DULUTH — One of Kaitlyn Tillman’s earliest memories is in the kitchen. “Grandma used to make these elaborate Barbie cakes for me and all my girl cousins. … Everything she made was a gift for someone else.”

Today, Tillman is the owner of Old Soul Kitchen, a cottage kitchen business, where she crafts specialty cakes. She’s also a therapist at PAVSA, where works with survivors of sexual violence.

To de-stress, Tillman bakes.

It’s the perfect equation for mindfulness, she said. You have to do things in order, and in a really intentional and focused way.

Research concludes that cooking and baking can decrease symptoms of depression, anxiety and promote positive mood and self-confidence, said Annie Leusman, MSAW / social worker at St. Luke’s Mental Health Clinic.

Annie Leusman
Annie Leusman

Cooking and baking call for cognitive, physical and socio-emotional processes. It completely immerses you, and it uses all the senses.

“When you’re cooking, maybe you’re smelling the garlic, sauteing olive oil. You might taste the soup to make sure you have the seasoning right. You can hear cooking, the chopping of vegetables, the knife on the cutting board,” Leusman said.

Kaitlyn Tillman laughs as she helps her son Roland, 6, add extra frosting to already decorated cupcakes in her kitchen in Gary Thursday morning, July 2. Tillman, a PAVSA therapist, uses baking to destress.   (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Kaitlyn Tillman laughs as she helps her son Roland, 6, add extra frosting to already decorated cupcakes in her kitchen in Gary Thursday morning, July 2. Tillman, a PAVSA therapist, uses baking to destress. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

These are also goal-oriented tasks that decrease procrastination. It comes with that satisfying sense of accomplishment, and then, you enjoy the fruits of your labor.

COVID-19 and the quarantine have prompted more at-home cooking and baking out of necessity. And if there were ever a time when we felt uncomfortable, unaccomplished and insecure, it’s now, with uncertainty about school, employment and health.

Creating in the kitchen is a productive task that gives your brain “a mini vacation," which helps long-term functioning, Leusman said.

There are also social aspects to cooking and baking that assist healing.

Kaitlyn Tillman adds sprinkles to her cupcakes in her kitchen in Gary Thursday morning, July 2.  (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Kaitlyn Tillman adds sprinkles to her cupcakes in her kitchen in Gary Thursday morning, July 2. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Many practitioners are using what’s called culinary arts therapy, which combines the expression of cooking with traditional counseling. And while it hasn’t hit the Northland yet, local experts say there’s validity to it.

Culinary therapy has been used to treat eating disorders. Work in the kitchen is positively associated with better family connections, and cooking groups may help foster socialization and improve social isolation, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.

And typically, baking is associated with sharing, and when you share, “You get that double-hit of dopamine,” Tillman said.

Janice Crede
Janice Crede

“Food therapy for me was a way to help loved ones,” said Janice Crede. Her father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when she was 3, so she started cooking at an early age, which sparked an interest in nutrition and environmental health.

The sociology and sustainability lecturer at The College of St. Scholastica has long since cooked from scratch, and this is a way of having positive control over her life.

“It helps me think, it helps me organize my thoughts, it helps me be more creative. It helps me feel like I’m nurturing myself and then the end result is, I get to sit down and eat,” Crede said.

Along with an increase in cooking due to the pandemic, more people are gardening.

Kaitlyn Tillman helps her son Roland, 6, take a bite of the cupcakes they decorated cupcakes Thursday morning, July 2.  (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Kaitlyn Tillman helps her son Roland, 6, take a bite of the cupcakes they decorated cupcakes Thursday morning, July 2. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Research has shown that when you're able to touch the earth in an intimate way like that, it has a soothing effect on the body and mind.

Crede also referred to eco-psychology, the idea that we have an intimate connection with the earth. When we stray from that, we suffer psychologically, mentally, physically, spiritually, she said, so engaging with our food from an early stage reaps added benefits to overall health.

Another comforting factor in the kitchen is cooking recipes from loved ones can conjure olfactory, visual and taste memories that can lead to a greater experience of comfort.

There are those for whom cooking and baking may be more uncomfortable than positive.

If anxiety around the kitchen is detrimental to your mental health, consider another form of art or expression, such as needle work, knitting or coloring.

Kaitlyn Tillman gets help from her son Roland, 6, as she adds sprinkles to her cupcakes Thursday morning, July 2.  (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Kaitlyn Tillman gets help from her son Roland, 6, as she adds sprinkles to her cupcakes Thursday morning, July 2. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

But, if you’d like to reap the benefits of cooking, start with a recipe that requires basic skills and minimal steps. “Before you move onto chocolate souffle, you might want to learn how to make an omelette or deviled eggs,” Leusman said.

Approach the kitchen with curiosity and kindness. Play comforting music while you cook. Try to let go of perfectionism, and don’t be too hard on yourself.

“Some of the best things that can happen in life are those mistakes,” Tillman said.

For Leusman, cooking and baking is an opportunity to learn patience and self-compassion.

“In my mid-50s, I continue to get better at not letting cooking mistakes bother me or cause me stress. It’s been a great modality for me to work on … having some grace with myself.”

Kaitlyn Tillman added bits of Butterfinger to the frosting in her chocolate cupcakes in her kitchen in Gary Thursday morning, July 2.  (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Kaitlyn Tillman added bits of Butterfinger to the frosting in her chocolate cupcakes in her kitchen in Gary Thursday morning, July 2. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)