Updated: Mar 30
Authors Note: This is the second in a new series of articles I’m calling Life & Death Design: Pandemic Edition which uses neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, macro-economics and other nerdy takes to unpack the unusual behaviors we are observing in ourselves and others during the COVID-19 outbreak. It is my hope that understanding the “why” behind our emotions and actions will reveal ways to make the best of this terrible situation.
The Great American Bake-In
In the last week, since cities and states across the U.S. received shelter-in-place orders, my social media feeds have become full of posts like this:
#QuarantineBaking is trending on Twitter and it is absolutely not weird. There’s real science behind why baking is so appealing during a time like this with high stress, high uncertainty, supply scarcity, and isolation. And it starts with a neurochemical called cortisol.
Cortisol is released in our brains when we believe we are under threat. It’s main purpose is to drive us to take action. It insists that we DO something. “Sheltering in place” (also known as “sitting still”) goes against our primal instincts about how to deal with a threat. Logically, we know that it’s the best course, but our cortisol-driven urges still need an action-oriented outlet or they can spiral into anxiety or even panic.
Some folks are turning to cleaning, eating, knitting, or exercise to relieve that pressure. Others are trying to distract themselves from it by binging on alcohol, social media, or Tiger King. However, baking may be one of the best possible outlets for a pandemic-induced cortisol rush. As an activity, it is nearly perfectly designed to address the unique combination of stressors and primal instincts we are all currently wrestling with – as long as we don't take it too far.
A Recipe for Calm
These are uncertain times and our brains are craving clear answers and known quantities. Even folks who normally buck at being told what to do are longing for a recipe to follow right now.
Baking, with its basis in chemistry, is all about precise directions and predictable results.
Increased cortisol can make it harder to think creatively. Rules-based processes are much easier for us to deal with in this state. This is because cortisol is all about, “less thinking, more doing.” In a survival situation this makes sense – you don’t need to brainstorm the absolute best way to get out of the path of a speeding vehicle, you just need to move out of the way fast enough to not get hit.
There is immense comfort in having a clear recipe to follow, especially for a brain with increased cortisol. You don’t have to figure anything out, you can just jump right in. Every ingredient is listed in exact quantities. There are step-by-step directions. We can even predict exactly how long it will take to finish. It has order and rules and precise specification. These things are like a cooling balm to a brain that has been dealing with huge changes and massive amounts of uncertainty for weeks now.
Provisioning Like a Pioneer
One source of cortisol spikes are all the photos of empty shelves we’ve been seeing in our social media feeds. When we believe we are entering a time of scarcity, our primal brain is hardwired to DO something about it. Rushing to the store and buying every roll of TP you can get your well-Purelled hands on is one outlet to relieve that pressure to take action. Making your own food is another.
My husband is actually the cook in our family, but I am the gardener. One of the first thoughts I had when my daughter’s school was shut down was, “Starting vegetable seeds indoors would be a great homeschool science project.” (Followed quickly by, “Oh crap, oh crap. I don’t know how to homeschool a 9 year old. Oh crap.”)
There was definitely a part of my cavewoman brain that took great comfort in the idea of growing our own food. So when my daughter seemed more interested in choosing flower seeds than veggies, it took a surprising amount of self control for me to allow her to make the switch. Obviously this meant more to my subconscious than a simple science project on seed germination.
Now, I'll admit, I may have snuck a pack or two of veggie seeds into the order to appease my inner Laura Ingalls Wilder, and I’m not sorry I did. We need these sort of productive outlets right now. Activities like starting seeds or baking fresh food is actually an extremely healthy outlet for that need to DO something about a supply shortage. Certainly much better for your community than hording groceries. (Just please be kind to your follow #QuarentineBakers and resist the urge to buy up all the baking supplies!)
One of the things our primal brain loves about baked goods is that they tend to be high in sugar, fat and carbs. These are calorie-rich ingredients that we're driven to gorge on to increase our chances of survival in a time of scarcity.
When we eat high-fat, high-sugar foods they actually signal our brains to produce less cortisol. It’s why we call them “comfort foods”, they do actually bring us comfort when we’re wigging out. Now unfortunately, having a lot of cortisol in our system can cause our bodies to store more fat than normal. So we’ve got to be careful about what we bake and how much we eat of it or we risk emerging from social isolation having gained “The COVID 19.”
I asked Jenny Maloney, a registered dietician, what steps we can take to minimize this potential downside of stress baking.
“The most important thing is portion control,” Jenny advises. Make small cookies instead of huge ones, cut the brownies into small squares and use your mini-muffin tins. Also consider portioning them out immediately after cooking them. “Don’t just put them all in a big Tupperware on your counter.” Instead put 2 or 3 items into baggies or smaller containers. “Freezing is another good idea. You can make a bunch, but then freeze them and take them out just 1 or 2 at a time.”
If you’re looking to reduce the carbs or calories in your recipes, the big three things to consider are sugar, flour and fat. The following are among many possible substitutes she recommends:
Instead of white sugar, sub in maple syrup or honey. Instead of milk chocolate chips, sub in dark chocolate
Instead of white flour, sub in almond, coconut, buckwheat or whole wheat flour
Instead of oils, sub in yogurt, apple sauce or pumpkin purees
Another angle Jenny encourages you to consider is, “Can you get more nutritional benefit out of what you make?” Consider adding vegetables like carrots or zucchini to muffins or cakes. Adding chia seeds, flax seeds or walnuts can up your intake of important antioxidants and those all-important Omega-3 fatty acids. Dates, raisins, or bananas can sweeten up a recipe and allow you to cut back on other sugars in the recipe.
Mise en Place
The French cooking term mise en place roughly translates to “everything in its place” and refers to the act of gathering and preparing all of your ingredients and tools before you begin to make a dish. Dr. Michael M. Kocet of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology has pioneered the practice of culinary therapy. He has found good preparation can have a radical, positive effect on your experience in the kitchen, especially if you're using baking as a mental health outlet. “In high-stress situations, mise en place can have a very calming effect. The act of reading through a recipe, measuring out each ingredient, and placing them in little bowls can be very comforting. When we know we have everything we need, that gives us a sense of control.”
Culinary therapy uses gastronomy and the culinary arts as a way to connect to our emotional, familial and cultural identities. Dr. Kocet explains, “When I was in culinary school, people would tell me all the time, ‘Cooking is so therapeutic for me.’ I realized we have art therapy, dance therapy, play therapy, but no formal culinary therapy practice.” So he set out to create it.
Much of Dr. Kocet’s work focuses on mindfulness when making and eating food. To get the most mental benefit from baking as therapy during quarantine, he encourages bakers to take their time. “One of the benefits of being stuck in quarantine is that you don’t have anywhere you have to be. There’s no party to be late to. We can bring some stillness to the process.” To fully immerse yourself in the act of baking, take the time to smell and taste, observe the beautiful swirl of the ingredients as they mix together, enjoy the way the dough feels in your hands as you knead it. Repetitive movements have been shown to be excellent for stress relief so consider rolling up your sleeves and stirring your ingredients by hand instead of using a mixer.
A final piece of advice Dr. Kocet shared specifically for those doing #QuartantineBaking is to create a COVID-19 Recipe Wishlist. “What are those dishes that you’ve always wanted to make, but never had time to try? Pour through cook books, review old favorite family recipes. Make a list of everything you want to try. Maybe at first you’re too stressed out to tackle new challenging recipes and that’s ok. It’s great to make old favorites as well, especially those that make us feel connected to our families and cultures. But when you’re in a place where you are feeling ready for a challenge, it can be a healthy diversion from everything else that’s going on.”
You Smell Like a Caveman
My mom makes these amazing green, mint fudge desserts called Grasshopper Bars. One whiff of them when she brings them at Christmas and I am instantly transported back to our kitchen on Cracklewood Lane. Our sense of smell has a powerful and unique relationship with emotional memory and the smell of baked goods can help us access some much needed feelings of connection and comfort.
Four of your five senses send signals to your brain via the sensory thalamus, which is a bit like a “switchboard” for your brain. Your sense of smell is unique in that it completely bypasses the thalamus and sends its signals right to your limbic system (sometimes called the “lizard brain") which controls your emotions, behaviors and mood. This is why certain scents can so easily trigger emotional memories. Smell has a direct line to your primal brain.
For many, the smells of yummy baked goods are tied to wonderful memories of home, safety and happiness. Triggering these feelings can sometimes get our primal brain to “stand down” and reduce the cortisol flow, even when rationalizing or self-talk can’t accomplish it.
Aromatherapy is also used by many to reduce stress. Some scents that are strongly associated with stress relief are also common ingredients in baked goods such as rosemary, lavender, lemon and peppermint. Consider using favorite family recipes that incorporate these flavors to double the olfactory impact.
Get the Most out of Your Baking Therapy
Follow a recipe. It can be something written down, or something you’ve baked so often you know it by heart, but your brain is craving an experience where it can feel confident it is doing it “right.” It’s OK to indulge it by following the rules. (And don't forget to prepare your Mise en Place!)
Indulge your senses. Take the time to explore your ingredients through taste, smell and touch. Turn off the news and listen to some music you love. Be present in the moment and focus on what you are doing. Breath.
Get social. Use video chatting apps to connect with friends and family over food or start a baking club to share your passion with others.
Make half recipes. 100% of the mental health benefits. 50% of the risk to your waist line! Also use portion control tricks like making mini-versions of items, portioning in small containers and freezing.
Make nutritious recipes. Chose or augment recipes with veggies, seeds or nuts to maximize the health benefits from your baking.
Choose recipes with good memories. Let the smell of your meals take you back to better days. (You know, like January.)
Make a recipe with rosemary, lavender, lemon or peppermint. Enjoy the aromatherapy benefits of these calming scents as you bake.
Start a recipe wishlist. Gather all the recipes you've never had time to try and have fun trying something new.
Savor your creations. Don't just mindlessly eat a whole panful of sweets while binging Netflix. Take your time to truly enjoy the fruits of your labor.
About the Author
Katie Swindler is a user experience strategist who writes and speaks on topics related to human-centered design. She is currently working on a book about Life & Death Design set to be published by Rosenfeld Media in 2021. If you’d like to be notified about her work please subscribe.