The Case for Cooking at Home

Have you noticed new eateries popping up on every corner that offer healthful meals like grain bowls, veggie burgers, salads, and other items that are a far cry from the usual burgers and fries? Eating for health is a top consumer concern. I’m pretty excited about these new options and that most have tasted quite good!

But something to keep in mind is that research still supports the health benefits of cooking at home, regardless if some restaurant meals have become more healthful. As you can see from the graphic below, people who eat at home generally consume fewer calories overall and get better nutrition. People who cook at home 6-7x a week eat fewer calories and less fat and sugar without even trying, according to a study of nearly 10,000 adults. Kids also benefit from better nutrition, but equally as important may develop closer relationships with their families. Yes, you can go out to eat as a family, but there’s something nice about sitting at the dinner table at home without the distractions of noise, music, and other people. Families are more likely to have focused, meaningful conversations even if they’re short ones!

Of course, French fries and boxed macaroni and cheese don’t automatically become a health food when you make them at home. But because you have the power to choose your ingredients, cooking methods, and portion sizes, your meals can be as healthy as you want them to be.

Restaurant meals tend to be high in calories, cholesterol, fat, and sodium, and portion sizes are bigger than what most people eat at home. In a study of restaurant meals in five different countries, 94% of them contained more than 600 calories, which is the amount per meal recommended by health experts. Let’s face it, restaurants have to prepare delicious satisfying meals in hearty portions, or else why would a customer return? They want a pleasurable eating experience as well as great value for their money.

That said, eating out can be a fun occasional treat for the whole family. So here are some tips when dining out:

  1. Be mindful
    If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to graze on too much bread and butter or chips and salsa before a meal. Or you may gobble up your meal without enjoying it and leave the restaurant feeling unsatisfied. No matter what you order when you go out to eat, slow down, chew your food well, and savor every bite.
  2. Go easy on the alcohol
    Alcoholic beverages tend to be high in sugar and calories. Plus, alcohol can make you feel hungrier because it lowers your blood sugar level. And it triggers your body to produce less leptin, a hormone that makes you feel satiated.
  3. Check out the menu in advance
    Do you have a hard time making decisions under pressure? Find the restaurant’s website and peruse the menu before you go out. Don’t automatically assume dishes labeled “healthy” or “light” actually are. Read the ingredients to make your decision. Look for a dish that sounds tasty and contains balanced portions of nutrient-rich foods, such as lean protein, whole grains, and vegetables.
  4. Beware of portion distortion
    Remember, restaurant meals tend to be big. Use your hand to help you judge how much to eat. A cut of meat should be about the size of your palm, and a side of rice should be about the size of your fist. Don’t worry as much if veggie portions are oversized since they’re naturally low in calories and fat, and packed with nutrients. Just ask for dressings on the side. If the meal portion is very large, consider sharing it with your companions or divide it and ask the waitstaff to package it immediately in a take-home container to eat at another meal.

What do you think about “healthier” restaurant options…do you enjoy them, or feel that they sometimes carry a health halo? Do you find that meals cooked at home tend to be healthier and offer better bonding opportunities with family?

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