James Whelan Butchers: Cooking Therapy

It never ceases to amaze me the staggering amounts of money that government bodies, business organisations and educational institutions the world over pump into research, surveys and reports. Some are obviously valid but others verge on the ridiculous. For example a significant amount was spent on a research project in a British university that came to the conclusion that “the more you think about chocolate the more you are likely to eat it.” I could have told them that for free! And I could write a fascinating appendix to that study that says the more you think about juicy steaks/luscious sausages/creamy pies the more you are likely to eat them while conversely, thoughts of spinach or cabbage don’t strike the same note at all. I might have a future in this research lark after all. However, joking aside I was delighted to read some findings that now scientifically conclude that cooking is actually good for reducing stress levels. Oh yes, the very thing that you often believe to be the cause of your anxiety; the “What the hell will I get for the dinner” syndrome, can actually be cured and calmed by then making the dinner.

There are several elements of cooking that act as stress reducers. First of all there is what they call the “Voodoo” effect. While it conjures thoughts of carving an image of your boss/spouse/nemesis on a carrot and sticking pins into it, you don’t have to go that far. You just think of the irritants while you chop and butcher and take all your zeal out that way. If you’re upset enough you’ll be amazed at how quickly you zip through the preparation, but don’t get too carried away and mind your fingers. Apparently you’ll feel great by the end of it.

On a more positive note cooking also provides a natural aromatherapy session for you and anyone in the vicinity of your kitchen. For this reason learn to cook with herbs, spices and aromatics. Even chopping and preparing lovely, freshly plucked herbs releases the aromas and they are very calming. I’m not that naturally green fingered but I like to grow a small selection of herbs so I always have them to hand. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than snipping a sprig of rosemary or a bunch of chives or tearing a handful of basil or coriander. I have a friend who grows his herbs in a sheltered rockery on the edge of his lawn so he has the added stress release of having to go out into his beautiful garden when he needs them. Sometimes just the smell of the grass on a summers’ evening is enough to whip away the tension of the day. I didn’t know this until I looked it up for this article but the following are regularly used in aromatherapy so you could incorporate them in your cooking and baking. If you need energising or invigorating use orange, rosemary, or lemon; for stress relief choose lavender or sage. Lavender ad chamomile aids sleep and mint and basil are, according to the experts, mood elevators.

Finally there are foods that can actually reduce stress and anxiety and sadly there are foods that can have the opposite effect also. If you have had a harrowing day the last thing you need is to put dull, dead, overly processed foods into an already tired body. By doing this you are putting further stress on the system as it now has to digest and eliminate this stuff. On the other hand eating delicious, easy to digest, natural and nutritious meals will actually make you feel better, more energised, fuelled up and ready to deal with things and so ultimately you will feel in a better mood.

Personally I find cooking and preparing food very therapeutic. Unlike the study that suggests you take your anger out on the vegetables, I suggest that you just get lost in the activity. I find having to concentrate on the task at hand allows me to forget any niggles and literally leave the day behind. In the kitchen I am in total control and that simple act of preparing great food for my family is such a positive and uplifting ritual, even on the worst days. Admittedly if you have had a bad day or are very tired cooking always seems like a chore, but I promise you that if you push through that reluctance to the preparation, you will find it has great benefits. It is probably because as humans we like rituals and cooking is very ritualistic; there are steps to take and it gives us a feeling of accomplishment as there is a beginning, a middle and an end which hopefully is one of gratitude and plaudits and someone else offering to do the washing up!

Finally I found a wonderful study that came from the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. It stated that you can cause a significant reduction in the number of stress hormones in the body by eating chocolate. In an experiment they found that people who identified as highly stressed ate a few pieces of dark chocolate on a daily basis for two weeks and lowered their stress levels. There’s nothing more to say about that but just take the advice and run with it as soon as you can. Other foods linked to stress release include turkey, walnuts, sweet potatoes, almonds and spinach.

I believe that all delicious, well prepared natural foods have benefits. I always feel good after a lovely meal. We should all embrace the hobby of cooking as a stress reliever. Let’s face it, in these times of austerity and stress it is much cheaper than going to the spa, better for you than drugs or alcohol and something you can share with family and friends. So in future if you’re feeling stressed drop into the James Whelan Butchers’ “Food Clinic” in the Oakville Shopping Centre, pick up something wonderful to cook and then rattle those pots and pans. You’ll feel better in no time at all!

We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of  James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Handweavers Rathcoole and Kilmacanogue, Dunnes Stores Cornelscourt, Rathmines and Swords in Dublin. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers

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