Want to eat healthier?

Cook a meal at home at least three times a week.

It’s that simple.

Researchers recently asked more than 400 Seattle-area adults about what they cooked and ate for a week. They were graded using the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Healthy Eating Index (HEI). HEI scores range from 0 to 100. The higher the score, the better the diet. A score over 81 indicates a good diet; 51 to 80 means improvement is needed; and 50 or less is poor.

Households that had home-cooked meals three times a week had an average score of about 67, while cooking at home six times a week bumped up the average to about 74.

The results suggest that regular home-cooked meals — which tend to be lower in calories, sugar and fat — give you a better diet at a lower cost.

The Oregon State University study was published in the May issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Higher HEI scores are generally associated with higher socioeconomic status, education and income. By contrast, cooking dinner at home depends more on the number of children at home. The study showed no association between income or education and eating at home or eating out,” study author Arpita Tiwari, a health systems researcher, said in a university news release.

Traditionally, better socioeconomic status — more money — means healthier people. That’s the trend. This research goes against that; it shows a resilience to that trend. It’s not spending more but how you spend that’s important,” Tiwari concluded.

Eight out of 10 Americans fail to meet at least some federal dietary guidelines, and about half the money spent to eat is for food not cooked at home, the study pointed out.

Research has shown that eating more meals together at home can also increase self-esteem, encourages healthier eating habits, improves grades and reduces the risky behavior among children of all ages. Another positive that comes from families eating more meals together is that structured meals can reduce the risk of children suffering from an eating disorder or being overweight when three or more meals are eaten at home per week.

Start with one meal at home per week and work to add more each week. Try to include foods from all the food groups at meals using USDA’s MyPlate, which recommends half your plate is fruits and vegetables, a quarter whole grains and a quarter lean protein, along with a glass of milk.

Here are some practical ideas to make family meals easier:

  1. Keep fruits and vegetables on hand, whether they are fresh, frozen or canned, for quick side dishes.
  2. Pick up a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store to make meal prep easy. Simply remove the skin and shred for chicken tacos or slice for chicken sandwiches.
  3. Use your slow cooker during the week, so dinner is ready when everyone gets home.
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