9 Mental Health Reasons You Actually Need a Good Cookout, from Therapists

Updated: Aug. 17, 2023

A cookout's a win for your tummy! Find out how gathering in this special way is also good for your psychological, emotional, and social well-being.

Laughing friends hanging out during backyard barbecue on summer evening
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You can follow your nose toward the grill at any holiday picnic, and a spread of barbecued goodies is always a treat. But, say clinical experts, the benefits of a good barbecue go beyond your belly. “A cookout is good for our mental health in more ways than one,” says Patricia Bannan, MS, RDN, author of From Burnout to Balance.

Thanks to Bannan, along with Lisa D. Ellis, MS, RDN, CDN, LCSW, CEDS-S—a dietitian, licensed clinical social worker, and nutrition therapist—here are ways attending (or hosting) a cookout can light a fire for your overall wellness.

Group Of Friends Gathered At Barbecue Eating And Socialising
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Feelings of community

“Cookouts typically foster feelings of community and connection with nature and with other people,” says Ellis. There’s just something about an open fire that seems to call everybody to together.

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woman preparing vegetarian skewers fot barbecue grill
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Feelings of purpose

Cookouts definitely give new meaning to the phrase “sharing is caring.”

Potluck-style cookouts also provide an “opportunity to share recipes and cultural dishes that are sentimental or personal,” says Bannan. She explains that this “further sparks a feeling of purpose and bonding.”

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Nice and fresh
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Connection to nature

Some barbecue gatherings create a scene that’s a refreshing change of your typical four walls. One benefit is that this may reconnect us with nature, Ellis says. “Just connecting with the natural world can be grounding and help reduce anxiety levels,” she explains. “The casual vibe of cookouts—one can eat food on a hand-held bun, and table manners are more flexible—also promotes a relaxing respite from daily rules and expectations.”

A great point you’ve got to love.

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Family enjoying backyard barbecue
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Stress reduction

If you’re hosting a cookout, there could be a bit of stress—at least until your guests have settled in. But if you’re attending one, Bannan says, “Not only can eating healthy foods reduce stress, the community aspect of cooking together and bonding over food is key to our stress reduction, feeling connected to others, and overall well-being.”

And when you’re hosting? Relax. Your energy is contagious for your guests…so even if everything’s not perfect, have a laugh to keep your cool.

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It's nice to have them around
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“Relaxed vigilance”

“Especially these days—after months of isolation from Covid-19—there is greater need than ever to be around friends and family,” says Ellis. “Covid-19 is also less communicable in open fresh air with proper distancing, which can add to feelings of relaxed vigilance.”

Elderly Couple Smiling At Family BBQ
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And, there are still more benefits of sharing. “Studies show that shared meals are a recipe for happiness,” says Bannan, citing a 2017 psychology study: “Researchers at the University of Oxford found that those who eat socially tend to feel happier and more satisfied with life, and feel more engaged and supported by their local communities and friends.”

The research team suggested that’s because the experience of sharing a meal causes people to bond more closely.

A Group Of Friends Embrace, Excited To See Each Other At Barbecue Meetup
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Comfort comes in a couple forms at cookouts. “The array of open-fire cooking smells, as well as the types of foods offered at cookouts, tend to elicit comforting sensations,” says Ellis. “After all, the role of comfort foods is to do just that…provide emotional comfort!”

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Close up of hand turning over food on barbecue, dog looks on.
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Nutritional Health

Research from the Family Meals Movement suggests that eating more meals together can lead to more produce consumption and better overall diets. Bannan adds, “Sitting down to family meals more often has also been shown to improve family connectedness, communication, and problem solving.”

Woman sprinkling salt on freshly cooked steak
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Bonus Benefits

What if you’re the grill “chef”? According to Bannan, psychiatry research in 2021 found that creativity, which can be sparked in the kitchen or at the grill, can be good for mental health.

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