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Former Masterchef winner Julie Goodwin says having dinner with her family is what saved her during a struggle with her mental health – and she believes it also has the power to help others.
As part of Yahoo Australia's What's Up? mental health challenge, Goodwin has revealed her five tips for cooking a meal for others to coincide with day 24 of the challenge – cook a meal you love that you can later share with friends or family.
"The act of sitting around the table with my family is the best thing I could prescribe for your mental health," she told Yahoo Australia as part of the What's Up? series.
"We go around the table and talk about our highlights and touch base and ask, 'how is your brain?'.
"We talk about mental health on a daily basis and it's a comfortable conversation in our house. Sharing a meal is a non-threatening way to do it."
Goodwin says she also hosts a Monday Dinner Club with friends who may have lost spouses and her niece who lives close by.
"I'll send out a message every Monday morning to say there's a dinner and it's good for all of us," she said.
"People feel comfortable to say they're not up for it and vice versa, I might send a message saying I can't manage it and could we do Wednesday or leave it until next week instead.
"It's a huge step forward being able to say, 'I don't think I'll cope with that today', it's something I've only just learned how to say.
"For me, sharing a meal has always had huge significance ... it's the thing that brings you naturally together and allows you to be who you are – it nourishes your spirit and is about so much more than putting nutrients into your stomach."
Julie's top 5 tips for cooking for others
1. Get as much done as you can before your guests arrive
Goodwin suggests choosing meals where most of the preparation or cooking can be done beforehand so you can enjoy the company of your guests.
Lasagnes, curries or even a barbecue where people can socialise while you cook are just a couple of menu options.
2. Don't try new recipes
Goodwin says if there's something new you want to try, test it on your family first. Cooking a meal for friends for the first time is not worth the pressure.
3. Forget what your house looks like
You're already cooking – there's no need to rush around making sure the rest of the house is perfect. Goodwin says she always tells her dinner guests to take her as they find her.
"Often I'll meet someone at the door and say, 'I hope you're not the kind of person who judges me for my house'," she said.
While her laundry may still be hanging from her clothes horse, Goodwin says the guests are there for the food.
"Going to dinner where the house is absolutely spotless, the host is often stressed and in the scheme of things it's not important," she said.
4. Share food at the centre of the table
Goodwin says putting the food at the centre of the table and allowing people to choose what they want is a "lovely communal way to eat".
"It saves the stress of plating up and it becomes a big banquet where people can take what they wish," she said.
"If there are dietary needs, you can make something that suits everyone, keeping it all fuss-free."
5. Forgive yourself
Goodwin says not every meal needs to be made from scratch.
"In terms of cooking for your family, forgive yourself every now and then if you're not cooking a fresh meal from scratch," she says.
"It's lovely to cook beautiful meals but every night – it's not a realistic goal.
"If you've been busy and you can't manage, forgive yourself if you get takeaway or put sausages in bread. You are not what you eat one night of your life, your are what you do on a daily basis."
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