Last January, Heather Walker was fed up. The new mom saw a number on the scale far beyond anything she'd ever seen before, and she wasn't happy about it. "I just decided it was time," she says of abandoning a lifestyle that included eating out for most meals. "I told my husband I can't expect my daughter to eat healthy if I'm not." Adios, Colonel Sanders. Hello, Chef Heather. "It's gotten to the point now where I really enjoy cooking, and because I'm able to control what I put into my food, I've lost almost 72 pounds," she says. "Even before I started losing weight, I started feeling better because of the improved quality of food I was eating." The biggest reward for her: "Knowing I'm giving my family something that is good for them." Here's what Heather says helped her most.
- Get a game plan. "I sit down on Monday evenings after my daughter has gone to bed, and I make a meal plan for the week that focuses primarily on dinner. I try to cook meals that will have a lot of leftovers that save well because my husband, who works long days, can use them as lunch throughout the week. The planning has changed my life dramatically—just being able to make a schedule and stick with it means I don't have to worry, and I can focus on other things."
- Embrace the slow cooker. "I was kind of intimidated by it before—I don't know why because it's the simplest thing in the world—but now I use it probably twice a week. One of our favorites: a carnitas (pulled pork) that you can cook for 7 to 8 hours on low. That works well for me because it frees up my days and allows me time to get out of the house, run errands, or visit family. I don't have to worry about getting home to get dinner in the oven. I already know it's going to be there, and it's going to be delicious."
- Build your own recipe files. "Any time we find a recipe we really like, I put it in a special folder. That way, if I'm feeling sluggish on a particular week, I can make one of those. One of our favorites is a Cooking Light Santa Fe--style shepherd's pie. It makes amazing leftovers."
- Tackle meal prep as a family. "I marinate meat first thing in the morning and put it in the fridge. When my husband gets home from work, he'll put it on the grill. While he does that, I prep salads and chop the vegetables. We're ready to eat in 10 to 15 minutes. No muss, no fuss."
- Invest in a few good tools. "Buy a good set of knives. I never had any before, but I recommend having some if you're going to start cooking at home. I also have a huge Calphalon sauté pan that I use almost every day—sometimes twice a day. Just having good utensils makes food prep and cooking a lot easier."
- Make cooking time "me time." "My husband entertains our daughter while I prepare dinner, so I think of the time I spend cooking as 'me time.' In those few moments it takes me to chop or mix something, I'm thinking about the things I want to think about, and that's time I wouldn't trade for anything."