Cooking at home might be one of the healthiest habits you can create. It also might be the most daunting to get started. Some people start and stop for years, just trying to stick to what seems like a basic breakfast-lunch-dinner schedule. Here are some simple ways to make cooking for yourself as essential to your day as brushing your teeth in the morning.
When you’re trying to master any new habit, you need to maximize your chances of success by optimizing your environment. That means you have to set the barrier to entry so low that all you have to do is step over it. You have to have the courage to aim low… but often!
Step 1: Plan A lot of people set themselves up for a rocky start by trying to plan, shop for, prep, and cook all of their meals for a week at once. That’s 0-21 meals in one step! Instead of tackling all that chopping, dicing, sautéing and cleaning in one day, set a more reasonable goal, such as cooking one meal a day for yourself. Think of the “biggest bang for your buck” goal that you are 90-100% confident you can do every day for 2 weeks. If you’re only 80% confident you can prepare one meal a day for yourself, make the habit more reasonable. How about aiming to make healthier snacks first? Remember, this is the habit you’re going to master first. You can get to everything eventually, but by starting more reasonably, you’re maximizing your chances for eventual success.
Step 2: Prep The most overlooked step to the smooth operation of a professional kitchen has nothing to do with cooking: it’s the prep. When the ingredients are ready to go, all a chef has to do is show up and start cooking. I’ve worked with dozens of clients who wanted to start cooking for themselves, but didn’t know what tools they had in their pantry. Don’t get held up by all the annoying little stuff you have to do, in order to get to the thing you need to do—something programmers call, “shaving yaks,” which sounds like a real drag! Sit down and take inventory of what you need for the next two weeks to make your habit happen. Do you have knives? Cutting boards? Ziptop bags? Mason jars (a.k.a. hipster Tupperwear)? Make a list and remember that every item you check off is one step closer to your goal.
Then, when you go to the grocery store, cut every corner you can. Pre-chopped veggies—check! Pre-cooked chicken breasts—check! Buy what it takes to get the job started and make your life easier. There will be plenty of time later to learn how to make your own fish stock, but for right now the priority should be on getting started!
Step 3: Party Most people who successfully cook all of their meals as a habit do their prep and cooking on a single day, and then store it in the fridge, ready to reheat and serve. And one of the biggest mistakes I see people make when they are learning a new habit is they think they have to do everything themselves. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of the kindness of family and friends! Instead of sitting in your house alone on cooking night, invite some friends over and have everyone cook their meals together! You provide the oven and they share their experience, talent, and labor—not to mention help with clean up. You can try new recipes together, take turns coming up with menus, or all pitch in and cook for a friend who’s having a stressful week. Another bonus: you might even have a little fun, which can help make the habit stick!
Cooking at home is a very healthy habit, but to make it stick it’s important to start small, set yourself up right, and make the experience as easy and as fun as possible. Pick a meal (or two!) that you are confident you can make every day for 14 days. Plan it out, so you’re not stuck with a hairy yak, and turn the habit into a good time. As you eat the delicious fruits of your labor, take note of what’s working and what you can do better, and invite the people you love to your table. After all, cooking for yourself is healthy, but cooking for other people is downright fulfilling.
Coach Stevo is the nutrition and sport psychology consultant at San Francisco CrossFit. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of Chicago, and is finishing his MA in Applied Sport Psychology at John F. Kennedy University. His specialty is habit-based training and he contributed to Intervention by Dan John in 2012.