For the entirety of our nine-year relationship, Bryan and I have essentially lived together, regardless of what rooms we were technically assigned by student housing. And for the first four years, we subsisted on your typical college diet of ramen, macaroni and cheese, and dinners out. Standard, especially when living in dorms that have a communal kitchen and don’t allow you more than a microwave in your room. So, when we got our first “official” apartment together in 2010, I wanted things to be different. I wanted to cook!
Things were a little different at first, but not by much. But living on a shoestring budget, under the poverty line, meant we were able to spend maybe $20 to $40 a week on food, as a maximum—this included groceries and eating out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Spending more than $150 a month on food would mean we wouldn’t be paying for something else that month. We settled into a routine similar to the one we had in college, of eating a lot of cheap things—more ramen, more macaroni and cheese. When we cooked, it was with the cheapest meat cuts you could buy—usually a lot of ground beef, chicken thighs, and things like that.
Eventually, we busted our asses and succeeded at ramping up our income, and finally, actually started learning to cook. For the last two years or so, I’ve been experimenting in the kitchen, trying to learn my way around the equipment, the lingo, the stereotypes. The way Bryan tells it, most of his work colleagues (mostly single white men) are fascinated by our habits of cooking dinners (of varying difficulty) nearly every night. I imagine they think I’ve always known how to cook—that this is not a task my husband and I have embarked on together—because of course I can cook, I’m a woman. But I grew up in a household of six kids, all of whom were running headlong at their activity of choice (mine: swimming), herded by working parents in demanding fields. There were family, sit-down meals sometimes, but more often it was Taco Bell on the way to Girl Scouts, or cooking entire boxes of pasta to carb load before evening swim meets.
So when I advanced into womanhood and the ghost of Julia Child didn’t come down and bequeath her knowledge of cooking upon me, I resolved that I would have to do it the hard way. And doing it the hard way also meant doing it, for the most part, alone. When you come across “beginner” recipes that assume you know how to make a roux, and you don’t, there’s not a lot of people to ask who aren’t going to give you that look: “Shouldn’t you know how to do this already? Didn’t your mom teach you or something?”
These days, Bryan and I are vastly better at cooking than when we started, and we got there as a team. We didn’t teach each other as much as we learned together along the way, though I do let Bryan do all the frying, and he tends to let me do the lion’s share of the baking. So today, if you’re looking to learn to cook better than you do now, I thought I’d share some lessons I’ve learned that probably aren’t going to appear in a list of cooking tips. They’re not knife skills or how to chop an onion, but I’d argue that they’re just as important.
There’s no way that I could provide all the answers or information for you to learn how to cook all the things you want. I’m not a chef; I don’t even pretend that I am anywhere close to a chef. But I do know that I cook reasonably well, and Bryan and I have grown pretty adept at our own style of planning and executing weekly dinners. Here’s how we got there.
1. STOP BUYING ALL THE THINGS
On any given Sunday, back when we were first learning to cook as a pair and feeling particularly industrious, Bryan and I would storm the grocery store, armed with a mile-long list of ingredients for all the new recipes we were going to try that week. We’d check everything off, come home, and stuff our fridge with produce, so pleased with how adult and fancy our next week’s meals were going to be. Two weeks later, half of that food would be rotten, and we’d have to toss it.
2. DON’T TRY TO MAKE EVERYTHING FROM SCRATCH
What started as weekly(ish) discouragement by our failure to cook something nice every single day in a week eventually led me to a fairly obvious realization: we simply don’t have the time to expend that much energy on making something new, something from scratch, every single day. It’s never going to happen, because you will probably not want to expend that much time and effort on dinner every single night. Regardless of whether you work fifty hours a week or two hours, there will always be that day where you come home—maybe it’s raining or you don’t want to get the kitchen dirty—and cooking will be the last thing you actually want to do. Which brings me to my next point.
3. MATCH YOUR RECIPES TO THE AMOUNT OF TIME YOU WANT TO SPEND
If on weekday evenings, you get home and want to spend less than an hour on making dinner, then preparing soup from scratch should not be in your weekday plans. When you’re looking at new recipes, always factor in extra time on top of the recipe cook time—it will take you longer to prepare your ingredients and prepare the meal than that person did because you’re reading and following directions.
4. HUNTING DOWN RECIPES IS ITS OWN SCIENCE
While there are quite literally thousands upon thousands of recipes to choose from on the Internet, not all recipes are equally useful. For example, there are probably a hundred different ways to put together marinara sauce, and they can range from something as simple as combining two parts Prego and one part Ragu, or as complex as a six hour marathon of slow roasting fresh tomatoes and peppers and garlic.
The rule of thumb in our house is we don’t use a new recipe that calls for an ingredient that we’ll never ever use again (did you know Tamari soy sauce tastes almost exactly the same as regular soy sauce?), or we’ll substitute something more heavily used for that ingredient, usually by Googling the very complex sentence: “What is a substitute for X?” And if you’re looking for a new recipe to try for a specific dish, a few thoughtful adjectives will make your search much easier—things like basic (no, not like that), beginner, etc. or “fresh” or “from scratch” if you’re looking specifically to avoid a lot of canned ingredients.
5. YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO IT LIKE THE EUROPEANS DO
When talking about learning to cook more healthy meals, or learning to cook more at home, a common response is that we should be cooking like the French, or the Italians. But the issue with that kind of advice is maddeningly simple: we work a lot more than people in those cultures do. I’m not French. I’m just Italian enough to make spaghetti. It’s not realistic for me to aim to get the same meal on the table that a French family can every workday. And then, actually learning to cook French food is going to take me more time than a French person, because I don’t have access to or familiarity with the same ingredients. So get over the idea that you’re going to be French, and get back to just trying to make good food (which is I think what the French are trying to do anyway.)
6. KEEP IT SIMPLE
When you’re learning to cook for yourself, you’ve got to work with what you’ve got, and sometimes that means going simple to start off. Maybe you do want to learn to cook more Italian, so you start with spaghetti and work into harder pasta dishes. Some nights you might still have to do takeout, but some nights you might end up being able to roast a whole chicken. Some nights, maybe return to that quick pasta. Be flexible with yourself. You can’t turn into a chef within a week. We’ve tried; it did not work out.
7. MAKE A MEAL PLAN
Over time, we’ve learned that we’re most successful with cooking at home when we plan a bit ahead. Our meal “plans” for each week go as follows: one or two (or three, if we’re going to feed friends on the weekend for an event) meals where we’re either making a new recipe or a staple recipe from our collection that’s going to take some time and effort in the kitchen, and two or three recipes that are either easy to execute, take no time, or both—usually one is a salad, and the others are things that won’t spoil if they go uneaten (read: box macaroni and cheese). Planning also means we can add one item in the rotation that will do for two meals, like cooking a big batch of chicken to use in several meals for the week. We also don’t assign specific days to meals, because that’s always backfired around here. Here’s this week, as an example.
- PORK CHOPS + TWO SIDES: Meat and two side dishes are that Southern staple that Bryan and I don’t have to think about. It sometimes takes time to execute, but these aren’t meals that tax our brain.
- PASTA BAKE: A recipe from Bryan’s mom that we’ve adapted. While it feels like an easy meal, it takes twenty or so minutes to put together, then needs to bake for forty-five minutes, requiring a certain amount of timing and prep.
- ROASTED CHICKEN AND POTATOES: A recipe from the Smitten Kitchen cookbook that I adore and lets me feel fancy by roasting a whole chicken.
- SALAD: Whatever greens look good at the store, a fun cheese from the $5 or less box, nuts (usually pecans), a fruit (sometimes), protein, and one of the two or three dressings we have in the fridge. Feels like a fancy meal, takes maybe twenty minutes.
- FROZEN PIZZA: The “I literally have no energy to do anything” meal. A popular choice on days where we have to go to dog training.
- (WEEKEND) WHITE CHICKEN CHILI: Made to feed our D&D group, with the copious leftovers from roasting a whole chicken earlier in the week, which saves me a step when making the chili. Planning!
8. LATHER, RINSE, REPEAT
There is no shame in repeating the same favorite meals each week. Taco Tuesdays. Spaghetti and Wine Wednesdays. Throwback Thursdays (aka leftovers). If you find a few recipes that work for you, don’t feel like you have to expand your repertoire.
9. RECIPES AREN’T PRECIOUS
It’s easy to find recipes online, but don’t bank on finding the perfect recipe for a certain thing you like the first time around. If you find yourself thinking that an addition or subtraction to a recipe would make it better, then write it down. Or seek out another similar recipe, and see what changes. I highly encourage scribbling in (your own) recipe books, and changing them to match what you like.
For instance, that recipe for the pasta bake? It originally calls for cream of mushroom soup. Bryan and I hate mushrooms (or we’ve never encountered them cooked properly? Jury is still out), so we changed it. Then, I added broccoli to it, because it seemed like a good idea. Then, we decided that cutting back on the liquid content in that recipe would make the pasta stand up a bit better in leftovers. In the end, this one recipe has been scribbled on a bit, but it’s transformed into one we’ll use over and over again, rather than remembering it as an “okay” meal.
10. HAVE A “THIS IS AWFUL” BACKUP PLAN
You know the stereotypical comedy bit—the wife makes a home-cooked meal, but it’s awful, and the husband sits in his chair and eats the whole thing, choking down bites and delivering compliments the whole way.
This interaction? Does not happen at our house. Bryan and I? We love good food (and great food). We love good food too much to be especially precious with one another when it comes to cooking—though we’ll try not to be especially mean about it. Our kitchen is a place for trial and error in cooking, and sometimes (formerly a lot of times) that means we cook something that sucks. Or, we cook something that the other person doesn’t like (maybe one day Bryan will actually like squash, SIGH).
Our backup for a truly, entirely failed meal is pizza or pasta, because we always have it in the house. For you it might be something different that you always seem to have around, or it might be that takeout place down the street.
11. SET SPECIFIC GOALS
When it comes to food, you’re never going to learn how to cook absolutely everything perfectly (though if you’re setting out to do so, my hat is off to you, and you probably don’t need this article). So what do you want to get better at, specifically? More importantly: what kind of food do you really love to eat and want to learn to make for yourself?
Our food goals have always started with something fairly specific. First, it was figuring out how the hell to cook chicken breast properly without having to cut them in half to check. I found a few specific tips, and I’ve used those ever since. In the winter, I tend to obsess over perfecting one or two soup recipes. More recently, Bryan and I started challenging ourselves to do meatless Mondays, until we realized that what we really wanted to do was bring more protein diversity into our meals, i.e., chicken every night is boring as hell. So now we’re trying to cook more seafood and vegetarian meals at home.
There’s also nothing like a volume project to get you really good at a specific recipe. Maybe you set a goal to bake fifty pies, or to try a bunch of new recipes for baked bread, or to perfect your own tikka masala. Find a small goal, work on it, and then move onto the next, and you’ll start building out your own repertoire in time.