Cooking at home is better than eating out for both your wallet and your health. Not only will you save money by preparing your meals at home, but you also have total control over portion size and exactly what goes into your dishes (via Healthline). That’s important if you’re trying to lose weight, prevent or manage a chronic condition like diabetes, or have food allergies or sensitivities.
In spite of the convenience and almost limitless options that takeout provides, more and more Americans are cooking their own meals at home. According to research reported by Food Network in 2018, Americans prepared 82 percent of their meals at home. (Although it’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that those meals were cooked from scratch.) In 2020, amid lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the average American was cooking nine meals a week (via New York Post).
Whether you truly love cooking or simply find yourself doing it because you have no other option, there are a few things you may be doing that are making your homemade meals less healthy or even dangerous.
Thawing meat on the counter
If you’re scrambling to get meat defrosted by dinnertime, you may be tempted to simply leave the package out on the counter to thaw. But that’s a risky move. According to the USDA, "Even though the center of the package may still be frozen … the outer layer of the food could be in the ‘Danger Zone,’ between 40 and 140 °F — temperatures where bacteria multiply rapidly." You should also avoid thawing in hot water, as this also places meat in the "danger zone."
The USDA suggests three safe methods for thawing frozen meat or seafood. Thawing in the refrigerator is the safest but slowest option. Meat may take a day or more to defrost, but it will remain below 40°F. If you don’t have the time for that, you can place the frozen package in a bag and submerge it in a sink full of cold tap water. The water should be changed every 30 minutes to ensure it doesn’t get too warm. Thawing in the microwave is also a safe option. If you’re really pressed for time, you can simply cook meat without defrosting, although cooking time will increase approximately 50 percent and taste or texture may be negatively affected.
Rinsing off meat in the sink
Many home cooks rinse off raw meat, especially poultry, after taking it out of the package. Their reasoning is that this washes away harmful bacteria that may be on the meat. But, as the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service explained, this practice is unnecessary and dangerous. If meat is, in fact, contaminated with germs like E. coli, rinsing it under the kitchen tap simply spreads this bacteria to your sink (and to your counters, floors, and walls if the water splashes). This increases the likelihood of cross-contamination and means you’ll need to thoroughly disinfect your sink and the surrounding area. Rinsing contaminated meat also doesn’t render it safe; any pathogens present will be found throughout the meat, not just on the surface. You’ll still need to cook the meat to the proper temperature to kill any harmful bacteria.
If you’re worried about the "slime" on raw meat, try simply cooking it as-is and see if you can taste a difference. Chances are you won’t notice a thing. You can also use paper towels to de-slime and dry off your meat (via NPR).
Using old nonstick cookware
Nothing beats the ease of nonstick cookware; no scraping, scrubbing, or soaking required thanks to a coating of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), also known as Teflon. But if you’re using older nonstick pots and pans, you could be exposing yourself to a harmful substance known as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). According to Healthline, PFOA is a chemical that was used to create PTFE until 2013, when it was banned in the United States. Research suggested PFOA was linked to increased risk for a number of health conditions, including thyroid, liver, and kidney disease; certain forms of cancer; infertility; and low birth weight infants. PFTE itself can be dangerous if overheated. Above temperatures of 570°F, the nonstick coating begins to break down, releasing dangerous fumes that can cause temporary, flu-like symptoms such as chills, fever, and body aches. For most home cooks, however, it’s nearly impossible to get a nonstick pan that hot.
If you’re using nonstick pots and pans manufactured before 2013 — and especially if they’re chipped or scratched — it’s probably time to upgrade your cookware. To extend the life of your nonstick items and prevent PTFE from flaking off into your food, always use non-abrasive utensils and cleaning products.
At this point, we all know how dangerous it is to allow raw meat and eggs (and the utensils, plates, and cutting boards used with them) to come in contact with ready-to-eat food. This cross-contamination can transfer harmful bacteria that can cause food poisoning (via FoodSafety.gov).
But when thinking about food safety, it’s important to remember that not all avenues for cross-contamination are as obvious as a dirty cutting board or knife. Often our hands or clothes can become carriers of harmful bacteria. For example, imagine you handled raw chicken, tossed the empty packaging in the trash, took the trash out while dinner was cooking, and then washed your hands. But, as you tossed the packaging into the trash, some bacteria got on the edge of the trash bag, and that bacteria then got on your pants while carrying the bag. Even though you washed your hands after taking out the trash, you could unknowingly pick up that bacteria by casually touching your pants and then touching cooked food. And contamination isn’t just about bacteria: It’s also important to make sure food isn’t contaminated with disinfecting products, wire bristles from scouring pads, and other potentially harmful things in your kitchen (via Oxford Brookes University).
Peeling all fruits and vegetables
If your M.O. is to peel every fruit or vegetable before it goes in the pot or lands on your plate, you’re not just wasting your time; you’re also throwing away important nutrients. According to Healthline, "generally speaking, non-peeled produce contains higher amounts of vitamins, minerals and other beneficial plant compounds, compared to its peeled counterparts." The percentage of nutrients found in fruit and vegetable skin varies from one variety to another, but as much as 31 percent of total fiber is located in the peel. Antioxidant content can be more than 300 percent higher in fruit skin compared to the more commonly eaten flesh.
But just because a peel is technically edible doesn’t mean you have to force yourself to eat it. Some peels, such as those of citrus fruits, are extremely bitter and are most palatable if cooked or zested. Others, like hairy kiwi skin, may just be too weird for you to get behind eating. But if you regularly peel fruits and veggies such as apples, cucumbers, carrots, and potatoes, consider keeping the skin on to give your meals a nutrition boost and save yourself some time in the kitchen.
Always opting for low-fat or non-fat ingredients
If you think you’re making your meals extra healthy by always choosing low- or non-fat ingredients, think again. Despite the undeserved bad reputation dietary fat endured for many years, we now understand that this macronutrient is essential for good health. Fat is a rich source of calories (nine per gram) that our bodies can burn for energy or store for future use. Fat is a vital component of cell membranes and is involved in many bodily processes, including blood clotting and wound healing. Fat is also needed to absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K (via the EUFIC). Your meals could have the perfect mix of micronutrients, but without sufficient fat, you won’t be able to make use of them. Low-fat meals may also leave you unsatisfied and more likely to consume additional calories.
Removing the fat from food also strips away a lot of the flavor, so manufacturers often add in other ingredients to make low- and fat-free items taste better. According to WebMD, these defatted foods are more likely to contain added sugar, salt, flour, and thickeners, adding empty calories and increasing your risk for certain medical conditions, such as high blood pressure.
Heating oils past their smoke point
Yes, certain fats and oils are healthier than others, but context matters. As explained by Serious Eats, all fats and oils have a smoke point — a temperature at which, as the name implies, they start producing smoke. In addition to making your food taste bad and setting off your smoke alarm, this process destabilizes the oil, creating free radicals that can damage cells once ingested.
Solid fats and unrefined, cold-pressed, and "virgin" oils tend to have lower smoke points. Extra-virgin olive oil, for instance, has a smoke point of only 325°–375°F. Butter and coconut oil have a smoke point of 350°F, while virgin avocado oil has a smoke point of 375°–400°F. The minerals, enzymes, and other health-promoting compounds these minimally processed fats and oils contain are extremely heat-sensitive and break down once the oil’s smoke point is reached. Reserve these for low-heat cooking or as "finishers" added to fresh or already cooked dishes. Refining an oil removes these healthy but heat-sensitive compounds, creating a neutral-flavored oil with a high smoke point. Corn, soybean, and peanut oils have a smoke point of 450°F, while safflower oil tops the list with a smoke point of 510°F.
Oversalting your food
According to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults should get no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day. The average American, however, consumes approximately 3,400 mg. Excess sodium can increase your risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. The guidelines are quick to point out that 70 percent of Americans’ sodium intake comes from processed foods and restaurant meals, but the salt you use when cooking at home can still add up quickly. One teaspoon of salt contains 2,325 mg of sodium — more than your entire daily recommendation (via the Mayo Clinic).
Epicurious notes that not all sodium in a home-cooked meal comes from your salt shaker. Ingredients such as soy sauce, bacon, canned fish, olives, and cheese all contain large amounts of sodium. Always consider the sodium in your ingredients before indiscriminately adding salt to a dish.
Instead of showering your homemade meals with salt, try using fresh or dried herbs and spices, citrus, and aromatics like garlic and onion. These can give your food more nuanced flavor and some even have health benefits of their own. Turmeric, for example, has anti-inflammatory properties and is fantastic when taken daily (via Penn State University).
Adding too much sugar, including the "natural" kind
Even savory dishes can benefit from a little pick-me-up of sweetness, but it’s important not to go overboard with the sugar. The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends keeping added sugar intake to no more than 10 percent of total calories. On a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s 200 calories (50 grams, 12.5 teaspoons). The average American, however, consumes about 17 teaspoons per day. Because of added sugar’s link to obesity, cavities, and chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, some organizations suggest even stricter limits. The American Heart Association (AHA), for instance, advises "limiting the amount of added sugars you consume to no more than half of your daily discretionary calories allowance." The AHA considers this 100 calories for women and 150 calories for men.
As with sodium, most of the added sugar in our diets comes from processed foods and takeout meals. But if your homemade meals rely on ingredients that contain added sugar, the damage can add up quickly. Don’t be fooled by "healthy" sweeteners like honey, agave, and maple syrup — these still contain glucose and fructose, the simple sugars that make up regular table sugar (via Nutrients Review).
It’s probably no surprise that eating deep-fried foods isn’t the healthiest option, but you may not realize just how potentially dangerous your crispy, crunchy guilty pleasures are. Fried foods have been linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In an interview with WebMD, Dr. Leah Cahill, assistant professor at Dalhousie University, explained: "Fried foods may influence risk of these diseases through several key risk factors: obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol … The process of frying is known to alter the quality and increase the caloric content of food." High-temperature frying also produces a chemical called acrylamide. At least in animals, acrylamide has been found to cause cancer.
Cahill acknowledged that frying at home is a better option than ordering fried takeout items since you can control the type of oil used. You can minimize the damage of deep-frying by always using fresh oil and blotting excess oil from fried foods before eating. Roasting, baking, or pan-frying in a small amount of oil are all better options. If you really love fried food, consider investing in an air fryer, which uses convection heat and a tiny amount of oil to achieve the same crispy, golden-brown deliciousness of deep frying (via Healthline).
Not cooking meat or eggs all the way through
If you enjoy your meat rare, your egg yolks runny, or dishes like steak tartare and authentic Caesar salad dressing that use uncooked animal products, you could be putting your health at risk. Food poisoning can be caused by a number of harmful bacteria. Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Clostridium perfringens bacteria, for instance, can be found in raw or undercooked meat, poultry, and eggs. E. coli may infect raw beef, particularly ground meat. Shellfish can also be infected with bacteria and viruses from contaminated water, passing these pathogens on to humans if they aren’t fully cooked. Symptoms of food poisoning include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. The very young, very old, and those with compromised immune systems are most at risk of serious, even life-threatening, food poisoning (via Johns Hopkins Medicine).
When cooking meat, it’s best to use a food thermometer to check doneness. Most cuts of beef, veal, lamb, and pork should be cooked to 145°F. Poultry, including ground chicken and turkey, needs to reach 165°F before it’s considered safe. All other types of ground meat should be cooked to 160°F. Eggs should be cooked until both the white and yolk are firm (via FoodSafety.gov).
It’s dangerous to undercook your meat, but it may also be risky to overcook it. According to the National Cancer Institute, meat cooked at a high temperature produces substances known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). HCAs form when "amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), sugars, and creatine or creatinine (substances found in muscle) react at high temperatures." PAHs are released when fat ignites or smokes over an open flame. Type of meat, cooking method, and doneness can all impact how many HCAs and PAHs are formed. Temperatures above 300°F (think: grilling or pan-frying) and cooking meat until it’s well-done or even charred are particularly problematic.
Once "bioactivated" by specific enzymes in the body, HCAs and PAHs can cause DNA damage that may increase cancer risk. Rodents fed a diet high in HCAs and PAHs were significantly more likely to develop certain types of cancer, including of the breast, colon, liver, skin, lung, and prostate. But the National Cancer Institute pointed out that the amounts of HCAs and PAHs used in these animal experiments were thousands of times higher than what a human would typically consume.
Although it’s important to thoroughly cook meat, seafood, and eggs, when it comes to vegetables you may want to take a "less is more" approach. In an interview with Queensland Health, nutritionist Charlotte Morrison explained that cooking methods and time can have a big impact on vegetables’ nutritional profile. This is especially true if you opt for boiling, as water-soluble B vitamins and vitamin C leach out of veggies and into the cooking water. If you can use that cooking water (for example, as the base of a soup), then you’ll still get those nutrients. But Morrison suggested sticking with cooking methods that require little or no water, such as roasting, grilling, and steaming.
According to Healthline, shorter cooking times usually lead to fewer nutrients lost. For this reason, microwaving is an excellent choice, as is stir-frying. Cutting vegetables after, rather than before, cooking also reduces nutrient loss because less of the vegetable is directly exposed to water and heat. Vitamin C continues to degrade after cooking, so it’s best to finish any leftover cooked veggies within a day or two.
Microwaving certain meats
You may love the convenience of a microwave when it comes to cooking bacon or reheating your leftover pastrami sandwich, but nuking processed meats could increase your risk for heart disease. According to Eating Well, "When exposed to microwave radiation, processed meats form cholesterol oxidation products (COPs)." A 2007 study published in the journal Food Control noted that COPs are more likely than regular cholesterol molecules to cause a buildup of arterial plaques. Because of this, COPs are more directly correlated to heart disease than regular dietary cholesterol. COPs can also negatively affect the smell and taste of meat.
Eating Well noted that cooking raw meat in the microwave can also be dicey. Because microwaves often heat food unevenly, it can be difficult to ensure proper doneness throughout the piece of meat. Chicken is particularly risky since it must be cooked to a higher internal temperature than beef or pork, Be sure to use a food thermometer (inserted in multiple places) to ensure microwaved meat has reached a safe internal temperature. Flipping or stirring meat partway through microwaving can also promote more even cooking (via the U.S. Department of Agriculture).