Lockdown getting you down? Get cooking!

I smoothed the homemade berry pie filling over the top of the New York cheesecake I had made. My chef’s knife slid carefully through the berries, dragging streaks of purple and read over the creamy lemony middle, and then crunched through the biscuit crust. I gently tugged the slice free from its cake prison, tipped it into a bowl and picked up my spoon, smiling to myself. My cheesecake breakfast was finally here.

Lockdown has been getting me down. And I’m not alone. A study into the last Level 4 lockdown in New Zealand found 39% of respondents reported low wellbeing, with young adults most affected. My guess is that this time around will not be much better. But what can we do about it?

I’m sure you know all getting active, sleeping well, including whole foods in your day, yada yada yada, will help. But did you realise that cooking will too? Home cooking saw a boom in the last lockdown, and flour routinely sold out as people tried their hand at baking. It was one of the few silver linings of lockdown, because home cooking and baking have some incredible benefits for wellbeing.

First up is the obvious one: you’ll eat better by default because you simply can’t process food the same way the food industry can. Harry Balzer really said it all when he said, “Eat anything you want, just cook it yourself.”

And if you have kids, the benefits extend to them, too. Teens who cook are more independent, and getting younger children involved in their food prep means they are far more likely to actually eat it (you can see my tips for getting young kids eating here).

But did you know that home cooking and baking also cultivate feelings of creativity? And getting creative boosts your happiness levels!

There’s something inherently wonderful about creating a meal from scratch. You get this sense of accomplishment. Just look at that cheesecake I baked. I had waited in line at the supermarket, purchased a whopping four cartons of cream cheese and then carefully left them on the bench to come to room temperature. My son had put the malt biscuits in a food processor, with his ear muffs safely intact. He had flicked mixture all over the doors of the kitchen cupboards as he used the electric beaters to whip up the filling while the crust baked. He even licked the cut lemon to see if it really was sour (his expression told me that it was). The cake had baked in its waterbath for an hour and a half, cooled, then been left to chill in the fridge overnight. Altogether, creating this gigantic masterpiece had taken a day a full day. And there is something about that delayed gratification, about making it myself instead of just buying a storebought one, that made me happy before I even tasted it.

So, if you’re trying to look after your physical and mental health this lockdown, there’s no better place to start than home cooking. Now is the time to put all those hours of watching Hottest Home Baker and doom scrolling pretty meals on Instagram to use.

Most people new to cooking or baking lack confidence. My best piece of advice if you’re a beginner is to start simple. You don’t need to be Gordon Ramsay to cook a simple meal that you can share with loved ones. Pick a recipe that sounds easy and that you know you’ll actually enjoy eating. Then read the whole thing through from start to finish and do any prep you need to, e.g. turning on the oven, chopping things up, gathering ingredients, etc. Then go for it!

It really doesn’t matter if you screw it up. Last Easter I tried my hand at baking a Polish babka cake and it was… okay. I think I ended up throwing out about half of it when it went stale but that wasn’t the point. Growing up, my grandmother would bake a babka every year and making my own gave me a sense that I was honouring where my ancestors come from. Food can connect us with our culture like that, which is a wellbeing boost in its own right. I will carry on the tradition next Easter and I’m sure my babka-making skills will improve over time. The more you do something, the more confident you become.

So don’t let lockdown get you down: bust out that apron!

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