As “wellness culture” keeps exploding in popularity, so too have the many mostly true, but nearly useless health advice cliches. “It’s not that hard to eat healthy! Just eat whole, unprocessed, organic foods! Incorporate movement into your life! Stop eating out and cook at home and eat as a family!” Those are all good things, but it’s not useful advice if you’re not already in the habit of doing them. Each of those “tips” involves changing a lot of ingrained habits. In this article, I’m going to outline some of the practical tips that have been the most useful for tricking myself into cooking at home more often.
The problem with eating out
Eating out is one of those conveniences of modern life that can free up so much time and energy for us, but can also be detrimental to our long term health. The infamously large portion sizes, oxidized and trans fats, hidden sugars and salt, and mystery food additives are not very conducive to helping us meet our health goals. Studies like this one show that people who eat out 6 or more dinners a week eat about 200 more calories per day than people who ate out for one dinner or less per week. And that’s not even counting the extra money spent and the lower quality food that is likely consumed.
COOKING AT HOME
While I truly believe that cooking at home more often is truly one of the biggest keys to achieving your best possible health, it’s also one of the biggest barriers and hardest habits to form. With so many convenient and delicious options for dining out, it’s hard to convince yourself that spending all that time and mental energy menu planning, grocery shopping, actually cooking, and washing the dishes afterwards is worth it, and can seem daunting and overwhelming. However, I also believe that learning to cook healthy meals for yourself and your family is one of the most rewarding habits you can get into, and has lasting benefits for not only your own health but future generations as well. Eating as a family is one of the most important things you can do for your kids’ long term physical and psychosocial health, according to the studies cited in this Washington Post article.
And you CAN actually enjoy the process!
So what are some good ways to ditch greasy restaurant food, learn to love cooking at home more often?
- Get into it
Food is anything but boring and mundane. Every single ingredient you can think of has a rich history, unique flavor and best way to prepare it, nutritional benefits, medicinal use, and cultural significance. Think of salt, by far the most ubiquitous seasoning in the kitchen. It used to be so valuable that it was highly restricted and used as a currency! Educating yourself about the ingredients you cook with can do an amazing job of peaking your interest in cooking and making you want to get into the kitchen and experiment a little more (If you are into podcasts, a fantastically well done and fascinating one about food is called Gastropod. Even if you hate eating, you will find it interesting, I promise.). Have fun with it! Find a food or dish you really like and try to replicate it at home, maybe even adding your own healthy twist.
- Try “pleasure bundling”
One of my favorite memories of my grandma is her in the kitchen cooking for us while watching British comedy shows on the small tv in her kitchen. You know, the dry, cheesy ones on PBS with the old ladies sitting around gossiping? I now realize that all along, she has been doing what all of the habit formation experts are now telling everyone to do. Take a task that you don’t find very enjoyable and “bundle” it with something pleasurable, like some good music, a tv show, or a piece of chocolate, and you will eventually associate pleasurable feelings with the previously dreaded activity. Listening to music or a good podcast or audiobook, drinking a glass of wine (extra effective on an empty stomach ;)), or having your spouse or kids join you while you’re in your kitchen can turn cooking and cleaning into something you actually enjoy doing. I only let myself watch tv shows while I’m folding laundry, and now I actually look forward to it as a fun, relaxing activity.
- Clean and organize your kitchen
Nothing is worse than having to cook dinner when you have to fish your cooking utensils from the murky, cold water beneath of a mountain of dishes in the sink, push aside a pile of random crap on the counter, and dig through expired condiments in the fridge just to find any ingredients. Having a tupperware avalanche every time you want to put away leftovers is also a terrible thing to experience. This might be one of the most important keys to making yourself want to cook more, yet it’s also the biggest pain in the butt for most of us. But can you imagine always having a sparkling clean kitchen with only the ingredients and dishes you actually use, perfectly organized in their places? It would be a shame to NOT use it all the time.
- Plan ahead
Making a meal plan at the beginning of the week is incredibly useful if you want to cook at home more often, and takes the stress out of trying to figure out what to eat for dinner every day. Also, we all have days when we are way too busy to spend an hour and a half cooking and washing dishes, or maybe you just plain don’t feel like it. Fortunately, we have amazing inventions such as the crock pot and the Instant Pot to utilize on those occasions! Look up countless make/freeze ahead recipe ideas on Pinterest, and work them into your routine or meal plan on days you will be too busy or don’t feel like spending a bunch of time in the kitchen.
- Keep it well stocked
Keep a list of basic things you always cook with, and refill them as soon as they get low. While trying to cook with a threadbare kitchen might seem like a fun game of Iron Chef to some people, not ever having the right ingredients can really take the wind out of your sails. This will get easier as you get to know the things you tend to cook with. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the whole “my fridge/pantry is full of random ingredients but there’s nothing to cook” syndrome. Keeping around ingredients you ACTUALLY use and regularly tossing or making plans for things you don’t clears up space in your mind for creativity and sanity. (I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite way to stock my pantry with healthy , quality ingredients on the cheap: Thrive Market! Their “house brand” organic cocoa powder, for example, is so rich and flavorful that I use it as often as possible. If you follow this link, you get 15% off your first order and 30 days free! I also get a small amount of free groceries, so it’s a win-win situation!)
- Make your kitchen a place you love to be
Hardly any of us have the Joanna Gaines inspired kitchen of our dreams. My pantry is deep, skinny and cavernous, with only 3 shelves, and it can be the bane of my existence some days. However, we can all make changes and turn our kitchen into a place we enjoy hanging out in! Cleaning and organizing your kitchen, as I mentioned before, will go a long way, but making it beautiful can also have a big impact. Start as small as putting a candle and a gorgeous dish towel on your stove handle, and go as big as repainting your cupboards and busting out walls. The investment will be totally worth it if it keeps you out of the drive through and in your lovely kitchen more often!
- Keep it simple!
You don’t need to whip out a gourmet, Instagram worthy feast for every meal. Basic 4-6 ingredient meals, simple bowls of veggies and protein, and heck, even a can of salmon and a smoothie are my go-tos most days. Every once in awhile it’s fun to get creative and use a bunch of expensive ingredients, but lowering your expectations of your cooking is extremely important if you want to do it more often. Let go of perfection and just do it.
If you incorporate these tips into your life, you will definitely find yourself cooking in your own kitchen a lot more. Making delicious meals has become one of the things I love to do most. Working with fresh ingredients, learning about the way other cultures prepare food, and having to come up with tasty dinners on the fly is my favorite creative outlet.
No one is perfect of course; there have been times we have gone out for dinner simply because I didn’t feel like dealing with the dishes in the sink and creating more, and sometimes the bottom drawers of my refrigerator resemble “the Upside Down” from Stranger Things. The point is that we continue to evolve and grow in our journeys toward health, and not beat ourselves up when we don’t meet our own lofty expectations.
Have any of these tips helped you in your cooking journey? What other habits get you in your kitchen more often? Leave a comment below!