Today, people eat more restaurant-prepared and commercially processed foods than ever before.

This isn’t only the case in developed countries like the U.S.; it’s also increasingly being seen around the world. Along with this trend, we’re also seeing higher rates of obesity, metabolic syndrome and other chronic diseases.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. CDC data also shows that in 2016 over 70% of American adults were overweight, with almost 40% of those being obese.

According to a report published by the American Heart Association (AHA) in 2015, nearly 9% of our adult population has been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, with an additional 4.5% thought to be afflicted but undiagnosed, and another 35.3% with prediabetes.

The Diet-Disease Connection

With our busy lifestyles, Americans are increasingly consuming more meals away from home and spending less time cooking. The Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) emphasizes foods that are calorie-rich from sugars, fats, animal proteins, refined grain products, and processed, overheated and hydrogenated vegetable oils.

These foods also tend to be full of things like artificial sweeteners and flavors, preservatives, coloring agents and large quantities of sodium. Research acknowledges that these processed foods lead to changes in metabolic function; these changes create inflammation, a key underlying factor in obesity, blood sugar disorders, cardiovascular disease and other chronic degenerative conditions.

“The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison,” said raw food advocate Ann Wigmore (1909–1993).

Benefits of Home Cooking

Food is a primary promoter of health and protector from disease. More and more, people are turning to diet and nutrition to discover how the foods we eat could change the disease trends we are seeing.

Home cooking may be part of the solution. Nutritional benefits of home cooking including food that contains less sugar, sodium and processed fat; fewer calories and smaller portion sizes; higher quality, less processed ingredients; and, simply, more nutrient-rich foods.

In the S.A.D., highly processed foods contribute almost 60% of calories and 90% of added sugars, according to 2016 research published by the AHA. Similarly, processed and fast foods can contain much more sodium than comparable home-cooked foods. The AHA released a 2017 study which found that about 70% of the sodium in a typical American diet comes from commercially processed and restaurant-prepared foods.

A diet emphasizing highly processed foods puts us at risk of consuming too much sodium, added sugar and processed fat. These processed foods are energy-dense but nutrient-poor.

According to a 2014 research study from Johns Hopkins, cooking dinner at home six to seven times per week is associated with eating a healthier diet, regardless of whether or not weight loss is a goal. The study also found that cooking at home is associated with a lower intake of calories and suggests that the people who cook at home consume less when they do eat out.

Restaurant portion sizes tend to be much larger than recommended serving sizes. Similarly, recommended serving sizes for processed foods are often much smaller than a portion that would typically be consumed. (Think about the 10 to 15 chips in a recommended serving size and the number of chips you might actually eat.)

On the other hand, unprocessed, whole foods tend to be self-limiting. Because they are high in fiber and quality proteins or fats that are satisfying, we tend to not overindulge. (Now, think about how many carrots with hummus you might eat before filling up.)

Processed foods are designed to cater to biological cravings for salt, sugar and fat, which is what makes those chips so hard to resist.

The food served in restaurants is also often less nutrient-dense than food cooked at home. Commercially processed and restaurant-prepared foods also tend to use lower quality ingredients, such as polyunsaturated vegetable oils, which are prone to rancidity.

Home cooking offers greater control over ingredient quality and selection and factors like what kinds of oils to use. Shopping for your own ingredients puts you in charge of where your food comes from and whether your food is organically, locally and sustainably sourced.

Having control over ingredients can be especially important in families with food allergies or sensitivities. While many restaurants are well-intentioned in accommodating allergies, cooking at home is inherently less risky.

The shift toward eating restaurant-prepared and highly-processed foods is only part of the picture. It’s clear that these foods are problematic for our health. However, we also have to consider the foods we aren’t eating: fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The S.A.D. is low in plant foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber, which are all health-supportive.

Home cooking is a great opportunity to incorporate S.O.U.L. (Seasonal, Organic, Unprocessed, Local) foods into your diet.

How to Get Started

• Keep it simple. If you’re new to cooking, start by making simple meals a couple of times a week. Try making chopped salads, sheet pan suppers or one-pot dinners.

• Cook what you like to eat. Start slow and cook things you enjoy eating.

• Go to the farmers market. Local farmers markets can be a great way to learn about what is in season and can inspire you to incorporate new fruits and vegetables into your diet.

• Make it social. Involve your family members or roommates in the cooking process. It’s a great way to connect and share duties.

• Try batch cooking. If you’re short on time during the week, batch cooking can be a great way to prepare meals to have on hand and enjoy throughout the week.

• Prep ahead of time. Even simple meal preparation, like washing and chopping vegetables ahead of time, can make weeknight dinners a whole lot easier.

Beyond Nutritional Benefits

The benefits of cooking at home go beyond nutrition. Preparing meals as a family creates the opportunity for adults and children alike to learn cooking skills and healthy eating habits and to explore new foods.

Eating with others also creates an opportunity for connection. The benefits of family meals have been well-documented. According to The Family Dinner Project, “…recent studies link regular family meals with the kinds of behaviors that parents want for their children: higher grade-point averages, resilience and self-esteem. Additionally, family meals are linked to lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders and depression.”

Gluten-Free Cheese Crackers with Lemon-Parsley Hummus

Allergens: Dairy, eggs, nightshades, and sesame.

A healthy, gluten-free alternative to processed crackers like Cheez-Its®, these crackers are great as an appetizer served with hummus. The chickpeas in the hummus are soaked overnight and then simmered with kombu, a type of seaweed, which adds minerals to the beans and helps to prevent indigestion.

Ingredients

3/4 cup brown rice flour

2 Tbs tapioca flour

2 Tbs potato starch

1/8 tsp xanthan gum

2 cups goat cheddar, grated

2 Tbs coconut oil

1 large egg, room temperature

1 Tbs water

1 tsp sea salt

1 pinch black pepper, freshly ground

1. Preheat oven to 350°F.

2. In large bowl, add flours, starch, and xanthan gum and whisk to combine. Add cheese and stir to combine.

3. Melt coconut oil over low heat. Transfer to a small bowl and allow to cool so that it does not cook the egg when mixed.

4. Add egg, water, salt, and pepper to coconut oil. Whisk to combine.

5. Combine the wet and dry ingredients in a large bowl and mix well until solid dough forms. Roll dough into a ball and place between two pieces of parchment paper. Roll dough into a thin sheet using a rolling pin. The dough may break a little around the edges, use your fingers to press it back together.

6. Cut dough into desired shapes. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the cutouts onto the baking sheet, then place in freezer for 15 minutes.

7. Remove from freezer and bake for 25 minutes or until golden brown. Allow the crackers to cool before serving.

Note: Yields about 25 crackers.

Lemon-Parsley Hummus

3/4 cup dried garbanzo beans, soaked overnight

3-inch strip kombu

2 Tbs tahini

2 large lemons, zested and juiced

3/4 cup fresh parsley, stems included

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, more as needed

2 cloves garlic, peeled

2 tsp cumin seeds, toasted and ground

1/2 tsp sea salt

1 pinch cayenne

1 pinch paprika, optional for garnish

1. Drain garbanzo beans and rinse under running water. Then place the beans in a pot with kombu and enough water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for about 1 hour or until tender. Drain, remove kombu, and reserve cooking liquid. Allow beans to cool to room temperature.

2. In a medium-size mixing bowl, whisk together tahini and lemon juice until light and fluffy.

3. Place cooled garbanzo beans, lemon-tahini mixture, and remaining ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. If more moisture is needed, add a little of the reserved cooking liquid. Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with paprika.

4. Serve with cheese crackers and enjoy!

Optional: Soak 1/2 cup of sun-dried tomatoes for about 20 minutes until soft then process into hummus along with the chickpeas for a tangy, flavorful dip.

Walnut, Arugula + Basil Pesto

Allergens: Nuts.

In an aromatic sauce like pesto, a little goes a long way in terms of flavor and nutrient power. You can swap out the herbs, nuts, and greens depending on what is in season (and in your fridge).This sauce pairs nicely with spiralized zucchini noodles.

Yields about 3/4 cup pesto

Ingredients

1/2 cup walnuts

1 clove garlic, minced

1 lemon, juiced

4 cups basil leaves, packed

1 cup arugula, packed

3 leaves dandelion greens

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, more as needed for desired consistency

1 tsp sea salt, to taste

Instructions

1. Preheat oven to 350°F.

2. Place walnuts on a baking sheet and toast for about 10 minutes or until brown and aromatic, stirring after five minutes.

3. Add all ingredients to food processor and blend until smooth.

4. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, lemon, and olive oil to your liking.

Sun Dried Tomato + Parmesan Stuffed Mushrooms

Allergens: Dairy, fish, nuts, and nightshades.

Mushrooms lend a savory flavor to cooked dishes and are an excellent source of B vitamins. Thanks to vitamin B3, mushrooms can help to balance blood cholesterol levels and maintain a healthy cardiovascular system. They also provide extra immune support during cold and flu season.

Cremini, button, portobello, oyster, maitake — it’s hard to choose a favorite among so many delicious varieties. This appetizer uses cremini mushrooms — which are perfect for stuffing — and provides a blast of umami flavor. Salty anchovies, savory sun-dried tomatoes, and earthy mushrooms provide a perfect flavor combination for this visually appealing, party-pleaser.

Serves: 12

Ingredients

1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, diced

1/2 cup raw almonds, divided

12 large cremini mushrooms

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided

2 Tbs sea salt, divided

4 small shallots, minced

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 Tbs fresh thyme, minced

1 cup shredded parmesan cheese, plus extra for garnish

1/4 cup finely chopped parsley, plus extra for garnish

4 anchovy fillets, finely chopped

Instructions

1. Preheat oven to 350°F.

2. Place sun-dried tomatoes in a small bowl and cover with warm water. Let soak for about 20 minutes until soft. Strain and set aside.

3. Place 1/4 cup almonds on a baking sheet and toast for about 10 minutes or until brown and aromatic, stirring after five minutes. Finely chop and set aside.

4. Finely chop the remaining 1/4 cup of raw almonds and set aside.

5. Remove mushroom stems and set aside. Using a spoon, scoop out gills from the inside of each mushroom and set aside. Finely chop stems and gills together and set aside.

6. In a large bowl, gently toss mushroom caps with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and a generous pinch of salt. Set aside.

7. In a sauté pan, over medium-high heat, warm the remaining olive oil. Add shallots and a pinch of salt. Sauté until translucent, about 3–4 minutes. Add mushroom stems and gills, garlic, thyme, and a pinch of salt. Sauté five to seven minutes until moisture from mushrooms has been cooked off and the mixture smells fragrant.

8. Transfer mixture to a medium bowl and add raw almonds, sun-dried tomatoes, parmesan, parsley, and anchovies. Mix until everything is evenly distributed. Taste and adjust seasonings to your liking.

9. Scoop about 1 1/2 tablespoons of the mixture into each mushroom. Place mushrooms on a parchment-lined baking sheet, stuffing side up.

10. Bake for about 35 minutes. Use a fork to pierce mushrooms to make sure they are tender.

11. Garnish with reserved toasted almonds, parmesan, and parsley. Bake for an additional five to seven minutes until cheese begins to melt and brown.

12. Remove from oven, transfer onto a serving dish, and enjoy!

Note: Mushrooms can be refrigerated for up to three days and reheated in the oven at 350°F for 15 minutes.

About the Author:

Rosie Ueng, M.S., is the director of academics and an instructor for both the Nutrition Consultant and Natural Chef programs at Bauman College. For 30 years, Bauman College, a nonprofit organization, has spread personal, community and global wellness through increased awareness of the healing power of fresh, whole food.

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