Cook Smarts MPA Photo: Cook Smarts

Twenty-eight percent of Americans say they don’t know how to cook. The skills necessary to prepare a healthy meal might not be as widely taught as, say, fractions, but it just might play an essential part in the battle against rising obesity rates. People are much more likely to make poor food choices and consume too many calories when dining at a restaurant, which is something we’re doing now more than ever — in 2013, Americans are predicted to spend 75 percent more money on eating out than we did in 2000. Sounds like it’s time to get back to the (home) kitchen.

Cook Smarts, a web-based meal planning service, is devoted to bringing back the age-old art of the home-cooked meal with an emphasis on making the food healthy, delicious, and quick. This September, they want you to take a pledge: make four more home-cooked meals this month than you normally do. It’s a modest commitment, but Cook Smarts founder Jess Dang believes her target of 10,000 pledges could change the country.

“Forty-thousand more home cooked meals means that one million dollars will be saved [on eating out] and [Americans will consume] about five million fewer calories,” Dang says.

While the prospect of four home cooked meals can intimidate a first-timer, Cook Smarts’ Meal Planning Awareness campaign was conceived with the goal of building kitchen skills from the ground up, and unlike food delivery services such as BlueApron, Cook Smarts wants its users to develop their own shopping habits. When someone signs up, they gain access to everything a beginner needs: shopping lists, how-to guides, tips to avoid food waste, informative videos, and a range of weekly recipes that can be customized for Paleo, gluten-free, and vegetarian diets. Cook Smarts charges a fee to subscribe to their content, but September’s campaign (and the related content) is free.

#WhatsYourMPA_sq Photo: Cook Smarts It’s true that preparing meals at home doesn’t always mean they’re healthier than going to a restaurant — it’s easy to make (and subsequently eat) too much food, and gaps in nutritional knowledge can result in meals with fewer vitamins than a plate of pasta. However, Cook Smarts has taken pains to ensure that they provide not just nutritionally complete recipes, but detailed shopping lists of exactly what and how much to buy for each person.

“This way, people avoid both overeating and throwing away excess food,” says Dang.“ Nearly a quarter of America’s greenhouse gases come from food rotting in landfills, so it’s really important that we only buy what we need.”

But there’s more to home cooked meals than saving time, calories, and a few dollars — some studies suggest it can be good for us socially, too. Research suggests that when families eat together more often, they experience fewer behavioral problems and have higher levels of emotional well-being and life satisfaction Family dinners, communication, and mental health in Canadian adolescents. Elgar, F.J., Craig, W. et al. Journal of Adolescent Health, 2013 Apr; 52(4):433-8 . One study even concluded that when families have three or more meals together each week, the children are 12 percent less likely to become overweight and the odds that they develop an eating disorder are lowered by more than a third Is frequency of shared family meals related to the nutritional health of children and adolescents? Hammons, A.J. & Fiese, B.H. Family Resiliency Center, University of Illinois, IL, USA. Pediatrics, 2011 Jun; 127(6):1565-74. .

Dang is optimistic about the program’s ability to generate change. (And really, the battle against obesity needs all the help it can get.) While she isn’t suggesting that we completely abandon restaurants, learning to cook is a great first step toward giving up a diet of fast food, bread baskets and buffets — and it’s a lot of fun, too. Nobody should go through life without experiencing the joy of making a delicious meal from scratch, and there’s never been a better time to start.

Can’t wait to get started in the kitchen? Check out some of our favorite, simple recipes:

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