You probably already know about the bevy of benefits that come with cooking at home. There’s the cost savings, of course—prepping your own meals is five times less expensive than paying a restaurant to do it. Homemade food is also generally more nutritious, with less sodium, additives and calories, and you have full control of which ingredients (and how much of each) are going into the recipes. Plus, there’s the family-building aspect, as you get the opportunity to prepare and share meals with loved ones.
And yet, despite knowing all the benefits, a lack of time, ingredients and interest often steer people away from the oven and toward the takeout menu. But before you pick up the phone, these easy strategies can help motivate you to find healthier, yet no less satisfying, options right in your own kitchen.
Stock up on core ingredients.
Healthy decisions start at the grocery store (or the farmers market), notes Judy Barbe, M.S., a registered dietitian nutritionist with LiveBest. “If it’s not in your cart, it won’t end up on your fork,” she points out.
Barbe suggests stocking your kitchen with frozen vegetables and fruit, canned means, jarred pasta sauce, frozen fish and chicken, canned tuna and salmon, pasta, canned tomatoes and canned broth. When you have these foods on hand, dinner is easier to put together.
Additional staples include whole grains (quinoa, oats, barley); protein such as nuts, eggs, beans, yogurt, beef, chicken, fish, milk and seeds; healthy fats including avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil; and fresh produce.
Take shortcuts with convenience items.
Many grocery stores are now catering to busy individuals by offering meal kits and pre-made dishes, making it easier than ever to prepare meals at home. “Convenience items can be a little more pricey than buying the items a la carte to prep, but can be a major time-saver,” notes Mandy Enright, M.S., R.D.N., the FOOD + MOVEMENT dietitian. She also suggests looking for ready-made items to keep in your fridge, freezer and pantry for simple side dishes, such as pre-cooked rice and pasta or frozen veggies.
Reduce prep work by using minimally processed whole foods.
While processed foods have gotten a bad rap, registered dietitian Summer Yule points out that some whole foods that have undergone minimal processing may help you to eat healthier. For example, she likes using packages of washed and chopped frozen mixed veggies to create a base for easy stir-fry dishes, and cans of tuna and salmon that require no cooking are great on top of salads. “Taking advantage of these convenient whole-food options can be a huge time-saver in your quest to cook more at home,” she says.
If you tend to get bored while cooking, use it as an opportunity to catch up on your favorite podcasts or listen to music that you enjoy. “Listening to something enjoyable while you prepare meals can help make the experience more pleasurable,” she explains.
Invest in a fun kitchen gadget.
This purchase can help motivate you to be in the kitchen, notes Ken Immer, chief coaching officer with Culinary Health Solutions. Many people enjoy using an Instant Pot, rolling their own pasta, using an air fryer or creating spiralized veggies, for example. “Cooking doesn’t just have to be for meals–it can be for fun and relaxation,” Immer points out.
Always cook for more than one meal.
If you don’t have much time or inclination for cooking, batch cooking lets you get away with cooking less often. “Intentional leftovers (a.k.a. 'planovers’) are a great place to start a meal without having to start completely from scratch,” notes Liza Baker with Simply: Health Coaching. For example, if you're already roasting one chicken, roast two instead and use the second one during the week for soup, casserole or tacos.
Plan at least three meals per week.
Planning is essential to ensuring that you have a food safety net during busy weeks. “Most of us don’t cook seven nights a week,” Barbe points out. “Survey your kitchen to see what you have on hand, plan the meals around your calendar and prep a few foods [early].” In her experience, prepping a few foods ahead of time will make the process easier when it’s time to get the meal together. For instance, you can hard cook eggs, roast vegetables or chop fresh ones, or make oatmeal long before those hunger pangs strike.
With some smart planning—and a few clever hacks along the way—you can stick with your goal of becoming less reliant on restaurants while reaping the benefits of more nutritious, inexpensive, home-cooked meals.