It turns out, according to dietitians, that the first step to healthy eating is learning to cook. Cooking at home puts you in control — so you know exactly what’s going into everything you eat. However, cooking can be a daunting endeavor if you don’t do it often — or you never did it before.
Often, the first step is the hardest step — and when it comes to eating healthier, that sentiment is also true. However, a poor diet is associated with a higher risk of heart disease, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and certain types of cancer, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. So the more you cook your own meals, the more you can avoid added calories, salt, sugars, trans fats and other less-healthy nutrients often found in processed foods and meals served in restaurants or fast-food joints, which lead to the aforementioned risk factors.
Luckily you don’t need to become Julia Child overnight in order to cook. Try one of these first steps that dietitians recommended to their clients, and build up your repertoire from there.
CHECK YOUR MINDSET
“Feeling confident with the basics of cooking will come with practice — and many, many stumbles along the way. Instead of stressing out, I suggest laughing out loud when you have a stumble,” says Jackie Newgent, RDN, private cooking coach and author of “The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook.” So before you think about recipes, make sure you’re not in perfectionist mode. Keep in mind that even celebrity chefs make mistakes — and you can turn mistakes into mouthwatering meals. “For instance, if you overcook veggies until mushy, go all the way and turn those veggies into a puree. If something is too salty, add more of a low-sodium or sodium-free ingredient, such as adding extra low-sodium broth to an overly salty soup,” Newgent suggests.
ASSESS THE SKILLS YOU NEED
Ask yourself what your favorite foods are and then learn the skills you need to make those dishes at home, says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RDN, owner of Active Eating Advice. So if you like stir-fries, you need to learn how to chop vegetables or if you like grilled meats, you want to learn how to marinate and grill safety. Start slowly, keeping in mind that many skills — such as chopping onions — will be used in multiple recipes. So don’t feel overwhelmed by it all.
FIND SIMPLE RECIPES
Check reputable cooking sites such as Cooking Light, Food Network or MyFitnessPal for recipes with basic techniques and good instructions, says Elizabeth Ward, RD. “You don’t have to follow recipes to make homemade meals, but they are good for actually teaching you how to cook and for highlighting ingredients that go well together,” she says. “You may even want to start with some recipes that are geared to teenagers or younger kids because they are basic and balanced. Master the basic skills, then take it from there.”
TACKLE BREAKFAST FIRST
In a cereal rut? That’s the perfect excuse to use breakfast as your parlay into cooking. “When we get really excited to start something new, it’s easy to take on too much too soon. This is why I think it’s best to break down the cooking process into one simple meal at a time,” explains Jessica Jones, RD, co-founder of the healthy living website Food Heaven Made Easy. “I find that my clients are much more successful when they break cooking down into parts, rather than going from zero to Bobby Flay overnight.” Remember that something like microwaving oatmeal and adding a sliced banana and a scoop of nut butter is cooking, she adds.
READ MORE > A NO-FAIL MEAL PLANNING AND BATCH COOKING PLAN
DON’T OVERLOOK FROZEN
“Make use of shortcuts whenever possible,” recommends Georgia Rounder, RDN, community manager at Sage Project. “Using pre-cut frozen vegetables takes the hassle out of prepping ingredients, and they can easily be thrown into a stir-fry or omelet, for example, to boost the nutrition, texture and flavor of your meals.”
START WITH EGGS
The incredible edible egg is also a great beginner ingredient for newbie cooks, says Rebecca Ditkoff, MPH, RD. “I usually recommend to practice cooking with eggs in order to get acquainted with your pots, pans and kitchen since they can be cooked using a variety of different methods — scrambled, hard-boiled, fried, poached to name a few — and are inexpensive. That way, in case one of the cooking experiments doesn’t work out, it’s only a few cents wasted,” she explains. Once you feel comfortable, begin turning those eggs into omelets and frittatas. Don’t forget: Eggs aren’t strictly a breakfast meal — you can enjoy them any time of day.