Experimenting with new recipes provides a special kind of relief, experts say.
Melting Potatoes

It sounds strange, but the same thing that stresses us out on busy weeknights, perhaps with picky kids to feed and evenings spent working late, is the exact thing we're turning to for zen during this extended period of anxiety. Yep, experts say cooking is super relaxing, which explains why you're seeing so many loaves of bread, potatoes, cookies, and curries all over social media during the coronavirus pandemic (here's why people can't stop baking right now).

Hilary, a 42-year-old photographer based in Arlington, VA, is among the many at-home chefs leaning on her favorite recipes in this time of turmoil. "I've always enjoyed cooking and baking, but now these activities seem more cathartic than ever," she says. "They're meditative, and I can find quiet when I'm in the kitchen."

Of course, there's a practicality element too. Many people are cooking because restaurants are closed (or only open for takeout) while most of the world is sheltering in place. But that's only one piece of the puzzle, says Michael M. Kocet, PhD, professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, who teaches a course on culinary therapy, which—amazingly enough—is a real thing. "We're feeling a loss of control as our routines are thrown out the window," he says. "Cooking can center people, offering the emotional grounding of a task and a sense of accomplishment."

That's why Kocet's culinary therapy classes promote healing through mindful cooking and eating and the interpersonal connection that comes along with sharing a meal together (learn more about mindful eating and why it's so beneficial). "Even if you aren't able to share a meal in person anymore, you could start a virtual cooking club or leave a dish on your neighbor's doorstep," he says. (Get our tips to deliver food safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Research shows that cooking makes you happy.

Doing so wouldn't just be a good deed. People feel happier after practicing "everyday creative acts," like cooking, according to a study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology. And as Hilary notes, "it makes me feel good on the days when I didn't get other work accomplished."

Indeed, while so many of us find it hard to focus on other tasks during an endless COVID-19 news cycle of rising death rates and job losses, cooking demands just the right level of attention—and offers just the right amount of reward. It requires focus, which means stepping away from Twitter, but it's forgiving if you mess up (why Kocet prefers cooking to baking, FYI). And you instantly have a creation you can feel proud of and dig into.

Cooking fosters connection, even from a distance.

For Alissar, a 29-year-old marketing director self-isolating in Brooklyn, NY, mastering family dishes like her mom's Tah Dig recipe (Persian crispy rice) and grandmother's hummus has offered an opportunity to connect from afar.

"In my family, cooking brings people together to share a meal, talk about their day, laugh, and connect," she says. "I've been calling my mother and grandmother more than ever during the quarantine to chat about what we've been making and learn family recipes."

Kocet confirms that cooking family dishes can be a way to work through the emotions of being away from loved ones—and even managing loss on a larger scale. "All of us are dealing with collective loss right now [whether it be jobs, routine, or even people we love], and cooking is a cathartic way to work through those emotions," he says. "I often encourage clients to make a dish to honor a loved one and use all of their senses to connect with their grief."

But your time in the kitchen can be light and fun, too...

That said, there's no need to overthink it, and your dishes certainly don't need to be complicated to be calming. "You could mindfully make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and get the same benefit," Kocet says. It's all about being deliberate with each step and cooking without chaos and pressure.

That last part—lack of pressure—partially explains why so many people are leaning into their bucket list dishes on lockdown. "Some people avoid cooking because they see it as a stressful activity, but now, there's no pressure of guests coming in an hour or rushing home from work," Kocet says.

Take advantage of that time (if your kids are running around you can always try to get them to help or keep it extra simple), and use cooking as a way to break up an otherwise monotonous day: Alissar has been cooking with her husband every night to mark the start of their evening. "We try to put our laptops away around 6pm, light a candle to transition into a new mood, and start cooking."