A Guide to Eating Healthy at Home
Picture this: a cookie-cutter home straight out of “Pleasantville,” two kids playing together in the yard, dad in the den enjoying an evening paper. In strolls mom in a sharp green outfit, pulling a pile of frozen TV dinners out of a shopping bag. The slogan written above her? “I’m late—but dinner won’t be.”
This is the scene portrayed in a print ad for Swanson frozen turkey dinners – the item responsible for ushering in the frozen convenience foods we know of today. The story goes that Swanson had 520,000 pounds of frozen turkey left after Thanksgiving of 1953, a massive demand miscalculation by any standards. Prompted by tray-based airline food, salesman Gerry Thomas came up with the idea of using the frozen turkey as part of a pre-prepared dinner (along with stuffing, peas, and sweet potatoes) packaged on a tray. This product ushered in a new grocery category and a culture of whipping up dinner in no time – or at least in enough time to get the whole family situated in front of the TV for the latest episode of “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Today, the act of eating dinner has evolved to look like a lot of things: running through a drive-thru and eating in your car; sitting down at a restaurant for a meal; getting a weekly meal kit delivery like Home Chef or Blue Apron; ordering groceries online for home delivery; weekly meal prepping; or even going to the grocery store to grab a frozen dinner. The goal here is to show how anyone can add the word “healthy” to the practice of eating at home in a way that doesn’t hurt your wallet, schedule, preferences, or dietary restrictions.
Real Cost of Dining Out
There is a laundry list of reasons why people avoid cooking and eating at home, but they all primarily center around convenience and lack of knowledge on how to design a satisfactory meal schedule.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average consumer spent $7,729 on food in 2017, nearly $3,400 of which was spent dining out. Think about it: Even if you hit up a fast-casual restaurant like Chipotle, you will easily spend $10 or more per meal. If you multiply that $10 by five lunches and three dinners, you’re already at $80 for the week or $4,160 for the year. Even more than the national average!
If you’re a frequent purveyor of the dollar menu at McDonald’s, you are all about fast, cheap, and easy. There is no shame in choosing the most convenient option that gets food on the table for you and your family, even if that means being a regular at the fast-food joint down the street. But what if you could achieve a similar cost per meal at home in a short amount of time and have better control over the ingredients and food going in your body?
Healthy cooking doesn’t have to be complicated, and you don’t have to commit to a 180-degree change overnight. There is room in every healthy lifestyle for the occasional Chipotle burrito or drive-thru burger. This guide is here to help you ease into healthy eating at home, one step at a time. Let’s get started.
Four Tips for Easing Your Way Into Healthy Eating at Home
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were the healthy eating habits of fitness “gurus” you’ve scrolled past on Instagram. Here are four tips to help you ease into your healthy cooking and eating journey.
- Avoid the diet mentality.
The word “diet” has a stigma tied to it, fueled by decades of diet supplement infomercials, flashy diet books (remember the Adkins craze of the early ’00s?), and media coverage of wafer-thin celebrities. Nearly 100% of dieters regain the weight they shed within 3 years, and the effects of continuously gaining and losing weight as you flirt with various diet plans are potentially as unhealthy as dieting itself. What we’re shooting for here is slow, healthy, and adaptable changes that fit in any lifestyle. Not a diet that leaves you feeling deprived, hungry, or ready to jump back into old habits.
- Focus on swapping out one meal at a time.
Try not to take on building too many new habits at once, or you’ll be more likely to quit. Do you live for a Starbucks latte and egg sandwich before work every day? See if you can commit to one week of breakfasts at home, such as eggcups. Eggcups are a combination of eggs, protein, and veggies cooked to perfection in muffin tins. They last up to five days in the fridge – perfect for weekday mornings when you can heat them up in the microwave, top with a little hot sauce, and eat as you walk out the door. The best part is how customizable eggcups can be. Take a look at Fit Foodie Finds’ take, which includes recipes for a ton of eggcups, including fajita, sausage and hash browns, bacon-wrapped, and Mediterranean-style.
- Have nutritious staples on hand.
There is nothing worse than hitting the 3 p.m. slump and feeling like you’re ready to attack your pantry for snacks to keep your energy levels up. Cater your snacks to the tastes you usually crave in the afternoon. Do you typically reach for a bag of chips? Mimic the saltiness with a handful of nuts. Nuts are filled with good fats that can keep you fueled until dinnertime. Are you nursing a major sweet tooth? Hit the craving with a juicy piece of fruit or lightly sweetened granola.
- Hit all the components of a healthy meal at least once every other day.
A healthy meal is going to look different for every person, but possessing knowledge of the basics will help you piece together a healthier meal the next time you’re ready to cave on ordering takeout. Nutrition experts at Harvard School of Public Health created the Healthy Eating Plate as a reference for building a nutritious plate. Here are a few takeaways:
- Load half your plate with veggies and fruit. Aim for a variety of colors.
- Get your protein from fish, poultry, beans, and nuts. This should fill one-fourth of your plate.
- The remaining one-fourth goes to whole grains like brown rice.
- Get healthy fats from oils like olive oil for cooking and dressings.
- Consume dairy, red meat, butter, and processed meats in moderation.
Always remember that these are merely guidelines. Adapt your plate to fit your tastes, needs, and dietary restrictions. Allergic to gluten? Stick to naturally gluten-free grains like brown rice and quinoa. Avoiding meat? Add beans, hemp seeds, or lentils for a boost of protein. The goal is to get some vegetables, protein, and healthy carbs/fats in every meal. Start with one meal every other day and grow from there.
Meal Prepping: What Is It and How Does It Fit Into Healthy Eating at Home?
What is meal prepping? Meal prepping is a universal term for preparing multiple meals at the same time to be eaten throughout the week. By dedicating a couple of hours one day per week to preparing healthy meals and ingredients, you can have a fully stocked fridge so that when you’re ready to eat, your food is ready in a matter of minutes.
How can you get started with meal prepping?
We touched on the idea of meal prepping earlier with the eggcups idea. Cook the ingredients once and have breakfast ready to go for five days. Keep your approach simple, and you’ll have a stocked kitchen in no time. Follow these five steps to get started.
- Analyze the state of your kitchen and pantry.
To avoid breaking the bank, take stock of what you already have in your fridge and pantry. Frozen veggies? A bag of jasmine rice? A container of oats? You might be surprised what healthy staples are hiding in your kitchen. Make a list of these items based on the time of day you’ll consume them. Start thinking about basic meals that can be built around these ingredients, so you don’t have to buy everything at the grocery store. One of the best approaches to meal prepping is preparing different ingredients that can be mixed and matched for a variety of meals. This approach helps limit the damage to your wallet.
- Find inspiration for healthy meals.
If you’re blanking on basic meals that can be created with your pre-existing ingredients, head over to Pinterest and Instagram for some #mealinspo. There are quite literally thousands of ideas just waiting to be found. Type in “jasmine rice recipes,” and you’ll have more content than you could possibly need. Screenshot or jot down the recipes you’re interested in recreating. For future inspiration, sign up for email newsletters on food blogs to get meal ideas sent right to your inbox. Download meal planning apps like FoodPlanner or Mealime to look for recipes that check all the boxes for dietary restrictions or preferences. Some planning apps will even generate a shopping list for you.
- Compile your shopping list.
All right, you’ve got your pantry staples noted and your meal ideas picked out. Now, it’s time to create a shopping list (if your app didn’t already create one for you). Organization is key here. Try to break down your meals into categories based on where they can be found in the grocery store, e.g., produce, dairy, bread aisle, and frozen foods. Some key tips to remember to make the most of your meal prep budget:
- Frozen vegetables are often cheaper than fresh, but are still equally healthy.
- Buying dried goods such as nuts and oats in bulk can save you more money in the long run.
- Don’t feel pressured to buy brand names. Generic products cost less and can absolutely fill up a healthy plate.
- Choose how to shop for your list.
The best part about modern grocery shopping is that someone else can do it for you. If you don’t have the time to do all the shopping yourself, grocery delivery or pickup is an incredible option. Major store chains such as Walmart and Kroger offer same-day store pickup. Simply place your grocery order online and then drive to the store to pick it up. For even easier convenience, look into Instacart or Shipt to get your groceries delivered to your door in as little as an hour – no sweat. There is typically a small delivery fee associated, so take that into account when preparing your grocery budget.
- Start preparing your meals.
Whether you went to the store or had your food delivered, you are now armed with a supply of ingredients for healthy eating at home. Start by batching the foods by meal and determining which kitchen tools or appliances are needed for each meal. Make a note and start with the foods that will take the longest to cook. While those items are simmering or roasting away, you can start preparing the supplementary ingredients. Before you know it, you’ve completed your first meal prep! Box up your prepared foods in containers grouped by ingredient or meal.
There is no exact equation to completing weekly meal prep, but as you become more accustomed to preparing healthy meals in your kitchen, you’ll build a rhythm that works best for your schedule.
Five Greatest Kitchen Tools for Healthy Eating at Home
As you invest your time in eating more at home, having a few timesaving kitchen tools and appliances will make all the difference. Check out these five tried-and-true kitchen tools to up your healthy eating experience.
- Pressure cooker
Pressure cookers, such as the Instant Pot, exist to save you time in the kitchen. This must-have appliance works by boiling a liquid inside a vessel and trapping the steam to raise the internal pressure, thereby creating higher cooking temperatures. Meals like braised meats come out melt-in-your-mouth tender, and soups and stews taste like they simmered for hours.
- Air fryer
Do you love french fries and foods with a crispy texture? This appliance is for you. Air fryers are virtually smaller convection ovens; they cook food the same way by circulating hot air. Air fryers use minimal oil but still produce perfectly crunchy foods like chicken, fish, and vegetables.
Spiralizers have become an incredible kitchen staple in the last five years. Spiralizers turn vegetables and fruits into noodle shapes, perfect for imitating pasta and Asian dishes. They come in both hand-held and countertop varieties. Inspiralized.com will be your best resource if you purchase a spiralizer; the website is chock-full of tasty, nutritious recipes based on spiralized vegetables and fruits.
- Hand blender
As you become more adventurous in the kitchen, a hand blender is a vital addition to your culinary arsenal. Use the small tool to whip up homemade sauces, smoothies, pesto, and salad dressings.
- Glass food containers/Tupperware
Solid food containers are crucial to making the fruits of your meal prepping labor last. When you’re ready to store your food in the fridge, choose glass containers. They last longer than plastic, keep weird smells at bay, and are easy to transport on the go. Opt for a variety pack so that you have multiple sizes to keep your food fresh and organized.
Four Secrets to Healthy Eating at Home for the Whole Family
When you’ve got multiple mouths to feed, healthy cooking and eating can easily be put on the back burner in favor of more convenient food options. We’ve got four secrets to share to help you put healthy food on the table – fast.
- Sneak in more veggies.
One of the easiest ways to help your family eat healthier is by subtly adding more veggies into the meals you prepare. These days, there’s a healthier alternative to just about every meal you can think of. Does your family love mashed potatoes? Try incorporating some mashed cauliflower. Is your house filled with pasta fans? Throw in some spiralized zucchini with your spaghetti noodles. The opportunities are endless; you might be surprised by what your kids end up loving.
- Create a balance between healthy and treat foods.
Depriving kids of sweets and treats 100% of the time can harbor a poor idea of what a balanced diet looks like. There is room in every healthy lifestyle for the occasional treat. Try to practice this mentality with your kids by offering them a treat when they least expect it. Avoid using treats as a reward, though; rather, show that cookies and chips belong in any diet at any time, as long as they’re eaten in moderation.
- Short on time? Try a meal kit delivery.
If you love the idea of cooking but simply don’t have the time to create a meal plan and shop for yourself, look into home meal kit deliveries like Home Chef, Blue Apron, and EveryPlate. You choose the meals you want ahead of time, and they arrive at your house weekly. Each meal comes with pre-portioned ingredients and recipe cards, so you have everything you need to cook a nutritious meal at home.
- Need a healthy meal last minute? Check the grab-and-go section at the grocery store.
No matter how much you prepare, there will always be nights where the fridge is empty, but you still want to put a balanced meal on the table. This is where the prepared foods section of your grocery store comes in. You won’t have to hike through the aisles to hunt down multiple ingredients. Typically set up by the produce area, the grab-and-go section will have prepared meals made with fresh ingredients that you can grab and throw in the oven at home. Opt for options that reflect Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate: veggies, protein, and healthy carbs/fats.
At first, healthy eating at home can seem intimidating, expensive, and time-consuming. But by adopting the tips and ideas from this guide to fit your lifestyle, you’ll be the queen or king of healthy eating at home in no time.