From Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Food, Allison Carver says, brings people together.

That’s why five women were drawn to a western Henrico County home on a warm evening recently.

But the underlying theme had little to do with the homemade pizzas in the oven. Rather, the focus was on using the process of cooking as therapy; or in this case, as stress relief.

Carver led the women through a discussion about stress and its causes, and also ways to combat it.

“We all need to unwind,” she told the group. “We really should unwind every single day … and make time to relax.”

That time could come in the kitchen preparing dinner after a long day. In this instance, kneading the pizza dough or chopping the fresh vegetables — it’s not about perfection — can be methods of stress relief, she said.

When the women built their pizzas, Carver took a step back and let the conversation flow naturally.

They laughed and joked together, as the cares of the day slowly began to dissipate. The laughing continued as they sat down together to eat their creations.

For the women, the nearly two-hour session was a positive experience and helped them realize that cooking truly can be an exercise in stress relief.

“Time is the biggest thing for me,” said Brenda Carter. “I need to start relaxing more, taking the time when I get home, just see what I want to eat and take my time in preparing it. I think that will be a good stress release for me.”

Jane Rothrock made a similar realization about herself. She said that when she knows what causes her to feel stressed, she can tell herself to take a “calming breath and simmer down.”

Carver, who is a licensed professional counselor and has worked in public and private mental health care, founded A Taste of Therapy a year ago. She mixes cooking skills with therapeutic themes to promote personal growth for her clients. The company’s tagline is “Cooking Up a Conversation.”

Carver promotes communication in each of her sessions. In many of them, the recipes are divided — one person may have the ingredients and another the measurements — to get people to talk with each other.

“Therapy has a big stigma,” she said. “Nobody wants to admit they are going to therapy, so this is a fun, interactive way to talk about some heavy things, but do it in a different way.”

This month Carver entered a partnership with Safe Harbor, a resource center for people who have or are now experiencing domestic violence, to conduct four sessions with those staying in the organization’s shelter.

Sessions range from the stress-relief pizza to team building with chicken fajitas.

Kristina Vadas, a sexual violence advocate at Safe Harbor, said the adults and children in the shelter will benefit immensely.

She said the partnership with Carver will help improve the sense of community and communication and help build healthier relationships.

“As people have seen with art therapy, or using methods of therapy other than talking, it can be very powerful,” Vadas said. “Using cooking as a medium for expressing feelings and communicating is such a fantastic idea.”

A native of Henrico County, Carver came up with the concept for A Taste of Therapy nearly four years ago as a way to make therapy more approachable, but her love for cooking goes back even longer.

She has fond memories of spending time in the kitchen with her mother, and even then the seeds for this endeavor may have been planted.

“We always did this kind of stuff. It makes sense other families would benefit from (cooking) together,” Carver said.

In the end, Carver wants her clients to take away from the sessions the ability to use these kitchen skills — and even a few tasty recipes — on their own to handle life’s stressors.

“Ultimately, that’s what you’re supposed to do in therapy anyway,” she said. “Teach people skills, teach them the ability to do what they need to do to cope.”

Original article.