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Is it Healthier to Cook at Home?

September 2015

Karen Ensle Ed.D., RDN, FAND, CFCS
Family & Community Health Sciences Educator
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

Over the past few decades, Americans have been eating out more and cooking at home less often. When you cook at home, however, you can often make better choices about what and how much you eat and drink than you do when eating out. Cooking can also be a fun activity and a way for you to spend time with family and friends.

When eating at home, remember to focus on foods you need, eat fewer empty calories, and decrease portion sizes. Many recipes include calorie content per serving. Compare calorie content and choose meals that fit within your daily calorie needs. If cooking for a family, family members may each have different calorie needs. You can still cook the same nutritious foods, but vary the portion sizes. For example, an active adolescent male can still eat the same foods as his five-year-old sister, but he will just eat more.

If you don't usually cook at home, start gradually. Make it a goal to cook once a week and work up to cooking more often. A healthy meal starts with more vegetables and fruits and smaller portions of protein and grains. Think about how you can adjust the portions on your plate to get more of what you need without too many calories.

Don't forget reduced-fat dairy by making it a beverage with your meal and by adding fat-free or low-fat dairy products to your plate. You don't have to eat from every food group at each meal, but thinking about the food groups can help you build a healthy meal pattern. Check out these tips for healthier meals:

  • Plan ahead to make better food choices. Keep healthy staples on hand, such as dried fruit, whole wheat pasta, "no-salt-added" canned vegetables, and frozen fruit.
  • Experiment with healthy recipes and look for ways to make your favorites healthier. For example, use low-fat or reduced-fat dairy products by replacing sour-cream with low-fat or fat-free yogurt. Also use spices and herbs to add more flavor instead of adding salt or butter.
  • Use smaller plates and put a small portion of food on your plate to manage portion sizes. Remember to only eat seconds if still hungry.
Below are some common "stumbling blocks" to eating at home and ideas to help you overcome these barriers:
  • I'm tired of being the only one that cooks." Make cooking a family event. Get your children involved with the prep work. This will help to teach them about healthy eating, and it also serves as a way for you to spend time with your children. Have an occasional potluck. Invite friends over and have everyone bring their favorite healthy dish.
  • "I don't have time to cook a big meal every night; it is easier to just order out." Cooking does take time, but try prepping dishes the night before, or that morning prep the salad or the side dish. This will help to save time after work. Also try cooking a big meal on Sunday and then eating it as leftovers and freezing the extras.
  • "My family prefers to eat out; when I cook at home, they complain." Changing a family pattern is difficult. By using small steps, start by eating one more meal at home each week than you normally do. To mix things up, try a new recipe. It'll help keep your family excited about dinner at home and will encourage them to make healthier food choices.