Making the Switch to Completely Healthy Home-Cooked Food
The detailed plan that cut my food costs in half, cleared my skin, and helped me lose weight sustainably
I remember the wintry nights of December 2019 when I used to finish a 300 ml ice-cream tub all by myself in a matter of an hour or two. Yes, the ice-cream melted. But I hardly cared.
That I’d already gobbled up a ten-inch pizza before this didn’t deter me.
I knew something was wrong with me when copious amounts of the tastiest junk foods stopped satiating my hunger. When I went to bed, I looked at my acne-laden face in the mirror, sighed at how yet another shirt stopped fitting me that morning and, curled myself into the bed- looking forward to the next meal that I’d most certainly buy from a junk outlet on the way to work.
I was consuming an uncontrollable amount of unhealthy food in a short time. “Binge Eating: Nature, Assessment , & Treatment” addresses this kind of behavior as Binge-Eating Disorder.
One fine day, I decided this had to stop. I had to change my lifestyle. Since what you consume is what you become is true to the T for the human body, I started with changing my eating habits. The best way, I figured, to be in control of my eating habits was to take charge of my food and cook for myself.
This is a science-backed approach. According to the findings of a study, home-cooked meals are the best way to switch to a better quality diet. The results reinforce that home-cooked food can help you follow a healthy diet without a significant increase in food expenditure.
This was exactly what I needed.
Out of all the ways I researched, I found the 3R Process from the Center for Disease Control the best and the easiest way to help myself eat healthier, despite my busy schedule
The plan involves a three-step process:
- Reflect: Assess your current eating habits for unhealthy eating patterns. Lay the ground rules for a change.
- Replace: Unhealthy eating habits. Form healthy eating patterns.
- Reinforce: Bring new eating habits actively into action.
I followed this process for four weeks to get used to it. It took me two months to make it a lifestyle. I have gone from binge-eating on junk in December 2019 to a complete healthy home-cooked meal plan since February 2020. With some planning and determination in place, I manage to do all this with a nine-hour shift.
- I am now in full control of what I am putting into my body.
- I have done it within my monthly budget, without any expensive supplements, supplies, special cooking equipment, or a professional dietitian involved.
- I have switched to cooking all my meals myself, with minor adjustments to my daily schedule.
Here is a detailed account of how I put this into practice. A reminder that this is based on my personal experiment; I am not a certified nutritionist or dietitian.
Step One: Reflect — Laying the Rules
Even before I came up with a plan, I had to ask myself what kind of changes was I okay with. I aimed for a healthy lifestyle, and not just one or two months of clean eating followed by a rebound to the same old unhealthy eating habits.
Binge-eating was a cycle. I wanted to prepare a plan to break it. Hence, I took a pen and a paper and made a list of changes I would be okay with. This way, I assured myself to bring about a more determined lifestyle change.
My focus points were as follows:
- I needed to search for quick, easy-to-make home-cooked meals I could carry with me so that I don’t buy unhealthy food from outside and consume them.
- The groceries involved should fit into my monthly budget.
- I must arrange for it such that I buy my weekly and monthly groceries in advance so that I don’t excuse myself out of cooking for lack of ingredients.
- Every weekend, I must plan for the weekly groceries (vegetable, fruits, bread, milk, and eggs) and have a rough idea of what the next week’s recipes look like.
- I also need to include occasional treats to ensure I don’t fall off the wagon.
Step Two: Replace — Looking for Quick and Healthy Recipes
I could have made a list of healthy groceries first. But “healthy” is really a subjective word. Hence, I decided to come up with a bunch of recipes before everything else.
I looked up YouTube and other food websites for a list of handy meals I could prepare at any time of the day.
While scouring for recipes, below is a list of things I looked for.
- One-pot meals. I wanted to keep the mess to the minimum.
- Under 20-minutes prep time.
- Should not contain any ingredient I would rather not include in my diet. This included foods that I’d rather avoid, either out of a disinterest in taste or the high expense and efforts involved in procuring it or due to allergies.
- Should consume less oil/grease and no sugar.
- Should be tasty.
- Should not demand any special equipment such as a blender or a toaster. I lived in a paying guest house where the equipment is not always available.
I looked up tens of websites and YouTube channels for the same. Here are two of those that helped me the most:
While the latter has recipes specific to my country, India, and its neighboring countries, the former has a more generic array of dishes one can prepare.
My thorough research led me to zero down on about 15 recipes to get started with. These included curries, different types of pancakes, healthy drinks, and healthy porridges.
The most generic, healthiest, and tastiest ones are below.
Step Three: Reinforce
Part 1: Buying Healthy Groceries
Now that I knew what I’d be having for meals, I developed a clear idea of what to add into my diet and what to avoid.
I now do two types of grocery shopping.
- Monthly Grocery Shopping: I order most of the dry groceries I needed online from reliable stores. Based on the meals I plan, I make a list of all that I need and have it delivered to me. I ensure whatever I pick has a minimum number of preservatives. For instance, I’m especially cautious of the peanut butter I buy since I like to have it with toast every now and then. I buy peanut butter which has only peanuts listed as ingredients on the back. For the monthly shopping, my expenditure totals about $15$–$20.
- Weekly Shopping: For the weekly shopping, I buy fresh fruits and vegetables from local vendors or the supermarket for the entire week over the weekend. I ensure I calculate well in advance how much and what I will be needing for the coming week depending on what I want to cook. I also buy eggs and bread once in two weeks for whipping up quick omelets with toast. I buy my supply of milk twice a week. For my weekly shopping, four weeks expense adds up to $30 at the rate of about $7 per week.
This brings the total monthly eating expense to $50, considering everything including the cheat meals.
I occasionally indulge in one or two exotic and expensive diet ingredients such as dried fruits of a particular variety. However, I make sure I stick to my budget.
Part 2: Following the Diet Plan
I used my diary to plan and decide my meals in the initial days before I became accustomed to doing it in my head. However, this Weekly Food Planner by CDC offers the perfect template to plan your weekly meals. No matter how you choose to do it, the important point here is to note the next week’s plan on weekends so that you don’t slip out of laziness to decide at the last moment.
Once planned, here’s how I accommodate it into my diet.
Breakfast: Soaked oats in milk are my go-to breakfast for their prep time and low efforts involved. Since it already has fruits and nuts in it that offer complete nutrition and taste, I don’t usually need anything else to go with this. Occasionally, a toast suffices.
On days when I don’t have the Soaked Oats in milk, I prepare two meals in the morning. Since I already cook my lunch for work, I prepare it in a little extra quantity which I have for breakfast. I accompany this with half a glass of milk, a handful of overnight soaked and peeled almonds, pistachios, and raisins.
Breakfast keeps me full till lunch.
Time to prepare: 5–10 minutes
Lunch: For lunch, I either make a simple meal of chapati (flatbread) and curry or I try healthy variants of fried rice. I ensure I include lots of chopped vegetables and less oil in it. I usually use last night’s leftover rice which I store in the fridge for this.
I include a serving of salad, usually some cucumber, to go with this.
I wash it down with buttermilk occasionally or any other sugar-free drink, which I buy from the office canteen. As long as it is low in preservatives and not laden with sugar, it suffices.
Time to prepare: 30–45 minutes
Dinner: I prefer a hot dinner after a hard day at work. Given that I don’t have much energy left after a nine-hour shift at the end of my day, dinner is the trickiest part of my regime.
I make sure I save the easiest of the above recipes for dinner. Most of my dinners are one-pot recipes I can prepare quickly.
Time to prepare: 20–30 minutes
Snacks: I make sure I have at least one serving of raw fruits and vegetables every day. The salad at lunch helps me ingest the veggies. For the fruits, I usually carry a whole apple or grapes with me to work. Additionally, a handful of roasted peanuts, grams, a serving of peanut butter toast keeps me satiated in-between meals.
I have a cup of green tea in the morning between breakfast and lunch. In the evening between lunch and dinner, I have half a cup of tea or coffee from the office dispensing machine. I avoid adding sugar to this.
I found another smart way of including fruit and vegetable essences in my diet a few weeks into healthy eating. A friend introduced me to infuser bottles. After tasting the infused water once, I decided to include it occasionally in my diet. It simply involves stuffing the central infuser in the bottle with your choice of herb, fruit, and vegetables and leave it overnight to infuse.
You can then sip the water at regular intervals the next day.
Especially during the hot days, I’ve found this to be a source of respite. This also helps me keep away from aerated drinks such as cola or artificially flavored milk. I usually stick to strawberries, mint, and lemon as the infusing agents. However, you can replace it with any citrus fruits of your choice. There is a complete list of infuser recipes I’ve looked up to try in the future.
Doing the Dishes
Doing the dishes is the evil in home-cooking no one talks about. Some people have a dishwasher or a hired house help to assist them. I prefer to do it myself. Since I work with breakfast and lunch in the kitchen at the same time, I do the dishes in time I get between the cooking, let’s say when the pot simmers.
Doing the dishes as soon as I use them helps me clean them faster and with much more ease since it is easy to wash off the fresh gunk.
When I come back from work, I wash the dinner dishes along with my soiled lunch box whist the dinner cooks.
I make sure I stick to using minimum utensils while cooking.
On weekends, I follow the same plan with longer recipes I don’t have time for during the weekdays- unless I plan to go out for a meal with family or friends.
I’ve found the best way to include cheat meals in my diet is to not do it forcibly. I usually have a get together with friends or family at least once in a fortnight. I save my cravings for this time. When I’m having outside food, I avoid hogging on a lot of the same dishes. Instead, I try to taste the maximum number of dishes. The variety not only appeases my taste buds but also gets me full without indulging too much.
If I absolutely crave something apart from this, I stick to allowing myself one unit of it once in a fortnight and no more.
Another cheat meal I include in my diet is dark chocolate. I buy good quality dark chocolate with my monthly groceries and save them for the times when I absolutely cannot resist the cravings, such as when I'm low or when I'm on my periods.
At other times when I feel like having something sweet, I stick to fresh fruits dipped in whole peanut butter.
Tracking My Intake
Although I don’t micro-manage my calories and other nutrients, having a brief idea of what I consume motivates me to stay on the right track.
- I keep sipping water in-between. I always keep a water bottle handy. My water bottle can hold 750 ml of water. I usually aim to drink 2000 ml of water every day(including the infuser water which I carry in a separate 500 ml Infused water bottle). I use the Water Drink Reminder App to keep a track of my water intake.
- I use the My Fitness Pal calorie-counting app to count the approximate meal calories involved. I have set a healthy calorie limit of 1700 calories as per my goal weight as of now. This can be adjusted according to individual food intake requirements.
In addition to making all the above diet changes, I do the following things to aim for a healthy lifestyle:
- The food I have keeps me satiated. For any in-between cravings, I allow myself some fruits and nothing more.
- I have a strict rule in place for not eating at random hours. I make sure I enforce it to the maximum effectiveness.
- I practice mindful eating. A study by psychologist Jean Kristeller at Indiana State University and colleagues at Duke University has found that mindful eating promotes a more controlled eating behavior.
- I avoid any other unplanned snacks in-between meals except for what I pack from home.
- I walk short distances instead of taking transport. I choose the stairs wherever I can instead of lifts. This aids in food digestion.
- I have deleted all food ordering apps from my phone
Falling off the Wagon, The Challenges
Despite even the best dietary plans in control, there are times when I overdo my cheat meals. Or I reach for the food ordering websites, even though I don’t have the apps on my phone anymore.
I do the following things to bounce back on track.
- If I do feel like absolutely ordering outside food, I make sure I order the healthiest version of it. For instance, when I feel like having a wrap, I order a vegetable wrap with a whole-wheat roll and minimum sauces.
- If I end up over-eating, I forgive myself and start afresh the next day.
- I drink water or tea/coffee to suppress most of my cravings.
- I always keep the basic ingredients handy so that when my laziness kicks in, I can always reach into the kitchen and prepare the easiest recipe. The time involved to do this is always less than what it takes for me to order food from outside and have it delivered. This does the trick.
The Difference I Observed After a Month of Healthy Eating
Two months of doing this made me observe significant changes in my mental and physical health.
- My acne started to shrink and I lost 2kg. Thus, I became confident in my body.
- My sleep quality and bowel movements improved.
- I became more energetic and focused throughout my day.
- I got in control of my eating habits
- I halved my food expenses from $100 a month to $50.
After seven months, these changes have become more of a concrete lifestyle.
- I sleep and wake-up on time easily.
- I am automatically drawn to healthy foods.
- I’ve discovered a healthy alternative to almost every junk food.
- My skin has become blemish-free.
- I’ve lost 4kg of weight and am maintaining my current weight despite no regular workout in place.
Clearly, healthy eating has brought about a positive change in my life. There are days when I falter and slip too. However, instead of gluttonizing and getting carried away with it, I forgive myself and start afresh.
I also keep looking for more innovative recipes and ways to include more nutrition into my diet to update it so that I don’t get bored with the same old meals.
Keeping it enjoyable, nutritious, and easy at the same time is the key. The observed benefits give you the extra push. Once you align yourself with a healthy eating lifestyle, you automatically find yourself making healthy choices, and avoiding the unhealthy ones every single day.
The trick is to make the decision one fine day. And then to follow it for the rest of your life.
Bonus: My Custom Easy, Quick, and Tasty Salad Recipe
- Bell pepper
(You can adjust the quantity of each vegetable in your salad according to your preference.)
For the Dressing (per one small bowl)
- One tablespoon honey
- One tablespoon vinegar
- Salt to taste
- Pepper to taste
- Two tablespoons oregano
- Two tablespoons chilly flakes
- Chop the vegetables and steam them. Make sure you don’t boil, only steam.
- Toss the vegetables and the dressing in a bowl.
- Mix it and serve it.
- You can also store it overnight in the fridge to have it the next day.