Growing 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. The average American spends only about 30 minutes a day on preparing and cleaning up food, and a recent study showed that only half of American households cook dinner at home on a regular basis. 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.
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.
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.
Tips for saving time cooking at home
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.