Whether you're a pro in the kitchen, or never been near a recipe book before, there's no denying there are plenty of benefits to cooking from scratch. Here are my top reasons to ditch the microwave ready meals and get out your pots and pans.
Cooking your own meals gives you control over everything that goes into your food. You choose every ingredient, allowing you to make swaps to improve the calorie content of your meal and stick within your allowance. Ready meals and restaurant dishes are often prepared using lashings of oil, butter and cream, ramping up the calories. By preparing your meal yourself, you can make smart choices and minimise the use of these ingredients, making swaps to low-cal cooking sprays and low-fat creams and yogurts instead.
This control also means you can decide on the quantities of your ingredients. We've all seen the enormous portions served by many takeaways and restaurants – cooking at home means you decide how much to put on your plate. Having the ability to weigh everything out means you can easily and accurately work out the calorie content per serving and log your meal in your food diary. The 'My Meals' section of the app makes this really easy – simply add in the quantities of your ingredients and the number of portions the recipe makes, and all the calorie and nutrient calculations are done for you!
Even if you're only cooking for yourself, batch-cooking a recipe you love and storing the leftovers means you will always have healthy meals on hand. So there's no excuse to order in!
Many weight loss approaches are based around selling you their own food and pre-packed meal plan systems. While these programmes may offer convenience, they don't provide a long-term solution – unless you are going to continue eating them for the rest of your life! Once the plan has ended, you return to your normal eating habits and the weight creeps back on again. By preparing your own meals from day one, and with the help of the Nutracheck app, you can gain a real understanding of the nutritional content of the foods you're putting into your body and why they work for weight loss. This can really help once you've lost weight to keep it off and maintain all your hard work.
By taking control over what goes into your meals, you have the power to ensure they're packed with nutrients too. A large UK-based study found that more frequent home-cooked meals are linked with people having a greater chance of a healthy BMI and body fat percentage, as well as a higher intake of fruit and veg (Mills et al., 2017). A later study found that higher consumption of so-called 'ultra-processed' foods (think ready meals, packaged snacks, fizzy drinks) is strongly associated with multiple indicators of obesity (Rauber et al., 2021).
To extend shelf life, many ready meals and sauces contain a lot of salt, as well as other additives. We should be keeping our salt intake below the recommended maximum of 6g per day to mitigate the risk of high blood pressure, which is linked to heart disease. Cooking at home gives you the opportunity to flavour your meals with herbs and spices instead of adding salt.
Cooking your own foods encourages you to try new recipes (there's plenty to choose from in our Popular Recipes section in the app!), which can help with broadening your horizons when it comes to trying different ingredients. A new recipe is a great excuse to try a new vegetable you've never eaten before, or experiment with fun ways to incorporate more lentils and pulses into your meals. The wider the variety of foods in your diet, the wider the variety of nutrients you'll be getting too. The best way to eat enough of all the nutrients we need is to eat as many different types of food as possible – the more colourful your plate, the better! Having a fruit and veg box delivered is a great place to start – Abel & Cole, Riverford and Oddbox offer a home delivery service of fresh fruit and veg to your door with far less packaging than the supermarkets.
Okay, time for some shocking facts and figures. A staggering 14 million tons of plastic is ditched in our planet's oceans every year (International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2021). Single-use food and drinks packaging make up almost half of all human waste. We may think our plastic usage is fine because we put it into the recycling when we're done, but in reality, only 9% of our plastics actually end up being recycled, plus the process of turning old plastics into new ones takes a significant amount of energy compared to never producing it in the first place. This means the other 91% will be incinerated, dumped in landfill or left to clog up waterways and harm wildlife. You only need to take a look at some of the footage on documentaries like Blue Planet to get a glimpse of the impact.
We're also affecting our own health through our plastic use. Once dumped in landfill or littered in the countryside, most plastics begin to break down into microplastics – tiny pieces that work their way into the food chain along with chemical contaminants. This is why microplastics are found in animals all over the world, as well as the soil from which our food is grown. Even humans aren't escaping consumption of microplastics, ingesting them through consumption of contaminated food and water.
Preparing our own food at home and buying less convenience type foods which tend to come in a lot of packaging, will save on plastic usage. By choosing fresh ingredients with minimal packaging (veg boxes with reusable boxes), and taking you own reusable containers to the supermarket where you can, you can be significantly cutting back on your plastic footprint.
Additionally, the complex processing methods required to manufacture ready meals require lots of energy – this means a huge amount of fossils fuels to meet the demands. We may be able to save on energy by cooking at home using whole ingredients.
If all of these benefits aren't enough, we know that cooking at home can do wonders for mental health, as well as physical and environmental health. Spending time by yourself to prepare one of your favourite meals can certainly be a form of self-care and mindfulness – an escape from stress and negative thoughts. Equally, a home-cooked meal can be a great way to spend quality time with friends and family. From getting children involved in preparation, to hosting a dinner party with your nearest and dearest, all can be a great boost to our mental wellbeing. So don’t delay – get out your recipe books and start planning your meals!
Nutritionist Amy Wood (ANutr), MSci BSc Nutrition has a keen interest in the relationship between diet and health. Having been published in the European Journal of Nutrition, Amy is passionate about making evidence-based nutrition accessible to everyone and helping others to adopt a food-focused approach to taking control of their health.