Cooking meals at home can feel incredibly empowering once you get the hang of it. The ability to control how healthy your meals are is in your hands — not a restaurant's — and you're probably saving a significant amount of money in the process.
In fact, cooking more meals at home does actually lead to better diet quality, according to a May 2017 review in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. However, there are some missteps you could make that could sacrifice the healthiness of your homemade meals.
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We consulted with registered dietitians to see what common cooking mistakes could be making your homemade dishes less healthy — and how to fix them.
1. Not Salting to Taste
Whether you're following a recipe or cooking freestyle, salting the dish without giving it a taste first might result in a higher-sodium meal than you bargained for.
"Many of the pantry and fridge staples we all love and regularly use, such as canned beans, stock and broth, canned tomatoes, pasta sauce, shredded cheese and rotisserie chicken, contribute salt naturally," dietitian and recipe developer Beth Stark, RDN, LDN, tells LIVESTRONG.com. Because of this, "you can likely get away with using much less salt or even none at all," she says.
Instead, Stark suggests tasting food throughout the cooking process to allow you to gauge the need for more salt so you can season accordingly to your flavor preferences, health and lifestyle needs.
You can take it one step further by replacing salt with spices that complement the dish you're making. That way, you don't have to worry about your food tasting bland. Plus, spices are linked to antioxidant and anti-inflammatory health benefits, per a March 2019 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
2. Not Using All Parts of Your Produce
How many times have you peeled vegetables prior to cooking them? It turns out you're not alone in making this common cooking mistake.
"Many home cooks will discard parts of fruits and vegetables like the skins, ends or odd bits," says Mackenzie Burgess, RDN, Colorado-based registered dietitian nutritionist and recipe developer at Cheerful Choices.
However, by doing this you're missing out on additional fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. For example, unpeeled potatoes have 42 percent more fiber than peeled potatoes, according to the USDA. Peeled potatoes also have significantly fewer antioxidants than their unpeeled counterparts, according to a June 2013 study in Food Chemistry.
Burgess recommends giving your produce a good scrub and using up all parts for your recipe. "Try throwing unpeeled apples into a crumble, use broccoli stems in a stir-fry and save garlic ends to make your own vegetable broth."
3. Choosing Only Non-Fat or Low-Fat Ingredients
Avoiding fat entirely when you're cooking is a recipe for disaster. Your body needs fat to absorb fat-soluble nutrients, such as vitamins A, D, E and K. Fat is also an important source of energy and necessary for cell growth, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Health benefits aside, fat adds flavor to food and makes it taste good. Think about it: Have you ever eaten a salad without dressing and actually enjoyed it?
On top of that, low-fat alternatives tend to substitute fat with sugar, especially when it comes to dressings and sauces. Instead of completely avoiding fat, be mindful of how much and what kind of fat you're using.
4. Waiting Until You're Hungry to Cook
We've all been there — waiting until we're past the point of hunger to start cooking. This is a common pitfall when it comes to making healthy meals and usually leads to one of two possibilities: You either ditch the homemade meal you were planning on making or snack on everything in sight before your meal is even ready.
"When we wait until we're hungry we can become a human vortex in the kitchen, eating everything around us," says registered dietitian Emilie Williamson, RDN.
Williamson recommends setting yourself up for success by prepping common ingredients to save time. "Keep sliced vegetables for cooking and snacking on hand. By planning ahead to start food preparation, you can temper those hunger cravings," she says.
5. Focusing on What to Cut Out Instead of What to Add
Almost every year, a new fad diet appears and tells us what food we should cut out of our lives. This can be incredibly overwhelming and usually backfires. "Sometimes, we get caught up in finding fault in our food rather than focusing on what we can add to it," Williamson says.
"Challenge yourself to add one additional vegetable to your dinner tonight, whether it be a favorite or something new," she suggests. "This will help increase how many vegetables end up on your plate or in your bowl, providing valuable nutrients to your meal with minimal effort."
In fact, this is aligned with the American Heart Association's recommendation of eating a variety of nutritious foods from all food groups. The recommendations emphasize a medley of fruits and vegetables, poultry and fish, legumes and whole grains.
Williamson recommends adding fresh greens to boost vitamin K intake, bell peppers to add additional vitamin C or jicama for some additional fiber.
6. Making the Same Food Over and Over Again
It can be easy to fall into a cooking rut, and cooking the same food repeatedly is the quickest way to do it. Not only will this make you resent homemade meals, but also more likely to order takeout instead.
Nutritionally, you're not doing yourself any favors either. There are many benefits to eating a variety of foods, such as getting a diverse range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other nutrients. Eating 30 different plant-based foods per week was linked with having a more diverse gut microbiome, according to May 2018 research in mSystems.
If you find yourself in this predicament, challenge yourself to try a new recipe or explore a different cuisine from your typical rotation. You can find recipe inspiration everywhere, from Pinterest and Instagram to healthy cooking blogs to your favorite cookbooks.
- American Journal of Preventive Medicine: "Cooking at Home: A Strategy to Comply With U.S. Dietary Guidelines at No Extra Cost"
- Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry: "Health Benefits of Culinary Herbs and Spices"
- USDA: "Potato, baked, peel eaten"
- Food Chemistry: "Effect of peeling and three cooking methods on the content of selected phytochemicals in potato tubers with various colour of flesh"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between"
- American Heart Association: "Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations"
- mSystems: "American Gut: an Open Platform for Citizen Science Microbiome Research"