Comfort Cooking: 7 Recipes to Make When You’re Feeling Anxious

updated May 30, 2019
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(Image credit: Cherish Bryck/Stocksy)

When my nerves are shot, my anxiety is at a fever pitch, or I’m just generally stuck in a quagmire of existential malaise, I go to my kitchen. Routine cooking almost always helps me feel better. It helps my brain stop spinning and forces me to slow down, even for just the short time it takes to chop an onion. At the very least, it separates me from a screen for a while. (The built-in aromatherapy is helpful, too.)

But when I really feel like life is out of control, I’ll spend an entire evening or a Sunday afternoon up to my elbows in an immersive, labor-intensive and time-consuming “project recipe” that requires my attention, my patience, and maybe a little bit of my creativity, too.

Unsurprisingly, making chili or baking a pie doesn’t solve my problems or make current affairs any easier to stomach. But it does seem to flip a switch in my mind. Cooking temporarily pauses sneaky panic spirals, and interrupts the loop of negativity that often feels like a broken record. It allows me to feel productive in a way that other “self-care” regimens, like taking a bubble bath or grafting myself to the couch for a Netflix marathon, might not.

It makes me feel capable and in control when I’m successful in pulling off a challenging or complicated recipe. It feels good to channel excess nervous energy into the wholesome, nourishing act of feeding myself and others. Perhaps best of all, I’m rewarded with a meal at the end. (Usually, in my case, a big pot of chili or stew.)

Cooking temporarily pauses sneaky panic spirals, and interrupts the loop of negativity that often feels like a broken record.

Of course, I’m not the first person to discover the therapeutic qualities of cooking. A lot of my fellow home cooks find working in their kitchens not only makes them happier but also feels restorative, which may have something to do with the inherent altruism and intimacy of sharing food with others. While I tend to reach for rich, hearty stews that require a slow, steady building of flavor (read: patience), others tackle everything from baguettes to slow-simmered sauces to dumplings, perfectly folded over and over again.

7 Dishes to Make When You’re Feeling Anxious

Here are a handful of recipes that help calm and empower me when I’m anxious. These might not work for everyone, but they help me and I hope they will give you some ideas to try out at home.

1. Bread

In my non-scientific research, homemade bread seemed to be the crowd favorite for therapeutic kitchen projects. Making bread takes time and patience, and the physical act of kneading the dough is always a plus.

“Making challah is, for me, a challenge, but [the] result is incredibly satisfying,” Margaret, an editor at Extra Crispy, says. Robbie, an educator, tells me that he finds the step-by-step nature of baking “straightforward and distracting from the world.” Another writer, Lauren, writes that she finds comfort in making homemade baguettes; they freeze well, which means she always has homemade bread on-hand. Oh, and as Robbie points out, you’re rewarded for your efforts with carbs at the end.

2. Pasta

Like baking bread, the precise and methodical nature of making fresh pasta from scratch is a welcome respite when life feels out of control. And as Tess, an avid home cook who works at a university, points out to me, you get to punch the dough — a satisfyingly physical outlet for frustration and anxiety. Who needs kickboxing classes anyway?

3. Sauce

A good sauce is a time investment and a labor of love. It requires patience above all else; you simply cannot rush it even if you tried. Dacey, an editor at Garden & Gun, tells me she appreciates bolognese for this purpose: “The longer it simmers, the better, so I can relax and clean between cooking and feasting.” Lucy, a designer and writer, makes a great point about the nurturing nature of slow-roasting tomatoes: “It helps me feel like I’m tending something.”

4. Dumplings

Know why adult coloring books are so popular? The act of focusing your attention on something so detailed and intricate is scientifically shown to reduce anxiety. That could be coloring in a mandala, or maybe it could manifest in the tedious process of folding individual pork dumplings — a process that Tess refers to as weirdly meditative.

5. Risotto

You can’t leave it alone and you can’t get distracted — yet, when your mind is utterly exhausted, you also don’t have to think about it. Or think about anything at all, really. My sister Elizabeth, a yoga teacher, lists risotto as a favorite meditative kitchen project because it takes lots of focus but very little true physical or mental effort. It’s just rhythm, patience, and commitment; you simply stand next to it and stir.

6. Tamales

Nicola, a food writer, describes the process of making tamales as a calm, methodical ritual from start to finish. It’s labor-intensive and sometimes tough to get right — from nailing the consistency of masa dough to delicately tying each corn husk just so — but that makes it all the more gratifying at the end.

And since it’s best to make them in bulk, you’re looking at a fairly significant amount of repetitive, mindless folding, filling and tying — a perfect opportunity to keep your hands busy and let your mind wander. “After the first few, a calmness takes over,” Nicole says.

Easy Slow-Cooker Ratatouille (Image credit: Diana Yen)

7. Ratatouille

Ratatouille is what you make of it. In its most precise presentations, it’s an intricate, layered composition of razor-thin veggie slices — the dish equivalent of mandala art. In its more traditional form, it’s a rustic, homey stew that summons images of cozy Provençal hearths. Either way, the end result is pure comfort food that requires a lot of careful slicing and dicing to get there.

“The slicing, and the careful arranging require all of your attention, and can be quite centering and meditative if you let it happen,” notes Marti, a food blogger. “Of course, it is also incredibly delicious and comforting to eat. It’s amazing that it is meatless and cheeseless, yet hits all those spots.”

What are the recipes you make when you’re anxious? Let us know in the comments!