Julie Oana on her Culinary Art Therapy and why it works

Excited to combine her passion for cooking with her career as a social worker Julie Ohana established a practice focused on culinary art therapy. Now she turns the kitchen into a place of revelation and rejuvenation…

I fondly remember perched in front of the oven, eagerly waiting for my mother and grandmother’s delicious meals to appear. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered how powerful those experiences are—the moments we shared over home-cooked meals.

In graduate school, I wrote my master’s thesis on the therapeutic value of cooking. When I received my social work degree, I began to explore how I could combine these times of caregiving with mindfulness, which led to the creation of my Culinary Art Therapy practice in Michigan.

As a therapist of this nature, I use cooking to work with people on skills such as building confidence and regulating anxiety. When I take on clients, I have them fill out a traditional intake form where I learn about their story and what brought them to me. We also talk about the foods they like to eat, their cooking experience and any dietary allergies.

After that, each session starts the same way. We make a recipe together based on the client’s culinary skills and what they want. What happens next really depends on the person and what they want to work on. Some come to me for weekly sessions; others prefer a one-off experience, alone or with family. We cover a range of topics, from relationship difficulties to coping with depression.

Every session always has an aha moment.

Some people want to whip up quick dips, while others are excited to dive into baking bread. And while the intention is to cook the full recipe, that’s not our ultimate goal. This creative practice, like art or music therapy, focuses on the intention of mindfulness. It’s not about the destination (or the finished meal), it’s about the steps we take to get there.

I’m a big believer in talk therapy, but I’ve found that when the sessions go into the kitchen, things move at a faster pace. Chopping onions, simmering sauces, tasting what they’ve made…people come to personal insights more quickly. Cooking offers instant gratification as you work through the recipe.

I’ve seen people come to immediate realizations about frustrations, patterns, and behaviors when therapy meets, say, stirring a pot of soup. That’s all for me. These moments of recognition can take much longer in traditional forms of therapy.

I just love that the kitchen provides a chance for people to recognize opportunities for change in their lives. I hope it continues to offer moments of mindfulness for my clients, just as it always has for me.

Stop, chop and breathe.

You don’t have to cook a six-course meal to be more attentive at the counter. Just aim to spend, say, 20 minutes (undistracted!) chopping fresh vegetables to make a salad. As you do so, pay attention to the process. Indeed. Pause your notifications. Turn off the TV. Cooking food when you’re present is an absolutely amazing, powerful experience, Oana says.

Hungry for more?

Sign up for a session with Julie at culinaryarttherapy.com— she offers virtual dating!

This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue Women’s health

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