‘Now food is for more than consoling myself’: cooking for mental health

‘Now food is for more than consoling myself’: cooking for mental health

For charity CoolTan Arts, good food is essential. TV chef Rosemary Shrager and members of their cooking club share their recipes for mental health

cooltan artsRosemary Shrager is a TV chef and patron of CoolTan Arts, a mental health charity part of this year’s Guardian and Observer Christmas appeal. Photograph: Rosemary Shrager

It’s not so much “you are what you eat”, but it’s now acknowledged that choosing the right kinds of foods can inspire a positive change in mental health. It is thought that 20% of the brain consists of naturally fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6, for instance. Blood sugar levels and caffeine intake have long since been known to affect mood, while low levels of B vitamins have been found to exacerbate the symptoms of schizophrenia.

Recent studies have focused on how exercise and a healthy diet can improve the prognosis for serious mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

CoolTan Arts – one of nine mental health charities part of this year’s Guardian and Observer appeal – believe there is a strong connection between food and mental health. Two years ago they started a cooking club for their members; many have experience of mental illness. Based in Southwark, south London, members meet twice a week to choose and cook recipes together.

The club adapts its recipes to cater to the needs of those who attend or for those on medication that can bring side effects such as weight gain or appetite loss. There is a strong link between mental health conditions (in particular, depression) and diabetes, which is taken into consideration, as is the need to be sensitive around those with eating disorders.

The club is one of the reasons why celebrity chef Rosemary Shrager is a patron of CoolTan Arts. Especially for the appeal, she has given us the recipe for her own winter warming soup.

It is packed with tomatoes, which contain the antioxidants lycopene and vitamins A and C and have long been linked with anti-depressive properties.

Rosemary said:

I strongly believe there’s a link between good food and good mental health and I am so glad this important project is supported by the Guardian Christmas charity appeal. It is wonderful that people have a chance to expand and strengthen themselves, their dreams and their identities, through this vital access to creativity and community.

Rosemary Shrager’s winter warming soup with tomato and fennel

cool tan  arts saladRosemary Shrager’s winter warming soup is a recipe shared by the celebrity chef for the Guardian and Observer Christmas appeal on mental health Photograph: CoolTan Arts

(serves 4)

2 tbsp olive oil

2 bulbs fennel

450g fresh ripe tomatoes

2 cloves of garlic

275 ml v8 juice or tomato juice

Grated rind of ½ a lemon

Salt and pepper

½ tsp white sugar

275ml stock

A 400g tin of butterbeans, drained and rinsed


Wash and chop the fennel, reserving the fronds. Heat the oil in a thick pan, add the fennel and cook over a gentle heat for 10 minutes until soft but not browned, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, peel the tomatoes, plunging them first for 1 minute in boiling water (this helps to loosen the skins). Roughly chop them.

Crush the garlic into the fennel, stir round and cook for 1 minute, then add the tomatoes, v8 juice, lemon rind, salt, pepper, sugar and stock. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Take off the heat and liquidise or process the soup.

Return the soup to a clean pan and stir the butter beans through. Chop and the reserved fennel fronds. Bring to boiling point, test for seasoning and add a little more stock if it is too thick for your taste (this will depend a lot on how watery your tomatoes are). When it’s fully heated through, put the soup in a thermos flask which has been previously heated with boiling water.

“Now I see food as more than something to console myself”

CoolTan Arts say the benefits of the cooking club are more than practical education.

“For a lot of people who come to our cooking club, it’s the only time they eat with another person. For that alone, it’s important,” Jill Newman, the club’s coordinator, tells me.

cool tan arts 2Coordinator Jill Newman and Michelle Baharier, CoolTan Arts’ CEO with the charity’s cooking club Photograph: Emma Thatcher/CoolTan Arts

In the long term, it’s about change. Jill goes along with members of the club to visit local market holders, to increase confidence in buying fresh fruit and vegetables, and to teach about budgeting – important when people are struggling to survive on low incomes or benefit payments.

For many people living in hostels or shared housing, cooking apparatus might not exist at home. A survey of 48 people at CoolTan Arts found that just 18 had a working cooker at home. Some at the cooking club have only a single-hob or a microwave; others have neither.

Alice Babapunde, 35, has been going to CoolTan’s cooking club every week for six months. She was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder four years ago and had just finished a six month treatment programme when she joined.

The cooking club is a lovely way to cook and eat together – I never did that with my family. It has changed my habits too. Now I go to the market rather than just Tesco all the time and I am more in touch with healthy food, instead of just seeing it as something to console myself.

Michelle Baharier, CEO of CoolTan Arts, told me that their funding from Southwark Council ran out at the end of March. At the moment, the club keeps going by selling £2 lunches to other attendees at CoolTan.

Yet Baharier says there is clearly a demand:

It’s devastating, because we work with over 2,000 people and the kitchen is so important. Eating is such an important part of people staying well.

The club have created many of their own recipes. Here is one you might want to try for that winter cold:

Cold-busting sorrel and hibiscus punch

cool tan arts 3Sorrel and hibiscus punch is a recipe from the cooking club at CoolTan Arts, a mental health charity based in south London. Photograph: Emma Thatcher/CoolTan Arts

Vitamin deficiencies have been shown to exacerbate the symptoms of psychiatric patients and impede recovery. Pomegranate contains folic acid and Vitamin C, which plays a core role in the brain as an antioxidant while recent studies suggest that hibiscus can reduce blood pressure for adults experiencing – or at risk of – hypertension.

(For 10 people)

two cups dried hibiscus flowers

juice of two lemons

juice of four oranges

three apples or pears

one pomegranate, flesh removed from skin

a handful of fresh mint leaves

three cms of fresh ginger root, roughly chopped

three cms of pressed tamarind (optional)

one tablespoon of rosehip syrup or honey (optional. Leave out for diabetics)

pinch of saffron or cinnamon

one litre water


Steep the hibiscus in one litre of water for an hour or bring to the boil; simmer for 10 minutes, then allow to cool. Juice the oranges and lemons. Peel, core and roughly chop the apples.

Put the pomegranate seeds, mint leaves, ginger root, tamarind, apples and squeezed juice into a liquidiser and blend well. Strain the liquid from the hibiscus flowers into the mix and add the spices and the syrup or honey

Blend all together and pour through a sieve into a litre jug. Chill in the fridge before serving

Does what you eat affect your mental health? Are there specific foods you eat or avoid as a result? Share your thoughts and tips below and we will bring a selection above the line


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