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How Anyone (Yes, Even You) Can Learn to Cook

Do you joke around that you’re a “terrible cook” while chowing down on yet another carton of Chinese food? Do you always say you should learn how to cook but just don’t have the time?

If you’ve never been taught, building a cooking habit can seem pretty daunting. I know this because I used to struggle in the kitchen too. I spent most of my life surviving on turkey and mayo sandwiches, frozen pizza, and restaurant meals. When I could build up enough motivation to cook something, I’d just boil pasta.In hindsight, the excuses I employed seem ridiculous, but I remember how difficult (and frustrating) it was to want to make a lifestyle change, but lack the know-how to do so.

The tips below have helped me become a confident and capable home cook.

How to Ditch the Excuses and Learn to Cook

The first step in building a sustainable cooking habit is to address your challenges head on and come up with rational solutions. Here are some of the most common reasons people say they can’t cook, and tips to overcome each one.

The Excuse: I Don’t Have Time

This popular excuse is pretty powerful, and we use this rationale to avoid much more than cooking. To overcome this block, the most important thing that’s needed is a shift in mindset.

“Not having time” is just a matter of priorities. If learning how to cook isn’t a priority for you, then you’re doomed, regardless of effort. If cooking is important to you, you can make time by shifting around other activities. For example, before I learned how to cook, I’d get home from work each night and watch TV. When I said I didn’t have time to make dinner, I really meant that I’d rather watch another episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia than cook. Tackle this block with the following steps:

1. Write it down. Start by recording what you do every day when you get home, along with a rough estimate of how much time you spend doing each activity. Don’t leave anything out. Do you go out for drinks with friends? Watch TV? Play games on your phone? Write everything down.

2. Prioritize. Next, look at each item on the list and think about whether or not it’s more important to you than cooking yourself a healthy meal. Maybe you can cut 30 minutes out of watching TV or cut out Angry Bird completely. Find the time.

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3. Try it out. Commit to a one-week trial in which you swap in cooking activities for the time you would have spent doing a task of lesser importance. Once that week is over, commit to another week—and so on.

The Excuse:: I Don’t Like to Wash Dishes

This is entirely reasonable, since a lot of people don’t like cleaning in general. But you do shower, right? As human beings, we clean ourselves so we can live and feel better. You can apply the same thinking to cleaning dishes!

Here are three very simple approaches to overcome this stumbling block:

Incorporate cleaning into your cooking process. There’s almost always some downtime when prepping a meal, like when food is roasting in the oven or simmering away on the stovetop. Use those spare minutes to get dishes out of the way.

Shift your mindset. Think about how cleaning dishes can be an opportunity rather than a chore. I decided to turn cleaning dishes into a moment to unwind after a busy day. Washing plates and pots can be tedious, but it also provides a brief time to clear your mind while your hands do the work. Play some music, dance while you clean, and turn it into a fun, relaxing experience.

Enlist help. If all else fails, people who live with others (roommates, family members, or partners) can trade off cooking and cleaning duties to make the workload lighter for everyone.

Once you incorporate washing dishes into your cooking routine, these tasks will become a natural part of the process and you won’t think twice about the hassle.

The Excuse: I Never Learned How to Cook

A lot of adults (especially young adults) who are comfortable in the kitchen grew up with parents or other relatives who cooked a lot. As kids, they started small, probably just cracking eggs and mixing ingredients. Over time they became competent and at ease with more complicated recipes. If your parents didn’t teach you how to cook, you can replicate that experience (and no, you don’t have to move back home with Mom and Dad). Here’s how:

Start small. In the Feast program, Nadia and I recommend that all newbie students start with something really (really) small, like taking out a pot and putting it on the stove every day. That’s it. Only after doing that for a week should they start to boil water, add ingredients, and actually make something to eat. One student chose to start by putting a plate on the table. Another student simply opens up the fridge at the same time every day. By starting small, they built the foundational habits that eventually led to confidence in the kitchen.

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Be realistic. When people without any culinary experience attempt to learn how to cook, they mistakenly think they need to know fancy recipes and techniques right off the bat. On their first try, they (naturally) mess up while preparing something complicated, get overwhelmed, and give up. But “learning to cook” isn’t really about studying or reading instructions—it’s about doing. You’ll learn new skills and get more efficient as you progress. It’s just a matter of committing to doing it regularly.

The Excuse: I Don’t Like Grocery Shopping

Again, this complaint makes sense—shopping for food is expensive, time-consuming, and can be a pain in the neck to fit into a busy schedule. But most people who cook regularly don’t actually mind grocery shopping that much, because they’ve boiled it down to a science.

Here are some steps to make it even less tedious:

Stock your kitchen. Invest the time and money to load up on essential cooking ingredients, such as spices, flour, sugar, and so on. That way, grocery shopping is less of an ordeal, because weekly trips to the market can involve nothing more than picking up fresh perishables.

Schedule it in. Many seasoned home cooks establish a shopping routine so they don’t have to reorganize their entire schedule each week. That way, it’s easier to incorporate grocery shopping into your regulsr routine so it doesn’t feel like a huge hassle.

Learn the layout. The more familiar you are with your favorite store’s layout, the faster you can pick up everything you need. Almost every store in the country has a similar layout, with the fruits and vegetables in the front, the dairy section on the opposite side of the store in the refrigerator aisle, and packaged foods in the middle aisles. Practice making a list ahead of time that corresponds to this layout, and moving through each section methodically so you don’t have to circle back.

The Excuse: I Hate Looking for Recipes and Never Know What to Cook

Despite what the Food Network wants you to believe, cooking isn’t actually about recipes. Recipes are just a series of steps that someone once used to cook a dish, written down so they can be replicated. Basic recipes are hardly set in stone—it’s easy to swap in different ingredients to customize a dish to your preferences and still have tasty results. Many easy recipes follow the same basic formulas, using just a few super-simple techniques.

Here’s how to escape the trap of needing to find the “perfect recipe:”

Play around. I rarely use recipes during the week. My go-to meal is simply stir-fried veggies with a protein and a grain. The veggies always change depending on what I have around. I keep frozen chicken and shrimp handy to toss in, and always have rice or pasta stocked. Then I just use whichever spices, sauces, and juices are in my cabinets and fridge to give the dish flavor. It’s nothing fancy—in fact, it’s hardly even a “recipe”—but it is quick, delicious, healthy, and simple. Give yourself space to play around with the ingredients and cooking styles that appeal to you most, and remember that there is no one, correct way to go about it.

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Keep it real. If you have to use a recipe, remember that your goal isn’t to make something fancy every time—it’s just to cook a good, satisfying meal. After spending some time in the kitchen, you’ll develop an understanding of the basic processes that go into cooking and feel comfortable using your skills to experiment.

The Excuse: I Don’t Know the Proper Techniques

Not sure about the “correct” way to handle a spatula? Who cares?! As long as you’re not chopping off your fingers, you’ll be fine. Leave worrying about professional technique to professional chefs. If your unorthodox methods don’t result in bodily harm, they’ll be just fine cooking basic dishes. Plus, you’ll learn tricks of the trade and favorite techniques as you go along.

Here are the two most important things to do when you’re unsure of your skills in the kitchen:

1. Just go for it! There’s a huge margin for error in cooking. And even if you mess up beyond repair, you’ll learn for next time.

2. Look it up. When you really do need help, turn to Google. Turns out all of the basic techniques you might need are all available online for free.

The Excuse: I’m Just a Bad Cook; It’s in my Blood

Good news—you’re actually a natural; you just don’t know it yet. The ability to cook is built into our genes. Our sense of taste evolved to help us know what to put into our bodies (and what to avoid eating). Everyone has a cook’s intuition, it might just be a bit rusty if you’re not used to cooking. Need convincing?

Get your facts straight. In Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, author Richard Wrangham explains that the genus Homo (as in Homo-Sapien) evolved as a result of our ability to control fire and cook our meals. By cooking our meals, our bodies, brains, use of time, and social lives all changed. Not only are you a cook by nature, but cooking is a big part of what makes you human.

Cultivate your intuition. In the Feast Bootcamp, we tell students to take two random spices and mix them together with something bland, like rice. Sometimes a mixture will surprise you and taste amazing. Other times it will taste weird. That’s your cook’s intuition in action.

Remember what you’ve learned. As you cook more often, your tongue will remember the flavor profiles of the various ingredients you’ve worked with, and you’ll develop an automatic aversion to tastes that don’t go well together.

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The Excuse: I Tried to Cook Once and It Came Out Terrible

This kind of black and white thinking won’t serve you in the kitchen or anywhere else. “Failure” isn’t really failure; it’s a necessary part of the learning process. It’s completely natural for a first attempt in the kitchen to be less than a rousing success.

To help shift out of the “all-or-nothing” mindset, keep these thoughts in mind:

Remember: It takes time. Were you a Tour de France cyclist the first time you hopped on a bicycle? Probably not. The first time you do anything is always tough. Cooking for the first time can feel especially hard since you might waste some food or have to struggle through eating a mediocre meal. But use these moments as an opportunity to remember all the other times you learned something new—bet you’re a lot better at tying your shoes now than you were as a little kid, right? Keep in mind that every failure is a lesson that will make you a better cook, since next time you’ll be aware of that mistake and take precautions to avoid it.

Trust that it’s better to do something than do nothing. A Feast student recently shared her first cooking experience with Nadia and me. She was cooking dinner for herself and made a few mistakes: She forgot to remove the skin from the beets and overcooked some of the other veggies in the oven. Regardless, she was still excited! She realized that even if the dish was less than perfect, she was still successful because she actually cooked. Unsurprisingly, the next meal she attempted was much better.

The Excuse: My Kitchen Is too Small

New York Times food writer Mark Bittman shoots this one down pretty well. He claims that using a crummy kitchen as an excuse not to cook is like saying you can’t exercise in the winter because you don’t have a fully-stocked home gym. While it would be great to have more space and better tools and appliances, you’d be amazed at how much you can accomplish with limited means.

Here are a few hacks for making a small kitchen work:

1. Use your stovetop as a countertop (provided you’re just using the oven, of course!). Lay down a (clean) board over the stovetop or just use a big cutting board.

2. Keep a folding table in the closet. Pull it out while you’re cooking for instant extra “counter” space.

3. Get creative with storage arrangements. For example, try putting hooks on the wall to hang your pots or using a knife magnet rack to store your knives.

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4. Focus on simple recipes with limited ingredients. Not only are they easier to cook, but they require way less space to prep.

The Takeaway

So there you have it: the most common roadblocks that prevent people from cooking and how to overcome or rethink each one. Did you notice a theme? All of the reasons we use to justify not cooking are easily alleviated when we start to cook regularly (just start!), take baby steps, shift our mindset, and allow ourselves to learn gradually. Build the habit by starting really small and you’ll find the obstacles start to fade away. Pretty soon, you’ll be an experienced cook living healthily, happily, and deliciously ever after.


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