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Home Cooking for Better Health

by Sarah Cimperman, ND

Diet is one of the biggest predictors of health and disease in the United States. A healthy diet has been found to help prevent chronic illnesses like heart disease, cancer, stroke and type two diabetes mellitus - four of the top ten causes of death according to the Centers for Disease Control. The most important factors in the healthfulness of any meal are the quality of ingredients and methods of preparation. These details can be difficult to control unless you cook your own food.

As an increasing number of families consume processed, prepared and fast foods, home cooking and sit-down family dinners can seem like long-lost luxuries of previous generations. Few busy families can afford the time and energy it takes to get healthy, home cooked dinners on the table. But given the current trend toward worsening health, neither can they afford not to. Cooking can be a key ingredient in better health and here’s how to make it happen.

Join a CSA

Healthy meals start with fresh, local and seasonal ingredients. Community Supported Agriculture groups, or CSAs, make such foods easy to find. They partner regional rural farmers with urban individuals, families and institutions. The farms sell shares of the upcoming harvest to pay for growing and distributing a season’s worth of produce. It’s a win-win situation: the farmers earn a living wage and their customers get a weekly wide variety of seasonal, farm-fresh foods.

CSA shares usually include vegetables and fruits. Some farms offer flowers, baked goods, dairy products and eggs from free-range chickens. Produce is usually organic (check with the farmer) and always fresh-picked. An average share provides enough weekly produce for two to four adults, and some farmers offer half shares. To find a CSA near you, visit the website of Local Harvest to search by zip code or state: www.localharvest.org/csa.

Find a Farmers Market

If you are not part of a CSA, or want to supplement your CSA share, find a farmers market and shop there regularly. Many offer fresh, local fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, herbs, free-range eggs and poultry, pastured meats, cheese, wild fish and seafood, honey, maple syrup, flowers, and bedding plants for those who want to grow their own food. Some farmers markets are seasonal but others operate throughout the year, like the Greenmarket at Union Square in New York City. Most foods are grown organically, even though small farms may not have the means to secure official organic certification. Meet the people who grow your food and ask them how they do it. Local Harvest can help you find farmers markets in your state or zip code: www.localharvest.org/farmers-markets.

Farmers markets and CSAs not only support a healthy diet; they also support a healthy environment. Eating locally saves fossil fuels used to transport foods long distances, and small farmers selling their harvest to local communities usually employ sustainable farming methods that improve the quality of the soil, like crop diversity, crop rotation and the use of natural fertilizers. Monocultures and concentrated animal feeding operations have the opposite effect: they are responsible for air pollution, water pollution, topsoil erosion, loss of biodiversity, and environmental drift of genetically modified organisms.

Learn How to Cook

Once you stock your kitchen with healthy ingredients, learn to prepare them in ways that maximize both flavor and nutritional value, like steaming vegetables and slow-cooking meats, whole grains and legumes. If you don’t know how to cook or need ideas for preparing new foods you’ve found in your CSA share, then learn. Our brains need a lifetime of stimulation to maintain healthy mental function. Learning new things, in the kitchen or elsewhere, teaches us important tools when we are young and keeps us sharp as we get older.

When it comes to learning how to cook, opportunities abound. Libraries and bookstores overflow with cookbooks of all kinds. The Food Network on cable television broadcasts endless examples of how to make home cooked meals, and many of them are healthy, simple dishes that can be prepared by novice cooks. Cooking classes are also offered in many major metropolitan areas.

In New York City, the Natural Gourmet Institute for Food and Health offers an innovative chef’s training program as well as classes that are open to the public. Offerings include market tours, cooking classes for kids, and courses for adults covering topics like basic cooking skills, quick and easy meals, macrobiotic and Ayurvedic diets, gluten-free cooking and baking, and cooking with specific ingredients such as medicinal mushrooms, grass-fed meats, seafood, and plant-based proteins tempeh and seitan. For more information, visit www.naturalgourmetschool.com.

Take the Time

According to Nielson Media Research’s 2006 report, the average household in the United States watches television for more than eight hours every day. Yet many people still can’t find time to cook meals at home. More and more urban families eat take-out meals, order food for delivery, or heat up processed and prepared dishes for dinner.

But cooking simple, healthy meals at home can take just as little time, and cooking is time well spent. When parents involve children in cooking, kids are more likely to try new foods. Family relationships are strengthened and parents teach children valuable skills that will serve them for a lifetime. When friends cook together, they have an opportunity to share recipes, sample new dishes, and learn new skills. Make cooking a social activity and share good food with people you love.

Start Today

Robert Louis Stevenson said, "You will never have time for anything. If you want time, you must make it." Whether your goal is cooking your own food or exercising more, unless you make it a priority, it is unlikely to happen. So start today. Prioritize healthy, home cooked meals. Get organized. Plan meals in advance. Shop frequently to use foods when they are freshest. Learn how to choose healthy foods and how to turn them into nutritious meals. Master some basic recipes that you can make on short notice, others that can be prepared quickly after long days, and a few to share with company. Cook at home and enjoy better health.

Dr. Sarah Cimperman is a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine in private practice in New York City. For more information, call 646-234-2918 or visit www.drsarahcimperman.com.  

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