The #1 Diet? Cook More at Home. Here’s Why.
You’ve likely seen the Mediterranean Diet, the DASH Diet, the Flexitarian Diet, the Mayo Clinic Diet, and others battle it out year after year over which is the best diet to follow.
But science shows the best path toward better health is actually none of these. You’ll be glad to hear that eating healthfully can be far simpler than following any rules-based plan, and the secret could be as easy as walking right into your kitchen and picking up a pan.
The health benefits of cooking at home
That’s right. Cooking more meals at home and sharpening some basic kitchen skills is associated with weight loss, eating fewer calories and fat, and eating more nutritious foods, according to a study of more than 9,000 people published in Public Health Nutrition.
No matter what’s on their plate, people who cook dinner at home six or more times a week versus those who cook dinner at home only once per week took in an average of 140 fewer calories per day, which adds up to more than a pound of less weight gained each month. While this doesn’t sound like much, cooking more at home can help you fend off the standard 1- to 2-pound weight gain that most adults experience year over year from early adulthood through middle age, leading to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, poor gut health, and depression over time. Not only that, but study participants who cooked more at home took in the equivalent of nearly 13 pounds less sugar and 4 pounds less fat over a year.
Another study conducted by researchers from the University of Washington School of Public Health showed that people who cook six versus three dinners at home per week have significantly higher scores on the Healthy Eating Index, a measure of diet quality showing how intake of various food groups, such as vegetables and whole grains, aligns with recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
While it’s no surprise that meals from fast-food and full-service restaurants provide larger servings than what you’d typically eat at home, the differences add up quickly. A study done by the American Cancer Society and the University of Illinois-Chicago found that meals from outside of the home average 200 calories more, 3 grams of saturated fat more, and 350 milligrams of sodium more than home-cooked meals. Not only that, but the portions are typically 2 to 3 times larger than what you’d serve at home.
How much money and time can you save by cooking at home?
The benefits of cooking more at home don’t just have to do with healthier outcomes for your waistline. Cooking a meal at home costs fives times less than buying a similar meal at a restaurant or as take-out, according to research conducted by Forbes. The study looked at 86 popular meals and examined how much it would cost to acquire them as groceries for home cooking, restaurant delivery, or meal kit delivery. A pasta-based entree, for example, costs an average of $20 per serving at a restaurant or delivery, whereas that same meal cooked at home costs 80 to 90% less per serving.
Of course, one of the main obstacles to eating more at home is that buying food from restaurants seems like a time-saver. Depending on where you live, this may or may not be true. For some, the total time it takes to drive to a quick-serve restaurant, wait in line to order or be seated, and then wait for the food to arrive could take longer than an hour. Even ordering online and waiting for food to be delivered could take 60 minutes or more. Considering that adults over the age of 18 spend an average of 37 minutes preparing food (including clean-up time) for all of their meals in a day, getting a fast-food or restaurant meal may actually eat up more time than cooking at home (pun intended).
Others have found that, in addition to feeling healthier, cooking more meals at home gives them more confidence in the kitchen and a sense of accomplishment. And unlike other strict diets, cooking more meals at home is a lifestyle that’s sustainable, fun, and even gets better over time. Welcome kids into the kitchen and get them involved so you can pass on the tradition of prioritizing home-cooked meals.
Easy meals to make from your pantry
There are benefits to restaurant meals, too. Eating from a restaurant, whether it’s take-out or dine-in, can provide valuable stress relief, social experiences, and variety. But it’s important to frame them as such: an occasional splurge.
Cooking meals at home doesn’t have to be complicated, and having some nutritious pantry staples around and a quick plan for the week could be just the boost you need to up your health game. When you keep essentials on hand like veggie-filled pasta sauce, frozen vegetables, canned beans, onions, pasta, rice, ground beef and chicken, then you’re always just a few minutes away from a delicious home-cooked meal, such as Chicken Paprikash, Hearty Minestrone Soup, Sloppy Joes and many more.
At the start of the week, quickly write out your meals so you’re armed with a plan for what to cook this week, then reap the physical, mental, financial, and time benefits that follow.
Jessie Shafer is a registered dietitian-nutritionist, team member at The Real Food Dietitians, former magazine editor, and busy mom of two who loves to create magical meals from her pantry.