Fall is in the air. The kids are back in school. And it’s time to throw off the carefree days of summer and get back to healthier eating. Cooking meals at home can help.

People who cook and eat more at home are likely to be healthier. They take in fewer calories and are less likely to get Type 2 diabetes, say experts at Harvard Medical School.

Cooking more meals at home builds better family eating habits, too, says the American Heart Association (AHA), which offers healthy eating tips and recipes online. And if you don’t have mad chef skills, the AHA site also offers helpful videos to get you started. You can even watch a video to finally learn how to cut up a whole chicken.

Start Small

Making many changes at once can be too much and is hard to keep up, says Cordialis Msora Kasago, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She suggests starting with small changes and building on them over time.

Kasago offers these tips for getting started:

  • Make it fun by trying a few new recipes. Don’t take on anything too fancy. Look for an easy win — not too many steps. No special ingredients or fancy pans needed.
  • Try adding a vegetable to dinner or replacing a sugary dessert with fresh fruit. When that becomes a habit, add more fruits and vegetables.
  • Next, make healthy choices easy to eat. Cut up fruit in advance. Shell nuts and put them in snack containers ready to pick up and go. Load your pantry with healthy choices.
  • The family’s main cook can collect recipes and write down ingredients and steps. That makes it easy for other family members to pitch in, even when they’re busy.

Get the Kids Involved

“Many family traditions are built around the dinner table. Recipes and cooking techniques are passed on across generations during the meal preparation process,” Kasago said. Part of that is making everyone a partner in meal planning.

Including everyone in the process also makes things simpler and faster for meal planning and prep. And each family member can add a dish for the week or suggest side dishes to go with recipes. 

Getting kids involved also helps them be open to trying new foods. From meal planning to shopping and preparation, including kids allows them to become more familiar with a food even before it is served on a plate.

“Children will mimic what they see adults doing, so it’s important for parents to set the example for healthy eating by choosing an array of wholesome foods and enjoying them. That way the child realizes that the foods on the family table are delicious, healthy and indeed worth eating,” she said.

Kasago suggests these tips for encouraging healthy eating:

  • Ask the child to pick a new food to add to the family plate. Perhaps a new vegetable, protein, whole grain or fruit.
  • Allow the child to help with the meal preparation process. Aim for age-appropriate tasks like grating, dicing, mixing and stirring.
  • Make kids curious about where their food comes from. Grow a garden and have them help with the harvest and preparation of the bounty.
  • Kids are drawn to vibrant colors and different textures. Make sure to serve different colors on the plate. The more colors and textures, the more likely children are to eat more.
  • Keep offering foods that your children refuse to eat. Sometimes it takes many times before a child even decides to try it.

icon_balanced_dietPlan ahead.

Cook foods in large batches and freeze them for later use. The Food and Drug Administration says frozen soups and stews can last 2-3 months and cooked poultry about 4-6 months, for example. The payoff comes weeks later when you sit down to a healthy, homecooked meal in just minutes.