Cooking Some Calm Into the Day

A professor of mine once said that college is a full-time job. On the Block Plan, it often functions as an even larger time commitment, and nutritious meals often end up getting pushed to the side. Students find themselves working on schoolwork and other obligations from the minute they wake up until their heads hit the pillow at night. They often skip meals, buy quick snacks on the go, or eat far later than they normally would. These food habits and lack of time for cooking can impact the physical and mental well-being of Colorado College students.

While physical health has clearly established connections with nutrition, only recently have the links between food and mental health begun to be established. The latest research shows that Americans tend to eat nutrient-poor, highly processed foods; they end up overfed and undernourished. These diets lack the recommended amount of brain-essential nutrients, such as B vitamins, zinc, and magnesium. Healthy diets, on the other hand, decrease prevalence and risk of depression and suicide. A study published in The Lancet Psychiatry Journal in 2015 stated, “Diet is a key modifiable intervention target for prevention of the initial incidence of common mental disorders.” So, when students lack the time to cook or buy nutritious meals for themselves, it’s not only impactful to their physical health, but to their mental well-being as well. 

Alongside the positive mental benefits of eating nutritious food, new research has shown that even the act of cooking a meal is beneficial to mental health. In fact, culinary therapy is increasingly being utilized by mental health clinics and therapy offices. Taking the time to plan and cook a meal is mentally beneficial for a variety of reasons, including having control over nutritional intake, promoting a sense of accomplishment, and recalling positive memories. Furthermore, mixed use of skills improves executive function, which successfully improves anxiety and depression. “Food defines culture, family history, and traditions. For many, cooking signifies basic worth, self-image, and role identity, ” explained a study conducted by professors at Florida Gulf Coast University. “Food is also connected with feelings of love, pleasure and enjoyment, holidays, celebrations, family, and spirituality.” In other words, spending time cooking meals, especially with others, makes people happy. 

At CC, not only does the structure of the Block Plan limit the amount of cooking students can do for themselves, but residential life is simply not set up to encourage cooking for most students. Since students are required to live on campus for three of their four years, often in the dorms, access to kitchen facilities and supplies is limited. On CC’s website, it is advertised that “The residential requirement is a critical part of the Colorado College experience.” However, this so-called critical aspect of the CC experience may harm students as much as it helps them. Allowing students to live off campus a year earlier would give students a greater opportunity to have their own kitchens and cook for themselves. But for the students that continue to live in dorms, the school could certainly look into improving kitchen facilities — expanding them as well as adding more tools and appliances. 

In addition to making kitchen facilities more accessible, CC could use a number of other strategies to encourage students to cook for themselves. More meal plan options at the lower end of the spectrum would be one way to do this. Students could be allowed to choose a lower cost meal plan so that they save money and supplement their on-campus dining with food that they buy and cook. Two additional options would be to provide weekend shuttles to the grocery store and to offer cooking classes where students could learn valuable skills and engage in positive social experiences. 

Mental well-being is crucial, and has not received the attention needed from higher education institutions in the past. However, now colleges across the United States, CC included, are trying to change that trend. But if they really want to take care of their students to the best of their ability, it is important to notice the gaps that exist when it comes to access to cooking.  

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