The time-honored tradition of family meals has been a family cornerstone for generations. Eating meals at home may also be one of the most effective yet decreasingly utilized ways to help your kids get better grades in school and be less likely to drink alcohol or smoke.
Time and money. Both are common reasons people eat out. But contrary to common perception, convenient fast food meals can be more expensive than home cooked meals. And small improvements such as picking more nutritious options among breads, cereals, and packaged foods at the grocery store do not on average cost more.
As a doctor and researcher specializing in prevention, and a working mother, I know how challenging it can be to make time for home cooked meals. But I view family dinners as more than just a meal. They help kids develop a better relationship with food. In the long run, people who eat meals at home are far less likely to develop obesity or diabetes. And by eating at home, you and your family will not only eat healthier, but you will shop differently at the grocery store, make better choices off restaurant menus, and even savor natural flavors of food differently.
5 simple ways to make home cooking a habit
Cooking doesn’t have to be time consuming or elaborate. Anyone can do it. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
Keep meals simple and quick. By using whole foods in their natural state, such as vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, you can take advantage of their built-in rich flavor. Refinement and processing not only strip vitamins and minerals but also taste. A good habit is to remind yourself that weeknight meals don’t need to be fancy. I tend to stick with meals that have five whole ingredients or less and take 15 minutes or less to prepare. Sometimes, I don’t even feel like I’ve “cooked.” Yet, simple meals with fresh ingredients are delicious and healthy.
Cook with your kids. Involving your kids in meal preparation is a great way to spend time together. My little helpers love chopping, throwing ingredients in a pot, and making patterns with fruits and vegetables. It makes mealtime fun while teaching them a valuable skill. As a bonus, my kids also willingly eat their vegetables when they have cut and prepared them themselves.
Keep it affordable. Fresh fruits and vegetables can be costly. But some of the healthiest foods in the grocery store are also the least expensive. Whole grains, lentils, and beans, in particular, are high in protein and fiber and low in fat—making them the perfect foods for a low budget. Combining fresh ingredients with these lower cost healthy choices can balance out your grocery bill.
Build on a basic recipe. Having a couple go-to recipes makes thinking about and planning meals easier. My go-to meal is steaming or sautéing vegetables with a healthy protein, such as salmon or tofu. I tend to mix up the vegetables, using ones that we have at home, which are typically the ones that are in season. I then add flavor with seasonings, spices, and simple homemade sauces, such as a low salt teriyaki or pesto.
Play and experiment. Think of recipes as a starting point. Give yourself room to substitute ingredients to cater to your taste and preferences. There is no “secret sauce” to a delicious meal, or a right or wrong combination. Freely borrow traditions from different cultures or explore different seeds, nuts, and grains. Over time, you may find that blending different flavors, textures, and spices is no longer a chore but instead, creative, fun, healthy, and constructive for the whole family!