Since the 1960s, the number of American households that prepare meals at home has dropped by 30 percent. About half of folks who still use their kitchens admit their “home-cooked meals” are actually packaged, ready-to-eat foods like frozen dinners.
Are people just too busy to cook nowadays? Not quite.
According to Harvard Business Review, 90 percent of people simply don’t like — or don’t know how — to cook. Skyrocketing restaurant delivery figures during the coronavirus pandemic prove this sentiment, even as grocery stores ramp up their delivery services.
But we’re doing ourselves a disservice. Research shows that people who prepare their meals at home:
- Consume fewer calories, fat, and sugar.
- Eat more well-balanced, diverse diets.
- Have higher energy levels and better mental health.
- Spend about half as much money on their food budget.
- Have a lower obesity risk.
Shaking your dependence on processed foods and restaurant meals can even net you a longer lifespan. All you need is some prep-work and motivation to make your healthy home cooking a long-term routine.
Prepare Your Kitchen
Healthy home meals don’t have to be huge time investments — but they can be if you aren’t prepared.
After a long day at work, realizing you need to make a last-minute trip to the grocery store can derail even the most motivated home cooks. Get around this block by keeping a well-stocked, organized kitchen.
Fill Your Pantry and Freezer
Start with a healthy range of long-shelf-life staples that are easy adds to any meal:
- Canned beans and tomatoes.
- Whole, unprocessed, unrefined grains like lentils, quinoa, and brown rice.
- Nuts and seeds.
- Frozen fruits and vegetables.
- Healthier sweeteners like honey or maple syrup.
- Pantry-friendly vegetables like sweet potatoes, squash, and carrots.
- Chicken or vegetable stock.
- Frozen proteins like poultry, meat, and fish.
- Healthy fats like olive and coconut oils.
Pick up some healthy, shelf-stable condiments — avoid highly processed or sugar-packed products. Your personal stash will depend on your taste but could include versatile flavors from salsa, hot sauce, mustard, balsamic vinegar, tahini, or apple cider vinegar.
Then tend to your spice rack. Herbs and spices bring other ingredients to life and can turn otherwise redundant dishes into new culinary experiences. In general, these spices work well with most foods and are featured in cuisines from around the world:
- Black pepper and sea salt.
- Onion and garlic powders.
- Dried herbs like basil, dill, rosemary, cilantro, and oregano.
- Powdered ginger.
- Red pepper flakes.
- Curry powder.
- Cinnamon and nutmeg.
Organize your staples to make it easy to keep track of what needs to be stocked with a trip to the store. Keeping your kitchen organized will also help you cook more efficiently and ensure it’s a de-cluttered space where you’ll want to be.
Stick to a Shopping Plan
Many shelf-stable pantry or freezer items last for months or even years, so your weekly shopping trips should focus on fresh ingredients.
Before hitting the store — or a local farmer’s market — plan how many foods you’ll need for the week to reduce waste and ensure you’ll get enough balance in your diet with:
Choose options you’ll enjoy – if you dislike asparagus, you won’t look forward to cooking up that meal.
We’re creatures of habit, so schedule your trip into your routine to never miss a beat. Plan for a produce haul alongside another activity like a Sunday coffee date with a friend so it feels less like a chore and becomes something you look forward to.
Keep It Simple
Sometimes it’s fun to try out a new recipe that has you creating in the kitchen all afternoon long. But complex and time-consuming meals don’t make for a sustainable habit.
You’re more likely to stick with a new routine using a handful of easy recipes you can rotate, changing up flavor and spice combinations to keep your palate fresh. In general, all meals should include a protein source, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates like whole grains and vegetables.
As you spend more time in the kitchen, you’ll master new cooking techniques that expand what you can put on the table. But to get started, try simple, all-purpose cooking styles where everything can go in one pan, like:
- Sautéing — tossing small bits of meat and vegetables in a pan with healthy fat.
- Sheet pan roasting — lining a tray with your protein and vegetables.
- Skillet roasting — cooking food on high heat in a pan and transferring to the oven to brown and enhance flavors.
- One-pot meals — like slow-cooker or crockpot mashups, perfect for cooking in bulk and heating up portions on busier days.
Jazz It Up
Variety comes from your flavor combinations. Try some classic blends like:
- Balsamic vinegar, rosemary, and black pepper.
- Garlic, onion, white wine vinegar, and basil.
- Chili, cumin, oregano, and garlic.
- Dill, lemon juice, and mustard.
Make a basic meal shine with easy sauces like a:
- Creamy yogurt-based cilantro lime.
- Tahini-based honey mustard.
- Wine-based garlic and shallot sauce.
- Basil and pine nut pesto.
- Classic tomato marinara.
- Takeaway-worthy ginger soy.
- Hearty mushroom sauce.
- Tangy balsamic barbecue.
Cooking healthy home meals leads to a wealth of health and financial benefits. It’s fine to treat yourself occasionally with takeaway, but don’t let old habits take root.
Invite friends over for potlucks to hold yourself accountable to your cooking schedule or use your time in the kitchen to catch up on TV shows, audiobooks, or podcasts. Keep your inspiration by following healthy food blogs or Instagram accounts, and challenge yourself by experimenting with new cuisines.