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Why Don’t We Cook More Healthy Meals At Home?

Vanita Smith from Ayubowan Health

We know that home cooking is best for our health and our wallet – so what stops us from doing what’s good for us?

Home cooking is associated with numerous health benefits. People who cook at home generally eat higher quality food, consume less kilojoules, spend less money on food, and experience less weight gain over time than those who dine out and eat pre-prepared meals on a regular basis.

Whilst we may have the best intentions when it comes to eating healthy food and cooking at home, many of us struggle to follow through with this change in behaviour. Known as the intention-behaviour gap, it is a concept that can apply whether it is losing weight, exercising or drinking less alcohol.

While, most of us know what we should do, we struggle to overcome the barriers that prevent us from cooking at home and eating healthily. 

Some of those barriers include:

  • “Nudging” by food marketers
  • Lack of time to prepare meals
  • Lack of understanding about nutrition and cooking skills
  • Our underlying perceptions and beliefs that eating healthy food is expensive and boring

The good news is that we can learn to address these barriers as they arise and learn to bridge the gap between good intentions and healthy behaviours. The latest science demonstrates that when it comes to changing behaviours and bad habits, small consistent steps are the order of the day.

Let’s look at some of these home cooking barriers in further detail.

The power of a “nudge”

“Nudging” is a term used in behavioural science that suggests changing an environment can leverage changes in behaviour. The concept is heavily used by food marketers to encourage consumer spending, for example, placing junk food at checkouts, and placing discretionary foods and specials at the beginning of supermarket catalogues to encourage spending. 

You can be one jump ahead of the marketers and use this technique to help drive change in your own behaviour. For example, placing discretionary or “sometimes” foods out of sight and positioning healthier choices front and centre helps “nudge” us towards positive health behaviours.

Other examples of “nudging” include having all your recipe ingredients chopped and prepared at the front of the fridge. Or a copy of the recipe you are planning to cook, attached to the front of the fridge with a magnet.What nudges could you put in place to help support you in your home environment?

healthy food

Time management

The explosive growth of online shopping has given us the ability to have greater control over our spending as well saving time by not physically having to go to the supermarket. Plus, online shopping platforms have the functionality to be able to create lists, save commonly bought products etc. Adopting online shopping could be a way of allowing you to spend more time cooking and less time shopping.

Have you explored meal preparation services where ingredients are portion controlled and ready to go? This may also help save time and manage costs. These services reduce meal preparation time and are delivered to your front door, fresh and ready to go. Using a service like this is a great example of positive nudging with the ingredients ready in the fridge for the end of the day. The vegetable content could be bolstered with some additional steamed vegetables or a salad.

Another option is taking some time to investigate recipe websites with direct links to online supermarkets. Using apps, for example, Paprika, can allow you to download recipes, create your own meal plans and shopping lists. 

Spending some extra time on the weekend doing some meal preparation can be an excellent time saving solution.  Ensuring that you have a variety of ingredients that are chopped up and ready to go when lunch time hunger hits, or you’re about to feed your family of teenagers after sport, not only saves time, but the money that would have been spent on takeout too as well!  Having pre prepared meals in sight during stressful times is another good example of nudging.

When planning for the week could you look for common ingredients (particularly vegetables) that can be used in multiple dishes? Are there ways the ingredients can be repurposed or be cooked in batches and frozen?

Cooking up ingredients and freezing them could also be an option. For example, did you know you can cook and freeze lentils? They can be frozen and portion controlled, like you might have your meat in the freezer.

Tips For Developing A Family Meal Plan

Learning new cooking tricks and understanding nutrition

Studies show that mostly consuming a diet of plant based whole foods has a number of health benefits. Eating in this manner can help prevent, as well as support, the treatment of many common chronic health conditions. 

Plant based eating has been popularized by documentaries such as, “Forks Over Knives”. There is growing support for this way of eating among general practitioners and the wider health care community, which recognizes that eating plenty of plant based whole foods can support health and wellbeing. 

However, most Australian consumers rarely meet the Australian Healthy Eating guidelines’ recommended servings of fruit and vegetables. Many people overconsume processed meat and dairy products, and discretionary food that has little or no nutritional value, often accounts for a third of an individual’s total energy intake. 

It has been demonstrated that the better cooking skills someone has, the greater the probability that they will consume more fruit and vegetables.

Recognizing this, a concept known as “Culinary Medicine” has evolved within the healthcare community where doctors, health coaches, and chefs work together to coach clients to improve their nutrition by upskilling their culinary abilities. 

Are there skills that you could learn or courses that you could attend to improve your culinary skills and nutrition knowledge?  For example, ensuring a vegetarian dish or meal has some form of vitamin C helps improve the absorption of iron from vegetables. A spinach salad with a salad dressing made with lemon juice and capsicum would fit the bill.

Another nutrition hack involves using your freezer. Freezing fruit like plums, mangoes and berries in season can then be added to smoothies or served on top of cereal or yoghurt. Freezing vegetables and adding them with the fruit to smoothies can boost the nutrient content without the sweetness.

Fruit aisle

Smashing the perception that healthy food is expensive and tasteless!

If you compare the cost per kilogram of protein from plant source versus an animal source, there is a sizeable cost difference. Plant based protein sources are generally cheaper, and when swap some of our animal sources of protein with plant based sources, we can lower the overall cost of our meals as well as improving our health. 

Could you start to add more plant protein to your intake and reduce the amount of animal protein used? The addition of plant protein such as lentils and beans to meals such as bolognaise, Mexican dishes etc improves the fibre content and phytonutrient profile of these dishes. The addition of plant protein improves satiety and feelings of “fullness” after a meal, therefore promoting weight control as less calories are consumed.

Another way you could incorporate more plants into your diet is have one meat free day per week. For example, replacing the animal protein component of a stir fry and using tofu, chickpeas or lentils with your favourite stir fry sauce can be a great way to get started. Topping with some lightly roasted nuts amps up the deliciousness factor even more. 

Making such changes in small steps, helps your brain and taste buds adjust over time. This will help to make such changes sustainable over the longer term, with the added bonus of reducing the cost of your butchery bill.  

home cooking

How to make it work

The ideas above are ‘food for thought’.  It’s worth taking the opportunity to explore your current challenges with eating well and cooking at home and see if any of these barriers resonate with you. Instead of jumping straight to a quick solution, take time and plan through how you would implement any of these ideas. What resources and support do you need to make it happen ? What steps are needed ? When you explore and understand what these barriers are and plan how you will address them you are likely to be more successful in the long term. If you need support, an accredited Health Coach can help. 

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Vanita Smith is a nutritionist, lifestyle medicine professional, and NBHWC certified health coach. She has a particular interest in habit change and has completed training and learned from neuroscientists and behaviour scientists to better understand how she can help clients with habit change.

In her business, Ayubowan Health & Lifestyle Medicine, she draws on this insight to help clients bridge the gap between their health intentions and daily life. She works as a keynote speaker, health coach, breathwork instructor and health program facilitator. Connect with her at hello@ayubowanhealth.com or http://www.ayubowanhealth.com/

Written by Vanita Smith

Vanita Smith is a nutritionist (MHumNut), board certified lifestyle medicine professional, NBHWC certified health coach. She has a particular interest in habit change and has completed training and learnt from neuroscientists and behaviour scientists to better understand how she can help clients with habit change.

In her business, Ayubowan Health & Lifestyle Medicine, she draws on this insight to help clients bridge the gap between their health intentions and daily life. She works as a keynote speaker, health coach, breathwork instructor and health program facilitator.

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