How to start cooking healthy meals at home

Develop these 11 habits to cook healthier meals all year long.

Pamela Vachon Contributor
Pamela is a freelance food and travel writer based in Astoria, Queens. While she writes about most things edible and potable (and accessories dedicated to those topics,) her real areas of expertise are cheese, chocolate, cooking and wine. She's a culinary school grad, certified sommelier, former bartender and fine dining captain with 10 years in the industry. When not sitting at the keys, she leads in-home cheese classes, wine tastings and cocktail demonstrations.
Expertise Wine | Cheese | Chocolate | Cooking
Pamela Vachon
8 min read

A new year is all about new habits to help you be your best self. And after a few months of rich meals, cookie parties and holiday cocktails, there's no better time to reset your diet and Eating healthy on vacation: 7 tips that don't involve skipping dessert. The best way to start is by cooking at home.

The benefits to cooking at home are rooted in both health and finance -- two resolutions for the price of one. Holistic health coach Sam Ciavarella from The Institute for Integrative Nutrition supports at-home cooking for many reasons as well, "First and foremost, when you cook at home, you control what ingredients go into a dish, so you always know that you're fueling yourself with the best and most nutritious ingredients."

She continues, "Next, by cooking at home and having whole foods in your house, you are setting yourself up to make healthy choices without having to think about it in the moment. Additionally, cooking at home gives you the opportunity to try new things and experiment with making your favorite dishes healthier. And finally, you save money because you aren't spending money on takeout!" 

With those benefits in mind, begin by incorporating as many of the following 11 habits as you can toward the promotion of a healthier lifestyle through home cooking.

Read more: The coolest lunch boxes of 2020  

Watch this: How to tell if your food is safe to eat

1. Choose whole foods

Whole foods refer to foods with a single-item ingredient list such as olive oil, chicken, broccoli, etc. The opposite of whole foods are processed foods, typically packaged or convenience goods whose ingredient lists venture into the dozens and inevitably wander into chemistry class territory. 

When you cook with whole foods as your staple ingredients, and especially when you are able to measure every component that goes into a dish, you have complete control over the end product. This is helpful not only if weight loss is a goal, but also if you want to make adjustments for any dietary consideration, or even for notions as simple as eating more vegetables

With whole foods as the starting point of your cooked meals, you're able to accurately record what you're eating, whether you're keeping a journal or utilizing an app.


Skip the Cup Noodles and make easy chicken soup from scratch.


Creativity in cooking is even rooted in whole foods. You can learn to create versions of your packaged favorites without the need to ingest anything you can't pronounce. No real foods themselves may be necessarily bad, but preservatives and chemicals, even when edible, definitely aren't good.

2. Use better fats

The 1980s taught us that not all fats are created equal, but it may be time for an update to whatever principles you hold on this front.

"Throw away generic vegetable oils and use olive oil, avocado oil and coconut oil when cooking. Vegetable oils contain linoleic acid and when oxidized -- that is, heated -- release polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs. PUFAs have been linked to heart disease, obesity and other chronic illnesses," instructs Ciavarella.

Avocado oil especially is flavor-neutral and has a high enough smoke point to support any cooking process you wish to employ. Use a high-quality olive oil for salads or to finish dishes, which, according to Ciavarella, "has a more robust taste than simple extra virgin olive oil and you can drizzle it on top of anything to give it a kick of flavor."

Read more: Our favorite baby food delivery subscription services in 2020  


Spices can make any dish more appetizing.

Getty Images

3. Don't skimp on flavor

This just in (but not really): There is little to no evidence to suggest a link between sodium intake and heart disease, at least not among those without genetic predisposition to heart disease. 

"Salt helps replenish electrolytes, and if you haven't been told by your doctor to avoid it, you should season all your food with it," says Ciavarella -- excellent news for those who would automatically equate healthy with "bland."

Along with fat, which we've covered before and will cover again, salt is the delivery driver of flavor, and is welcome in a healthy kitchen in moderation. But don't stop there. Lean on all of the spices --  such as ground pepper, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder and more -- in your kitchen to make healthy meals flavorful and delicious.

4. Organize your kitchen

Before any cooking, or even any food shopping, begins for your new, healthy approach, first you must create a space that makes it easy for you to show up every day, excited and ready to cook. 

Now would be a good time for an additional mini-resolution within a resolution -- cleaning out your pantry and fridge of anything expired, uninspired or unhealthy to make way for all of the fresh foods and staples that will be a part of your healthy cooking experience.

24 Things Taking Up Space in Your Kitchen to Throw Out Now

See all photos

And not only foodstuffs should get the sorting-out treatment. Help your kitchen be as functional as possible for you by getting rid of redundant or unused tools and gadgets, and moving the most useful items to the forefront for easy access.

5. Incorporate meal planning

"Knowing what you are going to eat ahead of time helps create a routine for you that centers around food as fuel, not as a punishment or reward," says Ciavarella, who recommends planning two or three meals for the week whose leftovers can also create additional meals, along a "cook once, eat twice" principle.

Catalog a few easy meals that you love, and always keep those staples on hand, for those especially tough nights when time and energy are limited: "I recommend having a few 30-minute meals on hand for those days where you are less interested in cooking but want a nutritious meal," says Ciavarella.

Planning your meals in advance also makes it easier to stick to buying whole foods and wholesome ingredients when faced with aisles upon aisles of convenience foods at the grocery store.

If you don't feel up to planning your own meals, try out a meal kit service. They provide everything you need to cooking a healthy meal at home, without any need for you to go grocery shopping.

6. Make time to cook and prep

In other words, simply planning ahead is not enough. You still have to carve out the time to accomplish your intended meals and stick to the schedule, so that you don't find yourself tempted by takeout or other, less healthy options.

Utilize time on the weekends after shopping to chop vegetables, wash lettuces and herbs, or pre-portion proteins to save yourself time during the week. Get some dedicated meal-prep containers too so that you have individual meals ready whenever you need them.

7. Make healthy swaps

In a holistic, healthy kitchen, truly nothing is completely off-limits if you go about it in a conscious way. "If there is something you enjoy eating, such as pasta, and can't imagine life without it, figure out ways to make it healthier," offers Ciavarella. 

"For pasta, switch from regular noodles to chickpea or lentil based pasta. If you love sandwiches, make lettuce wraps instead of using bread. Love burgers? Great! Get a burger without the bun and cheese and instead of ketchup and mayo opt for mustard."

Check out these 13 easy ingredient swaps for healthier cooking.


Even using brown rice instead of white rice boosts nutrition, as in this bibimbap.


8. Choose your favorite cooking methods

Gone are the days when healthy cooking was synonymous only with steaming, poaching and the absence of fat. "Healthy fats are key to feeling full and staying full," reminds Ciavarella. "Healthy fats include: olive oil, avocados, cashews, almonds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, coconut oil and ghee."

As for cooking methods, steaming and poaching still have their moments, but high heat methods such as roasting, and low and slow methods such as braising are natural ways to get the most flavor out of your raw ingredients.

"Roasting vegetables is a game changer and requires minimal effort," explains Ciavarella. "It makes a vegetable crispy and crunchy while maintaining the deliciousness of the vegetable itself. Braising is a longer process, but braising meat for hours brings a lot of flavor without adding anything. Tossing vegetables into the braising liquid also gives bland vegetables a ton of flavor."

9. Use your tools

Quality kitchen tools can make cooking at home easier and more enjoyable. If you are just starting out and don't have any essentials, start with these:

Those basic but very versatile kitchen tools will get you far, allowing you to cook most meals at home. If you've got those covered, consider investing in more sophisticated appliances. If you've been sleeping on the Instant Pot but are committed to a future of healthy cooking, now might be the perfect time to acquire one.

"For example," continues Ciavarella, "I put a whole chicken in my Instant Pot  for an hour and once the machine beeps and the pressure releases, I have a fully cooked chicken that I can use to meal prep with all week! Then I use the bones to make bone broth also using the InstantPot!" In short, with an InstantPot, you get more of a "cook once, eat all week" regime.

"I also love my food processor," explains Ciavarella, "because it helps me make sauces and spreads quickly and easily." Bright vegetable and herb spreads and sauces such as chimichurri, romesco, and caponata are great ways to add pizzazz to simple proteins and vegetables.

Even small tools like a Microplane are great for adding citrus zest, fresh spices, boiled egg or even a modest dose of a hard cheese for a pop of flavor.


The Instant Pot can be your best friend for cooking healthy meals.

Josh Miller/CNET

10. Get inspired

At the end of the cooking process, you have to want to eat what you've made, otherwise you'll give up on your healthy cooking routine before you've had adequate time to develop good habits. Don't fall in a trap of preparing something you're not excited about just because you know it's good for you. That's a recipe for having leftovers languish in your fridge while you opt for takeout.

Loving your new healthy cooking lifestyle is easy if you enjoy both the cooking process and the resulting meal. Since nothing is off limits if you approach it with a healthy mindset and these tips in mind, begin by brainstorming your favorite meals, and thinking of ways to make them healthier: whether by swapping out a less healthy component for a healthier one, approaching it with a different cooking process, or loading it up with vegetables and healthy fats.

Social media can also be a boon for the healthy home cook. Find food blogs and Instagram accounts whose recipes and photos get you excited to try them at home. And then post your own photos of your amazing meals. A little validation can go a long way toward the development of good routines! 

11. Get creative

Once you're steeped in good habits and have developed a comfortable routine, you may even find that healthy cooking at home can expand your repertoire and palate, rather than limit it.

After you've mastered healthy versions of your favorites, find new favorites by trying to replicate restaurant dishes at home, figuring out how to incorporate a new ingredient, looking to other cultures for meal ideas or trying a new cooking technique.

On that note, it's easy to justify fun new kitchen toys once you've established that you're serious about spending time in your kitchen. Splurge on a Vitamix for the silkiest puréed vegetable soups and smoothies, or look into an air fryer if you've been really craving the crunch.

Even cooking sous vide isn't out of the realm of possibility with a home-use immersion circulator

With these 11 healthy cooking habits, 2020 definitely holds the possibility of a perfect home cooking vision, and not just in hindsight.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.