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Opinion: We need more accessible kitchens

Having a space to cook could significantly improve student mental health
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Studies have demonstrated the benefits of cooking, so why aren’t some residences providing kitchen space? CAROLINE BELLAMY/THE VARSITY
Studies have demonstrated the benefits of cooking, so why aren’t some residences providing kitchen space? CAROLINE BELLAMY/THE VARSITY

For many university students, their meal plan is an integral part of residence life. Between homework, assignments, essays, and socializing, the idea of having to cook for themself may seem overwhelming or simply unreasonable. Many students at U of T who live on campus are even required to purchase a meal plan when they accept their residence offer. 

However, while meal plans certainly do have their place in university culture, cooking is an essential practice for independence that often goes overlooked. Giving students better access to kitchen facilities may not only teach them an essential life skill but could also improve their well-being and relieve some postsecondary stress.

It may seem redundant to encourage students to cook while they’re paying for a meal plan. However, the flexibility that a meal plan offers to students actually creates the perfect conditions to ease them into cooking regularly. If students have access to kitchens, they’re free to cook for themselves when they have the time. But if it just so happens that an essay is taking a bit longer than expected, there’s no pressure for students to spare the extra minutes it takes to prepare a meal.

Having this variety of options may also help students to build healthy habits and manage their time around not only school, but also self-care. By setting aside time to cook, students can learn to step away from their work and prioritize their needs.

Cooking has also been shown to benefit psychological health beyond providing a pause from the neverending barrage of homework. Research has shown that cooking can soothe stress, increase confidence, and decrease negative thinking. Additionally, the process of cooking can allow a person to focus simply on the task at hand, and engages their creativity in a fulfilling and meaningful way.

A 2018 study has shown that daily engagement in a creative activity — like cooking — can lead to greater positive effects and well-being. Therefore, giving students ample means and opportunity to cook could improve their academic performance and lower their stress levels.

Creating reliable access to kitchens could even allow students to bring an aspect of their home life into their on-campus routine. Giving students the opportunity to cook their own meals allows them to easily recreate the foods they are used to eating at home, otherwise known as “comfort foods.” A 2015 study found that eating comfort food is associated with close relationships and social ties, which helps curb feelings of loneliness and isolation. These phenomena are crucial to maintaining well-being, especially in one’s first years away from home. Knowing how to cook their comfort meals brings happiness not only to individual students, but could even create bonds between students who share an affinity for a particular dish.

Now, where do we go from here? How do we give students the kitchen access they so deserve? 

Luckily, many residence buildings already have the means to provide students access to kitchens. According to the individual college websites, all residences except for Chestnut Residence contain some sort of student-accessible kitchen facility.

However, the adequacy of the facilities that do exist vastly vary from college to college. For example, the Canada room in St Michael’s College contains one student-accessible kitchen, even though St Michael’s College residences house approximately 500 students each school year. On the other hand, residences at Innis College and Woodsworth College contain semi-private kitchen facilities in each dormitory to be shared between three to five students. 

It may be unreasonable to request that a residence with no student-accessible kitchens construct semi-private kitchens in each student dormitory; however, colleges can reach a fair compromise. Some residences in Victoria College, New College, University College, and Trinity College contain shared kitchens in common spaces. Incorporating facilities of this style into all residences that don’t currently have adequate kitchen space could provide students with the access they deserve while preserving the more traditional-style dormitories.

Overall, cooking is an essential skill that has been shown to improve well-being. Furthermore, giving students access to cooking facilities on a regular basis can help them improve their time management skills, ease them into independence, and allow them to put mental health first. By choosing to create more reliable access to kitchens, the U of T administration would actively prioritize the health and well-being of its student body.

Claire Allen is a first-year visual studies student at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design.

Editor’s note (January 11): A previous version of this article said that St Michael’s College housed 5,000 students per year.