How cooking at home can help you lose weight
If you’ve ever scrolled through Instagram or TikTok in search of unboring recipes for weight loss, you’ve likely seen them—beautiful people whipping up beautiful meals in kitchens worthy of a Nancy Meyers film. They’re drizzling demi-glace, whisking grain-free batter, and brewing their own kombucha without so much as a crumb on their countertop. So…that’s what home cooking is supposed to be, right? (Beep—excuse us for a second while we pull our bag of steamed veggies from the microwave.)
As enjoyable as it is to feast your eyes on someone else’s culinary skills, it can also put undue pressure on making meals; and that can keep you out of the kitchen. But cooking doesn’t need to be anything fancy, complicated, or aesthetically pleasing to be worth doing. And it’s really worth doing, especially if you’re trying to lose weight.
“Home-cooked meals tend to be lower in calories, added sugar, and sodium compared to restaurant meals,” says Julie Upton, R.D., a registered dietitian and co-founder of the nutrition news company Appetite for Health in San Francisco. And the advantages don’t just stop at the nutrition label.
Here are some of the many benefits to cooking at home for weight loss—plus expert hacks to make it healthier and better for your budget, schedule, and stress level.
The Benefits of cooking at home
You can save money.
While grocery bills are higher than ever (prices have gone up more than 13% in the last year), the more meals you make at home, the easier you’ll find it to embrace cost-cutting strategies. “Cooking will feel easier and you’ll be more efficient with preparing meals,” Upton says, noting that efficiency helps you maximize your budget. For example, once you start cooking more, you can opt to buy certain foods in bulk (say, nuts and grains) and stock up on long-lasting, affordable staples such as frozen or canned produce, which are just as nutritious as fresh, if not more, since they’re preserved at peak ripeness. And don’t forget to look for more expensive things, like meat, that’s on sale. “All meat freezes well, so buy it when it’s lower priced and freeze it,” says Sherry Rujikarn, food director for WeightWatchers™. “If you’re trying to cook more, having meat in your freezer means that part of the battle is already done.”
You’ll be in control of portions.
Having a big serving of food on your plate subtly influences you to eat more than you intend, but cooking for yourself means you can avoid that trap. “When you cook at home, you can portion out your food ahead of time versus eating with your eyes,” says Elizabeth Shaw, RDN, a registered dietician nutritionist based in San Diego and author of the Air Fryer Cookbook for Dummies. By dishing out a single serving, she says, you’ll consume fewer calories while still feeling satisfied.
You can also decide how much of each type of food to put on your plate. Roxana Ehsani, M.S., R.D., a registered dietitian nutritionist in Miami and a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recommends the following formula:
- ½ plate = vegetables
- ¼ plate = lean protein
- ¼ plate = whole grains
While the above method is one approach, the WeightWatchers program also does this calculation for you. The algorithm takes serving sizes into account while nudging you toward choosing foods higher in fiber and protein and lower in added sugar and salt.
You’ll become a more confident cook.
Every time you cook at home, you increase your “self-efficacy,” or your confidence in your ability to accomplish a task. This makes cooking for weight loss feel easier and less stressful. “I think the key is thinking about what dishes you and your family enjoy the most, cooking those things enough so that you feel confident, then riffing on the flavors,” says Rujikarn. For example, if you love roasting potatoes and broccoli with chicken and you learn how to do it just right, you can start to branch out. Try it one night with chili powder and lime and serve it with tortillas, then another night use thyme, oregano, lemon zest, and garlic powder. “You don’t need to get complicated or learn every technique,” says Rujikarn. “It’s all about knowing what you like to eat and playing around with flavors.”
5 ways to cook for weight loss
1. Build dishes around healthy foods.
The first step to cooking for weight loss is to get inspired by healthy recipes. Build a meal plan around well-balanced dishes, whether they are from the WeightWatchers collection of recipes and snacks, your favorite cookbooks, or other websites. Then, shop wisely. Our grocery guide will help you stock your kitchen so you always have what you need to whip up something good.
2. Make strategic ingredient swaps.
“When you cook, you get to control what you put in your own meals, which can be really beneficial for anyone trying to eat healthier,” Ehsani says. That means you can be as picky as possible about what does—and doesn’t—go into your meal. “If you order something at a restaurant, you may only have one or two vegetables in your sandwich, omelet, or burrito. But if you make the same dish at home, you could be adding as many vegetables as you can fit into the recipe,” says Ehsani.
Other ways to choose healthier ingredients when you’re the chef in charge:
- Use whole grains instead of refined carbohydrates to increase fiber.
- Add fruits and vegetables to every meal.
- Instead of excess salt and fat, use vinegar, herbs, and spices for flavor.
- Start with lean protein sources like chicken breast and black beans to keep calories, fat, and saturated fat in check.
3. Switch up how you cook.
Certain methods of cooking can create a healthier end dish.
- Grilling: Cooking over a charcoal or gas grill uses direct heat to cook foods quickly—without needing a lot of added fat. Grills can be used to cook everything from meat and seafood to vegetables and fruit. Start with these grill recipes. No outdoor barbecue? Use a grill pan on the stove.
- Steaming: Placing food above a pot of boiling water creates a delicate, moist dish. (This is different from boiling foods directly, which may leave some of the nutrients floating in the water.) Steaming works best for vegetables and shellfish; this steamed veggies and shrimp recipe is one of our go-to weeknight dinners.
- Air-frying: With a fan, little to no oil, and high temperature, air fryers cook foods quickly and result in a texture that mimics your favorite fried foods. Compared to normal deep-fat frying, which uses a vat of oil to heat foods, “this appliance gets that restaurant-quality fried food texture for nearly 70% less fat,” says Shaw. You can turn to air-fryer recipes to do everything from roast veggies to fry chicken.
- Cooking in cast iron: They’ve been around forever, but that doesn’t mean you should overlook them. A cast-iron pan sears, sautées, and roasts without a lot of added oil (many current models and well-seasoned heirloom cast-iron skillets are non-stick). Have one gathering dust? Break it out for one of these cast-iron skillet recipes.
- Roasting: Nothing is easier than assembling a sheet-pan meal and roasting it at high heat in the oven. Mix together some vegetables and protein (chicken breast, fish, and pork loin all roast beautifully), drizzle with a splash of olive oil or avocado oil, season with dried spices and herbs, and roast until the meat is done and the vegetables are caramelized.
- Pressure cooking: Electric pressure cookers, like the Instant Pot, help you cook healthy foods fast. Dump all of the ingredients in the pot, secure the lid, and cook. Many Instant Pot recipes require 20 minutes or less under pressure.
4. Control the sugar content
Eating too much added sugar (meaning sugar that doesn’t occur naturally in a food, like the kind found in fruit or milk) ups your risk for cavities, type 2 diabetes, and other health issues. It can also impact your overall diet quality: Foods with added sugars often displace more nutrient-dense choices, a 2016 study in the BMJ Journal Open Heart suggests.
This is where cooking can help, since you can decide how much sugar to add to a dish. Try to choose recipes that don’t contain a large amount of white or brown sugar, honey, agave, or maple syrup, instead making desserts that rely on ingredients like applesauce, pumpkin purée or bananas for natural sweetness. (These dessert recipes will give you some ideas.)
5. Keep tabs on the salt shaker.
One of the main reasons restaurant meals and packaged foods are so delicious is that they often contain far more salt than something made from scratch—something that can negatively impact heart health and blood pressure. For example, a serving of Ma Po Tofu from one national chain has 2,700 milligrams sodium, which is nearly double the American Heart Association’s recommended daily sodium level.
Instead of relying solely on salt, try punching up the flavor these ways:
- Squeeze on citrus juice. Limes are great in southeast Asian and Mexican cuisines while lemons can go with more European flavors. “And don’t forget about the zest,” says Rujikarn. “It’s great for flavor without as much sourness or wetness.”
- Liven it up with vinegar. “People think vinegar-based dressings are only good on salads, but they can bring brightness and depth of flavor to a million different dishes,” says Rujikarn, who makes a vinaigrette with apple cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar and uses it on roasted meat, cooked veggies, and grains.
- Sprinkle on a little spice. You don’t need a shelf full of every option to be able to add flavor to food. “With cumin, oregano, and garlic powder, you can hit a lot of different flavor profiles,” says Rujikarn. “Cumin works on anything Indian, Middle Eastern, Mexican, or South American; oregano is great for Greek and Italian food; and garlic powder is good on everything.”
6. Meal plan and batch cook
Having a meal plan for the week ahead means you can get a head start on cooking before the time crunch of weekdays begins. “I always recommend that my clients do as much meal prep as they can over the weekend so that you can get meals prepared faster during a busy week,” Upton says.
Make this as easy as possible on yourself. Upton loves buying pre-washed and chopped vegetables and suggests selecting recipes that take advantage of batch cooking as much as possible. For example, you can roast a whole chicken to divvy up and use in Chicken Salad with Blackberries, Feta, Golden Beets and Avocado, Super-Easy Chicken Noodle Soup, and Greek Chicken Bowls.
You don’t need to cook every single meal yourself in order to lose weight. That’s unrealistic and (let’s be real) not fun. But trying out some of these strategies will put you more in control of your food and your health—something everyone is hungry for right now.