How to Start Eating Healthy: The Benefits of Cooking at Home

The Benefits of Cooking at HomeGrowing up, my family always made dinner at home. While most nights I stick to that habit, I know I am not alone in having difficulty finding the motivation and time to make home-cooked meals every night. Ordering take-out, buying a pre-packaged dinner, or going out to eat is often quite tempting. Doing these things on occasion can be fun, delicious, and a good way to mix up your routine, but if you want to know how to start eating healthy, the first step is to make cooking at home a priority.

From 1965 to 1995, the time spent cooking declined almost 40% in the US.[1] The average American spends only about 30 minutes a day on preparing and cleaning up food,[2] and a recent study showed that only half of American households cook dinner at home on a regular basis.[1] With more fast food and pre-packed meals available than ever before, this isn’t surprising. But this change is coming with negative consequences on our health. Pre-made food is often loaded with salt, fats, preservatives, sugar, and artificial ingredients. 

Health benefits of cooking at home

A study in 2014 in the journal Public Health Nutrition found that cooking at home more than two times per week was associated with better diet quality. People who cooked dinner at home more frequently ate fewer total carbohydrates, fat, and sugar, and ate significantly less fast food, frozen, or ready-to-eat meals. The study also found that cooking at home improves quality of nutrients regardless of whether or not the person is trying to diet to lose weight.[3]

Yes, cooking at home takes more time. But it turns out that the total time spent on food, including preparing, cooking, and cleaning up, is significantly associated with healthier eating patterns as well, including eating more fruits and vegetables. Spending less money on food away from home is an added bonus of taking more time for cooking.[2]

If you cook at home more than eating out, your diet will improve immensely. But while most home-cooked meals will generally be better for you than those you can buy pre-made, making healthy options is still important. Avoid recipes that use a lot of fat, sugar, and starches. Choose fresh foods with lots of fruits and vegetables, and make sure to include variety in your diet.

Starting better habits

If you make a change for your family, you will benefit your children by teaching them to appreciate home cooking as well. One recent study found that young adults who frequently shared meals with their family at home during adolescence were more likely to share meals with their household in young adulthood. They were also more likely to have a greater intake of healthful foods.[4]

Tips for saving time cooking at home

  1. Make enough for leftovers. Cooking enough for at least two nights (and lunches) will let you take a break the next day. Freezing any leftovers you can’t eat is a great way to have a home-cooked meal on hand when you need it.
  2. Plan ahead. Plan out your menu, and go to the grocery store once to get your ingredients for the whole week. (Editor’s Note: I use a meal-planning service to simplify this process. For $5 a month, I get a list of recipes and a grocery list once a week.—Carrie)
  3. Do some of the preparation ahead of time. With some recipes, you can do many of the steps in advance. Chop your veggies, make your sauce, or pre-cook parts of the meal ahead of time to make the final cooking time shorter.
  4. Eat fresh. Recipes that use fresh ingredients and avoid extended time over the stove will save you time, and they will be loaded with nutrients. Try salads or raw food recipes for dinner.
  5. Try a slow cooker. You can put a whole meal in a slow cooker before you leave in the morning and dinner will be ready by the time you get home.

Share your experience

Do you cook at home regularly? What are your favorite recipes? What are your best tips for saving time and eating healthy? Share your experience in the comments section below.


[1] Public Health Nutr. 2014 May;17(5):1022-30.<

[2] Am J Prev Med. 2014 Dec;47(6):796-802.<

[3] Public Health Nutr. 2014 Nov 17:1-10. [Epub ahead of print]<

[4] Public Health Nutr. 2013 May;16(5):883-93.<

Comments
  • I mentioned above that I use a meal-planning service, so I wanted to share more information. The service I used to use (Six O’Clock Scramble) offered 5 recipes a week and allowed you to swap out recipes if you didn’t like something. I switched recently (there was a Groupon at a good price.) The new service (eMeals) provides 7 recipes a week and offers lunch recipes too for another $4/month. However, you can’t switch recipes out. Either way, simply having a list of meals does help me plan better and waste less.

    Reply
  • I’ve been preparing nearly all of my food at home from whole, natural ingredients for only about 6 months now, and it has already proven to be well worth the very small amount of time and effort it takes me. I’m an eat-to-live, rather than a live-to-eat kind of guy, so I don’t need anything fancy. I have zero interest in measuring things and following any sort of recipes. I’m also a very spontaneous kind of guy, so you’re never going to catch me planning my “menus” even one day in advance. Yet you’ll be hard put to find many people in this country who are better nourished than I am.

    What works for me is to have just one major meal a day, cooked in just two easy-to-clean pans: a frying pan for whatever meat/poultry/fish I’m having, and a double boiler for everything else.

    I keep my freezer stocked with single meal portions (1/4 to 1/3 pound) of salmon steaks, pork chops, lamb chops, chicken thighs and legs, and grass fed beef, shopping for all that twice a month. On Mondays and Fridays it’s always salmon, but on other days it’s just whatever I happen to be in the mood for, getting it out of the freezer in the morning while waiting for my first cup of tea to brew. When cooking time comes I just toss my piece of meat du jour into the lightly greased frying pan and slowly cook it over the lowest heat that will do the job, turning it once. I never bother with marinades, sauces or anything like that. I serve it up simply with a bit of lemon juice for the salmon, or salt and pepper for anything else.

    I keep my vegetable drawer and freezer stocked with a couple of dozen ingredients, mostly bought in one trip per week to my local farmer’s market. All my green leafies (like kale, collard or mustard greens), asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, beans and peas I keep frozen in plastic bags. Everything else stays fresh. When I’m ready to cook I simply fill the top of the double boiler with a little bit of this and a little bit of that, whatever strikes my fancy at the moment, usually consisting of 16 to 20 different ingredients by the time I’m done. There will always be some kind of green leafy, often including a bit of fresh parsley or cilantro, either beans or peas, beet root, fresh turmeric root, fresh ginger root, asparagus, onion, tomato, and either some yam or squash (usually butternut) or occasionally red skinned potato. Then I’ll toss in some random combination of fennel, eggplant, carrot, celery, red and yellow bell pepper, habanero or chili pepper, radish, mushroom, always either some broccoli or cauliflower or red cabbage, kelp, cucumber and/or even some fresh apple. I very lightly steam it all over water that is not quite boiling, stirring on occasion, until it’s just barely cooked al dente, at about 150-160 degrees F. I dump it on a plate, add butter and coconut oil, salt and pepper, oregano and thyme, and it’s ready to eat. Nothing fancy, no recipes, but (combined with the nuts, seeds, fruits–including avocado–and probiotics like yogurt and kefir that I eat as “snacks” at other times of the day) it pretty much keeps all of the bases amply covered in terms of meeting or exceeding my daily requirements of macronutrients, vitamins, minerals and various phytonutrients.

    Okay, so I’m never going to be awarded any prizes for gourmet cooking. Of course all the “raw foodies” will also tell me I’m very foolish because I seldom eat anything but fruits raw, not even fresh salads. And I am still very much “The average American [who] spends only about 30 minutes a day on preparing and cleaning up food.” But I seriously doubt I could be either any better nourished or any more satisfied with my meals even if I meticulously planned (or purchased) my menus well in advance and spent 2 hours a day in the kitchen carefully following fancy recipes.

    Reply
  • Excellent suggestions, Greg. Sounds to me like you’re on the right track. I also create simple dishes out of healthy ingredients without excessive preparation requirements. Just healthy foods, seasoned well and cooked as needed. Thanks for sharing this common sense approach to meal preparation.

    Reply
  • Hello UHN Staff.
    It’s a helpful article.
    The article How to Start Eating Healthy: The Benefits of Cooking at Home, So useful for how to start eating healthy! I wanna share The post to my website?

    While it can be convenient and sometimes necessary to grab a quick meal on the go, cooking meals at home is associated with better nutrient intake and diet quality. If you are looking for tips on how to start eating healthy, making home-cooked meals is a perfect place to start

    Reply
  • I like your advice to plan our menus ahead so we only have to go to the grocery store once a week. My husband and I want to change our family’s eating habits so we can all work on getting healthier together; I want to start finding some simple, one-sheet recipes I can cook for dinner. I’m glad I read your article because I think planning out the week’s meals in one sitting will help decrease my stress levels as we make this lifestyle change.

    Reply
  • It’s cool that cooking at home is typically associated with a healthier diet. My wife and I have been looking for ways to eat more healthy foods and start the habit of eating right in our kids. We’ll be looking further into cooking at home to accomplish these goals.

    Reply

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