A family member lost more than 15 lbs. in two months. Two things changed: quarantine meant he worked from home and he stopped eating out, which he usually does 3 times a week. When I heard the news, I had to ask: how much healthier is it to eat home-cooked meals?
Research from Johns Hopkins University shows that the more we eat home-cooked meals, the lesser sugar, calories, fat, and carbs we eat. We also consume fewer frozen meals and fast food. The quality of our food improves overall.
Results on whether cooking at home is directly related to weight loss, however, vary. While some studies show a correlation between home cooking and weight-loss, others do not.
A central piece in trying to eat healthier, the current pandemic forced people to cook more at home. If there’s a silver lining, this is certainly one of them.
The Decline of Home Cooking in the US
Social changes have contributed to the decline of home cooking in the US. Researchers cite the increase in women’s workforce participation, lack of cooking skills, time and money constraints, and lack of access to healthy foods as the reasons.
In a study spanning 22 countries, 35% of Americans and Italians claim that they have “great knowledge and experience with food and cooking”, compared to 50% of South Africans and 48% Indians.
With access to food blogs and videos, it’s possible that we will see more people attempting to cook at home and even try various cuisines and diets. Just a few years ago, garam masala seemed such a foriegn spice for Americans, but you see it now in general grocery stores and food blogs. The hope is that access to the plethora of free cooking tips and classes will translate to more confidence in people’s skills.
Culture of Cooking
Universally, the kitchen is considered the heart of the home, so it seems inappropriate to claim that some cultures value their cooking more than others. However, there are households that put more value in home cooking.
I didn’t grow up in a family that celebrates cooking, but as an adult with my own household, cooking is an integral part of our home. I watch tons of YouTube videos, read blogs, and experiment, A LOT. We’re what you would call high-frequency* cookers. We cook more than 7 times a week.
To lead a healthy life, my family makes it a point to be knowledgeable of the food we eat, from ingredient quality, taste, presentation, and the environmental impact.
There are discussions if cooking, a skill traditionally learned at home from mothers, should be a part of early education curriculum. It’s not enough to talk about eating healthy, without providing skills to actually help people adopt healthy habits.
Is Home-Cooking a Privilege for the Affluent?
My husband and I started cooking at home frequently when I was a graduate student living on student salary. Although home-cooking seems to be associated with well-to-do households, that have free time and access to fresh ingredients, research shows that lower income households occupy the extreme–they are either high-frequency cookers or low (0-1 times a week). Perhaps this is an avenue of research to explore further, so we can understand why certain low income households cook frequently at home and some do not.
Currently, the zeitgeist is to eat together with family. Maybe we should focus more on cooking together and learning from each other as we make our food, transforming everyday meals into celebrations.
Interested in Cooking More at Home?
Pre-make what you can in batches. Keep roasted vegetables in the fridge, such as onions, tomatoes, zucchini, garlic, and broccoli, so you can easily make wraps and sandwiches.
Have a Meal Plan
This allows you to know what exactly you will need when you take a trip to the grocery store, so you don’t overdo the shopping. This saves time and money and produces less waste.
Invest in Spices
Cooking with spices changed my life. There’s a reason why cooking Indian food at home is relatively inexpensive and makes you eat more vegetables. YouTuber Pro Home Cooks has some great tips to get started.
Keeping an organized pantry and kitchen means you know exactly what you have, so it saves money and time when you’re cooking. I personally like to keep kitchen counters clean with space readily available to get cooking.
Make More and Freeze
Soup, fried rice, vegan patties, pancakes, chocolate chip cookies…some food blogs will actually note if you can freeze certain recipes and for how long.
Fresh ingredients are always better, but once in a while, it’s fine to use frozen veggies, canned beans or bottled sauces when you’re pressed for time. Don’t be too hard on yourself. A home-cooked meal with some semi-processed or processed ingredients is probably still better than fast food.
Develop a list of ingredients that you love and have a longer shelf-life so you can make wholesome meals when you don’t have time for a grocery trip. Some of my staples are: quinoa, nuts, tofu, rice, pasta, lentils, frozen veggies, basil pasta sauce, and whole-wheat flour.
Just taking time to think about presentation makes a difference. Add a side salad to the main meal on the plate, or a bowl of fruit on the side.
Here are some gadgets that save time and improve the cooking experience:
Blender | Food Processor: If there’s a gadget I use daily it’s the Ninja Mega Kitchen System. Tip: use the food processor for quick veggie chopping and the dough setting for flatbreads.
Air-tight containers: Food in the fridge stays fresher, longer.
Instantpot: for making quinoa, rice, curries, lentil soups–the possibilities are endless. I love that you can just set the time, so you don’t have to keep watch and it stays warm.
Citrus Juicer: This Cuisinart juicer has made my mornings a lot healthier. It’s so easy to make lemon-ginger juice and unlike a cold press juicer it’s a faster cleanup.
*Categories for low, medium, and high cooking are based on the paper “Is cooking at home associated with better diet quality or weight-loss intention?” by Wolfson and Bleich.