As a Stressed 20-Something, Cooking Is the Nightly Mental Health Break I Need
When I started fending for myself food-wise this year, I assumed it would have to be extreme meal prepping, some kind of meal delivery service, or nothing. The meal delivery thing went out the door pretty quickly, given that I live in one of the most expensive areas of the country and don't exactly have the funds to spare. That left me with meal prepping, which I knew would be a huge weekend time suck, but seemed like my only option. I have a two-hour commute to and from work and some days I don't get home until around 7 p.m. At that point, collapsing on my bed and sleeping until morning sounds a lot better than whipping up dinner.
But I turned out to be one of those people that just can't, for whatever reason, meal prep for an entire week in just one or two days. I like to keep my weekends open for relaxation and travel (and grocery shopping, and long runs) and I didn't want to set aside hours on cooking alone. Instead, I do a mix of Sunday meal prep (usually a few days-worth of dinners and work lunches) paired with some light cooking throughout the week, once my leftovers run out.
I'll admit, it's really nice to pop leftovers in the microwave and have a hot dinner in minutes. But on days when I don't have dinner ready, I've actually found that I enjoy cooking at night, after work, even if it means I'm not eating until 8:30 p.m. When you're in your 20s, still figuring out how to balance all your obligations, cooking can seem like such an unnecessary thing to stress about; just go out, order in, and move on. But I learned that having the time and means to cook for yourself is such a privilege. I'm creating the meals that will nourish and energize my body and — maybe the best part — getting an unexpected and amazing mental health break while I'm at it. From that perspective, here's what I love about taking the time to cook on weekends and weeknights, even as a stressed 20-something.
- Cooking is so satisfying. So many parts of our day are spent working for others, caring for others, worrying about what others are doing. When you cook your own food, you're making something that you get to enjoy and take part in as soon as it's cooked and ready to go: instant gratification and pride in what you've just done.
- It's a major stress reliever. At work, my brain is constantly being pulled in a dozen different directions, doing a million things at once, and stressing about every one of them. When I get home, pull up a recipe, and start to cook, all of that goes away. For me, at least, cooking is so all-consuming that I can't focus on anything else without burning my food to a crisp. The simple, hyperfocused nature of cooking relaxes me. By the time I'm done and sitting down to eat, it feels like I've cooked out all the things that were stressing me out.
- It helps me wind down for the night. When I'm cooking, I have to put away social media, email, work, and all other distractions that make keep my brain buzzing and over-alert. Though the cooking itself requires energy, the effort you have to put in gradually winds down as you get to the end; you put the soup on the stove to simmer, set the tray in the oven to bake, or mix up the salad, all lower effort than the initial chopping and stirring. When it's all done, eating is the ultimate relaxing reward that gets me feeling sleepy and ready for bed.
- Eating homemade meals makes my body feel amazing. Cooking my own healthy meals gives me more energy and makes me feel less bloated and overstuffed than the dishes I eat when I go out. Even if it takes up more time than I'd like, cooking and enjoying my own meals makes my body feel so good that it's always worth it.
I know not everyone has the time or means to cook for themselves; healthy eating comes down to making the best choices you can given your means and circumstances. I personally had the choice to meal prep like my life depended on it, go with a delivery service, or work in some cooking throughout the week. The healthy recipes I whip up myself and the way that cooking them relieves stress and helps me calm down has shown me that this was the right choice for me, at least right now. If you're just getting into healthy cooking and aren't sure where to start, keep reading for seven simple, delicious, and healthy recipes to try out this week. For even more, check out our healthy two-week meal plan.