It is clear that food is the primary driver of health and that there is no one thing you can do to improve your health and relationship with food that is more valuable than cooking at home. Even foods that aren’t quite as good for you, like the donuts shown here, are healthier if cooked at home.
There is some downside. Cooking at home requires more time to shop and more time for cooking but can be offset by the time saved eating out or driving to the fast-food joint. One dinner meal can easily become two or more. Meal planning helps by cutting out time spent wandering through the grocery store aisles wondering what to buy. If you lay heavy on expensive meats or fish then cooking at home can be expensive but there are alternatives. Go meatless for a couple of nights each week. Extend meat purchases by not making them the centerpiece of the meal but by adding them to pasta or rice. And you can start slow. If you don’t normally cook at home, don’t know what to cook, or even how to cook, then pick one night a week to start. Remember – you’ve spent a lifetime developing the habits and tastes that you have. They won’t change overnight. Feel free to take it slow. Just be sure to get on the train.
Obviously tangible benefits…
1. You know you ingredients
When eating out or when cooking from boxes, you’re at the mercy of the restaurant or manufacturer. You hope the restaurant is clean, sanitary, and uses only the most fresh ingredients. My intuition and people sense tells me that this isn’t always true. And Gordon Ramsay makes me feel as comfortable about restaurant pantries as the movie Jaws makes me feel about swimming in the ocean. I’m even less confident about boxed foods. I know what’s in there and not much of it is food. Learn to enjoy the farmer’s market and stick to the outer circle of the grocer’s where they usually keep real food. Wander into the inner aisles at risk.
2. You can control portions
I’m not lying. I went to a restaurant recently and ordered a hamburger. What came out to me was a plate-sized hunk of beef stuck between two huge pieces of bread. Every liquid condiment known to man was slapped onto this behemoth. I ate about a quarter of it and tossed the rest. Then fasted for the rest of the day. You can avoid this at home. Of course, you can always go back for more but that’s another issue. A rule of thumb is that a ‘portion’ is about the size of your palm.
3. You can control nutrients
You don’t have to become a nutritionist but learn how to jumble the mix of carbs, proteins, and fats that you want. It’s not that difficult with real food. Work on reducing processed wheat and sugars.
4. You can address allergies and sensitivities
I have a daughter with nut allergies and a sensitivity to dairy. She has a hair-trigger : when peanut butter touches her tongue, whatever is in her stomach immediately comes up. If she eats more than a few bits of cheese or drinks milk we know that within a couple of hours – when the bacteria in her large intestine start feasting on undigested lactose – she will swell up and ache. We are able to control all of this by cooking and eating at home. It’s not always convenient but neither is cleaning up vomit.
5. It can save money
There is a ages-long battle about whether healthy eating costs more or less than providing the average American diet. It’s a case where it’s essential to look at exactly what is being talked about. If our family, we eat lots of rice and throw in a lot of vegetables. We go two or three days a week without meat. We skimp on chips and snacks and no one drinks soda. When we do buy meat, though, it’s high quality and often more expensive. We love fish and buy fresh cuts of cold water fish – more expensive where we live. And when we want a dessert even a bag of chocolate chips for baking cookies costs three bucks – Oreos are probably cheaper. My guess is that we spend a little less than the average American family with kids. But we are both willing to spend a little more for a more healthy diet. Even for fish and expensive meats, though, I find that by eating less at one sitting and spreading that pound sized fillet over a couple of nights that we can extend out expense.
A little less tangible…
6. It’s easy and less expensive to try new things.
How many times have you been out to eat and passed on trying something different because if you don’t like it you will be hungry and poor? So try it at home. Substitute parsnips for carrots. We’ve learned to love mashed sweet potatoes. Give quinoa a try (it’s great.) I learned that I can cut sugar in half when cooking and still get the sweetness so on those times when I make deserts they can at least be a little more healthy.
7. Family time
Remember that intangibles are as important for health as more obvious choices. Include the family in cooking and in eating together. My girls love to help and the mess and clean-up is worth the time together. Take time to teach the family what healthy food looks like. Get them on board. If you are older – like me – then help them to recognize early how important health is so they don’t have to start over when they are your age.
8. But be careful…
Cooking at home – while healthier in almost every aspect – is not carte blanche permission to gorge on healthy chocolate chip cookies. This is a trap that I willingly fall into thinking that since I just ran five miles, well, those cookies are made with honey instead of sugar, certainly, a handful won’t hurt… Yes, they might be healthier than store-bought cookies moderation is still the key.
A Word About Diets
I avoid the entire diet scene by understanding that the human body is wonderfully adaptable. But I advise to avoid fad diets. Avoid anything that says “you must eat this”. Figure out what you enjoy and eat in moderate amounts. Know what healthy looks like and error toward that side.
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A new classic from Micheal Pollan: