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.