Cancer Experts Say Take Back Control in the Kitchen

American Institute for Cancer Research
Monday, 29 December 2003

Resolution for the New Year: Cook it Yourself

When it comes to organizing our lives, Americans may be coming to a major reversal of values. Where we once valued convenience over everything else, we may now opt for control.

"The obesity epidemic with its enormous impact on every aspect of our lives has made people want more control over what they eat. That means taking charge of both what is contained in our food and how big our portions are. Cooking simple meals yourself may be the best way to control both," says Melanie Polk, RD, AICR's Director of Nutrition Education.

For more than two decades, Americans have opted for convenience in meal preparation. They've chosen to eat out, order out, take out and drive thru in order to preserve time for other activities or due to the fatigue other activities cause.

But recently those segments of the food industry that produce prepared meals have been heavily attacked for formulating, sizing and marketing products in ways that contribute to overweight and obesity, as well as chronic disease. Some major corporations have even pledged to reformulate and resize many of their products. Until that is accomplished, nutritionists at AICR recommend that people consider taking food preparation into their own hands.

According to Polk, there are a number of reasons for people to increase the percentage of meals and snacks they prepare themselves. Among these is the need to:

  1. Increase the amount of fiber and nutrient-rich ingredients.

  2. Control the type and quantity of fat used.

  3. Limit the amount of added sugar and salt.

  4. Adjust portion size to actual caloric need.

Making Time for Cooking

In a brand new brochure, entitled Homemade for Health, AICR nutritionists lay out strategies for integrating meal preparation into today's busy schedules. It recommends involving the whole family, since food preparation should not be the responsibility of just one family member. Furthermore, children should learn through participation as well as precept how to prepare healthy meals, an activity that will involve them throughout their adult lives.

Homemade for Health also emphasizes the use of the freezer and microwave to facilitate meal preparation at home. It sets out an easy four-step recipe for making it yourself:

  • Set aside a convenient time for relaxed cooking, perhaps during the weekend or a weekday evening.
  • Double or triple a recipe and cook it.
  • Divide the finished item into individual serving-size portions and freeze them.
  • On evenings when time or energy for cooking is scarce, defrost the right number of portions of your healthy, homemade meal in the microwave and serve.

Mothers busy carting kids to school and to after-school activities often say drive thru is their only recourse. Polk suggests that teaching children how to cook a healthy meal is as important as other late afternoon activities, since they will be responsible for feeding themselves throughout their adult lives.

Couples with two careers often say neither partner has time for kitchen duty. Polk says they should try the cooking-on-weekends-and-freezing strategy. They may come to regard food preparation as an enjoyable activity that they can share.

Other people say frankly that they want to relax when they get home, not cook and clean up in the kitchen. Polk suggests putting a small TV in the kitchen and cooking Wednesday night's dinner on Tuesday evening while watching your favorite sitcom.

"When you can do it at your leisure, cooking becomes a delightful way to relax. It is a rewarding, creative activity that can be mastered simply by doing. Part of the reward may well be a longer, healthy life," says Polk.

Brochure Offers Guidelines for Cooking

Homemade for Health offers guidelines for healthy cooking as well as ten recipes that exemplify this style of food preparation. For instance, it advises cooking with a variety of vegetables and fruits. Ideally, 2/3 (or more) of your plate should be vegetables, fruit, whole grains or beans and 1/3 (or less) animal protein.

The brochure suggests that you always choose whole grain products. Put brown rice, bulgur, or barley in side dishes, soups and salads, and use whole wheat bread and pasta.

Use fats in moderation, and replace saturated fats with poly- and monounsaturated fats. That means using olive and canola oils for cooking instead of butter or shortening. Drizzle olive oil on bread or potatoes. Always use low-fat versions of your favorite dairy products.

Reduce each serving of meat to 4 ounces raw or 3 ounces cooked, and serve it with a fruit or vegetables sauce. Add vegetable sources of protein such as beans, lentils or nuts to your grain dishes, vegetables, stews, soups and salads.

Experiment with using less sugar and salt. Substitute herbs and spices, and try to enjoy the natural sweetness or flavor of foods.

Lastly, the brochure recommends finding the right portion size for you. Americans have grown accustomed to commercial products that are two or three times as large as USDA standard sizes. Reduce serving sizes until you find a portion that satisfies without supplying excess calories.

"If you find a retail source of prepared meals that follow these guidelines, reward it with your business. Until then, it makes sense to prepare as many healthy meals and snacks for yourself as your schedule will allow," Polk concludes.

Visit and click on "Homemade for Health" to read or order the new brochure online. To get a single free copy delivered to your home, call 1-800-843-8114, ext. 414, Monday through Friday, 9:00 to 5:30 Eastern Time.

For more information, or to contact American Institute for Cancer Research, see their website at:

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