the crack of the tab opener. At first, this confused me—I don’t drink soda and never have, so I have no meaningful memories with it. But although my family didn’t have cans of Coke in the house growing up, we did have an overabundance of beer cans, and all the stress that comes from family drinking problems. My mind and body seem to have made a record of that opening sound, signaling to me that I still have work to do in that area of healing.

And of course, as the unofficial household cook in the family I have now, I had to try mise en place. To give you some idea of my talent level in the kitchen, I’ll tell you that I’ve stopped bothering to keep an alphabetized list of recipes on my phone, because almost all of them start with the letter E, as in Easy.

Embracing mise en place didn’t make me feel any more adventurous about cooking, but it did make it more enjoyable. Instead of a breathless exercise in multi-tasking, it was satisfying and creative. I felt a bit the way I remember feeling as a child playing in the backyard, happily stirring a magic potion out of ingredients like pond water, lawn clippings and acorns. I told my husband, “I think I know why people like cooking! It makes them think of Harry Potter.”

One thing’s for sure: making magic in the kitchen can feed our bodies and our minds in ways we may not even realize. 

Editor's Note: Cooking and taking care of our homes, finances, and professional life can all lead to greater calm and stability in our emotional lives and relationships. Yet for so many of us, certain elements of those areas of life feel so overwhelming that we don't know where to start. Let Verily lift some of the mental load. Our Verily Yours newsletters are your companion for the particular pressure points in your daily life. Delivered personally to your email, we dont tell you what you should do; we offer topics tailored for reflection, so that you can decide the next right step forward for your personal life. Start your free one-month trial here (following the trial period, subscriptions are $7.99/monthly or $60/annual one time fee).