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After a long day at work, cooking dinner may seem like just one more chore you’d rather avoid. Yet, turning your attention to food preparation may actually help you shift mental gears.

Julie Ohana, LMSW, a culinary art therapist in West Bloomfield, Michigan, is one of a small but growing cadre of mental health professionals who use cooking as a therapeutic tool. “Coming home to cook can be a very productive way to unwind, decompress, and relax,” she says.

Turning off thoughts of work

If you make a habit of cooking after work, you’ll start to associate it with switching your brain to home mode. Psychological detachment refers to the sense of being away from work, both physically and mentally, during your time off. This ability to mentally disconnect from work at the end of the workday has been linked to:

Any activity that takes your mind off work could have this effect. But cooking may be especially well-suited to this purpose. It’s something that many people do on a regular basis soon after getting home from work. And unlike plopping in front of a TV, it’s a healthful activity that can be easily adapted to your needs, as you’ll read below.

Giving your brain a break

Research shows that people whose demanding jobs entail complicated decision-making, relentless time pressure, or brutally long hours often find it difficult to stop thinking about work once they get home. If you feel mentally exhausted after work, you may appreciate cooking with a recipe, whether it’s a new one you just found online or a familiar one you carry in your head. In either case, most of the mental labor has been done for you in advance.

“Every decision you make during the day requires energy as you evaluate options and outcomes and select courses of action,” says Jaime Malone, LPC, a licensed professional counselor in Shrewsbury, New Jersey. “The opportunity to have decisions made for you can allow you to feel a calmness you may not have otherwise felt in your day.”

Nourishing your creativity

For other people, the most stressful part of their jobs is boredom, monotony, and lack of mental challenge. If you feel mentally stifled at work, you may relish the chance to express yourself in the kitchen by making up a new recipe or embellishing an existing one.

“Some people enjoy the creativity of experimenting as they cook,” says Malone. “The key is knowing yourself, knowing your current mood and mindset, and being able to approach cooking as either a creative outlet or a scripted activity according to your needs.”

Redirecting your attention

Practicing mindfulness is another research-based way to counter any job stress that follows you home from work. Mindfulness involves focusing your awareness on what you’re experiencing right here, right now. The kitchen offers a rich sensory environment for honing this skill.

When you’re cooking mindfully, you are fully immersed in the present moment—the brightly colored veggies, the sweet-tasting fruit, the enticing aroma of baking bread, the repetitive motion of chopping vegetables or hand-mixing a batter.

If thoughts and feelings related to work come up, you notice them, but then you let them go. As a result, you’re not endlessly rehashing something that happened earlier in the day or worrying about something that might happen tomorrow.

Savoring the accomplishment

Research shows that feelings of mastery can also help you recover from the stress of a taxing job. The way to gain a sense of mastery is by becoming more proficient at a skill that’s at least somewhat challenging for you. Whether you’re a novice cook or an experienced hand in the kitchen, there’s always something new to learn.

When the skills you’ve mastered lead to a delicious, nutritious, home-cooked meal, the experience may be particularly gratifying. “It feels good to do something productive and helpful for yourself and your family,” says Ohana.

Recipe for recuperation

Although cooking can be a terrific way to relax and regroup after work, it’s not always easy to fit into a busy schedule. “When you have young children, for example, you may come home to another list of to-dos: after-school activities, homework, baths, bedtime routines,” says Malone. “Cooking dinner often feels like a task to get done, rather than an activity to be enjoyed.”

When cooking becomes just another obligation, you may end up feeling resentful when you do it and guilty when you don’t—and that’s not the best frame of mind for unwinding. If you’re not already sold on cooking, these tips may help you approach it with a more positive attitude:

  • Keep it simple. “People get scared of the idea of tackling something that is too labor-intensive or that will take too long when hungry kids are waiting,” says Ohana. “But it doesn’t need to be so complicated.” When you’re pressed for time, she suggests sticking with quick, easy, light meals that can be pulled together in 30 minutes or less.
  • Have a Plan B. There will likely be some nights when cooking just doesn’t fit into your schedule. If healthy eating is a priority for you, have a plan for how you’ll deal with those nights—for example, by thawing previously frozen leftovers, picking up dinner at a supermarket salad bar, or ordering takeout from a restaurant that offers healthy options.
  • Be intentional. When you do cook, know why it’s worth the effort to you. Maybe you want to limit sodium, chemical additives, or added sugar in your food. Maybe you want to save money. Or maybe you just like the taste of your own cooking, which research suggests may help motivate you to eat healthier foods. Whatever your personal reason for cooking, remind yourself about it.

Redefine cooking as a hobby rather than a chore. Then let yourself have fun while you whip up a mouthwatering meal: turn on some music, chat with your partner, follow along with a how-to video. Before long, you may find yourself looking forward to getting into the kitchen after work.

Linda Wasmer Andrews specializes in writing about health, psychology, and especially the intersection of the two. Connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.

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