You probably know that home-cooked meals are better for you than eating out, but do you know why? When it comes to weight loss, cooking is a winning strategy. After all, cooking at home ensures you know what is going into your food — salt, fat, sugar and all.
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A 2016 study by Seguin et al. found that a higher frequency of eating away from home was associated with a higher body mass index — not surprising! People who cook their own food are more likely to consume fewer calories. The results go beyond your own kitchen. Looking at dietary data from 9,000 participants age 20 and older, researchers at John Hopkins found that adults who cooked dinner 1–2 times per week ate more calories on average than those who cooked 6–7 times per week (2,301 versus 2,164 average daily calories, respectively). While this may not seem like much, a savings of about 137 calories daily adds up over time. This difference totals roughly 50,000 extra calories per year!
Instead of spending your food dollars eating out, invest in developing your kitchen skills. Still not convinced? Check out these three compelling reasons for why you should make your meals at home:
1. You’ll always know what you’re eating.
If you’re trying to lose weight, eating out can be a minefield of unwanted calories, fat, sugar and salt. You might go in with good intentions, but you never really know what goes into making the food that’s on your plate. Restaurant food is typically lower in nutrients and higher in fat, sugar and salt.
The same meal you order in a restaurant will have fewer calories and more nutrients if you make it yourself. Why? Many restaurants (especially fast-food and fast-casual types) optimize taste, not your health goals. They use cooking techniques to make food highly palatable, such as finishing a simple seared steak with excessive amounts of butter and marinating meats in oily, sugar-laden sauces.
Your favorite broccoli soup? It’s made with heavy cream with little effort to shave down excess calories. The chicken on your “healthy” salad is often processed, battered and fried before serving. Dressings and sauces are also loaded with sugar and salt. The end result is that you consume far more calories than if you had made that same meal yourself.
If you want to know where your food comes from, eating out makes it harder for you to access that information. By cooking your own meal, you can ensure that the ingredients you’re eating are fresh, locally sourced and sustainably farmed.
2. You reduce the temptation of eating large, high-calorie meals.
Round every restaurant corner, monster-size burgers and heaps of cheese-laden pastas call out your name, and it may be hard to resist. It makes sense that the more calories you eat, the fuller you feel and the sooner you stop eating, right? Sadly, this logic doesn’t apply to all foods. According to Ello-Martin et al., individuals who are presented with large portion sizes generally don’t respond to increased fullness, suggesting that hunger and satiety signals are being ignored or overridden. Eating out creates the perfect storm. You’re served highly palatable food in ridiculous portions, and you don’t feel like you want to stop eating.
Eating at home greatly reduces the temptation to make poor food decisions, especially if you set yourself up for success by having healthy ingredients on hand. You can make a soup creamy using white beans and skip the heavy cream. You can roast or bake in lieu of frying and easily avoid the added calories from high-fat sauces and dressings by making your own.
Cooking at home also keeps portions in check because you can control how much you eat. One simple way to train yourself to eat less is by serving your meal on a smaller plate. It will appear as though you’re eating more when you’re actually eating less (and not feeling deprived). Decrease the urge to finish off leftovers by cooking enough for only one serving. You can also slash your meal size in half by piling all the food you intend to eat on your plate at one time. Seeing all your food at once will help you judge whether you’re overdoing it, versus having each course being served on a different plate throughout the meal, as when dining out.
3. Cooking (and eating) together is a great bonding experience for your family.
If you grew up sharing stories and catching up with family around the dinner table, you understand the value of bonding over a good meal. For some families, dinner time may be the only shared experience in a day. Children benefit greatly from learning how to cook and prepare food at an early age. In my nutrition practice, I work with many men and women who were not taught this valuable skill as a child and now struggle with cooking as an adult.
We all know of a child who will only eat chicken fingers or macaroni and cheese. Getting your children involved in planning and cooking meals can go a long way in expanding their palates to include all different types of foods and preparations. Cooking is a skill that gets easier with practice, and most children enjoy food they have helped prepare. Eating at home is good for their health, too. Research shows children who regularly eat home-cooked meals take in more nutrients and are less likely to be overweight.
It’s important to note that where you eat as a family matters, too. If you eat at home but sit in front of a TV or computer screen, you might be missing out on the benefits.
If cooking all your meals at home sounds daunting, you’re not alone. The good news is that eating at home just a few times per week will improve your diet and health — and aid in weight loss.
So, what are you waiting for? Roll up your sleeves, and start cooking!