Cooking at home is one of the best things you can do to eat healthier. Yet, over 40 percent of meals are eaten outside of the home. I get it; it takes time and energy – two things many of us are lacking. But learning how to pull together few simple meals on a whim (I'm not talking boxed mac 'n cheese here, sorry) can go a long way for both your health and your wallet.
I've enjoyed preparing meals for as long as I can remember. From baking cookies with friends after school to cooking dinner with my parents and later roommates, it feels like cooking is part of who I am. But I wasn't always kitchen savvy. Sure, I could follow a recipe. But putting together an entire meal without a detailed recipe was unfamiliar and, at times, overwhelming. There was a time when if a recipe called for pecans and all I had was walnuts, I would have been off to the store just for that one ingredient. (Now I'd just use the walnuts or whatever nut or seed I had on hand). But with time, practice, and plenty of mishaps along the way, preparing a meal, whether for myself or an entire dinner party, has become second nature.
Is cooking more of a stress inducer than a stress reliever for you?
It doesn't have to be. Learning to be flexible, understanding which flavors pair well together, and mastering the timing of each component of the meal are three things that can take you from wary recipe follower to confident cook. But most of all it just takes getting your hands dirty some good old fashion practice. No shortcuts here.
If you're ready to dive in, here are 5 ways to boost your confidence in the kitchen and become a better cook.
- Start simple. This may sound obvious, but if the kitchen isn't where you spend most of your time, I wouldn't start with deboning a duck, or Pâté de Canard en Croûte, from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Julie and Julia anyone?). Choose recipes with less than 10 ingredients (5 and under is ideal) and that only have a few steps to get your feet wet.
- Read the full recipe before you start. There have been more than a few times that I've picked out a recipe and bought all of the ingredients, only to realize after I started cooking at 6pm that something was supposed to marinate overnight or chill in the fridge for 2 hours (oops!). Avoid that mistake by reading the full recipe before you go to the store.
- Master the mise en place. This is just a fancy (French) way of saying, do all the chopping and prepping before you start cooking. This is the key to getting the timing right and avoiding that moment when you were supposed to add the onion to the hot oil and your onion is still whole. Limit stress and recipe mishaps by doing the prep work first.
- Take (educated) risks. Out of diced tomatoes but have crushed? Use what you have. Does a recipe call for cumin and you (like me) can't stand the spice (the horror, I know!)? Leave it out or substitute something like smoked paprika or chili powder for a slightly different flavor but often used in similar cuisine (depending on the dish). If a recipe calls for quinoa, but you are in the mood for brown rice, give it a try. This is how you learn what works and what doesn', which brings me to #5.
- Don't be afraid to mess up. It should go without saying that mistakes happen. Meals that don't taste or look as you planned is part of the process. I've eaten my fair share of overcooked chicken, burnt potatoes, or flavorless meals. I've put the pasta on too early only to end up with a ball of sticky mess in the colander as I waited for a sauce to finish. Learn from the process and make a mental note for next time.
Remember this: meals don't have to be Instagram worthy or be overly complicated to taste good. In fact, some of the simplest meals are often the most satisfying. So, don't let inexperience or fear keep you out of the kitchen. If you're looking for more turn-key options to get your feet wet, start out with a meal delivery service like Hello Fresh (use this link for a discount), Plated, or Blue Apron. Or, try out a meal-planning service like Cook Smarts (lots of great guides, videos, and other resources here too!).
Here's to more meals and time in the kitchen in your future!