Good mood food: Why cooking is such a great wellbeing tool

24 Apr 2020
By Daniel, Writer at Unite Students

The months leading up to exams and deadlines are pretty intense, but when you add the current coronavirus situation into the mix, things step up to a whole new level. That’s why it’s so beneficial to make time to unwind.

Cooking can be that downtime, the perfect way to unwind and look after yourself. While it’s fairly obvious that healthy eating is good for your physical health, preparing your food can have a similar effect on your mental wellbeing. Just what you need during times like these.

Here’s why this is the ideal time to get in the kitchen.

You get to calmly focus on one thing

My favourite thing to cook is bolognese. I make it on a Sunday so it can bubble away for hours. The best bit is chopping the onion.

I start by slicing the ends off and peeling away the skin. Then I chop it in half. I take a half and make a series of incisions lengthways, taking care not to slice through the other end - a half-onion fan is what I’m left with.

Next, I squeeze the whole thing together and run the knife horizontally through the onion from one end almost to the other - carefully, again, so it remains in one piece despite all its wounds.

Then, I start chopping across the onion at the open end, in thin strips, watching the bits of diced onion fall onto the board, sweeping them into a neat pile. Then I dice the other half.

By this point, you may be worried for the sanity of a man who’s written 120 words about chopping onions. But, let me tell you, I’m at my most focused, most ‘in the moment’, and most calm when I’m slicing and dicing.

You feel a sense of completion and achievement

Another thing about this time of the year is the lack of closure or completion. You don’t really get it until the deadline or exam is over. The weeks leading up to it can feel a bit repetitive, as if you’ve started a task that you’re not allowed to finish.

Cooking is the opposite of that. It starts on the chopping board, and ends on your plate. A series of clear and logical steps get you from A to B, and you know exactly when you’ve finished the job. Making a simple meal from scratch, after a long day of ongoing jobs and distractions, is a wonderful way to put a firm tick on your to-do list.

It’s a bit like that Navy Seal Admiral who wants you to make your bed every morning. Our brains love completed tasks almost as much as they love delicious food. So if you feel antsy at the end of a day’s revision, head for the kitchen.

You have control over what happens

As a committed overthinker, I’ve had to learn how to give my energy only to the things I can affect. Accepting that a lot of what happens is pure chance has been extremely liberating - I’m free to focus on what I can do and the actions I can take. This gives me a greater sense of control, something that’s quite important for my wellbeing.

At exam time, the content of the paper or the grade you'll get at the end are the things you can’t control. But, along with your revision schedule, your techniques, your downtime, and a whole host of other factors, cooking is something you can have control over.

So whether you follow a recipe or just get creative and see what happens, the kitchen is a place to feel powerful. Ingredients, temperatures, cooking times - you’re the boss of it all.

You give both your brains the nutrition they need

Science has known for a long time that the gut is essentially a second brain. It has its own nervous system, with around 100 million nerve cells, and it’s constantly exchanging information with the actual brain in your head.

Which means that what you put in your stomach can have a direct influence on how you feel. If you rely on takeaways , your diet is likely to be high in processed and refined foods, as well as salt and sugar. None of which is going to be great for your physical or mental well-being.

All the more reason to cook your own food. You know exactly what you’re putting into your body, which will give you that lovely sense of control as well as those all-important nutrients. Plus, you’ll save a fortune.

Get ideas for simple, nutritious meals in the Food and Drink section of the Common Room

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Daniel is a writer at Unite Students.