September 3, 2018

Cooking for Cognition: Why Making a Meal Is Good for Your Brain

Preparing food isn't just about filling your stomach

Cooking for Cognition: Why Making a Meal Is Good for Your Brain

If you feel at home in the kitchen, planning and preparing nutritious meals, congratulations. You’re not only refueling your body. You’re stimulating your brain with the type of workout it needs to remain healthy.

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“A nourishing, home-cooked meal, shared with friends or family, is a familiar activity that exercises the brain,” says Marwan Sabbagh, MD, Director of Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. “It provides the nutrition our bodies crave and encourages social interaction, all of which are critical to preserving cognitive fitness.”

Why it’s so much more than just cooking

Many brain processes involved in getting dinner on the table are classified as executive functions, Dr. Sabbah says. That means they help us plan and control goal-directed thoughts and actions.

“Executive functions test our ability to organize, prioritize, sustain focus, solve problems, retrieve memories and multitask,” he explains. They are located principally in the prefrontal regions of the brain’s frontal lobe, with connections to other brain regions.

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Hosting an intricate dinner party will surely tax your executive functioning, but smaller-scale meals demand equivalent skills:

  • Formulating a meal plan. Researching recipes online or in cookbooks, compels you to anticipate and organize.
  • Factoring details into your planning. Your brother hates green beans. You served an Italian dish the last time he came over. The details require you to remember and to solve problems as you strive to design a menu that will make everyone happy.
  • Making a list and grocery shopping requires memory and focus. If all the ingredients you need aren’t available, you may have to improvise. That also benefits your brain.
  • Multitasking and organizing come into play. As you prepare the meal, you need to ensure that everything you’re serving is ready at the same time.

No matter a success or total kitchen flop

Executive function also applies to another dimension: managing frustration and controlling emotions.

You may have to draw on these cognitive resources if your meal preparation goes awry or your dinner falls flat, despite your best efforts.

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“Don’t despair,” Dr. Sabbah reassures. “Grace under pressure is just one more sign of a healthy brain!”

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