The first lockdown made sense. Stay home, and everything would be normal again a few months later. We’d be able to visit our loved ones, go to bars and restaurants, and spend lazy Sundays at the cinema.

As we face the new year, most of the UK is well into its third lockdown, each a trigger for bad mental wellbeing and anxiety. So taking time to think about ourselves and focusing on self-care has never been more important.

For Lauren Lovatt, cooking is therapy. It keeps her sane, happy and ready to tackle each day. We spoke to her about cooking as a form of meditation, and how it can be a useful tool for all of us in the winter months.

Why is cooking so important to you?

Cooking is a huge part of my life. I grew up cooking from such a young age and it has always been the way in which I express myself and relax. Of course, not only cooking but eating good food is a huge form of pleasure.

Now working professionally with food, I still come home and cook to relax and unwind. It is also a time I get my best ideas.

Has your relationship with food changed during the pandemic?

The pandemic actually did wonders for my routine. Previously, I lived a busy life often filled with travel, so the pandemic was a dramatic change. It taught me the importance of slowing down and although I probably spent less time cooking, I drastically simplified my own meals and enjoyed tuning into what I really needed.

We’re all at home a lot at the moment. Can cooking offer us a kind of release?

It certainly can. Cooking can help take your mind of immediate concerns as you are focused on what you are doing. Alone, it can be a form of meditation and, with others, a way to connect. I’ve heard so many people in this time say that food was the thing that kept them going: having little things to look forward to each day and finding a new way to create.

Does what we eat correlate with our mental health?

What we eat directly impacts how we feel. We can all relate to eating a heavy meal and feeling tired, or eating a piece of chocolate and feeling comforted. And in a subtler way, each bite has a way to support our moods and feelings.

There have been many studies on how food directly impacts our mental health and I can certainly vouch for how eating a balanced, plant-based diet has dramatically improved my mental health. I now understand much more about specific ingredients and how they can calm, lift, balance or energise us in an incredible way.

You’ve mentioned having fun with food, calling it an art. Are there ways everyday cooks can do that at home?

Food to me is definitely an art, I get great joy from making something look good on a plate and find I enjoy my meals so much more if they look exciting. I also know the impact of a well-presented plate.

It’s something that anyone can do at home just by slowing down and being creative. Use your plate as a canvas and food and sauces as your paint. Thinking about colour and texture comes naturally when working with ingredients, so I encourage anyone at home to slow down a little when dishing up: add a splash of colour, a crunch and some gorgeous greens and you’ll create your own mini masterpiece.

For those who find cooking a chore, how do you suggest injecting more fun into their meals?

I think people often get intimidated by the amount of time it can take to cook, daunted by recipes or just feel they don’t know where to start. Having a bit of confidence goes a long way, so remember that when you start with good ingredients, you really can’t go too wrong.

To get started I have three tips:

- Start with seasonal ingredients and don’t overcomplicate it.

Often the simplest meals are the most delicious, and eating vegetables in season is a good place to start. At the moment I’m loving pieces of squash simply roasted in a little oil and salt. You can serve it with grains, salad or extra veggies and a drizzle of nut butter and it’s delicious.

- Get inspired by a book or a chef you love.

If you need a recipe, then refer to them rather than getting overwhelmed by the huge variety of information out there.

- To make cooking more fun, make your life simple!

Things like a large jar of kimchi, a tasty batch of hummus or even some toasted seeds can enable you to instantly amp up your meals. Roast a big tray of colourful veggies and make a jar of dressing at the beginning of the week so you have things that can be thrown together in an instant. These simple preparations make cooking so much easier than having to start from scratch each time.

Are there particular ingredients or meals you’d recommend to boost mental health?

Mind food is all about balance. Eating a rainbow, always including good fats like olive oil and nuts, and including whole grains and good amounts of protein are all important. But the most important thing is eating what you love. Not being deprived of things, but empowering yourself to eat a rich and vibrant selection of dishes that bring a smile to your face.

Some simple and tasty brain-boosting ideas might be to: add hemp seeds to smoothies and salads; make your own walnut butter and drizzle it on almost anything; massage raw kale with oil and salt until its super soft and then add it to every savoury meal for an extra nutrient boost.

And, of course, slow down and enjoy your food – the way you eat it is just as important as what you eat.