The Cooking Learning Curve

I recently had a conversation with a young friend who has recently moved out on her own after getting her first job. She was lamenting the fact that she eats out too much. Not only is it costing her a lot of money, but it’s not helping her weight, either. “I just can’t cook,” she moaned. I told her that she could, but she’d just have to learn. (Her parents don’t cook much so unfortunately she didn’t have great role models.)

“But that’ll take forever and I don’t have time,” she wailed.

I asked her what she thought was do hard about cooking. She said that she didn’t know anything about methods like flambeing, sauteing, and poaching. She didn’t know how to cook lobster or make Cornish hens. I laughed until my sides hurt. The poor girl was laboring under the delusion that cooking at home meant some kind of gourmet extravaganza.

“Okay, first of all you don’t have the budget for lobster or Cornish hens, so don’t even worry about that,” I told her, still laughing.

For all that this was funny, I know there are a lot of people with the same thoughts. They think that if they can’t compete with Martha Stewart or the Food Network chefs they might as well not bother. I sat down with my friend and explained that she didn’t have to make gourmet anything to eat well and inexpensively at home. Then I worked her through the cooking learning curve as I learned it when I went out on my own.

Start with boxed and frozen ingredients or meal kits

It’s still cheaper than eating out all of the time and it gets you used to eating at home. Many of these require some basic cooking skills such as measuring out the necessary water or butter, browning meat, using the stove or frying pan, and following basic recipe directions. No, they may not be the most nutritious things in the world, but you have to start somewhere and if you’re starting from scratch they can teach you the basics.

Learn to make those boxed things on your own

Once you’ve mastered Hamburger Helper, mac and cheese, or tacos from a box you can figure out how to make those things on your own. You know what goes in the box, so go buy it separately. Start working in things like fresh produce, different spices and changing beef to chicken or fish. Buying things separately will usually increase the nutrition and reduce the sodium over the boxed versions. Making these things yourself will give you more confidence in the kitchen and teach you a little more about combining ingredients, cook times, and basic preparation skills like chopping and dicing.

Get a good basic cookbook

There are many beginner’s cookbooks on the market. Go to the library or bookstore and find one or two that have recipes you like and that match your skills or stretch you just a little. Don’t get anything too ambitious or you’ll end up frustrated. Start making a few of these basic recipes at home.

Start learning more

If you want to learn to make more adventurous meals, you can. Watch food programs, hang out on food websites, get help from friends who are good cooks, and read more advanced cookbooks. You’ll start to get a sense for the tools you’ll need for more advanced recipes and the skills you still need to learn.


From there it’s about nothing more than practice. Pick out a recipe you want to make and try it. Make sure you have all the ingredients and tools you need and go for it. If you follow the directions you’ll probably be okay.

Improve on your creations

Once you’ve mastered something, tinker with it. Maybe you want to try to make it spicier or less spicy. Maybe you’d rather use shrimp than chicken. Maybe you have an idea that a certain herb would liven up the dish. Go ahead and try it. The best cooks are the ones who make recipes their own by changing them to suit their own tastes. Once you know how something is supposed to taste, you can fiddle with it.

Cooking is never an all or nothing proposition. There are levels to cooking success, just like there are skill levels to any sport or work endeavor. You have to start at the bottom, learn, and improve and grow over time. If all you can do is make boxed foods, don’t worry about it. Start there and work up. Sure you’ll have some failures and some things that even the dog won’t eat, but it’s how you learn. You’ll see (and taste) what went wrong and you’ll know not to do it next time. Eventually you may be able to make lobster or Cornish hens, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to.

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10 Responses to The Cooking Learning Curve

  1. Johanna says:

    Great article. I’ve always suspected that “foodie culture” was turning at least as many people off to cooking as it was turning on.

    Pasta with sauce out of a jar is another great dish to start with. Then once you’ve got the basics down, you can start adding things to the sauce (vegetables, meat, cheese, dried herbs, fresh herbs…)

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  3. Becky says:

    Really good article. Another thing I’d add is, learn to cook by making stuff that you really like. That might sound obvious, but I think a lot of people get turned off cooking because they feel like home-cooked food isn’t as delicious as restaurant food. Or that home-cooked food means whatever their mom used to make, for better or worse.

    A lot of restaurant food is pretty simple to make at home – burritos, fancy sandwiches, Asian noodle soups.

  4. YW says:

    These are great tips. I used them the first time I had to cook for myself! At the time the first things I bought were frozen veggies, some meat (chicken breast) and ready to use sauces. Once I was a bit more comfortable around the kitchen I phoned my mom and asked her how to cook stuff she used to make when I was growing up. Things just flourished from there and now I cook regularly :)

  5. Jules says:

    It also helps to have someone who’s willing to help you eat your disasters :-) I cook a lot more when my boyfriend is at home (he works irregular shifts), mostly because for the same amount of mess, I can get someone else to help me eat the food.

  6. Carol Cripps says:

    I don’t understand people who don’t cook, like your young lady’s parents. My mum was an excellent cook, who taught *all* her kids to cook well. (She said she wasn’t going to turn out helpless men onto the world) When we left home, we could all cook decent meals, from appetizers to desserts. True, I’ve learnt a few things over the years that improved on what mum taught, but what I cook, and eat, on a daily basis is what I learned, standing on a chair beside her. At the age of 9, I was able to serve her breakfast in bed and have it edible. It was simple, just fried eggs and toast, but that’s where everyone has to start. The advice you gave your friend was excellent, but I really have to shake my head when I think of her parents, who didn’t prepare her to look after herself. Cooking is a survival skill!

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  8. Thippi says:

    Found your article through Simple Dollar Blog site (thanks Trent!) I’ve always loved cooking and know of people who don’t. I wish I could get more of them to cook and enjoy it. This is a wonderful way of telling others how to start cooking, especially when they are used to eating “out of a box” when they were children. I find teaching my friends about spices and how to use them is also a good way to help them learn. There are so many various kinds of spices and if you know about them, plain white rice can turn into a pizazz meal. I’ll definitely share your article with my friends. Thank you for sharing it!

  9. minny says:

    What good advice! I feel sympathy for young people who have few cooking skills. Here in the UK it is more eating takeaways that eating out. It can be hugely expensive, especially the favourite Indian food. A jar of sauce with simple instructions, supermarket naan bread and boil in the bag rice are a fraction of the price – and oil, salt, sugar and consequently much lower in calories!

    I love the step by step cookbooks – with pictures and complete instructions – perfect for the beginner.

  10. Envy says:

    I am one solid case which you cannot comprehend, since I dont cook . Had quite an usual childhood, I lived with my relatives since my parents had to work abroad. While growing, I did not receive the motherly love or the fatherly support. My uncle/aunt treated me well but definitely, wasn’t their favourite. Neither did they consider teaching me any invaluable lesson. To them, I was just one more mouth to feed. What their son requested was what I had to feed.

    At the age of 16, I finally joined my parents, I was excited, sure. But when we started living together, I just could not connect to my parents like a normal family should. So,at the age of 18, I moved to be close to university. Alone again, still green in the art of cookery.

    My post name titled, Envy it is, for when I read your post hoping to learn few simple dishes like pasta from experienced cook. I pictured your memorable past vividly, and Envy it is.

    Nevertheless, Pasta with ready-made sauce here I come!

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