The Health and Social Benefits of Home-Cooked Meals
In America, home-cooked meals are the endangered species of eating habits.
In 1900, a paltry two percent of U.S. meals were eaten outside the home. In 2010, that number had climbed to approximately 50 percent. Meanwhile, under 33 percent of families sit down for a meal with each other more than twice a week, and, on average, Americans eat 46 percent of their meals alone. When we do eat with other people at home, we often sit in front of the television or have to rush to the next task on the calendar.
In the process, we miss out on an activity that can make everyone healthier, happier, and more connected. Here are some reasons why everyone should prioritize time in the kitchen – and some tips on how you can build a home cooking habit that sticks.
Why Home Cooking?
There are so many reasons to cook at home, it’s surprising that we aren’t all doing it at least some of the time. For starters, research shows that regularly eating home-cooked meals as a family is linked to healthier and happier kids, and teens who are less likely to use alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes. Adults also reap considerable benefits from eating home-cooked meals. Research finds that people who eat home-cooked meals on a regular basis tend to be happier and healthier and consume less sugar and processed foods, which can result in higher energy levels and better mental health. Eating home-cooked meals five or more days a week is even associated with a longer life.
Those mental health benefits increase considerably when we eat home-cooked meals with other people. In fact, communal meals can make us feel happier even outside of meal times. That’s partly because social connections reinforced over meals can help us cultivate a sense of belonging and even reduce symptoms of depression. Sharing the joy of home cooking also preserves cultural knowledge and history as we pass recipes from generation to generation.
As if all that weren’t enough, home-cooked meals can also benefit the environment – and all of us, by extension – by saving money and reducing our carbon footprint. Home cooking gives us the opportunity to choose component ingredients over processed meals, which cuts down on packaging. Buy those ingredients from local farmers or grow your own, and you’ll make an even bigger impact on the environment by significantly reducing the amount of transportation required to get food to your plate.
What’s Wrong with This Picture?
Given all the benefits of home cooking, why aren’t we all cooking for ourselves?
The most common excuse is that there’s not enough time. In fact, people who work more than 35 hours outside the home each week do tend to cook less. (Although in reality, many of us spend more time watching TV than we do cooking for ourselves.
Other reasons for avoiding the kitchen include long commutes, the widespread availability of food options outside of the home, and the notion that convenience should always be our ultimate priority.
But the benefits of home cooking are just too good to give up. And given that supermarkets offer a larger variety of foods than they ever have and the number of farmers’ markets in the U.S. is at an all-time high, there’s no better time to develop the habit of cooking meals at home.
Making Time to Cook At Home
Ready to make your own meals? The steps below can help even the busiest or most kitchen-shy foodie become a bona fide home chef.
If you fall into the trap of thinking you’re too busy to cook, evaluate whether that’s really the case. Take a week to write down how long you spend browsing the internet, watching TV, or playing games on your phone. Tally it all up, and you’ll probably find you have more free time than you realized. Use some of that down time to cook delicious meals.
Fall in Love with Your Kitchen
A functional and cared-for kitchen is a much more appealing place than one that’s grimy and uninviting. Create a space you feel good in by investing in some basic cooking equipment and developing an organizational system that works for you.
Keep the Basics on Hand
Cooking feels much less daunting if you don’t have to run out to the store every time you need a single ingredient. Stock the pantry with your most commonly used items (such as flour, pasta, baking soda, spices, and cooking oils) so you can always cook something without needing to shop.
Each weekend, set aside time to plan meals and make shopping lists for the week ahead. Take your weekly schedule into account: For example, if you know Tuesday will be busy, then plan for a meal that’s quick and easy to make. With a little forethought, you can tailor home cooking to even the busiest weeks.
Eating home-cooked meals on a regular basis doesn’t mean you need to cook every night. Cut yourself a break by cooking large batches of every meal you make so you can reheat it throughout the week (or freeze it and eat it down the road). Also consider making items that can be reused in different ways – for example, cooked chicken breasts can be used in sandwiches, in pasta, or on top of salads to make multiple different meals over the course of a few days.
Keep It Simple
If you’re completely new to home cooking, don’t feel like you need to be a gourmet chef every night of the week. Start small and commit to cooking one or two meals at home each week. Use simple ingredients (pasta and red sauce is a classic example), and give yourself time to get comfortable in the kitchen.
Cook What You Like to Eat
Don’t feel pressured to get fancy just because you’re in charge of a meal. If you like chicken-stuffed duck breast coated in truffle oil, then go for it. But there’s no need to reinvent the meal. If pizza is more your style, then make yourself a homemade option. By preparing meals you like to eat, you’ll be more likely to stick with home cooking.
Make It Social
Cooking doesn’t need to be a solo affair. Invite your partner, kids, or friends into the kitchen to cut down on the time and energy required to make a meal and to make it fun. Cooking together is a great way to solidify relationships, share food knowledge, and make new discoveries in the kitchen.
Connect to Your Heritage
Food is a cornerstone of culture. Reconnect to your family history by exploring recipes from your own cultural heritage. If you’re not sure where you come from, use this as an exciting opportunity to find out.
Plant a Garden
Growing your own produce and herbs is a sure-fire way to feel more connected to the food you eat. There’s nothing more satisfying (or nutritious) than making a salad from greens and vegetables you grew yourself. While you’re at it, consider learning how to preserve food for the winter and compost leftovers. Kicking up your home cooking is just one benefit of investing in your land.
Try a Slow Cooker
Crock pots are a great investment for the wannabe home chef who doesn’t have a lot of time (or skills) to invest in making meals. Toss ingredients into the pot in the morning and come home to a flavorful meal.
Seek out different cookbooks and recipe sites – or even invest in a few classes – to expose yourself to diverse cooking styles and discover ways of cooking that work best for you.
Deciding to make most meals at home doesn’t mean you can’t ever enjoy eating out again. Schedule meals out – once a week, once a month, or whatever schedule works for you – so that cooking at home never feels like a chore.
Whether you’ve never cooked a meal in your life or you want to get back to the kitchen after a busy schedule drew you away, give a few of these tips a try, and commit to a few small lifestyle changes. You’ll be on your way to living a healthier, happier life. Bon appétit!