If you feel at home in the kitchen, planning and preparing nutritious meals, congratulations. You’re not only refueling your body; you’re stimulating your brain with the type of workout it needs to remain healthy.
“A nourishing, home-cooked meal, shared with friends or family, touches on three of the six pillars of brain health,” says Jeffrey Cummings, MD, ScD, Director of Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. “This familiar activity exercises the brain, provides the nutrition our bodies crave and encourages social interaction, all of which are critical to preserving cognitive fitness.”
Dr. Cummings notes that many brain processes involved in getting dinner on the table are classified as executive functions, which help us plan and control goal-directed thoughts and actions.
“Executive functions test our ability to organize, prioritize, sustain focus, solve problems, retrieve memories and multitask,” he explains. They are located principally in the prefrontal regions of the brain’s frontal lobe, with connections to other brain regions.
Producing a holiday dinner with all the trimmings will surely tax your executive functioning, but smaller-scale meals demand equivalent skills:
- Formulating a meal plan, perhaps by researching recipes online or in cookbooks, compels you to anticipate and organize.
- Factoring details into your planning – your brother hates green beans, you served an Italian dish the last time he came over – requires you to remember and to solve problems as you strive to design a menu that will make everyone happy.
- Making a list and shopping for groceries draws on memory and focus. If all the ingredients you need are not available, you may have to improvise, which also benefits your brain.
- Multitasking and organizing come into play as you prepare the meal to ensure that everything you’re serving is ready at the same time.
Executive function applies to another dimension: managing frustration and controlling emotions. You may have to draw on these cognitive resources if your meal preparation goes awry or your dinner falls flat, despite your best efforts. Don’t despair. Grace under pressure is just one more sign of a healthy brain!
For more information on how you can keep your brain engaged and reduce risk for brain decline, visit Cleveland Clinic’s HealthyBrains.org.