Here’s a situation you may have experienced a couple of times in recent weeks: A storm was headed our way and you decided to take the time at home to make lunches and dinners for the family, relying on your own well-stocked pantry and freezer. Studies show that almost no matter what you made, your meals were more nutritious than any takeout you may have brought in.
Cook dinner at home most nights and chances are you’ll eat healthier foods with fewer calories, suggests a recent Johns Hopkins University study. What’s more, you’ll do it without even trying. Cooking your own meals increases the quality of your diet essentially by default, says lead author Julia Wolfson, a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s the act of making your own food where you see this relationship with more healthful eating,” she says. “You don’t have to be cooking fancy food, you don’t have to be spending a lot of time cooking, you don’t have to be cooking health food, you just need to be cooking at home.”
Wolfson, together with coauthor Sara N. Bleich, associate professor at the Bloomberg School, examined patterns in cooking and diet quality using data from more than 9,000 adults age 20 and older, who participated in the 2007-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
The study, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition in November, reported that adults who ate a home-cooked dinner 6 to 7 times a week took in about 140 fewer calories, 16 fewer grams of sugar, and 5 fewer grams fat per day than those who did so only once a week or less. There were even bigger payoffs when participants ate at home while making an earnest attempt to eat a healthier diet with fewer calories. Health conscious adults who ate at home half a dozen times a week benefited with overall higher quality diets and about 320 fewer calories consumed per day.
Expanding waistlines and health problems, tied to what we eat, are not just the result of too many fried foods and overindulgence in sweets. Hidden additions to our diets — some like shredded cheese on a salad bar lunch that seem innocent enough — are part of the problem. Think of it as the cumulative effect. “Changes in weight and other health issues that come from consuming more calories can be cumulative over time and can be the result of not that many extra calories consumed on a daily basis,” says Wolfson. Home cooking makes a difference because of how it is prepared, she says. At home, people typically don’t cook with as much fat or use as much salt and sugar.
Research may confirm what our intuition has been telling us all along. But ready-to-eat fare and takeout continue to beckon, especially when parents are tired, kids are hungry, and dinner essentials are not in the fridge and pantry.
“A lot of it comes down to planning,” says Alicia McCabe, Massachusetts state director of No Kid Hungry, a group known for its Cooking Matters courses, which emphasize developing shopping and cooking skills on limited budgets. “One great strategy is to stock your pantry and keep ingredients on hand that you can use to create quick and healthy meals.” Canned beans, fish, pasta, rice, dried fruits, and nuts are among pantry staples she suggests. She also acknowledges that lack of good old-fashioned know-how can be a barrier to cooking, even if you have the ingredients.
“A lot of people who are cooking now for kids grew up in households where perhaps their parents were both working and they were eating a lot of convenience and processed foods,” she says. “Families don’t necessarily know how to put together meals.” She suggests beginning with a few recipes that you know your family enjoys. Plan meals that call for some of the same ingredients and use leftovers as a starting point for another meal. Say, pasta with meatballs one night, then meatball soup flecked with pasta on another.
McCabe emphasizes hitting the grocery store with a list and a plan that have built-in flexibility (“green vegetable” will do until you see how fresh the broccoli is versus the green beans, and what the price is, she says). Recipes don’t need to be hard-and-fast protocols. Substitute garbanzos for cannellini beans if that’s what you have.
She echoes Wolfson’s sentiment that you don’t have to use extraordinary ingredients to make a good meal. Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables can be more cost-effective and time-efficient, she says, just watch out for added salt, sugar, and sauces.
“You’re going to know more about what’s actually going into your food,” says Wolfson. You haven’t even been to the store yet, and you’ve already got one healthy ingredient.
Valerie Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the calorie count health conscious adults took in by eating at home.