If You’re Trying to Eat Healthier, Learn to Cook Meals at Home




America’s quick-service restaurants — fast-food joints, including McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Wendy’s, Chick-Fil-A, In-N-Out Burger — have appropriately borne the brunt of criticism for offering fatty, salty fare largely devoid of plant-based nutrients. But the attention also needs to go to most of the finer, white-tablecloth restaurants that win raves from the food cognoscenti and all their swell customers.

Why? Any food prepared outside the home, on average, causes diners to ingest 55 percent more calories than they would if they prepared their own meals from scratch. The reason is simple: Foods taste better with more fat, more salt and more sugar. Almost all restaurant concepts based on reduced calories and fat have failed. When people go out, they want an indulgent taste.

Not that you can’t order the healthier selections on the menu. You can often choose fish and chicken (broiled or baked, not fried) over red meats. Order a salad and a broth-based (not cream) soup — as long as you minimize the use of salad dressing and cheese. With soups and salads, you are more likely to fill up on water and fiber, less on fat, sugar and salt.

Or maybe not. A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (Lorien E. Urban et al., “The Accuracy of Stated Energy Contents of Reduced-Energy, Commercially Prepared Foods,” vol. 110, no. 1 [January 2010]) found that of 29 fast-food and sit-down restaurant meals, plus another 10 supermarket frozen meals, none accurately communicated its caloric counts. The restaurant meals on average reported 18 percent fewer calories than were actually in the meals. And the frozen meals were under-reporting calories by 8 percent. The study was conducted in Boston, but it looked at restaurants and products in nationwide distribution.

With all restaurants, the combination of ingredients and outsized portions makes it far less likely you’ll eat healthfully when out of the home. To be realistic, a special night may be cause for an indulgent celebration. But how many nights of the week are truly “special”? Your ball team scored three home runs, so you go out for wings (1,000 calories, give or take, not counting the beer). You meet with a client once or twice a week, and that is a meal that calls for prime rib or steak (1,500 calories plus the potato and sour cream). And it doesn’t just happen at night. You go out to lunch with co-workers once or twice per week, and the onion blossom with dip puts 2,000 calories right there in the middle of a workday.

But the real culprit might be times when you’re just too tired to cook. Frozen entrees can easily tip into 2000-calorie territory, especially if you blow past the idea that the boxful you eat all by yourself contains three or four portions — at 700 calories each. These are the meals you may well eat three, four or more times every week.

What’s not cooking

Some of those meals-out occasions are unavoidable. But we live in a world of a strange dichotomy: Either you consider yourself in the Martha Stewart-Ina Garten-Nigella Lawson-Paula Dean category or you don’t even know who those people are and cede your stomach to ConAgra.

This is because we’ve convinced ourselves that cooking is an art and only the accomplished cook is capable. It’s also a good excuse to just be lazy.

We have ceased trying to make our own meals. We think it’s just too hard. And we wouldn’t dare attempt to serve a dinner to others. If you can’t be fabulous, you’re just going to flub and fail. Instead, make reservations.

And that, my friends, is what’s killing us.

It need not be that way. There is middle ground. It does not require a great investment in All-Clad cookery ($90 for an 8-inch fry pan); in fact, you can outfit a basic-meals kitchen for about $150, complete. If you combine that with meals costing one-quarter to one-half the price of those at medium-priced restaurants, the meals pay for themselves in about a month.

But what’s just as important is the time factor. Most people say they don’t have time to cook. So they wend their way through traffic to get to a favorite takeout restaurant, a 20-minute detour. Or they defrost then microwave something out of the freezer, another 20- or 25-minute diversion. A healthier, lower-calorie and lower-fat meal will take about as much time, and probably less.

The 15-minute meal kitchen

There are three things you need to make your own food at home. One is basic equipment. Second, food. Third, the will to try.

Equipment assumes you have a refrigerator/freezer, a stove and a microwave. Ovens are for the advanced class. The implements you should have are as follows:

  • Can opener. For canned tomatoes, beans, tuna and possibly cans of turkey and chicken.
  • Deep skillet. For cooking meat, vegetables and soups.
  • Saucepan. For cooking soups, stews, pastas and rice, and for steaming vegetables (with a steamer insert).
  • Really good knife. Slicing onions requires it.
  • Cutting board. Get a wooden one. Note: Be sure to clean it well if raw chicken or meat has been on it.
  • Mixing bowls. Great for casseroles and salads.
  • Mixing spoons. To stir things up.
  • Blender. The best breakfasts can be made with frozen fruit mixed with yogurt.

Food for the new cook should not be something that requires you to go to a market every day — because you just aren’t going to do that. Instead, stock up on frozen, canned, dried and shelf-stable foods. Nutrient retention is very high with most preservation methods (especially frozen vegetables, which have more nutrients intact than what we think of as “fresh,” which likely was picked two weeks or more before you purchased it).

Good examples of buy-ahead, use-when-you-need-them foods are:

  • Frozen: boneless, skinless chicken breasts, vegetables and fruit of all kinds
  • Canned: Beans of all kinds, stewed and diced tomatoes, tuna, sardines and some brands of frozen turkey
  • Shelf-stable, dried or refrigerated: Olive oil, vinegars, lemon juice, herbs and spices, raisins, nuts, grated Parmesan cheese, dry whole grain pasta, quinoa, brown and wild rice

For your first healthy, 15-minute meal, do the following:

  1. Rinse two frozen chicken breasts and place them in a microwavable bowl. Drip a little olive oil and vinegar (or lemon juice, or both) with some spices (try oregano and a little salt). Toss just a bit and cover with a moist paper towel. Microwave for about 5 minutes (oven power varies, so yours might take a few minutes more or less). Check and turn the pieces; then microwave for a few minutes more until done.
  2. While the chicken is cooking, toss two handfuls of frozen vegetables with a half-can of beans in olive oil, lemon juice and some red chilies or other spices. Mix in a skillet, stir over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with grated cheese at the finish.

Serve yourself. And now that you know how easy it can be, you are empowered to make many more meals with variations on this meal template (substitute fish or lean pork tenderloin for the chicken). To make vegetables more interesting, mix in raisins, nuts or precooked rice.

You are now a cook. And you’re likely to lose weight in a month because you will be taking in about half as many calories for every meal you make at home. Enjoy!