What if I told you cooking can actually reduce your stress?
In fact, what if I theorized that cooking with children is a great stress-reducing activity?
Many parents (and other humans who eat food) tend to find cooking very stressful. If the actual act of cooking – chopping, sautéing, getting dinner ready on time – isn’t stressful enough, there’s the fact that true cooking includes the planning, the grocery shopping, the expense, managing what’s in the fridge, and sometimes even dealing with contentious eaters at the table.
People in my communities at Kitchen Stewardship and Kids Cook Real Food identify plenty of reasons that cooking stresses them out:
- Overwhelm: because every time you finish dinner, there’s another meal looming.
- Frustration about the eating: “I just want my family to eat what I make,” so many parents say. I can hear the note of despair and frustration, even in their typing!
- Conflicting information: Plenty of us desire to eat healthy but find that it’s not only difficult but also confusing. What in the world should we eat that’s healthy and won’t kill us?!? Everyone seems to disagree…
My mission since 2009 has been to help families stay healthy without going crazy.
Kitchen Stewardship has helped thousands of overwhelmed women (and men) dig through the research to figure out what’s healthy for them and what’s not. Plus, I teach how to save time and money at the same time in the kitchen.
Today, however, let’s talk about my other passion: teaching kids to cook.
Since 2016 Kids Cook Real Food has guided over 20,000 member families and over 100,000 children through basic skills in the kitchen. Most of the time, their parents start out feeling a little stressed about the whole situation. But–
They never end that way, because cooking – with children – truly is a way to reduce your stress load.
Cooking Opens the Door for Creativity
We who know about stress and the brain understand that when we are feeling stress and in fight, flight, or freeze, we are stuck in our “lizard brain.” We’re unable to access our higher-level thinking.
It’s most common to use breathwork to soothe the brain and open up the higher levels, but there are other options. Working with one’s hands and doing something active is calming enough to open up the part of the brain that tells stories. Those stories spill out in the kitchen and form connection between those working together. Those connections become deep bonds that not only calm that silly lizard brain in the moment but also build layers of protection against depression, anxiety, and for teens, substance abuse and suicidal tendencies. [Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/01/12/the-most-important-thing-you-can-do-with-your-kids-eat-dinner-with-them/]
The act of creating something with our own hands, and particularly when we can infuse something artistic into our creativity, truly makes us human. In fact, my teenage son Paul has shared that chopping vegetables feels “therapeutic” to him. Imagine getting your therapy in the kitchen while doing something as practical and productive as making dinner!
Creativity, stories and knife therapy is a good start. But what about little kids, who aren’t exactly using sharp knives yet?
Sensory Integration Regulates Big Emotions (in the Kitchen)
Did you know that eating is one of only two things humans do that use all eight of our senses?
That means first that eating is an extremely hard task, which can come with a lot of stress for children and families. That also means that when we eat, we are integrating all of our senses. When we cook, we don’t use quite as many, but it’s a great precursor – especially for kids who are selective eaters or have some fear of new foods.
Being involved in the preparation of foods allows kids to experience the texture, smells, and even sounds of their food. They get to witness an onion go from a brown papery round object to tiny white pieces with an aroma that burns the eyes, to sizzling translucent or even caramelized cooked onions – that will now bring all the flavor in the world to our soup, casserole, or vegetable hash!
This sensory integration is another way to balance the brain – right and left, top and bottom. Anytime we can achieve that for our kids, we are helping them build the skills that will enable them to regulate big emotions!
When we are working together with our kids in the kitchen, we adults get all the same benefits. What a beautiful thing!
Build Strong Connections with Family while Cooking
I know many parents out there may not be convinced yet that they want to invite their five children all into the kitchen at once and see it as a stress relief instead of a cause.
But remember: parenting isn’t about our short-term feelings.
Parenting is a long game, 18 years and beyond. And we must think and plan with the end in mind. We need to reframe cooking with kids as these opportunities:
- The opportunity for creativity – together
- the opportunity for sensory integration – together
- and truly, the opportunity to BE…together.
We already discussed how strong bonds in the family build protective factors for our kids.
There’s nothing that makes me feel better or more validated as a parent than to know I’m setting my kids up for long-term success and to be protected from some of the worst tragedies that can befall our youth and adolescents.
When we cook together as a family, we end up with conversation, yes, but even more than that, there’s a bond formed by mutual work. Working together toward a common goal unites people, and being able to celebrate achieving that goal by eating a family dinner is truly the icing on the cake.
Those family dinners are opportunities for conversation, empathy, laughter, and connection. If you know anything about stress and anxiety, you know that that is a very solid list of protective factors.
Will You Cook with Your Kids … to Reduce Stress?
So the question is before you: are you ready to invite your kids into the kitchen? Do you believe it will increase or decrease your stress?
The answer is all about how we frame our experiences. With the knowledge and encouragement I’ve shared with you today, my hope is that you can look at cooking with your kids as both an investment in their future and an investment in your relationship at every moment.
Savor those moments.
And if you need to, do some serious breath work both before and after those connection cooking sessions!
Find out more about how we help families build skills for all ages of kids at KidsCookRealFood.com.
Click here to view a podcast with Katie and The American Institute of Stress
Post By Katie Kimball, CSME
“the voice of healthy kids cooking”
Founder – Kids Cook Real Food eCourse
Host of The Healthy Parenting Connector Show
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