A few years ago, we were hosting an old friend and her new boyfriend for dinner. Her boyfriend was asking me about my line of work, and asked me if I had to give just one recommendation or one tip to someone who wanted to make a drastic lifestyle change what would it be. Wow. I racked my brain to try and think of what one and only tip I would recommend to someone. I know I didn’t come up with an impressive answer then, but today, with a few more years and having worked with a few hundred more people, I think I know what the answer is. Are you ready?
Yup! That’s my one word answer: cook. Obviously, there list of lifestyle changes people could make to improve their health or achieve wellness goals is a long one (and I already have issues with brevity, as you may have noticed from many posts), and of course there are many ways to cook that are, well, less than healthy. But I can tell you with certainty, that every meal you eat away from your home impacts your health.
And no, I’m not just talking about fast food. Yes, you get major kudos if you haven’t driven through a drive-thru in decades. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that just because a menu offers a “Guiltless Gourmet” or has a white tablecloth that it’s a good for you choice. (It may be a better for you choice, but not necessarily a good for you choice. An important distinction.)
Before you start thinking I’m here to ruin all your fun, I’ll be the first to confess I love a good meal out. I love it when someone else does the dishes and the cooking, and I love the socializing with friends and family over a delicious meal. But I try to recognize that even the grilled chicken salad at my favorite local restaurant is going to be a more indulgent choice than most anything I’d make at home.
For starters, portion sizes are way too big. That’s easily contended with: split your entree in half, and bring the rest home.
But the trickier part is all the extras that are served up with our meals, most notably sodium. Even some of the “guiltless” choices on a menu will have a day and half’s worth of sodium, and some restaurant salads contain more calories than a burger and fries. Having calorie information on menus (by 2014) is going to go a long way in helping us make better restaurant choices, but until then, sometimes it’s a complete guessing game!
This brings me back to cooking. If you value your health, you need to know what goes into the preparation of your meal and with the exception of very few resaurants, there’s no way to be sure of that except to cook at home.
Cooking doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. To keep it both simple and quick, keep your meal simple. I love to cook and use new recipes, but on busy nights I use this formula: one protein, two veggies, one starch. Planning what we’ll have at the beginning of the week ensures I have ingredients on hand, and using short cuts like frozen vegetables and qiuck cooking rice puts dinner on the table quickly.
I started this particular section of my blog because I really wanted to demonsrate that healthy eating didn’t have to be boring, nor did it have to be difficult. I’m fortunate that I enjoy cooking, but really what drove me to learn how to do it was simply wanting to be healthier. When I come across a recipe with a cooking technique I don’t know, I go search youtube videos to find someone to show me how to do it. I’ve learned everything from roasting a chicken to searing tuna from youtube.
I also understand that if you live by yourself, it often feels like more of a hassle to cook and clean up for one than it’s worth. I understand that – my husband works a lot of night shifts as a emergency medicine intern and I can tell you exactly what I feel like having for dinner when he’s not home:
Cereal! The dinner of champions. And hey, sometimes I do. You know what? I’ve even had popcorn for dinner before.
But I notice that when I don’t have a “real meal” I’m more inclined to graze thoughout the rest of the night. And besides, I finally realized if I value my husband enough to cook him a healthy meal (most) nights, then I should probably extend the same courtesy to myself.
So I thought I’d demonstrate a little experiment here. How much time and how much effort does it take to make a home-cooked meal for one?
Cooking Start Time: 5:57 PM. Meal plan: brussel sprouts w/ 1 piece of bacon, cooked carrots, grilled tilapia + grilled pineapple.
Time completed: 6:07 PM. Ten minutes! Let’s Eat!
Ok, I know that brussel sprouts won’t be the first thing many of you are inclined to cook… Not bad for ten minutes worth of work.
(If you’re counting, that entire meal is 400 calories, 375 mg sodium, 12g fat, 25g protein.)
And, just for “extra-credit” I thought I’d check how long it took me to clean up (since honestly that is MY number #1 reason to want to go out to eat!) I set my timer for ten minutes…
And it only took seven! (Dishes in dishwasher, wash pans, wipe off counter tops + clean stove, put away ingredients.)
Start small, and make gradual changes. If you’re currently eating every meal out, aim for cooking just one or two nights at home. If you’re eating every every meal out, start with breakfast or lunch – much easier than dinner, especially if you make ahead. Lifestyle change sounds daunting, but it’s really all about small gradual changes. Take small steps towards regular at home meals and your health will reap the benefits.