Remember that scary statistic that one-third of our country is overweight and one-third of us are obese? The news in April 2016 was not good, as the CDC released an update:
- Percentage of adults age 20 years and over with obesity: 37.9%
- Percentage of adults age 20 years and over with overweight, including obesity: 70.7%
Being overweight and obesity are associated with a host of chronic diseases (including coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension, stroke, and some cancers), most of which the World Health Organization has indicated are preventable through diet and lifestyle choices.
Of course, our nation’s current obesity epidemic is certainly a complex issue with many causes, and solving it will require many changes at the systems level – healthcare system and food system just for starters. (For an in-depth examination of the food system, check out Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All)
In other words, you can’t just treat one of the symptoms, ignore the others, and assume that you’ve fixed the cause.
Does It All Feel Too Overwhelming?
Don’t panic! There are small steps that we as individuals can take to improve our own health and that of our families.
Intuitively, I think we all want to learn how to become a better cook because we know that cooking from scratch and eating at home are vital to our health. This gut instinct (ha!) is backed up by data from the USDA Economic Research Service. In 2013, ERS reported:
- Food prepared away from home accounts for 32 percent of Americans’ caloric intake and 41 percent of what we spend on food.
- Americans increased their away-from-home share of calories from 18 percent to 32 percent in the last three decades.
- Calorie intake rose over the last three decades from 1,875 calories per person per day to 2,002 calories per day.
- Food prepared away from home is higher in saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol, as well as lower in dietary fiber than food prepared at home.
As we have watched these numbers increase, we have also observed the decline of our health as a nation. We are now what’s termed “energetically overfed” (i.e., fat from too many macronutrients – the protein, fat, and carbs that give us calories) and “nutritionally malnourished” (i.e., we are starving for micronutrients – vitamins and minerals that perform so many other vital functions but contain no calories in and of themselves).
It’s All So Complicated
Clearly, in the back of our minds, we bemoan the loss of home-cooked meals. There seems to be a certain amount of guilt about it, too. Cooking comes up time and again as something we should do – and not just to feed ourselves.
In my work as an integrative nutrition health coach and kitchen coach, I often hear my clients talk about the barriers that keep them from cooking from scratch on a regular basis. The runaway favorites are:
- I can’t cook, and I don’t need to.
- I don’t have time.
It’s true that there are a lot of options for feeding ourselves (for a great sociological study of our eating options and habits, check out Sophie Egan’s Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies, How What We Eat Defines Who We Are), and many of them (“healthy” frozen meals, meal kits, hot bars at stores such as Whole Foods Market, and what Egan calls “cheffing”) give us the feeling (sometimes illusory) that we are eating healthy without setting foot in our kitchens.
How To Become a Better Cook If “I can’t cook” and “I don’t have time”
The tips below come from my Fl!p Your K!tchen™ system that I use with my coaching clients who are looking for help in reclaiming their kitchens.
1. Take a good long look at how you spend your time – both in and outside the kitchen. One of the first exercises I do with clients is something I call a “time inventory.” The point of this exercise is NOT to shame people into spending less time on social media (although it’s not a bad side effect!); instead, it’s a way to identify blocks of time during which they could be getting something done in the kitchen that doesn’t require hands-on activity or careful watching. (For more on time management, see Become a master of time management in 5 simple ways.) It’s also a great way to identify how the rest of a client’s life is often an intimate reflection of how s/he shows up in the kitchen: a topic for another day!
2. Stop watching cooking shows…or at least the ones that are more akin to reality television than to education. Watch them strictly for entertainment, which is really their raison d’être. You will do yourself no favors if you can’t boil water yet aspire to cook like the pros. Eventually, you will know how to become a better cook, but not without a lot of education, experience, and a team of others to back you up.
3. Learn ONE basic recipe a week. And I mean basic, as in how to cook a particular vegetable (notice I didn’t say “vegetables” – did you know that vegetables are cooked in different ways partly based on their color?), a whole grain, beans from scratch, etc.
4. Learn to identify a whole food and learn how to shop for it. Sounds a little insulting? Some American children can’t even identify a vegetable in its natural state. Who knew that French fries come from a potato or that ketchup comes from tomatoes?!? (See Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution trailer.) Michael Pollan has lots of great information on this topic.
5. Spend ONE hour pre-prepping. Choose an hour each week during which you can “process” your groceries: wash and chop sturdier veggies such as onions, peppers, carrots, celery, for the week; wash, dry, and store greens for the week.
6. Make ONE “building block” each week. I encourage my clients to make an ingredient (or two) that they can use later in the week: marinara sauce, white sauce, vegetable or chicken stock, a batch of beans, a batch of whole grain – all of these can be used to assemble quick meals during the week without the overwhelming feeling that you’re starting completely from scratch each time.
7. Befriend your freezer. Most building blocks can be frozen for later use. So feel free to make a double or triple batch, and pop them in the freezer. If you make and freeze extra (remember: making TWO batches doesn’t increase your prep or cooking time by 2, making this an excellent ROI!), you will always have the building block on hand without having to make it each week. The freezer is also a great place to put extra batches of soups, stews, chilies, They can even be frozen in single servings for your own homemade version of made-ahead meals.
8. Experiment. Once you know how a simple recipe works, try substituting one ingredient for another or a similar one (e.g. ground turkey for ground beef, kale for spinach, jalapeño for bell pepper, brown rice for oatmeal) and see what happens. Take notes as to what worked and what didn’t. This is a step toward being able to cook based on what’s in your pantry rather than based on a recipe. It will save you lots of time, trips to the store, and even money.
*Added bonus: you can look at a recipe that you haven’t made and know what sort of a substitute would work for an ingredient you don’t have on hand or don’t like.
9. Meal plan. This is a “next level” step. You really need to master some basic recipes and have a well-stocked pantry to make it successful (see tips #1-8 above!), or you will spend a lot of time finding recipes, copying out the items you need to buy, and starting each meal completely from scratch (probably just as your blood sugar is low and the kids are pestering, “What’s for dinner? When’s dinner? I’m hungryyy!”)
Meal kits and meal planning apps – at least the ones I’ve seen – have not yet achieved this level. The reason I see them as a temporary crutch rather than a solution is that they will forever keep you dependent on them.
Yes, they may help you cook more initially, but they don’t empower you to make meal planning and cooking at home second nature, which is what will really make these practices sustainable.
My goal in teaching clients to plan meals and how to become a better cook is to show them that every time they are in the kitchen, they can always cook MORE than one meal and take some dreadful feelings out of this practice.
10. Go out to eat – but do it with intention. After creating a week’s worth of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, there is nothing more luxurious than a good meal out. My husband and I regularly put 3 made-from-scratch meals on the table for our family – so going out once a week is our reward. But we limit it to ONCE a week.
We don’t just get fast food or go to a casual dining chain (don’t get me started on them) – we choose a restaurant that uses whole food ingredients, often sourced from local farms, and cooks dishes that we can feel good about our kids choosing. (And there may be wine involved….)
The main takeaway is that cooking at home is a practice. For me, it is actually a spiritual practice, although I certainly don’t expect others to feel that way about it. And a practice is simply the gradual improvement of an activity to the point where it becomes a sustainable habit.
Done regularly over time, this one has the potential to benefit your health, the health of the environment, and the health of the economy (both your domestic one and the local one)! Soon, you’ll learn how to become a better cook naturally.