The running gag among anyone who’s ever tasted a morsel of my cooking is that I must not know what salt is. It’s a fair critique: I somehow manage to overcook and under-season virtually every meal I prepare. I’m clumsy and unconfident with a knife and prefer to prepare most foods in a microwave or Instant Pot.
Whipping up a meal is sometimes a nutritional puzzle. If all you’re working with at the moment are tortillas, frozen broccoli, and canned beans, you (like me) may struggle to conjure up something decent to eat.
Cooking can also feel like a chore. Parents not only have to feed themselves, but send their kids off to school with packed lunches and prepare snacks and dinner after that. One recipe can dirty up a whole sink’s worth of dishes. After the pandemic home cooking boom, it’s not surprising many people are feeling burnt out in the kitchen. According to a 2021 survey, 69 percent of respondents said they wished they could make a healthy meal more quickly and nearly half preferred less food prep.
Just like any other life skill, cooking is one that requires practice. “Eating is such a human thing — that’s the first skill we learn,” says Jess Dang, the founder of the online meal planning service Cook Smarts. “People think if I know how to eat, I must be able to know how to cook too, but they’re totally separate things.” If you weren’t taught the basics of cooking from school or a loved one, you might feel your time in the kitchen is doomed; if you’re already stretched thin financially and time-wise, cooking can feel like a fraught endeavor. However, with a few foundational skills and pantry staples, even the most beginner home chefs can whip up some delicious meals in no time at all.
Set some goals in the kitchen
While effectively nourishing yourself is an accomplishment in itself, taking on a more active role in the kitchen can be empowering. Maybe your goal is to have a small stable of go-to meals you can pull off without having to look at the recipe (eventually). Or perhaps you want to improve your knife skills. Rather than give yourself hard and fast milestones to hit, like cooking dinner five nights a week, Dang says to focus on the process of cooking and to lead with curiosity. “Just being curious about the process will help you learn about why things are done the way they are in cooking,” she says. “To me, the goal is each time you’re cooking, try to learn something from that experience, and understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, and that will help you improve over time.”
Part of this learning process is accepting the fact that you will make mistakes, but to have fun in spite of them.
Find some recipes before you start
Because there are so many meals and types of cuisines to make, cut down on the overwhelm and give yourself some parameters. If you were to dine at a restaurant, what meals would you order? What are your favorite flavors, snacks, textures, proteins, grains, veggies? “It’s just letting your natural inclinations of what you want to eat guide what you want to cook,” Dang says.
If your kids are picky eaters, ask them what they don’t like about certain foods, suggests Ben Leonard, a resident chef and instructor at Sur La Table. That way you can get a better idea of what it is that turns them off — the dryness of baked chicken, the bitterness of kale — and adjust accordingly.
Then, find some recipes that incorporate your favorite ingredients, flavors, and dishes. The internet is brimming with free recipes, but experts recommend sticking to tried-and-true instructions created by chefs or publications with test kitchens: Food & Wine, New York Times (you’ll need a subscription for this), Allrecipes, Bon Appétit (which can sometimes not be super beginner-friendly), Molly Stevens, Gaby Dalkin, and Nik Sharma. As far as easy-to-parse cookbooks, Jen Nurse, the co-founder of San Francisco-based cooking school The Civic Kitchen, suggests Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat. “I think that’s a great book for beginners because it explains why you do things and how to taste,” she says. Cookbook author and Vox contributor Leanne Brown dedicated a whole cookbook (available in PDF form for free!) to low-cost recipes.
Kitchen equipment you’ll need
Splurging on a stand mixer might be tempting, but beginners do not need fancy kitchen tools. If there’s one item worth spending a little more on, experts are unanimous on the importance of a decent knife. “You can get a great basic knife for not too much money,” Nurse says. “A lot of people are shocked to hear knife stores expect you to try the knife before you buy it. You want to know it fits your hand. You want to know it doesn’t dig into your finger in a weird place.” You can get a mid-tier beginner-friendly chef’s knife for anywhere from $40 to $150 or peruse Facebook Marketplace, Buy Nothing groups, and Craigslist for second-hand knives. If any of your friends are more advanced in the kitchen, ask them if they have a spare knife they can gift you. Just remember to keep your blade sharp. (You can take it to a professional knife sharpener once a year to get sharpened or sharpen it at home. Just be aware that a honing rod does not sharpen a knife, it only helps keep an already sharp knife sharp.) A dull knife can be dangerous because it’s difficult to pierce your food, forcing you to press down harder, potentially allowing for more accidents.
However, don’t overlook pre-made, seasoned, or chopped store-bought items like fruits, veggies, meats, salad kits, sauces, macaroni and cheese, and doughs. Not only are these items huge time-savers, pre-chopped frozen and fresh produce can be extremely helpful for folks with disabilities and other physical barriers that make chopping difficult. “Frozen bell pepper, frozen onion, frozen celery: get it and use it,” says Danni Rose, a cookbook author and food personality. “I do it all the time and my food still tastes good and seasoned.”
Along with your knife, you’ll need a cutting board (you can get a pair for less than $2 at Ikea), a beginner pots and pan set with two saucepans (one larger for pasta and soup), and two skillets. Baking sheets are also good to have for roasting just about any veggie or protein, Nurse says. Again, buying these items secondhand online or at a yard sale can help lower the cost.
As for the spices in your cabinet, Rose is a staunch supporter of garlic powder, onion powder, Kosher salt, and black pepper. “I can go down to Alabama where I’m from and get a fish sandwich on the side of the road that’s literally just been seasoned with those ingredients and it’s battered and fried,” she says, “and it tastes much better than a $150 dish that I see at a Michelin star restaurant.” If you’re feeling a little bolder, you can add some dried parsley, paprika, and Italian and Cajun seasonings to your repertoire, she says.
When it comes to grocery shopping, make sure you have a list of everything you need before stepping foot inside, Dang says, and don’t turn your nose up at discount chain stores like Aldi, Target, and Walmart for cheaper items. Rose likes shopping at specialty stores and markets, like Latin or Asian groceries, to get specific ingredients.
Getting started in the kitchen
Part of making cooking a pleasurable experience is to make your kitchen an enjoyable place to be. Put on a podcast, album, or audiobook to keep yourself occupied while you’re chopping onions. Or, better yet, enlist the help of your roommates, partner, kids, or parents to make cooking a group effort. “Drink some wine, drink your favorite cocktail, put your favorite music on or your favorite show, and you can watch it while you’re cooking,” Rose says. “Create a good space and environment for you to make good food.”
Just as a decent knife is an essential tool, having basic knife skills helps speed the cooking process immensely. Not knowing how to dice an onion, slice a pepper, and chop fresh ginger can turn a 30-minute cooking session into an hour-long one. Dang suggests searching knife skills videos on YouTube for a free primer. If your cutting board doesn’t have a non-slip bottom or grips, put a damp paper towel or kitchen towel under it to make sure the cutting board doesn’t slide around while you’re chopping. Again, if chopping is difficult for you, pre-cut items are available.
Once you’ve chosen your recipe, read the instructions in their entirety at least one time. You don’t want to be stirring a simmering pot and feel caught off guard when you realize you need to add a diced zucchini next. “A lot of the prep is going to be hidden in the recipe list,” Nurse says. “Look at that ingredient list. It says one cup of cheese, grated. Three cloves of garlic, minced.” AllRecipes and Simply Recipes have great resources defining terms like “minced” (cut into tiny bits) and “sauté” (cook quickly on high heat in a small amount of fat, like olive oil).
At first, follow the recipe closely, says popular YouTube chef Maangchi, (real name Emily Kim), author of Maangchi’s Real Korean Cooking and Maangchi’s Big Book of Korean Cooking. Once you’re comfortable with the process, you can modify a few steps; swap out a carrot for another root vegetable, use less pepper flakes to minimize spice.
As you’re doing your prep, don’t feel the need to put every ingredient in its own individual bowl, Nurse says. If you’re making a stir fry, put all of your pre-chopped veggies on a paper towel on the clean counter until it’s time to throw them in the pan to save yourself from doing endless dishes.
When you don’t feel like cooking
There, inevitably, will come a time when you’re too overwhelmed, tired, or simply not feeling the idea of cooking. It’s unrealistic to expect to prepare three meals a day, seven days a week — not to mention for multiple people. Rose, for example, cooks twice a week and builds eating out at restaurants into her schedule. She might make tacos on a Sunday and uses the extra ground beef as a salad topping or in enchiladas on Monday. A dish like lasagna or a casserole stretches to cover a few meals. “I think that people have forsaken the power of leftovers,” she says.
Rather than subscribe to the rigid idea of meal prepping where you cook all your food for the week on Sunday nights, when you do cook, make a little extra and save what you don’t eat for future meals. Tonight’s double batch of instant mac and cheese can be used in your kids’ lunches tomorrow. “Start with learning how to make a good pot of beans because that pot of beans can feed you in different ways through three or four different meals in a week — or snacks,” Nurse says. “You can turn it into a dip, you can make it into a soup, you can add your favorite gochujang and suddenly it’s spicy and fun.”
It’s also important to have some low-lift meals at the ready. A kid-friendly option Dang likes is frozen fried chicken patties topped with jarred tomato sauce and shredded mozzarella. “It’s fake chicken parm, but it’s so easy and everybody loves it,” she says. “I still saved money and it’s still a home-cooked meal, and that’s totally fine.”
Leonard feels accomplished if he cooks one meal a day — “and that doesn’t mean it has to be completely from scratch,” he says. Even if you scramble eggs or are microwaving frozen vegetables with quinoa, you’ve still cooked.
Hacks to help make cooking a habit
Break down your meals into parts, Dang says: one carb, one vegetable, and one protein. This can help eliminate any guesswork for meals where you aren’t following a recipe, like lunches where you want to throw something together fairly quickly. For example, leftover rice, a fried egg, and store-bought kimchi is a low-lift meal.
Your freezer is a great place to store both leftovers and food you’re not ready to cook yet. Minimize waste and freeze your leftover soup, stew, or sauces if you aren’t going to eat them right away. Rose recommends freezing half of your fresh vegetables and meats if you’re cooking for one to help extend their shelf life.
Cooking doesn’t need to be an active process either. If you have a spare few minutes, throw some rice on the stove or in a rice cooker if you have one. Chop some veggies during long meetings if you work from home. Toss some chicken in the oven while you work out. “Everyone is busy,” Dang says, “so think about ways that you can be passively cooking.”
When it comes time for cleanup, no one wants to spend as much time washing dishes as they did making the meal. Maangchi cleans and reuses bowls and utensils as she goes. “If I use one bowl, instead of using a brand new bowl, [I] use one, wash [it] quickly and dry out with my paper towel or kitchen towel, and then use it,” she says.
Remember: Don’t get too in your head or think you need to make overly complicated meals in order to say you cooked. Most of Rose’s recipes have only four ingredients, she says. Stick to foods and flavors you know and like and the process will be far less intimidating. “If you’re getting into sports, and you’ve never done it before,” Rose says, “you have to get into the fundamentals of it. So, learn the fundamentals of cooking and once you learn that, you can cook anything.”
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