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4 surprising health benefits of a home-cooked meal

Celine Spino loves to cook and dine out. But a few years ago, the New Jersey accountant and mother of two decided she was doing a little too much of the latter. A lack of time and planning made restaurant dining the easier option on many nights, yet eating out meant she couldn't exercise much control over her family's nutrition. So Celine began planning meals ahead of time to ensure that home cooking was on the menu almost every night. Her decision paid off in spades: Celine says she's reaped a host of both physical and mental health benefits from cooking at home.

She’s not alone. Incorporating more home-cooked meals into your daily routine and reducing your reliance on packaged foods and restaurant fare is great for your well-being for a number of reasons. Here are some of the most overlooked health benefits of cooking.

1. You eat fewer calories without even realizing it.

Restaurant meals are often heavy on butter and salt, while packaged food is typically loaded with sodium and additives. Dishes made at home, however, tend to be more nutritious and contain fewer calories. That’s because when you cook for yourself, you control which ingredients you use and their quantities, explains nutritional counselor Sarah Jacobs, cofounder of the Wellness Project NYC, a consultancy that works with corporations to promote good health among employees.

"When cooking, you’re a part of the meal process from start to finish — the grocery store to the plate. It makes you far more in tune with the food you’re putting into your system."

You’re also less likely to serve yourself restaurant-sized portions, which are often large enough to feed two or three people, or treat yourself to a dessert or a cocktail. “At home, we mentally approach the meal differently, making us less likely to add unnecessary items that should be consumed in moderation," she adds.

A steady diet of healthy, home-cooked food can even improve how you eat between meals. After all, once you've become accustomed to eating healthy, nutritious food at home, you may find that you seek it out elsewhere. “I've noticed that when my kids are at a playdate or a party, they're more apt to snack on fruits or carrots, even when they're offered junk food, no matter how tempting it may be," Celine says.

2. You’re more mindful of what you’re putting into your body.

Many people rush through or multitask during meals, which means they’re probably not thinking about what they’re consuming. But when you're sitting down to a plate of food you've prepared, chances are you’ll eat more mindfully, noticing each flavor and component you included in your dish. "When cooking, you’re a part of the meal process from start to finish — the grocery store to the plate,” explains Rachel Brown, also a cofounder of the Wellness Project NYC. “It makes you far more in tune with the food you’re putting into your system.”

Experiencing and appreciating the act of eating can also help you feel centered. “Eating mindfully for even just one bite can help us to come back into the present moment, to let go of the swirl of thoughts that we are often caught up in, and to remember that a more clear, simple and connected way of being is only a bite, or a breath, away,” says Andy Lee, Aetna’s chief mindfulness officer.

3. You can socialize with loved ones.

Spending time with family and friends is important to everyone's well-being. It can ward off loneliness, which has been linked with depression, heart disease and other ailments. With a little effort, cooking can help you be more social. Ask your children to join you in the kitchen — give them simple tasks if they're on the younger side — or cook together with friends. If you'd like to make new friends, consider taking a cooking class where you might bond with classmates as you pick up new skills.

And don’t discount the social benefits you reap once a meal is ready. Celine, for example, enjoys treating her friends and family to home-cooked dishes at various gatherings. "The food is usually met with smiling faces and a desire to come back," she says. Meanwhile, Petrona Núñez Montúfar, of Scranton, PA, makes a point of sharing healthy home-cooked food with neighbors in need. “When I help others, I feel I’m helping myself,” she says. “I feel happier to give than to receive.”

Not up for preparing food for a large group? Having a potluck with friends can yield many of the same benefits. "Invite friends to bring simple, healthy dishes," Jacobs advises. "Making these events as easy as possible for friends to attend is key."

4. You stimulate your brain.

Celine admits she doesn't have much room for imagination in her day job. "I'm not a creative accountant," she jokes. But she does have the chance to exercise creativity when she cooks, experimenting with ingredients and adjusting recipes as she sees fit. "It gives me some enjoyment because I do feel like I'm using a different part of my brain."

Seniors may discover even more powerful cognitive benefits from making a meal, explains John Moore, DO, an Aetna medical director and senior health specialist. “Cooking is a good, stimulating activity to help seniors stay busy and use their minds,” he says, noting that learning new skills and tasks — like preparing a new recipe — can stave off cognitive decline. What’s more, cooking can help build self-confidence for seniors. “When they're not relying on their family for meals, it gives them a sense of independence that they appreciate,” Dr. Moore says. (He notes that caregivers of seniors who are suffering from cognitive decline should be sure to take safety precautions, ensuring, for instance, that gas stoves are turned off after they're no longer in use.)

Whether it's with a group or on your own, cooking does more than fill your belly. It can also boost your mental and physical health — benefits you’ll enjoy long after the meal is over.

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