Cooking healthy meals at home can improve your mental health, according to new Australian research

Woman cooking at home in her kitchen
Cooking at home is not only beneficial for your physical health, but your mental health too. Photo credit: Getty Images

We all know home cooked meals are better for our bodies than takeaways, but new research has found that confidence in the kitchen is also beneficial for our mental health. 

A study by researchers at Edith Cowan University (ECU) in Western Australia saw 657 participants undertake a seven-week cooking course, specialising in healthy meals. 

At the same time, academics from the ECU Institute for Nutrition Research measured the programme's impact on the participants' confidence in the kitchen and their self-perceived mental health, as well as their overall satisfaction with cooking and diet-related behaviours. 

Those who participated in the programme experienced significant improvements in their general health, mental health and subjective vitality immediately afterwards, the researchers found. The participants were still reporting the benefits six months after completing the course, when compared to the study's control group. 

The participants' confidence with cooking also improved, according to the research, as well as their ability to overcome lifestyle barriers to healthy eating.

Lead researcher Dr Joanna Rees said the findings of the study demonstrate an important link between diet and mental health. 

"Improving diet quality can be a preventive strategy to halt or slow the rise in poor mental health, obesity and other metabolic health disorders," she said. 

"Future health programmes should continue to prioritise the barriers to healthy eating such as poor food environments and time restrictions, whilst placing greater emphasis on the value of healthy eating via quick and easy home cooked meals, rich in fruit and vegetables and avoiding ultra-processed convenience foods."  

Previously, the ECU Institute for Nutrition Research also identified a link between eating more fruits and vegetables and improved long-term mental health. The larger study collected more sophisticated dietary data, implying the participants in the current study may have felt better due to their improved diet, the researchers noted.

However, participants' diets were found to have largely remained unchanged following the programme, but their mental health had still improved.

The improvements to mental health were also found to be equal regardless of the participants' weight, with the programme proving beneficial to those who were overweight or obese, as well as those within a healthy weight range. 

"This suggests a link between cooking confidence and satisfaction around cooking and mental health benefits," Dr Rees said. 

The study also revealed that cooking remains a highly gendered task. 

At the start of the programme, 77 percent of participants who identified as female claimed to be a confident cook, compared to just 23 percent of those who identified as male. 

But at the end of the programme, both cooking confidence and cooking skills were found to be equal across male and female participants. 

"This change in confidence could see a change to the household food environment by reducing the gender bias and leading to a gender balance in home cooking," Dr Rees explained. 

"This in turn may help to overcome some of the barriers presented by not knowing how to cook, such as easing the time constraints which can lead to readymade meals - which are high in energy but low in nutritional value."

The study followed ECU's successful partnership with The Good Foundation and Jamie's Ministry of Food initiative, with a mobile food kitchen providing cooking classes in the community as well as at the University's Perth and South West campuses throughout 2016 to 2018. 

The peer-reviewed findings of the study, 'How a 7-Week Food Literacy Program Affects Cooking Confidence and Mental Health: Findings of a Quasi-Experimental Controlled Intervention Trial', were published in Frontiers in Nutrition this week.