Cooking for Wellbeing

Henry Gale 21 February 2020

On their website, the mental health charity Mind recommends way to take care of yourself applying a model based on research by the New Economics Foundation: the ‘five ways to wellbeing’, connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give. But it’s hard to maintain these abstract goals in a hectic Cambridge term when so many priorities compete for your time and attention. I can’t claim to have found the magic bullet to guarantee your welfare through the struggles of student life. But I can tell you how one activity has had a uniquely positive impact on my wellbeing at Cambridge – cooking.

Before I talk about how good cooking is for wellbeing, I want to emphasise that it is, actually, great fun. It’s an activity with a quick, tangible and comestible reward. If you like a challenge, and selection bias ensures that almost everyone at Cambridge does, cooking is a way to push yourself in a different, non-academic way. Before long, you’ll be able to amaze your friends with your culinary skills. And best of all, you’ll captivate everyone with your perceptive comment about seasoning next time you’re at a formal or a swap. Perhaps.

But you don’t need to be a connoisseur to connect with people over food. Food is one of the things we all have in common. A great benefit of cooking is that it always takes place in the communal area of a shared kitchen. Regardless of whether you are close to the people who live around you, exchanging small talk with people coming in and out of the kitchen is so valuable. The Cambridge rush from lecture to supervision to library to room, picking up a sandwich along the way, runs the risk of neglecting meaningful interaction. Forcing myself to spend time cooking in a communal area, making conversation even when I don’t feel like it, keeps me clear-headed in the frenzy of work.

Cooking isn’t a particularly physical activity, but it’s certainly more physical than sitting in hall or reclining with a takeaway. If you struggle to motivate yourself to move around much, the promise of home-cooked food should surely be enough to get you standing up chopping vegetables or stirring on the hob.

The idea of ‘taking notice’ as a step towards wellbeing is about being aware of the moment and enjoying your environment. Your optimal thrice-daily opportunity to slow down and take care of yourself is at mealtimes – savour the moment by savouring your home-cooked food.

Cooking is a great way to keep learning practical skills while you study at university. You’ve got to learn the basics at some point, so why not get more stuck in? Even if you do the same few recipes over and over again, you’ll learn how to do them better every time. And if you’re like me, you’ll always want to outdo yourself by trying a more extravagant or intricate dish.

But perhaps the thing I’ve found most rewarding from doing my own cooking is the opportunity to give. The best way I’ve found to connect with people deeply and authentically is one-on-one over a meal. It’s so hard to meet up with busy people in Cambridge, all of us have friends who we don’t see often enough, but no one is too busy to eat – show them they’re important to you by spending some time cooking for or with them. If you’re not cooking your own food right now, chances are you’d cut your spending in half (at least) by cooking for yourself, so you can definitely afford to cook for people once in a while. It’s an invitation no one turns down.

So, please accept my invitation to start cooking. I had hardly ever tried to cook before Cambridge, but, as I reflect in my final year, few things have brought as much value to my experience of student life as planning and preparing each meal every day.