"Cooking is therapy; it's a way of expressing yourself. If you ever make a dish and don't put some of yourself into it, it's not going to be good." - Emeril Lagasse
Eating disorder behaviors are considered full-body disorders in that they not only impact physical health but also mental/emotional well-being across varying realms of functioning. One of the most profound struggles that can manifest during an eating disorder is a shift in the way food is approached.
Individuals in recovery often share statements like, “My brain and body are healing at different rates”, regarding the challenges faced in reconnecting and healing their relationship with food. Healing your relationship with food in recovery is a fundamental aspect of treatment that goes beyond just addressing symptoms and delves into the core issues underlying the disorder. The question remains, just how do we do that?
Culinary art therapy, or CAT for short, hopes to bring the benefits of art therapy to a relationship with food to heal just that. CAT is a therapeutic approach that combines elements of culinary arts with therapy to promote emotional healing through self-expression. Typically, it involves using cooking or food-related activities as a medium for individuals to explore and address their emotions, behaviors, and patterns with food.
Let’s break it down with a few examples:
Emotional Expression: Cooking and creating food can be a powerful form of externalizing expression whether through the choice of ingredients, the preparation techniques, or the presentation of the final dish. This can help individuals process and communicate feelings in a non-verbal manner and engage with metaphor, meaning-making, or use narrative therapy to deepen into thoughts.
Mindfulness: Culinary art therapy often emphasizes mindfulness and being present in the moment with food without the pressure of focusing on eating. Practicing mindfulness can help reduce stress and anxiety, improve concentration and embodiment, and develop a greater sense of self-awareness.
Self-Esteem and Confidence: Cooking is a transformation of food that uses the chef as the catalyst! Preparing a meal or dish can boost self-esteem while engaging the five senses. The practice of cooking often creates confidence in food engagement by promoting a sense of self-accomplishment and reducing fear.
Creativity and Self-Expression: Cooking is a creative process, and culinary art therapy encourages individuals to explore their creativity and self-expression through food. This can help individuals in recovery experience fun with food again without the pressure of needing to engage with food in the same way.
Social Interaction: CAT can be applied in a group or individual setting!
So what might that look like for me and my recovery? CAT may help:
Reduce fear around food.
Engage in a food-centric activity that doesn’t focus on eating-based outcomes.
Dismantle and challenge food rules.
Invitation to get messy and let go of perfectionism.
Evokes curiosity, playfulness, and a sense of community through shared experiences, local community/ingredient resourcing, group work, and more.
Create connections with others.
Transform food into a versatile medium (for eating, as paint/pigment, for creating, baking, gifting, somatic experiencing).
Challenge food rituals.
Promote sensory exploration: food experimentation, texture exploration, specific taste or smell workshops, and more.
Integrate with other creative counseling like horticulture therapy.
Encourage FUN with food again!
Food for thought: How can I try out culinary therapy and implement it at home?
Step one: Find a recipe you like by browsing Pinterest, looking through a cookbook, or via your favorite food blogger. Then set aside a designated time to cook your meal! Step two: Create a comfortable environment: grab your favorite beverage, turn on some music, light a candle, and set the mood that will allow you to relax into the process of creating with food. Step three: Start following the directions to the recipe and integrate mindful moments. For example, pay attention to your knife cuts and the patterns of shapes that are made when dicing. Think about how they look, is it visually appealing, do the colors of the foods create a pleasant aesthetic? Stop and take a moment to smell your food as it cooks (like onions and garlic being sauteed together), bring herbs or spices to your nose—does the aroma remind you of something? A person, place, or special memory from your past? Feel the food in between your fingertips–what is the temperature or texture of the item you are holding? What does it remind you of? How does the texture change when it is cooking? Don’t forget to notice any somatic sensations in your body (are your shoulders tense, what is your jaw doing? How does your stomach feel?).
Just practice observing what you notice! There is no right or wrong way to engage with culinary art therapy. Continue mindful moments throughout the recipe, and enjoy the meal that you worked hard to create.
Take time to reflect on your experience: What experiences sparked joy or excitement, and which processes felt stressful or difficult? How did mindfulness in the preparation process impact your desire to engage with the dish? These can be great reflection questions to integrate into a journal, or reflection questions to process with your therapist!
Have questions, thoughts, or just want to learn more? Stay tuned for future CAT offerings through Bloom. We can’t wait to shake things up and get a little messy!