The Feeding Doctor on Pinterest

learning how to cook, variations on a theme

Posted by on Mar 26, 2013 in Blog Posts | 5 comments

I was so blown away by this comment on a recent blog post that I decided to make sure it didn’t get lost. It is a must read as far as I am concerned, in terms of teaching yourself to cook, and taking care of yourself… My only complaint is that I would disagree that this reader says her cooking skills are nothing special! I repost with permission, and gratitude as I head off to the Mall of America for some Spring Break fun before a few hours work this afternoon! (M has been begging for Build a Bear for a year, so this will be our entertainment, followed by lunch at her favorite Chinese buffet. She’s been more excited about the Bear than her recent cruise with her grandparents, so I’m going to enjoy it, even if we could use another stuffed animal like a hole in the head…)

Readers, how did you learn/teach yourself to cook?


“… I am neither a confident nor a talented cook (I’m a strict recipe follower), and I’m not a foodie either – not particularly adventurous, food is fuel more than anything else, etc. (I’m not saying that’s better than any other approach, just the way I’m wired and always have been). My dinner-cooking and ability to provide edible food for myself turned a corner when I mastered about half a dozen simple meals in the kitchen, and now I can do at least half a dozen variations on each of them… They are:
– a simple red or green curry with two main ingredients (tofu & broccoli, pumpkin & chickpea, etc).
– a stir-fry (teriyaki, peanut satay, oyster sauce, etc etc, with different greens)
– a stuffed baked potato or sweet potato
– a quinoa salad, with various pairings (a Greek version, a Japanese version, etc)
– a simple vegetable soup (can do pumpkin/carrot/sweet potato/pea/etc)
– a Mexican bowl (basically nachos/tacos/etc ingredients on rice and beans rather than chips or shells)

All of these things are cost effective (and guaranteed to work) and vegetarian. It sounds like quite a bit, and sure it took time to learn each of those skills, but I genuinely do only know how to cook six things (and then variations on each one). I’m perfectly satisfied with the amount of variety I get, and I can now cook each of those things fairly quickly. And they taste really good!! It’s so much more successful than when every night was Russian Roulette – trying a salad I’d never made before, trying to do homemade pizzas one night and pasta sauce the next… It was so stressful, and I really couldn’t afford (timewise or financially… I’m a young journalist, so I get paid like crap) to have any mishaps (which I frequently did). I try and ensure I get all my nutritional needs by being adventurous with my grains/legumes/veggies/meat-free proteins that accompany each dish – but that’s only taking a gamble on one ingredient, and I know I’ll get the sauce right.

Now that being in the kitchen every night doesn’t end in stress and tears (and I don’t even have kids, that’s just me!! Lol), I feel less pressured when I am actually trying something new… My current things I’m working on (to take the list up to 8!) are risotto and lentil stew (again, quite flexible dishes). But I know I can try them once a week, end up eating toast, and still get it right the other days. The other thing that has helped has been containing my experimentation and learning new skills to baking/sweet treats. It’s OK if I mess up the cupcakes, because they’re not essential to my nutrition, and I only buy ingredients for sweets if I can afford them (knowing they don’t form part of my core nutrition, and that nothing might come of them). It’s so much less stressful to balls up a cake than your dinner.

I know this probably sounds a bit pathetic (also, long!!) but just wanted to reiterate that there are people out there who really have struggled in this situation. I grew up poor and in a single parent family (father only), so lived on pot noodles, toast, chicken nuggets, etc, and was never taught to cook (no classes at school either). So I only started myself at 18, and it’s taken me til my 20s to get to the level of confidence/proficiency I’m at now (still not great I know, but I’m happy enough). I don’t even remember how I realized that learning a few things and then swapping the ingredients around was the way to go… Maybe it was dating a guy who cooked green curry about 4 times a week, haha.”

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  1. Eileen

    I love her 6 meal variety. i’m a pretty good cook but sometimes I get overwhelmed by decision making and make everything too complicated. I recently decided that I should just keep it simple – almost going back to my great-grandmother’s way of Monday Meatloaf, Tuesday Tuna (not really, just made that up), etc. Keeping my repertoire smaller makes it easier to plan, shop and makes for shorter meal prep. That way I am more likely to end up with a healthy meal on the table AT dinnertime. My previous obsession with always wanting to try new things meant hours in the kitchen when I was inspired and too much mac n’ cheese when the thought of cooking felt overwhelming.

    • katja

      I only make a new recipe about once a month or so. Some months nothing new at all! It’s a lot of pressure! Do what works for you, sounds like a great plan with the monday, tuesday plan. Occasionally I get on a kick and try a few new recipes, but so few of them are worth the rotation, that I often skip trying new stuff! Luckily I have enough core recipes that on one complains 🙂 When M was younger I ate a lot more convenience foods like frozen tortellini, or even Thai food take-out! I made the same soba noodle terriyaki dish at least twice a week 🙂

  2. Twistie

    I think the original commenter has learned a lot in a relatively short time, especially coming from a completely non-cooking background!

    I also applaud her approach. If you’re just learning to do nearly anything, you start with very basic building blocks and work your way up. Why should anyone think cooking is different?

    The biggest difference between her and me is that my parents started teaching me to cook as soon as I could see over the countertops. They, too, started me off with things they knew I could master quickly and moved on to more complex things as I got better and more confident. In my case, it was quickly discovered that baking is like breathing to me, so I learned a simple cookie first and moved on from there, taking up savory dishes later on. But they started with where my basic bent led and then coaxed me on to other things as I seemed ready. In a few years, I was able to turn out a decent basic dinner for the family when it was needed.

    Now I’m fifty, but I’m still learning to cook. As long as you have an interest and curiosity and at least some access, the learning can last a lifetime. But if you’ve got ten or a dozen basics under your belt that you know how to vary as taste, access, and whim dictate, then you can feed yourself for a lifetime, too. Heck, you could probably do it on the six you know now!

    The important thing is that you found a good, solid approach that allows you to fulfill your needs and still leaves you room to learn more as you feel ready. Too many people try to start off with something that would have given Julia Child pause and then give up because their failure at that ‘proves’ they can’t cook. But nobody would say that someone who can’t win the Indy 500 is incapable of driving to the grocery store to pick up some milk, and nobody would say that someone who isn’t up to major brain surgery can’t clean and bandage a cut successfully.

    I started reading with the ABCs, not War and Peace. I started cooking with a batch of sugar cookies, not napoleons with homemade puff pastry. Nobody starts anything at the top of the skill pile. You have to pay your dues and build your skills. Every level along the way comes with its own challenges, and they’re all worth facing if you want to learn how to do something well.

    Taking the journey can be its own reward, if you approach it with optimism tempered with a little realism.

  3. Natasha

    Great story! In my case, I didn’t formally “learn to cook”. I feel as though a lot of the basic cooking skills, like chopping, how to cook potatoes, pasta, etc. I learned by osmosis by watching my grandmother and mother, by no means master chefs, but functional. After moving away, I have learned (and still learning, I view it as a life long process) to cook more things, by following recipes. Many things I still have to refer to a recipe to make (even pancakes, i can never remember the right quantities), but I have the confidence and basic skills to follow most recipes. I really like How to Cook Everything, for solid recipes that use common ingredients but also offer ideas for variations. My biggest barrier is time – as fancier things take hours of prep, and it’s been tough with a small child. I find as she gets older I’m able to involve her more in cooking (almost 3 now), and my goal is to have her be an active helper, which both helps with the cooking, and takes off the pressure of being distracted by a child who hasn’t seen me all day, as this turns into an activity we do together.

    • Amy

      Sounds like your daughter is learning to cook the same way I learned. By “helping” my mother. Starting when I was so young I can’t remember not being able to cook. I must admit I’m pretty much incapable of following a recipe as written. I always make my own tweaks.