Plus an essential kitchen skill you can’t live without.
Don’t have time to cook? Find the process too overwhelming? Check out these simple steps to effortless cooking.
After sifting through dozens of mouth-watering recipes, you finally find ‘The One.’ A recipe that doesn’t seem too intimidating, has familiar ingredients and doesn’t require hours in the kitchen.
With your grocery bags spread across your countertops full of the essential ingredients, you feel calm, cool and collected — ready to conquer this dish.
And then this happens:
Do I add the carrots before or after the onion?
What heat should the burner be on again?
Ah! Where’s the darn cumin! I swore I had some in my spice drawer.
Was I supposed to peel and then chop the carrot or wash and then grate?
Wait… which step am I on?
All of a sudden, you find your kitchen in complete disarray. You’re scrambling to keep up with the recipe which seems to have taken on a life of its own. Meanwhile, the ingredients on the stove are turning into mush, are under seasoned and absent of any resemblance to the recipe image.
Let’s face it, cooking a meal from scratch can feel like a daunting task. The process begins way before you take out the knife and cutting board. It requires planning, grocery shopping, prepping, cooking and cleaning. When the meals you make don’t turn out, it can feel like a whole lot of work without any reward. Even when inspiration strikes, it can take just one disastrous meal to shake your confidence in the kitchen.
The great news is cooking is a skill that can be learned and there are simple habits you can incorporate to make cooking feel less chaotic and even enjoyable. So, before you throw your hands up and return to back-of-the-box meals, check out these tips to make your next meal easy as pie.
1. Get organized
Taking time to get organized before you start cooking helps create a more relaxed and stress-free experience. Staying organized can also make you more resilient against distractions, mishaps and feeling overwhelmed in the kitchen. The best part is it doesn’t require a kitchen remodel or hours of rearranging your cupboards to reap the benefits of better organization.
Follow these simple tips to create a more relaxed and stress-free cooking experience:
Start with a clean slate: While your kitchen doesn’t need to be spacious or decked out in every organizational gadget, it does need to be clean. Nobody wants to be in a kitchen that has dishes piled in the sink, plates on the counter, or a stinky trash can in the corner — let alone cook in one. Get in the habit of doing the dishes as you use them, so you’re not facing dirty dishes when you’re ready to make your next meal.
Read the recipe from start to finish: Carefully reading a recipe in its entirety before cooking may sound obvious, but when we’re in a rush it can be tempting to dive in without having a clear picture about what we’re doing. Not every recipe is designed logically (like when it says to preheat your oven in step 5 rather than step 1), so it’s important to make sure you know what you’re doing before you jump in.
Prep all of the ingredients before you start cooking: Having all of your ingredients set out and prepared (e.g., chopped, measured, grated, peeled, etc.) before you turn on your oven is the key to simple cooking. You’ll encounter fewer distractions, will quickly spot missing ingredients before it’s too late and will have more time to clean as you go.
2. Grocery shopping
Unless you’re a farmer or an avid home gardener, going to the grocery store is an unavoidable task for home cooks. Going unprepared can easily turn a quick-run-to-the-store into a time-consuming and frustrating experience. We go to the grocery store so often in our lives; it can quickly become an automatic and mindless activity, not realizing there is room for improvement.
To master the “get in, get out” approach to grocery shopping, check out these essential tips:
Grocery shop at home: The best place to start shopping is in your kitchen, so you know what you have on hand before you go to the store. This prevents buying duplicate items or assuming (incorrectly) you have enough of an ingredient.
Create a shopping list: A list not only helps you remember what you need, but it also helps you stay focused while you’re at the store. All grocery stores are designed to make consumers spend more time and more money while shopping. Making a grocery list (and sticking to it) is one of the best ways to save time and money at the store.
Keep your list organized: You can take it a step further and write the list so the items are organized by section of the grocery store. Not all grocery store chains designed the same, but they all have similarities. For example, most perishable items (e.g., meat, dairy, produce, etc.) are located in the perimeter of the store while non-perishable foods (e.g., canned fruits and vegetables, grains, junk food, etc.) are located in the middle aisles.
When you take the time to plan and organize your grocery shopping, you can save time from having to wander back and forth dodging carts, kids, and meandering folks.
3. Meal prep
The goal of meal prep is to set aside time to either fully or partially prepare a meal that you plan to eat later on. The main benefit to prepping meals in advance is it minimizes the effort required in the kitchen when real life happens, and you feel too tired / hungry / busy / etc. to cook.
With that being said, meal planning alone may feel like a daunting task especially if you envision dedicating an entire Sunday to cooking and freezing all of your meals for the week. While that may be an effective meal planning technique, it’s not the only one. The truth is, even small meal prepping actions can make a significant impact on your meal preparation.
If you’re overwhelmed by the thought of meal planning, try experimenting with any (or all) of these tips:
When you’re cooking, take a few minutes to prep extra ingredients: Since you’re already in the kitchen, make the most of your time and prep additional ingredients. This is especially helpful when it comes to veggies. When you have chopped veggies on hand, you are more likely to eat them. Plus, they are great to through in dishes like omelets, salads, stir-frys, soups, etc. throughout the week. But this can come in handy for other things like grating extra cheese or marinating meat.
Double your recipe: You don’t have to dedicate an entire day to prepping meals; instead, you can double a recipe, which typically doesn’t take twice the time. You can save the extra food in your refrigerator to eat throughout the week, or you can freeze it to keep it longer. If you double just one recipe a week, you’ll have four different frozen meals to choose from which will come in handy when you need to eat something in a pinch.
Cook up a batch of whole grains: Some whole grains can take a long time to make and aren’t convenient when you want to put a meal on the table in 30-minutes or less. Instead, try making a large batch of grains and freeze the leftovers. When you’re ready to use the grains, merely zap them in the microwave for a minute or two. This works exceptionally well for brown rice.
There isn’t a right way or a wrong way to meal prep. Just focus on choosing a way that works best for your life, something that feels manageable and sustainable. Allow for flexibility; our lives change all the time, so will your meal prep techniques.
Bonus Tip: Essential knife skills
When it comes to laying the foundation for becoming a better home cook, there probably isn’t any skill that is more important than knowing how to use a knife. Having proficient knife skills doesn’t mean executing perfect precision with your blade. It means understanding the basics of knife safety and proper handling techniques. As with any skill, using a knife correctly takes constant practice.
The great news is you don’t have to pay for an expensive class to learn the basics. There are tons of excellent video tutorials on YouTube, such as this one, that will get you started.
1. Start with something small.
No need to overhaul your entire cooking routine at once. Instead, pick one or two tips that most resonate with you and give them a try!
2. Keep iterating.
Approach cooking with a “work in progress” mentality, which will help keep you curious and willing to try new things as well as buffer you against your internal (and external) critics.
3. Learn from mistakes (and remember accomplishments).
Each time you make a new dish, ask yourself these questions:
What worked well?
What would make this dish better?
Jot your answers on the recipe or in a notebook. This will help you repeat skills that you’ve nail and learn which skills / techniques you need to improve.