Want to Eat Better and Live Longer? Learn to Cook
By Aislinn Kotifani, Blue Zones Communications Specialist, and Naomi Imatome-Yun, Blue Zones Editor-in-Chief
According to the USDA, for the first time ever, the amount of money the average American spends on eating out has surpassed what U.S. consumers spend on food at home. Today, the average American eats roughly 4.5 restaurant or takeout meals every week. This comes at a time when our environmental comforts and technology are making it all too easy for us to have any cuisine delivered to our doorstep in a matter of minutes. But more than just saving money, studies suggest cooking at home could make you happier and healthier.
One study published by Cambridge University Press looked at the cooking habits of men and women in Taiwan and Australia and found that cooking up to five times per week increased the odds of being alive in 10 years by 47 percent. Researchers found that the extended longevity was not just linked to nutrients consumed by eating home-cooked meals, but also to the act of cooking itself: planning, shopping, and socializing. Lead researcher Professor Mark Wahlqvist noted, “It has become clear that cooking is a healthy behavior. It deserves a place in life-long education, public health policy, urban planning and household economics.”
The longest-lived and healthiest people in the world, centenarians in blue zones regions, cooked at home on a regular basis for their whole lives. Eating out for most centenarians is considered a celebratory field trip, a rare treat usually reserved for a wedding or other festive occasion. While globalization and American food culture has begun to creep into these areas of the world, and restaurants are becoming more prevalent, many people still cook at home, using vegetables and herbs grown in their own backyard gardens. When you cook at home, you control the ingredients and avoid consuming the cheap fillers, flavor enhancers, and added salt or butter that end up in much restaurant food. Cooking also nudges you to move naturally, requiring you to stand, stir, mix, knead, chop, and lift.
Numerous peer-reviewed studies confirm that children who eat home-cooked meals more frequently are less likely to be overweight and they tend to consume more fruits and vegetables than their restaurant-going counterparts. Children who regularly have family dinners, research shows, do better in school, have healthier relationships, and are less likely to drink, smoke, or get into trouble.
For busy parents, inexperienced home chefs, and full-time working couples, planning meals is a daunting task, but here are five tips to make cooking at home easier and more enjoyable:
By planning out meals you have a roadmap to not only the grocery store, but also to the week ahead. Try making Sundays a meal planning day so you can get organized. Involve kids so they have an active role in choosing the vegetables or helping to plan their lunches.
Part of planning is also cooking in bulk. Double or triple recipes you know you like so that you can make them once and enjoy them throughout the week. You can also do this for staples like brown rice, beans, soups, pasta sauces, and dressings so that you can create fast meals in a pinch.
Doing a little planning on the weekend or when you have some free time will help to remove the daily stress of wondering what to make for dinner and also make sure you always have some healthy meals in your fridge or freezer.
2. Eat together
As a rule, people in the blue zones regions don’t eat alone, standing up , or with the other hand on the steering wheel. Ikarians, in particular, are known to eat slowly while holding conversations with family, a ritual good for building not only stronger family ties but also healthier bodies. Elevating the act of eating to a social event may help you enjoy and digest your food better by making your meals a time of sharing and being together with friends and family.
3. Learn how to cook quick, go-to meals and get comfortable with the basics.
Every home chef should have a few basic skills: how to wield a knife to chop vegetables; how to make simple soups, salads, and salad dressings; how to make a few whole-grain dishes like brown rice, quinoa, or farro; how to prep, soak, season, and cook healthier protein options like black beans, lentils, or tofu. With those basics and some prep time, you can build healthy salads for lunches and heartier grain bowls for dinners all week.
4. Plant a garden
Centenarians in all five blue zones areas garden regularly. They have kitchen gardens full of herbs and fresh vegetables right at their fingertips. It’s a source of daily physical activity that exercises the body with a wide range of motion and helps reduce stress. It can also provide you with a new sense of purpose.
If you are just starting out, begin with a container garden of herbs in your kitchen or in your home. You’ll get a kick out of using some of your new fragrant leaves in your next soup, stew, sauce, or salad.
5. Always eat breakfast at home
As easy as it may be to stop at the drive-thru or snag a coffee before your first meeting, eating breakfast is a great way to save on calories and start the day with a nutritious meal that will fuel you until lunch time. And it doesn’t have to take you any extra time. Overnight oats, chia pudding, and green smoothies are all fast and portable.
Need help getting started? Try the Blue Zones® Meal Planner for thousands of easy, plant-slant recipes inspired by the world’s healthiest people, integrated grocery delivery services, printer-friendly layouts, and support from friendly food coaches who can help you make the healthy choice the easy choice. GET COOKING
“When people cook most of their meals at home, they consume fewer carbohydrates, less sugar, and less fat than those who cook less or not at all – even if they are not trying to lose weight.”—Julia A. Wolfson, MPP, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
Aislinn Leonard is the Blue Zones Communications Specialist and a national and world champion camogie player. Naomi Imatome-Yun is the Blue Zones Editor-in-chief and a Wall Street Journal bestselling author.