Therapists use cooking to stir up better mental health

“Whenever Grandma Dolly cooked, we all would come running,” Mikki Frank reminisced while mixing pancake batter in a ceramic mixing bowl.

Her therapist Julie Ohana asked, “What about your grandma’s buttermilk pancakes made them so special?”

“Her love,” Frank replied.

“That’s a big part of any recipe,” Ohana affirmed.

Over the past few months, Frank has been exploring culinary arts therapy, one of the latest trends in self-care. The practice combines cooking with traditional therapy, Ohana’s specialty.

The method is relatively new within the counseling field and has proven helpful for those with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. This is due in part to its meditative aspect.

“It’s really an exercise in mindfulness,” Ohana said. “When you’re lining up things, cutting things in a certain way, you really get into a groove. You’re really able to focus on what you’re doing, be in the moment, let other things go.”

Frank stepped into the kitchen with Ohana in hopes of finding better ways to cope with the stress that comes with being a working mother of three.

“I’m definitely feeling a lot of the push and pull between my priority, which is my children, and also a job that I love,” she said.

During the session, Ohana had Frank prepare two pancake recipes: traditional buttermilk and a healthier oatmeal version. By making both, Ohana was hoping to exhibit how Frank could find balance in her busy life through a little thoughtful planning.

Therapeutic cooking can be done one-on-one, with families and with employees in a workshop format. It is executed differently than typical counseling.

“When you’re in a traditional therapy session, there’s really nothing else to focus on other than the person you’re talking to,” Ohana explained. “For some people, it’s really intimidating and uncomfortable.

“When you’re in the kitchen and doing something else with a therapist, people are really able to just kind of relax and be more themselves,” she added.

Culinary arts therapy can also make the most out of group sessions.

“If you’re with the group, part of the magic that I like to think happens is in the interaction with the people that you’re with. You’re really learning to communicate and problem-solve with others in a way that you don’t really find in other situations,” Ohana said.

Whether it’s groups or individuals, Ohana makes a point of incorporating the things that people already have positive connections to, easing her way into essential conversations.

“A lot of it is just conversation,” she said. “The difference is that I always have my social worker/therapist hat on, and I pick up on certain cues, so I can lead the conversation to something more meaningful.”

By the end of each session, clients leave with food for thought, and an actual meal.

“You’re really learning something that’s really working well for you, hopefully, but also a life skill that we all need.”

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