I started living on my own when I turned 18, but I didn’t learn to cook until the age of 24. For six years I ate mostly ready-made, ultra-processed foods like frozen taquitos, mac & cheese, dollar-menu burgers, instant ramen and a lot of Little Caesar’s pizza. Occasionally I’d try my hand at Hamburger Helper, but even then, there wasn’t much food in my food.
This was a big change from the home-cooking I had grown up on, and I didn’t just put on the “freshman 15”; I put on the “college 35.” Sure, weight doesn’t necessarily correspond to health, but given what I was eating it was precisely my health that I was neglecting.
What’s so bad about ready-made meals? Not all processed foods are inherently bad, and processing can mean something as simple as washing produce. However, ultra-processed foods contain substances you wouldn’t find in a typical kitchen such as color additives, artificial flavors, high-fructose corn syrup and stabilizers used to mask “undesirable qualities”.
What’s so bad about these ingredients? Independently they raise some health concerns, like artificial coloring being linked to hyperactivity in kids, but the issue is more than just the ingredients.
Convenience foods are changing the way America eats. Given the prevalence and ease of ultra-processed foods, they now account for 60 percent of our daily caloric intake and 90 percent of the added sugar we consume.
Of all developed nations, America cooks the least and spends more money at restaurants than at grocery stores.
These meals come packed full of sodium, loaded with sugar and lack the important vitamins and nutrients we really need. We’ve witnessed the impact of this with rising obesity rates, increases in type-2 diabetes, heightened risks of cardiovascular disease and even tooth decay.
Things like sugar and salt can be fine in moderation, but there’s nothing moderate about ultra-processed foods or the rates at which we eat them.
However, you already know this, just as I knew this while scarfing down Little Caesar’s pizzas. The issue isn’t getting the information out, it’s figuring out what to do next.
For me getting healthy meant exercising, but also following the advice of Michael Pollan and learning to cook. The exercise was strenuous, but not as intimidating as learning to cook.
Home-cooking has become something of a lost art, and it’s as much about finding the time as it is about learning the basics.
At first, even grocery shopping was a challenge. With no experience planning meals, I wasn’t sure what I needed to buy or if I could use it all before it went bad. Then I had to find the time to shop, to cook, to figure out recipes and to wash the dishes.
Thankfully, I had a friend who helped me get started. He taught me the value of a rice-cooker, and how to make a simple stir-fry. I started by using the same ingredients for each meal like onions, bell peppers, broccoli, carrots and potatoes, but changing the seasonings to create variety. That way nothing went bad, and I learned about each type of produce.
From there I expanded to beans and rice, an excellent source of protein, and used those basic ingredients in other dishes like soups and curries. Cooking did take more time, but it also saved me money and improved my health.
Making food at home costs a fraction of what you pay to have it pre-prepared, and learning to love leftovers can save time. By making a large meal when I have the time, I can quickly reheat it when I’m pressed for time.
Cooking is a life skill that’s often overlooked and rarely taught in schools, yet it’s one of the most important skills you can learn for living a happy, healthy life. What we eat becomes fuel for our bodies and our brains, so taking control of your life means taking control of your kitchen.
Even if you’re not interested in cooking, it would behove you to think twice before consuming more of those ultra-processed foods. In the wise words of food journalist Michael Pollan, simply “don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”