Yes, I lost weight, but finally learning how to cook healthy, vegetarian meals at home also helped my mental health in a way I never imagined.

By Julia Malacoff
July 12, 2018
Photo: Eugene Mymrin/Getty Images

I've never been into cooking. Sure, I've dabbled in baking and helped my mom out preparing for big holiday meals, but in my day-to-day life? I've always historically said a big "no thanks" to cooking at home. Looking back, there are a few reasons I never wanted to cook.

First, I simply felt like I didn't have time. Like many adults, I had ~so much~ work, and not enough hours in the day get it all done. It was just way easier to order in or grab something pre-made so I didn't have to spend any extra time on feeding myself. There's nothing wrong with doing either of those things, but over the course of my early adult years, I'd gotten accustomed to doing them every.single.night.

Second, I had no idea where to start with cooking. I've been a vegetarian for most of my life and ate *a lot* of pizza and macaroni and cheese growing up. That's pretty much all I knew how to make. No hate for pizza and mac n' cheese, but as an adult, I knew I shouldn't be eating them every night. (Related: Are Vegetarian Diets Healthy?)

Lastly, I had a less-than-ideal relationship with food. I came to see those nachos I ordered on the reg as a reward for making it through a hard, stressful day, and was fixated on the idea of eating something "good" or "worth it" for each meal. In a weird warped way, I saw my delicious, overindulgent meals as a form of self-care. But I also knew that wasn't normal or healthy, so I also felt an element of shame wrapped up in that "self-care" bubble. Plus, the idea of figuring out what a well-balanced meal I'd actually enjoy looked like felt incredibly daunting.

But this year, all of that changed. I finally learned how to cook, adding dozens of recipes to my repertoire, and along with them came a completely revamped relationship with food-something I definitely wasn't expecting.

Why I Started Cooking

Long story short: This whole experiment started pretty much out of necessity to stay on track with my commitment to finally reaching my weight-loss goals.

Around this time last year, I decided I wanted to lose some weight. I'd been watching the scale steadily creep up since college, and I realized I'd gained a solid 30 pounds in about eight years. I knew something needed to change, and as a workout junkie, I also knew it wasn't my gym routine. It was my diet. (Related: You Don't Have to Do Cardio to Lose Weight-But There's a Catch)

Scrolling through my Uber Eats history, I noticed that I was ordering food several times per week. Not only was I picking foods that probably weren't going to help me with my weight loss goals (hi: tacos, pasta, and creamy Indian curries), but I was spending SO MUCH money that I really had no business spending.

So I started counting macros as a way to get my nutrition on track-and unless you're ordering a salad, it's pretty tough to figure out the macros of restaurant food if you're aiming for accuracy. So I decided I'd limit myself to one meal delivery per week, and the rest of the time, I'd cook. (Related: The Best Reason to Cook Your Own Dinner)

How Cooking At Home Helped Me Lose Weight

It helped that these days I work from home, so I started making my own breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. I'd order in once a week, and go out to eat once or twice a week with my partner or friends. Essentially, 90 percent of my diet was being prepared by me. It was pretty much a complete 180.

I'm not going to lie-the first couple of months were rough. I didn't know how to make anything, and I had more than my share of failed recipe attempts. But steadily, I developed a group of standby meals I liked eating (and that my non-vegetarian partner enjoyed, too!), and eventually, it just started to click.

This was an absolute game-changer when it came to meeting my weight-loss goals, and maintaining them. Turns out, there's a reason dietitians and doctors who help people lose weight recommend cooking at home.

"The National Weight Registry collects data on a regular basis from individuals who have lost weight and maintained their weight for long periods of time," says Rachel Goldman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in health and wellness and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine. Essentially, the registry was developed to identify the characteristics of those who have succeeded at long-term weight loss. "One of these things is that they mostly cook their own food," Dr. Goldman says. Other research has shown similar findings. (Related: The 10 Rules of Weight Loss That Lasts)

How It Changed My Relationship With Food

So I lost the weight, and that was awesome! But as I started shedding pounds, I also realized that I was starting to think about food in a different way. (Read more on my mindful approach to weight-loss here: I Changed the Way I Think About Food and Lost 10 Pounds)

I'd developed a daily routine of grabbing groceries for whatever I was making on my way home from the gym, then setting aside about 30 minutes to an hour after work to cook. Instead of unwinding in front of the TV or scrolling through my Instagram feed, I was using my time preparing my food to unwind from my day.

Before, I was using the act of eating to de-stress. Now, I was using the act of preparing my food to do the same thing. And by the time I actually sat down to eat, instead of feeling that twinge of shame about whatever I was about to devour, I instead felt just excited to eat something really good, that I spent time making, that I knew was nourishing my body.

I also learned how to make lightened up versions of all the foods I'd been ordering in-tacos, curries, pasta, pizza, you name it. By utilizing portion control and keeping an eye on what actually went into in my food, I was able to get the same enjoyment and comfort-element out of what I was eating, without any of the stress I had felt about eating those foods before.

Little did I know, this is actually something nutrition pros recommend. "For someone who is feeling stress or anxiety about food choices, cooking at home is a great solution," says Marisa Michael, a registered dietitian, certified personal trainer, and founder of Real Nutrition. "I have seen my clients feel a sense of pride, accomplishment, self-confidence, and self-sufficiency when they learn to cook at home. It spills into other areas of their lives as well. A person who feels confident and armed with basic cooking skills feels ready to tackle other aspects that seemed daunting before, such as exercising regularly or healing their relationship with their body image."

And there may even be something about the act of cooking that helps people feel more at peace with their food. "Eating at home can connect someone to their food in a positive way," notes Emily Field, a registered dietitian. "Experimenting with flavors, textures, ingredients, herbs, spices, even different types of cooking methods can be extremely rewarding." (Related: 8 Situations When You Should Consult a Nutritionist That May Surprise You)

Tips for Getting Started

Look, I barely cooked for the first 27 years of my life, so I know that starting from scratch isn't easy. Here's what helped make it bearable for me. (So bearable, in fact, that these days, I actually look forward to cooking dinner each night!)

Use recipes. No one is good at creating genius, delicious, healthy meals all on their own right when they first start cooking. Find some recipe sources or food blogs that you can rely on for healthy, accessible meal ideas, and gradually you'll start to build up to tweaking them and improvising on your own. Some of my go-tos are Fit Foodie Finds, Naturally Ella, and Pinch of Yum. (And of course, the healthy recipes featured on Shape!)

Set aside time to cook. No, you probably won't have time to do this every day, and that's okay. But in the same way you make an appointment with yourself to work out, set aside some time to cook-even if it's just once a week. (You can also use that time to meal-prep!)

Be realistic. On a similar note, don't feel like you have to go 0 to 100 all at once. Maybe cooking most of your meals isn't possible for you, but that doesn't mean you can't cook some of them. "I encourage my clients to do the best they can and prepare at least some of their meals and/or parts of their meals at home," Dr. Goldman says. "Perhaps prepare some side dishes, some veggies, or salad and then go to the store and purchase a prepared rotisserie chicken to add some protein." However you make it work, the idea is just to spend some time with your food.

Get the right tools. I'm not saying you should go out and buy a ton of gourmet cooking equipment (unless you want to). That's totally unnecessary. But as you learn to cook, you'll also learn what you really need in your kitchen through trial and error. I learned that having the right stuff can make cooking more fun, and it doesn't have to mean spending a lot of money, either. For example, in order to cook spiralized noodles properly, I learned I really needed to buy some tongs. They cost me about five bucks and were game-changing! After I'd been cooking for about six months, I treated myself to a food processor. I use it *all the time.* Then, for Valentine's Day last year, I asked for a cast iron skillet. Sure, my boyfriend was confused about the gift request, but was psyched when I made homemade shakshuka for the first time.

Don't skip going out to eat altogether. For some people, when they get really comfortable with making all their own food, particularly for health reasons, they start to dread eating out. "You're less in control of the ingredients and cooking methods, and you truly have no way of knowing how many calories or macros are in the meal you're consuming," Field points out.

If this sounds familiar, be sure to continue putting yourself in social situations with food. "Forming a positive relationship with food comes by replacing the anxiety around nutrition, with rewarding social experiences in friendship, conversation, or quality time spent with others," Field says. Of course, it's always an option to invite friends over to show off your newfound culinary skills-something I did for the first time this year. Sure, it wasn't as quick as ordering a pizza, but way more satisfying. I'll never look back.

Comments (1)

July 13, 2018
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