Discover the mental health benefits of cooking with Lorna Salmon

Published: 01 June 2021

Last update: 01 June 2021

Blog post
This blog post is written by Lorna Salmon, Author of The Calm Kitchen Lorna Salmon Author of The Calm Kitchen
The Calm Kitchen book on a white, stone-like surface. It is surrounded by a loaf of bread, lavender and wild garlic flowers on a chopping board.

The Calm Kitchen is more than just a recipe book. It’s about how the nourishment we get from food (mental and physical), cooking and ingredient-sourcing can help our wellbeing.

To celebrate our book of the month for June, we spoke to author Lorna Salmon about how cookery is crucial to her own mental health and her top kitchen tips. 

We also might have talked about the best songs for a Saturday night kitchen disco. Read on to discover more. 

The Calm Kitchen was an Instagram account before it was a book. What prompted you to set it up?

I wanted to create a space where I could speak about mental health in a way that was authentically ‘me’ – something that wouldn’t make people feel uneasy or make me look unapproachable. Food became my route to normalising my diagnosis of depression and GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder) not only for me, but for others too. Historically food has been a mechanism to bring people together and The Calm Kitchen grew naturally from there.

" At times I struggle to put myself in social situations because they can be incredibly draining. But in recent years, I’ve noticed that food and friendship can have exactly the opposite effect. Especially when the two are combined: I feel restored. "

When did you realise that cooking and baking had such a positive impact on your mental wellbeing?

I had an epiphany moment while making fresh pasta for the first time. I’d taken the day as leave, as I was approaching a career crossroads and my brain was full with thoughts, ideas, ambitions, fears. It was only when I was mixing ingredients with my hands and kneading the dough that the noise suddenly stopped. There’s a saying that really resonates with me – ‘depression lives in the past, anxiety lives in the future’. Food forces me to be present. I also love that it channels excess energy in a positive way.

Tactile acts like kneading bread help us to engage with the cooking process
An illustration of a South Asian woman kneading bread on a dark work surface
Tactile acts like kneading bread help us to engage with the cooking process

What is your process for developing recipes?

When trying out a new recipe, I tend to use someone else’s recipe as a springboard to get a base level. The second time, I get creative – switching out herbs and spices, dialling up certain elements. From there, the recipe becomes a staple and one I remember off-by-heart. At this point, I know it’s ready.

This style of cooking can make life difficult when writing a cook book, as I realised that none of my recipes were written down. Anywhere. I’ve had to force myself to begin methodically, then add my own flair. That’s how every recipe is born in my kitchen – inspiration, trial and error, then the flair that makes it special.

Rosemary and sea salt focaccia was the dish that first showed Lorna how beneficial cooking was to her mental health
A bird's eye view of a circular slab of rosemary and sea salt focaccia resting on a wooden sideboard
Rosemary and sea salt focaccia was the dish that first showed Lorna how beneficial cooking was to her mental health

Many find cooking and baking quite stressful. What would be your top tips to help others enjoy the process more?

My theory is that people find cooking difficult because they ask too much of themselves in the first instance. My advice: start with the basics. Don’t make a seven-course tasting menu or a cheese soufflé. Instead try something simple but delicious, like pasta in a fresh tomato and basil sauce, topped with torn mozzarella or grated hard cheese. The Italians know how to do simple well. Once you’ve nailed that, why not try adding some vegetables, oregano or fresh chilli for a spicy zing. Bit by bit, you’ll get there.

Another element is the environment you’re cooking in, which is hardest to control. If you don’t have a flame hob, for example, regulating temperature becomes almost an impossibility. However, having a few of the basics will make life easier. A non-stick pan, which is actually non-stick. Wooden spoons for stirring sauces. Just one really good, sharp knife. Teach yourself some knife skills, too – I remember when I learned how to properly crush and cut garlic and it made so much difference.

I’d also say that finding a cuisine you find delicious and inspiring is essential. So many people decide baking is the way to get themselves in the kitchen, but you might be more of a savoury cook. Find out what makes you tick and you’ll soon be making feasts. 

" As you prepare your food, enjoy the sensations of slowly peeling an orange, snapping off the woody ends of asparagus, washing mud from potatoes and rubbing butter into flour with your fingertips for scones. "

What are your coping mechanisms when things don’t go to plan in the kitchen?

When my sanctuary turns into a place that’s adding to my stress, I know I need to drop tools and get out of the kitchen. I do still struggle to cope sometimes when the haze descends, which happens all too often to those who live with anxiety. Walking away, getting some fresh air (often the heat doesn’t help), rationalising that mistakes happen and it isn’t the end of the world (literally, I say these affirmations out loud) all usually does the trick. In short, time.

Cooking for others reaffirms a powerful sense of community with your nearest and dearest
An illustration of a Black and white woman sat side-by-side at a table in summer, conversing, with their backs to us. There are glasses of red wine on the table and a bowl of fruit. There are houseplants on the floor.
Cooking for others reaffirms a powerful sense of community with your nearest and dearest

What helps you look after your mental health? And how has talking openly about your experiences – both on Instagram and in the book – helped?

My coping mechanisms are food, being out in nature and most recently (since working from home) drawing a line under my work day by doing a short yoga session. Routine has been key for me.

I can’t begin to explain how much of a benefit it’s been for me to speak via Instagram (and now the book) about my experiences. I vividly remember the first post I did about my diagnosis. The outpouring of love brought me to tears. There’s a great deal of negativity about social media and its contribution to mental ill health, but as someone who has carved their profession in this space and experienced mental illness both directly and indirectly, I can say with confidence there’s a world of good to be found. Community, support, love. It’s all there.

I am very, very lucky to be surrounded by such a supportive network of friends and family who have listened and learned with me as I meander along on my mental health journey.

You mention in the book how you love singing and dancing while cooking. What’s on your kitchen disco playlist?

You saved the toughest question for last I see… When I’m cooking for fun and not function, my go-to playlist always involves funk, soul and disco – anything from the 70s.

Listen to some of the tunes that never fail to get Lorna dancing here.

The Calm Kitchen book resting on a light, stone-like surface

The Calm Kitchen by Lorna Salmon 

The Calm Kitchen is a beginner’s guide to mental health and reconnecting with nature through food, cookery and ingredient sourcing; from the soothing smell of lavender fields, to the simple magic of baking a loaf of bread on a frosty winter’s day. Featuring a host of vegetarian recipes to try, this book shows how mindful cooking can help improve your health and wellbeing.