We learned a lot last year, but the most important lesson may have been how beneficial it can be to make your own food.
Credit: Cooking Light Diet

A little over a year ago, Cooking Light Diet Community and Content Manager Matthew Moore and I were busy polling foodies and health experts across the country to compile their thoughts on what the top food trends would be for 2020. One prediction in particular stuck with me, and it was from Ann Taylor Pittman, former Executive Editor for Cooking Light. Ann suggested that 2020 would become the year that home cooking really made a comeback, and I just knew she was onto something.

And then, or course, COVID-19 entered our lives. Needless to say, there's never been a food prediction that was so spot-on!

2020 is when cooking at home become not just essential, but pretty much mandatory. It was the year that forced everyone, regardless of age, interest, skill level, or income, to get in the kitchen and fend for themselves. Grabbing dinner at a restaurant wasn't an option (at least temporarily). If we wanted food, we had to make it.

That change was initially overwhelming for a lot of people, myself included. Sure, I'm a dietitian and I already cooked most nights, but the realization last spring that I had to cook every day for my family's sustenance and survival—not just for health and money-saving reasons—added a whole new layer of stress. Gone was my pre-COVID comfort option of saying "fudge it" and grabbing dinner at a restaurant or picking up takeout. Like so many people, I lost my dinner safety net, or "out", on busy days.

But like so many other people, I weathered the storm, forcing myself to adapt new routines, work environments, and altered expectations for 2020 (and myself). I began to leave my "office" a little earlier so I wasn't as frazzled and tired when dinnertime rolled around. Granted, my office was now only 15 steps from the kitchen, but little routine alterations like that helped me establish boundaries between work and home to get back into having dinner on the table. Slowly, I began to find fun and creativity in the kitchen again. I developed a newfound appreciation for cooking dinner, something I'd downgraded to just another checkbox on my daily to-do list prior to 2020.

Ultimately, I'm excited about what 2021 (Happy New Year!) will bring, but I also feel like I can't forget what I learned about cooking and healthy eating in what was a tumultuous 2020. So here are my top four takeaways from last year that will hopefully help you and yours in 2021!

1. Cooking at home really is the healthiest way to eat.

Research has told us for years: Meals prepared at home are almost always lower in calories, saturated fat, and sodium compared to ones prepared outside the home. As a dietitian I knew this, but there's nothing like standing in your kitchen comparing your two dinner options—a quick home-cooked meal like Black Bean Tostadas, or a frozen cheese pizza—to make this really hit home.

Credit: Caitlin Bensel

The nutrition was a no-brainer, but I also realized that there were a lot of recipes from the Cooking Light Diet that I could make in the same amount of time (or less, even) than it took to preheat the oven and cook a frozen pizza. Another perk I noticed while cooking at home was how many more vegetables I was consuming. Long story short: We all know that eating at home is the healthiest way to eat. So if you've got a New Year's resolution involving being healthier in 2021, start in your own kitchen.

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2. The kitchen is great common ground to connect.

Ah, the understatement of 2020 right here: Living and working in a shared space with family is hard! There were lots of nights where I wanted to curl up with a good book and a glass of wine for some alone time. Instead, I had to get into the kitchen and make dinner for children.

So I started delegating small tasks to my kids when they walked by. Slowly, I began to realize that involving them in the dinner process gave us a new and much-needed way to engage and connect. Usually, the kids were eager to try new tasks and help out. And more often than not, getting together in the kitchen almost always turned a less-than-stellar day around, even for my 13-year-old daughter! Dinner, quality bonding time, and new sous chef skills? I'd call that a win.

3. Cooking shakes things up by expanding your palate and interests.

Credit: Photo: Greg Dupree

My family has a handful of favorite Cooking Light Diet recipes that I regularly cook; Madeline's favorite is the Mac and Cheeseburger, while Griffin's is Chicken Nuggets with Crispy Potato Chips & Honey Mustard.

Credit: Photo: Randy Mayor

But after months of cooking every meal at home, all of us yearned to branch out and try some new things. And so we discovered new flavor profiles, cuisines, and ingredients—all things my kids usually try to avoid! Bonus: Involving my kids in the meal prep/planning process gave them a sense of ownership and pride over the finished dish, which in turn made them more open to giving new recipes a shot. And new recipes tried meant new favorites! Now, our go-to list includes dishes like 15-Minute Chicken Shawarma Bowls and Spicy Shrimp Noodle Bowls (minus some of the spice).

Credit: Photo: Caitlin Bensel
Credit: Photo: John Autry

Yet, I doubt that we would've tried so many new things, or that the kids would've been open to trying them, if 2020 hadn't "forced" me to cook.

4. The Cooking Light Diet saves time by keeping meals simple and organized.

Credit: Photo: Jennifer Causey

While I've always been partial to the Cooking Light Diet, I have to confess it'd been a while since I used the service as it was intended to help me plan and streamline mealtimes. Instead, I'd gotten into the habit of rotating some of our tried-and-true favorite recipes like the ones mentioned above. My problem with that not-so-organized approach? I always forgot at least one or two things, like an ingredient or a side dish at the grocery. But since the coronavirus encouraged limiting outings, I didn't feel right running to the store for one or two things. My solution? I started using the Cooking Light Diet again to help me plan our weeks and get organized.

Once I jumped back into my Cooking Light Diet subscription, I honestly wondered why I'd ever stopped. Not only was it easier to pull together a weekly menu and shopping list, but I didn't forget any ingredients anymore because I could easily put my list together. And I saved countless hours not having to stress over planning out and preparing meals; everything was streamlined to make cooking less of a hassle. I was also motivated to plan ahead more, which reduced the amount of time I was having to spend in the kitchen. I started preparing extra servings of recipes that kept well in the fridge and freezer, dishes like Cheesy Sausage, Broccoli, and Quinoa Casserole, and Chicken and Vegetable Soup. I'd found my new "safety net" for 2020's most hectic days.

Credit: Photo: Johnny Autry

The Cooking Light Diet has been a staple in my life for over six years now, and I regularly recommend it to friends and followers. But without 2020 "forcing" me to cook, I wouldn't have realized just how much I need the Cooking Light Diet—not just for healthy recipe ideas that help me manage meal planning and my weight, but also to help me expand my family's palates and bring some fun back into our kitchen.

Here's to what I learned when 2020 forced me to cook, but cheers to a New Year! My hope is that 2021 brings all of you lots of happiness, health, and good eating!

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