The take-out habit is tough to break—and what nudges you toward the phone rather than the stove is deeply personal. Some people auto-order Seamless when they’re overwhelmed by meal-planning; others do it because they’re rebelling against the thought of endless leftovers, says Nancy Campbell, a culinary nutritionist and founder of Radiant Health NYC. She pinpoints six ways to break the order-out habit—and give your health and wallet a high five in the new year.
Keep reading for a nutritionist’s tips for adding more home-cooked (or at least home-assembled) meals into your weekly rotation.
1. Lower your expectations
“I describe my work as not only helping clients figure out how to eat, but how to get food on the plate week in, week out, in a sustainable and manageable way,” Campbell says. When working with culinary newbs, she often sees people overshoot. But if your only skills are pushing microwave buttons and boiling water (and I say that with zero judgment!), don’t expect yourself to nail complicated recipes from day one. Instead, spend some time in the frozen aisles of Trader Joe’s or your local organic-leaning grocery store.
“The frozen section has really good options—what they need is a bit of flavor and fat,” Campbell says. Stick to simple, whole foods (like frozen veggies), and mix them with some brown rice and chicken cooked in butter, flavored with salt and pepper. You can also rely on pre-marinated meat, but take a peek at the ingredients list first: If you see obvious problems like monosodium glutamate (MSG) or sugar as a top-three ingredient, back on the shelf it goes.
2. Use (the tiniest bit of) math
Ask yourself: How many meals am I trying to eat at home this week? (Hint: In a nod to Tip No. 1, the answer doesn’t have to be, “all of them.” Campbell recommends aiming for four lunches and four dinners a week.) Then contemplate how often you’re okay consuming the same thing. If you’re eating in the majority of the week, it’d be nice to have two options for both lunch and dinner. So now you know you need two servings of two recipes each for lunch and dinner, for a grand total of four recipes and eight servings. Doable!
3. Take a class
Whether it’s a knife skills class or an intro to Szechuan cuisine, “being inspired by a chef in a room full of people really helps,” Campbell says. If that’s not in your budget, invite friends over. You can either plan a menu, shop, and cook as a group, or you can opt for a potluck where each person brings a completed dish—and copies of the recipe. “That way, you know how it’s supposed to taste, and your friends can answer questions and explain things,” Campbell says.
4. Build a pantry that serves you—gradually
Lots of would-be cooks are stymied by the high start-up costs because they have to purchase all the ingredients that seasoned chefs already own. Rather than constantly choosing recipes that call for several new spices and condiments, commit to one new recipe a month that overlaps with something already in your repertoire. If you bought curry in December, look for curry-based recipes that also add coriander or cumin in January, Campbell says.
5. Consider subscribing to a recipe site
Some great cooking sites for beginners are totally free, Campbell underscores. “The Kitchn doesn’t cost anything and does a great job of helping beginners figure out what the hell is going on, like the difference between a pork loin and pork tenderloin,” she says.
Sites that are worth the money they charge include the subscription service recently started by the New York Times’ cooking section, as well as Cook’s Illustrated, the longtime industry bible. Subscribing to the latter gives you free rein over its extensive archives, back issues, and video library. Whatever site you select, make sure to go through the comments. “Savvy cooks will jump in there to be like, ‘This needs way more salt than it’s calling for,’” Campbell says. “You can learn how to cook intuitively by reading the comments.”
6. Put pen to paper (or finger to Evernote)
Campbell recommends meal-planning apps like Real Plans, which lets you import recipes and then spits out a grocery list. But the main point is to simply write. things. down—even when you don’t want to—until it becomes second nature. Once you start nailing recipes and week-long plans that you enjoyed, “save it, Evernote it—do whatever it takes to automate your system,” she says. “Don’t create the wheel all over again every time you go to the store. Food shopping should become a quick, regular chore that you check off without stressing.”
Get your first shopping list of the new year, curated by Well+Good Council member Candice Kumai, here. And while you’re heating up the kitchen, use this guide to cutting out processed foods.