Most of us have been at home quite a lot this past month and our eating patterns likely have been disrupted to some degree. Maybe you are cooking more than before, or you are getting take-out from your favorite restaurants since you can’t dine in. Maybe you really don’t know how to cook and are just eating things out of a bag that you don’t have to fix at all (definitely not a great option). If you are trying to improve your overall diet by eating healthier foods, now is the perfect time to work on this. The absolute best way to improve what you eat is to cook all or most of your meals at home. That’s right – make your own meals, preferably all of the time. Yes, it is kind and supportive to local restaurants to buy their food and maybe you want to do so at least some of the time. However, the more you minimize eating out and the more you cook at home, the greater the likelihood your diet will improve.
Cooking and making your own meals does not have to be hard or overly time consuming. It doesn’t require a large skill set either. You aren’t opening a gourmet restaurant, you are just feeding yourself and/or your family. Start with very simple meals, made with just a few ingredients. There are literally thousands of websites with recipes and how-to demos. These can be helpful, but they can also be overwhelming. Stick to the basics at the beginning – just because a recipe has 10 different spices/ingredients you have never heard of doesn’t mean you have to use them all. Most of the time you can omit some items or substitute with what you do have on hand with little to no effect.
Here’s one example comparing what sounds like the same meal, prepared in 3 different ways, to get you thinking about cooking at home: Spaghetti with sauce, a side salad, and a roll.
Option #1: Restaurant meal: A large serving of spaghetti, topped with tomato sauce with beef meatballs, a side salad of iceberg lettuce with a few carrot, tomato, and/or cucumber pieces on top plus a package of creamy dressing, and a white roll with butter. (20-30 min. round trip to the restaurant to pick it up.)
Option #2: Packaged options with minimal prep at home: A can of spaghetti with meatballs heated up, a package of salad mix of your choosing that includes the dressing (with minimal to no veggies added) tossed into a bowl, and a package of rolls from the bread aisle heated up (or not) with butter added at the table. (Grocery shopping time not included, about 10 min. of prep.)
Option #3: Meal prepared totally at home: Whole wheat spaghetti cooked on the stove, homemade tomato sauce consisting of either canned, diced tomatoes or fresh, chopped tomatoes, a few spices of your choice tossed in (such as oregano, basil, pepper, etc.), and chopped zucchini or green peppers added – cooked in a pot on your stove at the same time the pasta is cooking, a green salad made with spinach or other dark, leafy greens, with or without added chopped veggies plus homemade dressing consisting of a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar mixed together. A whole wheat roll from the store, or for the more adventurous – a slice of your own homemade whole wheat bread, without butter, dipped into the tomato sauce to moisten if desired. If you still wanted to add meat to the sauce, saute a smaller amount of lean ground beef or ground turkey to add to the sauce instead of making meatballs, which contain other fillers. (Grocery shopping time not included, about 20-30 min. total prep/cook time).
Guess which meal provides the most nutrition? #3 by a long shot. It contains whole grains, more vegetables, more nutritious greens (iceberg and even romaine provide next to no nutritional benefit), less saturated fat (butter, meat, store bought dressings), a little more unsaturated fat, which is better (homemade dressing from olive oil), and less sodium and added sugars (from the canned goods, pre-made dressings, and meatballs.)
The cost of each meal can be pretty close as well, depending on your choices. A large container of spinach costs about the same as one bag of prepared salad mix and feeds many more people. The homemade dressing literally costs just pennies to make. Skipping the meat or decreasing the amount of it also decreases the cost.
The prep time is not really that much longer – yes, possibly 3 times longer to cook than to just heat stuff from a can or open a bag, and close to the time it takes to go pick up take-out food, but we are still talking about a total prep time of 30 minutes for a far more nutritious meal. I’m not talking about hours here.
Here’s my challenge to you today: Take a look at one of your recent meals and think about how you could improve the nutritional content by making some changes the next time you make it. You could also drop one item of a meal (such as the roll) and replace it with something more nutritious (such as a small bowl of fresh fruit). There are lots of small ways to begin to improve the quality of your food.
Keep it simple, taking one small step at a time. Pretty soon, you will be eating a more nutritious diet and you will likely start to feel more confidence in preparing your own meals. Enlisting the help of family/household members can make it even more fun too!
Take good care of yourself – as I often say, your health is your greatest asset. That should be abundantly clear to all of us right now. You can do this!