Why Cooking—No Matter the Recipe—Is Better for Your Health
Plus, dietitian-approved tips to help you get started.
You may be one of the 90 percent of Americans who don't like to cook-but you probably know, especially if you read EatingWell, that you should cook more. Because while eating out or ordering takeout saves time, it depletes your bank accounts and your health.
But you may not be aware that cooking any meal-whether or not the recipe is designed to be healthy-is better for your health than eating out. It's true: The health benefits of a home-cooked meal outweigh almost any other method of eating, no matter the recipe. Here's why.
Pictured recipe: Sheet-Pan Maple-Mustard Pork Chops & Carrots
You're in control of the ingredients
Lisa Valente, M.S., R.D., nutrition editor for EatingWell and Cooking Light, says one of the best parts about cooking at home is controlling the ingredients so you know exactly what you're eating.
This is important not only for people with dietary restrictions-as it can be frustrating figuring out which items at a restaurant are safe to eat-but also for anyone trying to eat healthier. You control the amount of salt, added sugar and spice going into your food when you're in charge-and can adjust it to suit your tastes. You can also follow your cravings while sticking to a healthy eating regimen by making lighter versions of your favorite meals.
Related: Restaurant Favorites Made Healthy
You can better manage your weight
A 2014 study from Johns Hopkins University found that those who cooked at home frequently consumed fewer calories as well as less sugar and carbohydrates than those who made a home-cooked meal only once a week-whether they were attempting to lose weight or not.
Even the "best" option on a restaurant menu can still pack a shocking amount of calories, sodium, fat and sugar that you likely wouldn't have included if you were making the meal yourself. No matter the restaurant, the food is almost always more about taste than nutrition-that's what keeps customers coming back for more.
Our taste buds adapt based on what we are eating, meaning that the more we consume high amounts of salt, sugar and fat, the more our taste buds adjust. If you dine out, order takeout, or microwave a frozen meal for dinner most nights, your taste buds become inured to the heavier amounts of salt and sugar, so that lighter meals eventually begin to taste more bland. Luckily, that's reversible: cooking at home helps you readjust your taste buds to get more flavor from dishes without relying so heavily on salt, sugar and butter.
Related: 10 Secrets to Cooking Healthier
One 2017 study from the University of Cambridge found that people who cooked five nights a week or more were 28 percent less likely to have an overweight BMI and 24 percent less likely to have excess body fat than those who cooked three times a week or fewer. Cooking more at home can help you achieve your weight-loss goals.
Pictured recipe: Caprese Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms
You'll eat more variety
Even if you just have a kitchen full of veggies, whole grains and healthy proteins, that is still better than having dozens of restaurants at your fingertips (thank you, Seamless). People were more likely to adhere to DASH or Mediterranean Diet eating patterns and consume more fruits and vegetables if they cooked at home five nights a week compared to those who only cooked three nights a week or less.
Related: Healthy Mediterranean Recipes
Cooking makes it easier to practice portion control
The average restaurant meal contains a whopping 1,200 calories. Cooking your own meals can help you stock up on multiple servings for the next day's lunch or another night's dinner, and if you are only cooking a healthy portion, it can also keep you from being tempted to eat too much food.
The National Institute of Health reports that restaurants' super-sized portions distort our idea of what a healthy serving of food should look like, which can affect how much we eat at home. The more you cook, the more you can resolve that portion distortion if you are ensuring you serve a healthful amount of whatever's on the menu. Plus, you're a whole lot more likely to finish that side of Brussels sprouts when you've put in the effort to make them yourself.
Cooking brings pleasure
Cooking is associated with stress relief, encouraging creativity and feelings of positivity. It can connect us with others-bringing a partner, child or other loved one into the kitchen with us makes for fond memories and provides an avenue for nutrition education along the way. Some countries' dietary guidelines actually stress the importance of cooking and dining in community.
Getting into the kitchen more frequently builds confidence, and learning (or teaching someone) to cook can bring a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Cooking also allows one to engage the right side of our brains-sparking creativity that we may not often get the opportunity to use in our busy lives. You can experiment with different versions of a favorite recipe and create both happy kitchen experiments and memories.
Related: 9 Simple Ways to Be a Better Cook
Pictured recipe: Strawberry-Mango-Banana Smoothie
Tips for becoming a better, healthier cook
Valente says healthy meals don't have to be synonymous with complicated-and they certainly don't have to be expensive. While you're welcome to shop in specialty stores and buy organic ingredients, generic brands and conventional produce are just fine. In fact, some of the healthiest items in the store are also the cheapest. Here are some of Valente's favorites:
- Frozen fruits and vegetableswith no added sugar or salt for healthy smoothies and stir-fries
- Canned goodslike beans, tuna, coconut milk and tomatoes make a healthy foundation for quick weeknight dinners
- Whole grainslike whole-wheat pasta, brown rice and oatmeal
"Try to serve a vegetable, protein and whole grain at dinner when you can," Valente says. "But sometimes that might look like mac and cheese with a side of sliced cucumbers, and that's OK."
Check out some of our favorite, healthy 20-minute meals to help you get started. Happy cooking!