One of the best ways to boost your nutrient intake and lose weight in a healthy and sustainable way is to cook at home more often. As a registered dietitian in private practice, I have seen home cooking transform the health of many clients. And research supports its impact on weight management.
In a study, published in 2017 in the , adults who consumed home-cooked meals more than five times per week were 28 percent less likely to be overweight. That’s compared to those who cooked at home fewer than three times per week. Home cooks were also 24 percent less likely to have excess body fat.
Of course, what you cook at home is just as important as how often. According to the newly released 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the average American diet scores 59 out of 100 on the Healthy Eating Index, which measures how closely one’s eating pattern aligns with the recommendations (a score of 100 is most ideal).
I don’t agree with the Dietary Guidelines in their entirety. But I do agree with one of its primary principles, which is to focus on choosing healthy foods and beverages that are rich in nutrients, meaning whole or minimally processed foods, including plenty of plants.
To best optimize nutrient intake and support long-term weight management, the composition of home-cooked meals should also be consistent. To accomplish this, I teach my clients a simple four-step meal-building strategy.
Start with the 50 percent rule. Cover half of your plate with raw or cooked non-starchy vegetables, or use them to comprise half of the bulk of a mixed meal. Aim for about two cups, or two tennis ball-sized portions.
Add a lean source of protein. It should cover 25 percent of your plate or make up about a quarter of your meal. That’s about a deck of cards in thickness and width for meat, fish, or a veggie burger, or about a tennis ball-sized portion of beans or lentils.
Fill the remaining 25 percent of your plate or meal configuration with healthful carbs (read on for good choices). That’s about one-half to one tennis ball. Match the carb portion to your body’s corresponding energy demands. For example, opt for the smaller portion if you are less active, petite, or over 40. Include the larger portion if you are more active, taller, and/or more muscular, and younger.
Include a source of good fat. That may be combined with one of these foods groups, such as veggies sautéed or oven roasted with a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, or as an add-on or garnish. The latter may include a quarter cup of nuts sprinkled on top, or a few tablespoons of pesto drizzled over the meal.
This combination of foods and targeted portions are ideal for both health and weight management. In addition to being full of nutrients, each meal is rich in filling fiber, and provides a healthy macronutrient content. This includes metabolism-revving protein, satiating fat, and just enough carbs to support your energy needs without resulting in a surplus that inhibits weight loss. Also, be sure to include all-natural seasonings to provide flavor, aroma, color, and bonus nutrients to your meals.
These food ratios and portions also inherently cap calories. For example, non-starchy vegetables typically provide 25 calories per cup on average, compared to more than 100 calories in the same sized portion of a starchy food. Simply filling half of your plate with water-rich veggies and just a quarter with higher-carb foods, rather than the reverse (like many restaurant and takeout meals), automatically limits your calorie and carb intake. Rounding out each meal with the right balance of lean protein and good-for-you fat optimizes nutrient intake without overdoing calories.
As for meal prep, there are two options. The first involves pre-preparing meal components, which can be combined as you build your plate. The second entails making complete meals in advance that are ready-to-eat (like chilled salads), or dishes that can be reheated (such as soups).
For mix-and-match meals, consider these simple, nutrient-rich options.
These should be 50 percent of your plate. They can be raw, sautéed, or oven-roasted.
Lean protein should be 25 percent of your plate. It can be plant- or animal-based.
Healthy carbs should make up 25 percent of your plate.
Combine good fat with veggies, protein, or carbs, or include as a garnish or add-on.
To simplify meal planning, prep foods for about three days’ worth of meals at once. Choose four to five foods within each food group that can be combined in various ways. Purchase these foods, pre-prep or cook them, and stash in the fridge. That way, they’re ready to assemble at mealtime.
Meal prepping can also include stocking up on healthy shortcut items, like jarred pesto or olive tapenade and store-bought dressing made with avocado oil. I like Primal Kitchen ($19 for three bottles).
Here are some of my favorite mix-and-match meal ideas:
When prepping mixed meals, go for dishes that hold up well to refrigeration or reheating. And aim for the same portions and balance within each meal as above. Healthful, balanced options include:
Finally, keep in mind that successful weight management is a marathon, not a sprint. In other words: It’s all about balance, lifestyle, and consistency—not a quick fix. The four-step tactic for how to build home-cooked meals is a tool. Use it most days of the week to create meals that allow you to feel full, satisfied, and energized. And enjoy some planned splurges, too. Doing so can help you shed excess pounds safely and boost your overall wellness, all while you remain healthy, happy, and in it for the long haul.
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