A brown-tinted photograph of jars of grains and nuts with the article title above.
Embodied Heart

Old-Fashioned Cooking: Building Healthy Habits from Scratch

What is it about being handed a bag of fried food through my car window that sets off my taste buds, only to leave me in a heap of discomfort and disgust afterwards? After binge watching shows about addiction (my TV viewing is an issue for another day!), I started to conceptualize my eating habits as being, in part, location-driven. Specifically, where I choose to obtain food, rather than simply what I choose to eat, influences the quality of my diet. Over the last few years, I slowly began to go to fast food restaurants and convenience food stores on a regular basis, rather than to cook my own food. Last fall, this tipped into what I can only describe as eating junk food, by which I mean ultra-processed foods, as my primary source of nourishment.

This year, I’ve made a commitment to eating only natural, homemade foods as much as I possibly can. Rather than wax poetic about how much cheaper homemade food can be, which may not be the case for everyone, I wanted to share both how I look at homemade food as well as some outcomes of this change that I’m noticing that are affecting me not only physically but also mentally, socially and even spiritually.

Before noting the positive changes cooking from home have brought to me, I want to check in with my privilege in this area. I have the time, money, physical and mental capacity and access to fresh ingredients necessary for these adaptations. Food, diet and, by extension, cooking, have been fraught with disordered eating patterns for me for most of my life. I’ve benefited from both mental health therapy and formal education to a point where I feel more able to set intentions and follow through on them in relation to these topics while managing my guilt and anxiety; not everyone is at that place. So, to whatever extent you read through and consider what I’ve shared below, please hold a lot of space for compassion and care for yourself if you find yourself triggered by my discussion. Feel free to leave it as it is if it doesn’t speak to you and to take only what you find beneficial.

What’s Homemade?

Before I talk about why making homemade food a priority has been valuable to me, I want to share how I define it. This article includes a chart that breaks down the different levels of processing quite effectively. Basically, I am limiting myself to foods that are only unprocessed or minimally processed as much as I possibly can. For several years, almost all the foods I’ve bought at the store had “5 or fewer” ingredients, but I was still purchasing items like dried fruit, canned sauces and breads. I now buy fresh fruits, vegetables, raw meat and nuts, eggs, and grains like uncooked rice, whole grain flour and rolled oats. The few moderately processed items on my menu include dairy products, 88% dark chocolate, and almond milk. One of my major goals for the year is to learn how to make my own pasta, right now, I do purchase whole grain versions. The most processed food I am still including is organic marshmallows, which I keep locked in a container that only opens every few days (yes, I have tried to break (unsuccessfully) into it!).*

I am also eating a set amount of foods in each macro category (protein, carbs, etc.) with specific limits on added fats and sugars. This works well because I rarely crave raw sugar or a tablespoon of oil, so the work in which I would have to engage to make a dessert helps me to limit my consumption of these foods. When the number of calories to which I limited myself (2000/day) leaves me hungry, I have an extra serving of fruit or another handful of nuts, instead of a snack made of refined foods.

What I’ve come to view for myself as genuinely addictive are ultra-processed foods, which are foods that have artificial ingredients added and which tend to contain large quantities of fats, salts and/or sugars. I am adopting the idea that I cannot have a small amount of these even occasionally and still maintain healthy eating behaviors, not because they are so horrible for my body in limited amounts, but because I cannot rein myself back in once I start. For instance, I was eating very healthy a few years ago. I started dating someone who ate poorly, copied her behaviors and, almost three years later, still have not been able to “get it together.” I’ve found myself driving past fast food places with a yearning I thought only those who crave substances like alcohol would feel. That’s why the idea that the location from which I procure my food matters just as much as what I eat hits home for me. With this understanding in mind, let’s discuss some positive aspects of traditional homemade meals.

Observed Benefits of Homemade Food

1.     Ability to customize meals for food intolerances/allergies

I have a sensitivity to foods in the allium family (garlic, onions, leeks, shallots, chives, etc). which borders on a full-blown allergy. This means that nearly every savory dish I eat that is commercially prepared, as well as pre-packaged dishes, makes me ill. Preparing my own food from scratch enables me to adjust what I’m eating to my specific dietary needs. If you’ve dealt with any kind of specialized diet, you know how frequently food you are told won’t have any problematic ingredients in it actually ends up causing you issues because the base or sauce contains the triggering item.

2.     Greater variety of foods including fresh ingredients

When I go out to eat often or buy prepared meals, my diet becomes distilled into three food items over time: (fried) chicken, pizza, and nachos. I can go weeks eating a rotation of those three foods. When I’m cooking for myself, I am more able to plan out ingredients and to find new combinations that I enjoy. I also find myself eating more foods in season. Consuming a larger mix of flavors and textures also seems to decrease my food cravings.

3.     Potentially lower exposure to toxins that cause food-born illnesses

As I fell the whole way off any sort of healthy diet last year, I started to have intestinal distress and IBS symptoms on a regular basis. Some of it was due to my food intolerances, but I also suspect that I was getting sick at times from poor sanitation control. Often, when someone says they have the stomach flu, the cause is someone in the food processing chain not washing their hands fully and passing on fecal germs such as E. coli or the Norovirus, or food being contaminated by fecal matter from field or animals, as in the case of Salmonella. These issues aren’t fully corrected by cooking one’s own meals, but I think there could be less opportunity for contamination as long as you follow proper food preparation procedures.

4.     Social connections around shared creations

For me, food is a cultural and social tool that communicates on my behalf to others and which I receive as a gift from them. I get a weird self-consciousness about sharing food I’ve made with others; there is an intimacy established by doing so that it takes me some time to navigate. For example, I tend to bring pre-packaged foods to gatherings until I feel that I’ve built up sufficient trust to share something I’ve made from scratch. In part, this is due to the fact that I cook intuitively and rarely follow a set recipe. This typically works out fine but there have been some “interesting” dishes. On the flip side, it brings me immense joy when my chosen ingredients come together and enable my creativity to shine through. Making all my foods from scratch has forced me out of my comfort zone in this area and helped me be more willing to take culinary risks. In addition, knowing someone else has taken my diet into consideration and created dishes that I can enjoy without hesitation deepens my sense of trust and connection to that person.

5.     Deeper sensory experiences mediated by slow living

Thus far, my greatest source of pride in home-cooking has been that I learned how to bake sourdough grain products, including pancakes, wraps and a variety of breads, using a starter I originally purchased from King Arthur. Nothing smells better, in my opinion, than freshly baked bread, and I feel soothed through this change in my behavior. I’ve managed to slow down my pace of living in a way that compliments my desire to cook my own meals and which has let me appreciate the experience of both eating and cooking on a physical level. Instead of scarfing down meals in my car and spending my time wrangling wasteful food packaging, I enjoy the array of colorful items I get to add to my fridge after a grocery haul and the plating of entrees it may take me an hour or more to create. (Side note: In order to adjust my lifestyle, I’ve been working less and therefore bringing in less money. I am happy to report I’ve saved at least $200/month by making my own foods!).

As I write this reflection, I feel gratitude as much or more than I feel pride. Yes, I’ve made choices that have led me to be able to slow down, but I was also privileged to have this type of lifestyle within my range of options. I’m not trying to convince you to live this way if it is different than your current approach; I am only offering for you to consider, if you are interested, what is realistically within your range of options and to be kind to yourself if your options are limited. We’ve evolved for millions of years as a species to endure both feast and famine. Now most of us in the industrialized world face a different landscape—a feast of addictive junk food is readily in abundance and the fresh and healing foods to which our ancestors grew accustomed are out of reach at times. I don’t pretend to have big answers on how to rectify the situation, but I hope, with deep appreciation for the opportunity to do so, to bring joy to myself and those with whom I interact through my striving to make dishes I create rather than simply consume.

* I’ve linked to a few products in this post that I’ve really enjoyed using; I am not an affiliate of these companies and am not getting paid to promote them.