Is cooking necessary for healthy eating?

Leave cooking to the pros? (photo by SMcGarnigle via Flickr)

It’s 6 o’clock, you just got home after a long day at work, getting yourself and possibly kids out the door, commuting long distances, spending the day at work, and then reversing course in the evening, plus running errands. You’re exhausted, your kids are starving, you’re starving. Do you look forward to spending the next hour (or more) cooking dinner, followed by another hour (or more) cleaning up the kitchen?

Fifty or more years ago, this would not have been an issue. Most women stayed home, and one of their daily duties was putting 3 meals on the table every day.  Cleaning up after each meal was an endless chore. Whether or not those women actually liked cooking, they were expected to put meals on the table. There was no alternative. There were no convenience foods or no take out. Restaurants were not cheap and not kid-friendly.

Times have changed:

  • more women are working
  • commutes are much longer, both in distance and in time due to traffic, leaving little time or energy to cook.
  • convenience food is everywhere, from grocery stores to restaurants to take out
  • children do not grow up learning how to cook, so as adults they don’t have a clue

Result: eating has been divorced from cooking. People don’t need to cook anymore, if they don’t want to.  And a lot of people don’t want to for perfectly good reasons: they don’t know how, they don’t have time, they can’t be bothered.  It doesn’t help that the media manages to make cooking look extremely complicated and impossible for the average person.  TV shows like Kitchen Nightmares or pretty much anything on The Food Network.  Cooking starts to look more like a disagreeable and dangerous spectator sport, not something to try at home.

What about healthy eating?  Cooked-from-scratch food has a major Health Halo.  Many people believe restaurant and convenience food can never be healthy.  Therefore anyone who wants to eat healthy food must cook everything from scratch themselves.  But think about this: does your auto mechanic believe you should change your own oil, tires, brakes, timing belts and fuel filters? Does your hair stylist think you should just cut your own hair? Do you sew your own clothes? Drill and fill your own cavities? No, you hire professionals.  Why is food preparation any different?

Is it true that healthy eating depends on cooking from scratch?  Here’s my answer: NO.  It’s entirely possible to choose healthy restaurant and take-out food.  Restaurants and food companies are on the health bandwagon. It’s good for business. So if you aren’t inclined to tackle cooking, don’t feel guilty. Health and convenience can go together. The added benefit – no cleaning up the kitchen.  Another added benefit: built in portion control.  By making the right choices, you can put together a calorie-controlled meal plan, same as buying frozen dinners or ordering diet meal delivery.

As with all things food, you have to make good choices.  You can pick healthy food at restaurants, or you can order high fat, high calorie, low fiber, super-sized, salty, highly processed stuff.  Identifying which is which isn’t all that hard, and many restaurants are trying to be helpful, labeling certain items as “healthy” according to whatever their definition is.  Other restaurants leave the definition and choices up to the customer.  It’s not all that difficult.  Order meals that are full of vegetables, fruit and grains, with healthy fats, modest portions of meat and few fried foods or greasy sauces.  Stay away from excessive portions and foods and beverages loaded with added sugar.

To help you find restaurants that make healthy choices easier, I’m putting together a ranking of major chains, based on availability of choices that meet most of those criteria.  I’ll post it as a permanent page, linked in the header.  It will be updated periodically, as new restaurants and new menu choices become available.

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