Cook A Meal––It’s Good For The Brain
Cooking, as the saying goes, is good for the body and soul. Turns out, it’s also good for the brain. Everything from choosing a recipe, preparing the ingredients, putting the meal together, and even eating the completed meal––they all activate and use specific parts of the brain. Here are three ways cooking is good for our brain.
Activates the Frontal Lobes
Cooking is an enormously complex task. One of the first steps in organizing a meal is figuring out which recipes will pair best together. This is one of the first tasks that require our frontal lobes. The paired lobes are located in the front section of our brain and deals with a variety of functions. Pairing foods for meals requires sensory acuity and sensory memory.
The first, sensory acuity, is when we learn everything we can about ingredients. What do herbs and spices look and taste like? Can we substitute white flour with almond flour? Do we have the ingredients or know where to find them? These questions and the process of finding the answers occur in the frontal lobes. The second, sensory memory, is when we begin to learn not just the basic answers to these questions, but begin to use our imaginations in regard to how we can use this information in other recipes. Would adding a dash of paprika make our fried chicken pop? This process takes time as we build our sensory memory, but it helps keep our frontal lobe active and healthy every time we cook.
We also need to focus on the tasks at hand. When we are following a recipe, we have to read and understand the recipe not just as a whole, but the individual steps required from beginning to end. Paying attention to the timing and tracking when to add ingredients, putting foods in the oven, taking them off the stove. And we have to be adept at multitasking, since cooking a meal often requires we do these tasks for several dishes at the same time. This all requires our focus, attention to detail, and concentration, improving those skills with every meal we cook. These are all part of our higher level, executive functioning, and that all takes place in the frontal lobes.
We’ve talked a bit about how cooking improves our sensory memory. However, building our understanding of how things taste and smell is only one piece of the memory equation. The more we cook, the more we’re able to remember what works in a recipe, and what doesn’t, beyond flavors. A cake may need five more minutes in order to reach peak fluffiness or a steak cooked at a lower temperature. These are examples of our working memory.
The second part of our working memory is our ability to sequence events. What time does the roast need to go in the oven and then when should we boil the potatoes so they’re ready at the same time? What order do we need to add vegetables to a stir-fry so that they’re all cooked the same, regardless of texture? Even simply following a recipe step by step requires us to understand a sequence of events to ensure the dish turns out.
But the other element in sequencing is anticipation. We’re planning not just one dish at a time, or one meal at a time, but all the steps required in achieving our goal. We learn how long vegetables take to cut, how long a cut of meat should marinate, and how to time everything to be done at the same time. If we’re in the midst of a meal and don’t have an ingredient, knowing how to substitute one ingredient for another, or rebounding when a dish doesn’t turn out at all, are examples of how our working memory takes temporary pieces of information and relate them to our knowledge database.
Requires Fine Motor Skills
Cooking requires a lot of dexterity. We have to measure, cut up, and mix ingredients with precision. When we work on our knife skills, we’re improving the synchronization of our hands and fingers with our eyes. More than simple hand-eye coordination, this requires us to work both larger muscles in our hands and arms, along with the finer details of our fingers while moving vegetables along the blade without getting cut.
When we mix by hand, we’re strengthening our forearms. Piping frosting onto a cake, kneading dough, and sprinkling flour on a counter or toppings on cupcakes all improves our hand strength. We often have to use both hands to complete different tasks at the same time, such as stirring one pot while lifting the lid to another. Rolling pizza dough or balling cookie dough into perfect circles increases our bilateral integration when we have to use both of our hands at the same time for one task.
Not only does cooking help us improve our fine motor skills as we age, but cooking with younger children is a great way to develop their fine motor skills at the same time. Improving our dexterity keeps our cognitive functionality healthy, which slows down cognitive decline as we age. Even if we aren’t the best when we start, with every vegetable we chop or teaspoon we measure, we’ll see improvement, which exercises our body and keeps our nervous system healthy.
Cooking is often touted as an activity that is great for our health because it means we eat less fast food. And while it’s true that eating more whole foods will keep our body healthy, the activity of cooking itself does wonders for our brain. Even better, it doesn’t matter how elaborate the meal is. We can scramble an egg and get the same cognitive benefits. When looking for ways to unlock our limitless potential, remember that one of those keys is as simple as spending more time in the kitchen.