A person stirring food in a steaming pot on a stove in a kitchen. Several other stainless steel pots are also on the stove. The foreground shows a blurred image of bread rolls, and a jar with cherry tomatoes can be seen on the right.

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How to use cooking as a form of therapy

No matter your culinary skills, spend some reflective time in the kitchen to nourish and renew your sense of self

Photo by skynesher/Getty





Charlotte Hastings

is a psychodynamic counsellor trained in systemic family therapy, with a background in anthropology, teaching and parenting. She presents the podcast Kitchen Sessions, teaches cookery classes, and runs Kitchen Therapy sessions. Her first book, Kitchen Therapy: How to Become a Conscious Cook, is out in June 2024. She lives in Brighton, UK.

Edited by Christian Jarrett





Need to know

The idea of using food as a therapeutic medium first occurred to me when I began training as a therapist in the same term that I started to teach community cooking. I found the two classrooms fed one another because the way we cook tells us so much about who and how, even why, we are. As the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said: ‘Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.’ How right he was.

The Promethean gift of fire is arguably the missing link that explains our exponential growth from our ape ancestors. The campfire provided the communal connection that has fed us on many levels since the beginning of human time, fostering social connection and community.

As well as being central to our story as a species, food also plays a key role in each individual’s development. The way we are fed as infants is crucial to how we later understand the world and find our place within it. The paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott described the first feeding scenario as introducing a baby’s mind and body to one another – sent with loving attention, this moment represents a meal around our earliest campfire.

I’m reminded of the first days of each of my infant’s lives and how their eyes would lock into mine as I held and fed them into being. Much later I would learn from neuroscience the important role that maternal gaze plays in early brain development. In a sense, the feeding scenario between parent and infant echoes the initial growth of our species.

It is this primal quality of communication that you can unearth through therapeutic cooking. The infant and the meal are both brought into being through the synergy of attention. That is how you can begin using cooking as your therapist at home – transforming your inner state, paying attention to your needs, and rewilding your spirits. Nature will reward your efforts around the hearth, pleased to see you home, releasing happy hormones, endorphins and other brain chemicals in the process. Reflecting on your formative and ongoing experiences with food and cooking also provides a valuable source of self-understanding and development. A mindful approach to feeding yourself can carry you into a place that time forgot, replenishing and renewing a sense of self.

I wonder if you are thinking you are too busy, uninterested or unskilled in the kitchen for therapeutic cooking? Or perhaps you already love cooking the way you do it now? Either way, I hope this Guide will help you get more meaningful satisfaction and support from the food you eat. Just as the food you need changes over time, so the way you cook can meet you wherever you are on the ‘love – loathe – can’t’ cooking spectrum.

I remember a fellow psychotherapy student recounting how she had microwaved her porridge that morning. This was in sharp contrast to my morning spent gently stirring dry oats into a softly spoken bowl of soul balm. This was an easy task amid the complications of life, allowing me precious moments to muse at the stove. An Ayurvedic cookery teacher once told me that when a mother makes her children’s breakfast, she packs it full of her loving protection for the day. That is how we are going to approach cooking – as an opportunity to create an inner parent who will accompany and encourage your day, with loving kindness.

A moment in my childhood that helped crystalise this relational approach to cooking centred around my love of chocolate. One day, left alone in the kitchen, I gobbled my stash of the brown elixir and then moved on to my stepfather’s. Inevitably, I was caught. But rather than tell me off, this generous (and greedy) man understood. He laughed and picked me up kindly. Right then, food and love became fused, actually confused, in the mind of my four-year-old self.

I would spend years unwrapping chocolate bars hoping to find that sense of humour and connection once more, of being loved back home. But I came to realise the answer was waiting patiently at my own fingertips. It is in the alchemy of your own action where real treasure lies. Through human, not machine, timescales (with porridge bowls, not microwaves), your efforts can trigger cycles of reward and earned security. The magic in those feeding moments – with my children, the steaming porridge before college, or chocolate-filled days with my stepfather – are long gone, but the feelings and lessons they revealed are ongoing. That is how kitchen therapy works: we have a meal to enjoy in the moment, and a process to explore for a lifetime: navigating the limitations of food and horizons of love.

My childhood association between chocolate, personal identity and connection is naturally called upon in my work with clients during kitchen therapy. We often make what I call ‘energy truffles’ – a true treat with raw chocolate (zillions of health benefits), soaked seeds (ready for growth), oats (you know what they say about oats), coconut oil (holding it all together) and dates (chocolate’s good friend). This is a raw, ‘no cook’ recipe; it’s simply finished off in the fridge, which makes it immensely accessible whatever your level of culinary experience.

There are a few more ingredients and some personal choices to be made in this messy mixture that provides a lift at any time of day. The key is that, instead of unwrapping instant gratification, we will add intention and effort into the bowl, making delicious morsels that can also be great for sharing!

For this Guide, I’d like to invite you into a kitchen therapy session where we will make these energy truffles together. (This will give you a sense of what’s involved in kitchen therapy and, if you want to take things further, I encourage you to dive into the resources at the end of the Guide.) These truffle treats are for anyone, any time of day, all you need is the willingness to have a go, get a bit messy, and choose your direction.

So you know what’s involved, I suggest reading the Guide once through before you get started. You’ll see that we will be finding out about you on the way, exploring your relationship with food, yourself and others, while considering how food means so much more than meets the plate. The destination is important (these truffles are gorgeous) but the greater nourishment is found in the journey. While filling the fridge with tasty treats, you might find new layers of personal and social connection, creative confidence and a splash of enchantment for the day ahead. Setting aside the limits of perfection, we will uncover layers of potential. Ready?

What to do

Start a cooking journal

When I begin kitchen therapy with clients, I ask them to start a daily journal where they can jot down their thoughts, memories and dreams about food. I’d like you to do the same. Your journal will be a scrapbook where you can note any recipes or meals that you recall enjoying and want to recreate. It could also be a place for you to consider what sort of cook you are today, and make notes to see how this changes as we travel through the stages of the Guide together.

Remember how food forms our first relationship with others and the world? The word ‘company’ comes from the Latin com-panis – ‘with bread’. So in journaling with a cooking scrapbook that is interested in anything and everything you have to say, you can feel companioned and you can learn more about the ways that food and meals have shaped your identity and relationships.

Let’s start with the last meal you really enjoyed. I wonder what you liked about it, where it was and who was there? Equally, can you recall the last meal you disliked? What was unpleasant about it? This is a little like listening to dreams and wondering what they mean. When you start to take an interest, more information appears and you build that portal to your inner world.

When I work with recipes, I give each of them a character who invites me to make them with the spice of fun, attention and even love added into the pot. Why don’t you try the same for the meals you thought of above. I wonder ‘who’ each of the meals you thought of might be?

Now let me ask for your thoughts on chocolate. Put differently, when you think of chocolate, who comes to mind? In the session ahead, I am going to take you through the stages of making those raw chocolate energy truffles I described earlier.

For me, chocolate summons a feeling of a personal champion whose attention makes me feel protected and adored. If chocolate has less positive connotations for you (or you simply don’t like the taste of it), consider swapping chocolate and coconut oil for a nut butter, adding a little extra dried fruit to achieve the same energy and flavour bounce. Each stage ahead will take us through the recipe. As you go through the steps, feel free to note any thoughts as you go, any changes or ideas you have. Take photos or make voice notes, as feels right. Doing this will increase the personal insights you gain from the process.

Get prepared

When a space is organised and ready, it encourages and welcomes you to action. By gathering together the ingredients and equipment you’ll need, it will afford you a sense of creative confidence and potential. The basics are a trusty chopping board and knife, a mixing bowl and saucepan, as well as several handy tasting spoons, and wooden spoons for mixing. Of course, you might like to have rather more kit than that, but this will get you started.

In terms of ingredients, for these energy treats, you will need:

  • raw chocolate (either in a block or powder form, which you can buy in a supermarket);
  • coconut oil or nut butter as you prefer – this will hold it all together;
  • pitted whole dates and other dried fruit such as apricots, cranberries, etc, as you wish;
  • oats or ground almonds or desiccated coconut for protein bulk;
  • mixed seeds such as pumpkin, sunflower, linseed, which provide energy;
  • date syrup or honey, to sweeten;
  • hemp seeds or dried coconut, ground almonds, or just oats, to roll your finished truffles into shape; and
  • lemon juice and possibly salt to sharpen flavour. Recently, I used miso paste for a salty depth: deliciously good.

I keep these ingredients in my store cupboard as I use them in lots of different ways, often. I use a whiteboard to remind me what I need to replenish, helping me with my wayward planning skills.

We are going to start by soaking the seeds the night before we want to make the truffles. There is the satisfaction of thinking ahead as soaking seeds prepares them for growth, softening their defensive barriers, which is a lovely note to self. You are probably wondering about quantities. Hmm, well, this is your first chance to make a choice. Soak plenty because, if there are any left over, they will add to a smoothie or top a bowl of porridge. We will be adding ingredients to your personal specification. Tasting spoon at the ready.

Set the scene

This is where my previous hat as a drama teacher comes in useful. Firstly, choose the soundscape for your cooking session – a podcast to catch up with, a piece of music to stimulate or soothe, or silence for focus. Make a choice knowing you can always switch things up as you get going.

Secondly, and especially if I am tired, I often disperse some scent around: my own perfume or incense, such as sandalwood for connection, and I always don an apron over clothes ready for easy action. This sets the scene and allows the story to begin.

There is mindful intent in these choices, which help get us in the zone, focusing our attention. Cooking can integrate the body’s brain matrix that begins in our hungry gut, moves into our feeling heart and lands in our thoughtful mind. A reason why cooking can help improve your attention span is that it connects to each key centre in the body, aligning your action on a shared goal of feeding mind, body and soul. By setting the scene, you are creating a sense of belonging, settling into this secure base for lively action.

I also suggest creating a mood with lighting that focuses attention, such as an oven light. This Guide would like to be in easy reach to pause or read back. You might like to print it out to allow for direct handling and adding notes as you go. Making all these choices helps you to work the room and make it your own.

Pay attention

Now that our ingredients, equipment and scene are ready, we can get going. Begin by chopping dates to a mulch; if using apricots, chop them small. While you’re working, notice the aromas, the colours and textures arising. These dates are absorbing the full power of your loving attention, which they will be delighted to feed back to you later. Imagine how many truffles (which keep for ages, by the way) you want to make and how much time you have to guess the quantity. Any left over will happily add to a stew or cake (nothing needs to be wasted and each meal leads to the next).

Therapeutically, we are adding the nutrition of enjoyment, resourcefulness and time into our mix, which is essential for human development. It is normal to feel irritated with sticky fingers and the like, but this can be softened by the pleasure of licking them clean and taste-testing as we go. The way we attend to reality actually changes what we find there, as well as reflecting something about how we are today. For example, if I arrive at the stove feeling pressured or resentful, the meal will feel itself to be a hassle. If I can notice and be curious about my mood, change can emerge just as cooking gathers the various ingredients and combines them into a new whole. Attention is in fact alchemy.

Make mud-pie magic

Did you ever make mud pies as a child, or something similar? How wonderful that no one told you how much soil to add, when or why, yet somehow you knew what was and wasn’t right? Cooking is our first technology, and if you can let go of getting it perfect and enjoy the process, you’ll find you have stores of inner knowledge to tap into.

My youngest son taught me about enabling the creative process when I got him making a bonfire cake as preparation for a family cooking class I was taking. I had a magazine picture of the cake but he had his own idea of how it should be, as many six-year-old children do. The end result was awful. All wrong. Or so I thought. But when I asked him what he thought, he told me it was the BEST thing he had EVER made. Ah. So this is the nature of creativity – follow the process and see what it becomes, knowing from within what is good, just as those messy mud pies taught us years ago.

This is the stage where you can add all your ingredients into the bowl: soaked seeds, chopped dates, raw chocolate (which you can either grate from a whole block or buy ready powdered, similar to cocoa), oats or the like. Meanwhile you have boiled a kettle and then set your coconut oil jar inside a jug of boiling water to melt. Having mixed your dry ingredients together, add in sweet syrup or honey with the liquid oil (or nut butter equivalent). Now stir steadily and taste-test.

If you want to add some umph to the flavour and richness, try a few drops of lemon juice with a twist of salt, or a spoonful of miso. Too runny? Add more oats. Too dry? Add more oil. Do you need more chocolate, and does this need to be balanced with more dates? Your truffles – your choice.

Remember, they will solidify further in the fridge, which is what makes this a great ‘no cook’ recipe. (Here’s a bonus tip: when you want to make a particular dish, check three recipes for that dish, then do things your own way.)

Reflect on your feelings

Explore your thoughts and feelings as you make these truffles. I wonder if you can hear some self-talk about whether the truffles are good enough or worth the effort? Or about how you will make use of them? This is your inner narrator speaking, perhaps repeating old scripts you are used to hearing about yourself, or maybe some new questions will emerge. Just be curious as you carry on mixing.

Have you noticed any differences in how you are approaching this task compared with other food preparation? This might be your emotional barometer that lets you in on the secrets of your current state. Watching yourself cook and taking an interest in what you’re doing will help you understand yourself and respond with what you might need (similar to how a journal creates an observer in you, who can stand back and listen). For instance, if you are someone who likes measurements, you might have looked ahead and found a recipe for energy truffles to guide you. If you’re the kind of person who likes to go your own way, I wonder if you decided to include your own alternative ingredients. I would enjoy being there to find out. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers here, this is simply a chance for you to use this process to be reflective and deepen your self-understanding.

Take a moment to be grateful

Having mixed these glorious goodies up together, added in some extras such as vanilla or chili perhaps, let us take a moment to applaud ourselves. Brilliant. Let’s also take time to consider how lucky we are to live in a world with all these beautiful ingredients and possibilities to hand. Let’s be grateful for the growers and traders who have brought them our way. Namaste. Cooking brings us into connection with our own personal endeavours, the resources around and within us, as well as one another. It really takes a whole community to cook a meal from scratch, just as these truffles rely on all the ingredients coming together to become one messy morsel of energy. All of your senses, imagination and ingenuity have come to the fore in this delicious process.

Learn from the process and enjoy what you made

This is the stage where you scrape the bowl clean, melding each truffle into a mouth-size ball and rolling them in hemp seeds, coconut or cocoa as you wish. You are collecting your treasure from the alchemical pot. You have transformed the raw elements into ready-to-eat (though even better chilled) edible delights. I wonder what personal ingredients you might find in this process. I know my greedy aspect has found a good use; my creative, organisational side had a workout; and there is a sachet of generosity appearing as I think of who might like to share these treats with me.

As you squidge each truffle into its own shape, passing and rolling it from one hand to the next, let it tell you what has been found along the way. Do you mind getting so messy? Are you going to be pleased to have this stash of sweet goodness waiting for you in the fridge? I wonder if your forethought has prepped a serving plate with hemp seeds as a finishing touch. (If you have no time for this, you can simply put the whole bowl with small spoon in the fridge and eat as you go – as I say: your truffles, your choice.)

At this stage, you are incorporating all the starting ingredients into one whole ‘meal’, just as the different parts of yourself are welcomed to the table. Cooking a dish tells a complete story of its own, but there is always a sequel to hand. What will you cook next? This is a good message for you too – complete as you are, there are also seeds of progression waiting in the wings.

So now, having cleared up and perhaps made a cup of tea, let’s return to your journal once more and take note of how this process went. How would you do things differently next time? What did you notice along the way? There is usually a certain smile and swagger about someone who has made something delicious. I wonder if you will find the same? The process of preparing, chopping and mixing, tasting, choosing and making activates the effort-reward pathways inside us, particularly stimulated by working with our hands and our minds, together. If nothing else, I hope you’ve experienced how the power to make changes and feed ourselves lies within, at our fingertips.

Key points – How to use cooking as a form of therapy

  1. Kitchen therapy can benefit anyone, no matter your experience or interest in cooking. It will transform your inner state, bring your attention to your needs, and rewild your spirits.
  2. Start a cooking journal. Think of it as a scrapbook where you note recipes or meals you recall enjoying and want to recreate; where you reflect on what you learn and how you change through the process of cooking.
  3. Get prepared. By gathering together the ingredients and equipment you’ll need, it will afford you a sense of creative confidence and potential.
  4. Set the scene. From background music to what you wear for cooking, there is mindful intent in these choices, which help get us in the zone, focusing our attention.
  5. Pay attention. While you’re working, notice the aromas, the colours and the textures arising.
  6. Make mud-pie magic. Just like a child making a mud pie, if you can let go of getting it perfect and enjoy the process, you’ll find you have stores of inner knowledge to tap into.
  7. Reflect on your feelings. Watching yourself cook and taking an interest in what you’re doing will help you understand yourself and respond with what you might need.
  8. Take a moment to be grateful. Pause for a moment to consider how lucky we are to live in a world with all these beautiful ingredients and possibilities to hand.
  9. Learn from the process and enjoy what you made. As you collect your treasure from the alchemical pot, think of what you’ve learned – how the power to make changes and feed ourselves lies within, at our fingertips.

Learn more

Try kitchen therapy with others

Having explored how much food has to say and dipped into the memories, meaning and ideas a meal can evoke for you, it could be fun to share this with others. How about asking a small group of family and/or friends to join you in a supper club where you each bring a dish that has special significance for you? You could form a storytelling circle, centred around everyone’s food choices. It would be a form of potluck party with a random variety of dishes that would need to find a way to get along with each other, having your friendship in common.

You could consider rotating the hosting of each get-together, with the host choosing a theme, such as ‘favourite childhood meal’ or ‘best holiday dish’. This is a delicious way of getting to know more about your close ones; the conversations could also elicit more of your own personal connections with food. Do you remember how Winnicott thought that feeding a baby introduced the infant’s mind and body in their earliest days? Well, food connects us to the world around us as well as to ourselves. There is also a sense of security when we have a full belly, which provides a safe base for exploration. It is lovely to be cooked for and to share your creative choices in a spirit of curiosity, not perfection, around your group’s campfire. A supper club with candlelit storytelling and memory-sharing could be a great way of deepening your sense of belonging and connection in yourselves, feeding you on many levels, long after the meal has gone.

Links & books

My website has a variety of resources including short films about making food outdoors, from earth to plate; podcasts that explore the story behind and within people’s signature dishes; and a number of articles describing the psychological and spiritual nutrition in food. I hope all these will whet your appetite further.

My book Kitchen Therapy: How to Become a Conscious Cook will be out in June this year. I give culinary adventurers a practical guide to approaching recipes with creative intuition, including the hows and whys of using cooking to support inner work, a sense of belonging and security.

I recommend checking out the recipes provided by Oddbox. The resourceful, creative essence of this UK delivery company’s mission is to make use of all the vegetables and other food that has been rejected by the supermarkets and is heading for landfill. Not only do Oddbox have great recipe ideas, but they also send an important message about the value of every aspect of ourselves.

I also recommend the recipes from Riverford Organic Farmers. This UK company’s inventive and ethical approach to feeding ourselves and supporting our farmers not only includes fantastic seasonal recipes, but promotes a cooperative self-care approach, exploring the importance of our relationship to the food we eat, as well as its journey in time and space.

Carl Jung’s technique of active imagination, which fosters a relationship with inner figures, particularly from dreams, can also be applied to the food we eat – how we relate to recipes and meals, what they might have to say about who and how we are in the world. Getting to ‘know your onions’ is a practical way of understanding yourself and finding an edible route into inner work.

On her blog, the gardener Stacy Ling in New Jersey, US provides an interesting and helpful springboard for starting your own supper club that could be a delicious way of getting to know yourself and loved ones that bit better while ensuring some really interesting and nourishing entertainment.

The book Attachment, Relationships and Food: From Cradle to Kitchen (2021) is a series of essays edited by the attachment-based psychoanalytic psychotherapist Linda Cundy. The contributors, including me, delve into various themes raised by how we humans feed ourselves. It provides a dynamic and thought-provoking route to inner work through this edible, practical and accessible arena.

The book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009) by the primatologist Richard Wrangham describes how cooking explains that we are what we eat. Wrangham discusses the coordination of social resources that’s necessary to cook food – and how the process of creating this rich nutrition is the basis of the human experience. Learning about this helps us connect with the vital importance of paying attention to how as much as to what we feed ourselves.





1 May 2024