Why Cooking Makes Us Feel Nostalgic, According to Experts

Cooking and following family tradition makes us nostalgic, especially over holidays, family gatherings and other traditional events. Why do we get nostalgic when it comes to our grandparents and cooking?

Senior woman baking pies in her home kitchen.Photo: Shutterstock / Halfpoint

Growing up, I always loved my grandmother’s cooking. When I got older and started a family of my own, though, I really started to learn and appreciate her recipes—and relied on her for lots of help when things when wrong! Now that she’s gone, I still love mixing up her signature dishes, like her famous scalloped corn. And whenever I make this tasty side dish, I laugh about the time she put the decorative basket in the oven along with the casserole dish—she smoked up the whole house, and we had a good laugh.

But these memories got me thinking, why does cooking, more than anything, seem to bring back such strong memories?

What is it about cooking specifically?

For me, it’s not just any food that brings back strong memories—it’s those foods that I prepared or ate with my family when I was growing up. While I’ve had my fair share of tasty bake sale treats and bakery cakes, none really arouse such extreme emotions. That’s because, according to Time Magazine, “researchers suggest that when we associate foods with happy memories, the effects are profound, impacting how good we think foods taste as well as how good those foods make us feel.”

To elicit nostalgia, it’s not just about remembering the taste—it’s about everything connected with the taste memories. Most of us had grandparents who spoiled us and treated us to extra-special treats (just like these!). When we think about those treats and who made them as we indulge in those same treats now, they make us recall fun and happy times, and that makes the feelings of nostalgia bubble up.

It’s about repetition

But what really cements so many of these warm, fuzzy food memories in our brains is repetition. According to Marc David, a nutritional psychologist, making those traditional recipes “creates its own momentum. To make the same dish year after year, decade after decade, there’s something in that that connects us to the past.”

That means every year when you whip up your favorite traditional Christmas recipes, you’re reinforcing all those fond memories of how Christmas used to be.

Smell is a powerful reminder

But let’s not forget one of the most powerful triggers of nostalgia: smell. The part of your brain that processes smells is in the emotional center of your brain. We’re just biologically hardwired for smell to evoke emotions! So that means every time you catch a whiff of pot roast (or goulash or pea soup or grandma’s other favorite suppers), your brain instantly feeds you those loving memories of being in the kitchen as a child.

It turns out that cooking is that perfect way to create an intersection of smell, repetition and positivity that really brings back all those memories of belonging and joy that make you feel nostalgic! So you can remember that bit of science next time you make your favorite family recipes.

Check out Grandma's favorite bakes!
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Julia K. Porter
Dr. Julia Porter began her career as a high school English teacher in Brooklyn, NY and has taught college courses since 2008. Her personal interests include reading, writing, traveling and experiencing new cultures. She lives in Indiana with her husband, daughter and a rambunctious Australian Shepherd.