The Single Most Important Habit You Need for Better Health

by | Apr 27, 2015

Woman Chopping Parsley

Have you ever tried something new for your health because you heard it was good––like buying cereal with extra fiber and calcium––but didn’t notice any real difference in how you look or feel?

You *hope* it is helping you be healthier and strengthening your bones, but you don’t have any way to know if it’s actually doing anything.

Most new habits people try fit into this category. They’re low impact and you get very little or no immediate feedback on how it will impact your life in the long run.

There’s no immediate benefit and, when it comes down to it, you have no good reason to keep doing it.

There are many problems with habits like these. One big one is that with no feedback you don’t know if what you’re doing is helping, hurting or just plain pointless. You have to act on faith that nutrition science (or wherever your advice came from) is steering you in the right direction––not something I’d recommend.

But an even bigger problem is that habits without an immediate and meaningful reward are the first to slip when life gets the better of you.

Would you rearrange your day to make sure you can do something that may or may not be important to you at some unspecified future time? I know I wouldn’t.

This is why I’m always encouraging you to focus on HIGH IMPACT Home Court Habits.

By definition, these are the habits that have the potential to improve your health and quality of life dramatically. The benefits are large, easy to notice, and appear relatively quickly.

When habits like this affect a major part of your life, like health, they often start to impact other habits in that category. It’s no accident that CrossFit fans tend to start eating better once they begin to notice how food impacts their athletic performance.

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg refers to these as keystone habits. They “start a process that, over time, changes everything.”

As someone who spent 15 years of my life trying to lose weight, I’ve tried virtually every health and weight loss strategy at some time or another. I’ve counted calories, cut carbs, eliminated fat, and banned sugar. I’ve done years of ballet, stair climbing, distance running, exercise videos and weight training.

Most of these failed. A few worked OK, but made me miserable. And I’ve now settled on the handful of simple Home Court Habits that work best for me at this time in my life.

But of all the things I’ve ever tried there is one habit I’ve developed that stands out above them all. A habit that has improved my health and quality of life in ways I would never have imagined.

That habit is cooking.

Cooking revolutionized my relationship with food and my body. When I learned to cook I finally had the ability to make healthy ingredients taste good. Delicious even.

When I learned to cook I discovered that my body responded differently than it did to the processed foods I’d been eating. That I could eat until I was satisfied, yet still feel energetic while my body settled at a lower weight.

Gone were the days of hunger and longing for more.

Cooking led me to discover the farmers market, which is now one of my favorite places in the world. I made friends with farmers and discovered new favorite foods.

When I cooked beets for my dad he discovered he loved them after 60 years of believing otherwise. Ultimately, this change of heart saved his life.

The truth is I can’t even count all the ways my cooking habit has benefited me. From wooing my husband in the early days of our relationship, to the friendships I’ve built in the food industry.

I probably wouldn’t have started Summer Tomato had I not learned to cook.

Cooking is a game changer. That’s all there is to it.

For years I’ve been explaining this to people, and for years I’ve heard excuses about why people don’t cook.

“I don’t know how.”

“I don’t have time.”

“I hate cleaning up.”

“I’m terrible at cooking.”

What struck me was that these were all the same excuses I used to make before I learned how to cook.

I know how much these feel like the real reasons cooking seems impossible, but I also know that for anyone who does cook these issues have been solved. Cooks have a system that makes preparing meals easier and less of a burden.

So I decided to dig deeper. I conducted surveys, interviewed people and went to people’s homes to see their kitchens, trying to discover the truth about why so many people have failed at building a cooking habit.

Time, knowledge and organization are all part of it, but the root of the problem was actually really surprising.

Tomorrow I’ll explain the true barrier that stops people from cooking regularly and how successful cooks get around it.

Think about all the people you know who cook regularly. What do they have in common? What’s different in their process than in your process? I’ll tell you more about what I learned tomorrow.

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14 Responses to “The Single Most Important Habit You Need for Better Health”

  1. Jeffrey Bunn says:

    You hit the nail on the head, Darya. Great post! Just like you, I’ve found that cooking is the one habit that has disproportionately changed my life for the better.

    I don’t think cooking itself is the problem. It’s all the inputs required BEFORE cooking that used to demotivate and stress me out. Stuff like figuring out what to eat, searching for recipes, making a meal plan, putting together a grocery list, grocery shopping, etc, etc. The 20 – 30 minutes of cooking was no problem compared to the other steps.

    At least, this was my experience. I’m interested to see what you learned during your research.

  2. Tori D. says:

    You are so right! I see all these people obsessively counting calories and killing themselves with (excessive) exercise, and it really is as simple as eating at home as often as you can. I once lost 40 pounds without tons of exercise, just cooking at home and eating better than I had before.

  3. Justine says:

    I completely agree! I’m looking forward to your next post about the subject, because it took me awhile to figure out how to change my process so that cooking wasn’t burdensome. For me, it means having a pantry stocked with basics (chicken stock, vinegar, canned tomatoes, onions, garlic etc.) and to grocery shop more often and buy less. Fortunately, that’s not too hard as I work at a grocery store 🙂

    I also attached a whiteboard to my fridge and write down its contents on it, especially any ingredients that spoil quickly, so I remember to use those ingredients. It’s super handy.

  4. Beth says:

    I am intrigued as to what the barrier is.. because for me, it’s 100% dishes. No dishwasher and not even a double sink to do dishes in.. it adds up quickly. I spent two hours this weekend doing dishes! And it wasn’t even the worst it’s gotten..

    • Jessica says:

      Do you use a dish pan plus your sink when you wash dishes, and clean up as you cook? Or could you get one of those rolling dishwashers that hooks up to your kitchen faucet?

      • Beth says:

        I saw some advice for a dish pan and I think that it might be helpful. My boyfriend is always suggesting that we put all the dishes on the side of the sink which drives me crazy, but maybe a bin would drive me less crazy. The area next to the sink isn’t quite wide enough for one but it would still at least keep it off the counter.

        Rolling dishwasher is a no, not enough room.

        But I have been trying to clean up as I cook! Once I got it all done this weekend, I thought to myself, I will not let it get that bad! I feel like with an initial empty sink, it’s easier to do this when I cook. We will see how long this lasts..

        Thanks for giving some ideas. I posted something about dishes on Facebook yesterday and people mostly gave me ways to try and pawn it off on my partner.. 😉 If he is getting the same advice, you can see how that might backfire!

  5. Diana says:

    Cooking helped pull me out of a serious post-op depression. I started watching cooking on TV, I got off my butt to make a few things, and finally got out of the house to buy more ingredients. Too bad I had to go back to work.. really cut in to my new hobby!

  6. Barbara says:

    I feel the same as Jeffrey about the inputs being the hard part. We are not meat and potatoes people in my home so I rely a lot on recipes. I do notice that I am slowly becoming more intuitive and more of risk taker so that might ease that burden a little bit

  7. Lissa says:

    I was thinking that your answer to good health would be to burn more calories than you consume, that it would be related to diet. I never guessed it would be cooking. I know plenty of great cooks that are over weight, and some great cooks that are skin and bones. I can’t find a medium there. One of my friends who was overweight went vegan and started a Pilates routine (he went from 300lbs to 170, lost almost half his body weight). Other than that, I honestly don’t know.
    [link removed]

  8. Paul says:

    Food is the foundation of health and learning how to cook healthy delicious food is an important step. I know when I first ventured out and started to cook, I searched the web for healthy recipes. What I found was that most recipes required so many ingredients that I didn’t have in my pantry, which was frustrating. I started to worry less about getting it right and more about enjoying the process. I soon developed the habit of stocking my pantry with cooking staples and experimenting with cooking food without recipes. Now, I am able to throw together a quick health meal in no time. Thank you for the great post!

  9. Megan says:

    Cooking! It’s such an obvious answer. My problem is (and I’m sure many others) the time it takes to cook. This is probably the only way you can truly control what goes in your body. Even labels are misleading and don’t always cover everything.

    Great article!

  10. Lan Tra says:

    Hi Darya, thanks for the nice post, I love it.

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