As a budding third year just starting out on my clinical rotations, I’ve recently learned the value of a home-cooked meal — there’s only so much take-out Chinese, microwaveable pizza rolls, and leftovers from last week’s lunch that my tastebuds will tolerate. It was only when one of my friends pointed out that it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve eaten a vegetable that I realized I needed to make changes in my life: specifically, culinary ones.
The physical effects of healthy cooking are obvious: from losing weight to a decreased risk of conditions such as diabetes and hypertension to many others. Interestingly, several studies show that cooking or baking also has positive effects for one’s mental health. One older study observed 22 patients in a chronic psychiatric ward and found that of three activities — cooking, crafts, or sensory awareness — cooking was consistently rated as the therapy that had the greatest positive effect on mental health. Yet another study found that cooking or baking contributed to a feeling of group belonging and that if perceived as a meaningful and productive experience, can greatly increase mental health.
This time I didn’t have to plan anything — apparently worried about the lack of veggies in my diet, my friends had signed me (and themselves) up for a cooking class nearby. Walking in, I thought we’d start out with easy recipes like sandwiches or things with three or fewer ingredients. I didn’t expect my culinary skills to vastly improve, and I certainly didn’t expect anything I cooked to taste much better than bland.
I couldn’t have been more wrong on both accounts. When we walked in, I was given a menu that included “Harissa Vegetable Stuffed Peppers with Quinoa Pilaf” and “Pink Peppercorn Ice Cream with Caramelized Fruit and Candied Walnuts.” I had no idea what half of the items on the menu were, and frankly, I didn’t know if my palate was ready for any ice cream flavor that wasn’t chocolate-based. But, after seeing that my friends were completely unruffled by the menu, I figured I should at least try my best — and if I got nothing else out of it, maybe practicing slicing vegetables would help me out in my surgery rotation. Surprisingly, it didn’t take too much effort to really get into it — maybe it was the presence of my friends, maybe it was the smell of home-cooked food (something I sorely missed), or maybe it was the hilarious instructor who gave us anecdotes of the worst cooking mistakes she’d made.
Having someone guiding me through the steps and explaining what I should and shouldn’t add, as well as having pointers on what ingredients to mix with each other to bring out the most potent flavors, certainly made a difference. In an hour or so, I found that whatever was steaming from my pot actually smelled good. And better yet, after another half an hour or so, I found that it tasted good too — that my cooking had somehow magically improved from “edible at best” to something I would cook for family!
I might be biased, not having had home-cooked food in a long time, but that was one of my favorite adventures thus far. Yes, the people I was with and the environment I was cooking in was excellent, but I was most pleasantly surprised by the addition of a new skill into my repertoire — how to make tasty and nutritious treats. Cooking is quite an undervalued skill and knowing at least a couple of nifty recipes that take less than 15 minutes will be valuable to you as a medical student and even beyond. If for only that reason, I’d highly recommend everyone take a cooking class at some point. It’s fun, useful, and makes for a satisfied stomach at the end of the evening. Bon appetite!
A very important topic is that of mental health in medical practitioners, notably medical students. According to a study in the Student British Medical Journal, 30 percent of medical students report having a mental health condition — with a majority of 80 percent stating the level of available support was poor or only moderately adequate. This column was born from these alarming statistics and aims to stimulate conversation on mental health in medical students, from providing suggestions on how to maintain one’s mental health to discussing the taboo and stigma surrounding conversations on mental health in practitioners and students, and how to eliminate it.