I recently came across a video on social media – can’t remember where, and it doesn’t really matter – talking about how people are obsessed with watching cooking shows on TV, yet do not cook at home. (In a similar vein, most articles I read about life in New York City purport that “New Yorkers don’t cook”, whether because of extremely limited free time, tiny kitchens, no cabinet space, etc. Hmm.)
At any rate, the people interviewed in the aforementioned video were outright whiny, complaining that they had never been taught how to cook in school (these people were solidly in their mid-twenties and thirties, for context), or that they would have no idea even where to begin, or they didn’t want to cook for just themselves – perish the thought!
I didn’t learn how to cook in school, either. Sure, back in the 6th grade, I had Home Economics as a required elective for 6 weeks or so, and as part of the curriculum, we were shown recipes like microwave “pizzas” using crackers instead of dough and “easy drop” danishes made with biscuit mix from a box and store-bought jam. You’re right, that’s not really cooking.
You know how I learned to cook? Reading. Looking at LOTS of pictures. And okay, by watching cooking shows on TV (the Food Network was really good back in the the late 1990s – early 2000s). But no one taught me. I didn’t go to cooking school. I copied down recipes from my mom’s recipe box and asked her questions about how to execute those recipes, but I never paid a teacher.
I learned by doing, because I wanted to. Also, because I wanted to save money, and I knew I was capable enough to make food. (By the way, homemade food costs A LOT less than store-bought, restaurant-bought, or processed food. A LOT.)
So, to all the people in the video I saw, and all others like them who need a little push when it comes to learning how or finding the motivation to make their own food, I say to you mainly these two words: You CAN. But also, these words: It doesn’t have to be perfect.
You don’t need recipes, even. You can cook well without them, much of the time. Try it! I’m willing to bet most people can make a simple meal by applying the process of logical thought. For example, a breakfast of egg on toast, with any number of optional toppings? That counts! A pan-seared steak. Tacos. A salad. A smoothie! What can you dream up? Try it.
You don’t need a lot of fancy gear. A cutting board and a knife, a pot and a skillet, a colander, a couple wooden spoons and a spatula, a couple of large bowls, a sheet pan… maybe a blender… that’ll do for a start. Chopping and slicing (or knife skills, as chefs call them) and stirring are the main techniques you’ll really use (and you don’t even have to “master” these skills to be able to make yourself something to eat.)
You also don’t need a lot of space. For all the food I make at home, I do my prep work off of a small kitchen island that I bought, or from my small dining table. Get creative – unfold a card table or even a TV table if you need work space and haven’t got any. In my first apartment as a single person in DC, I had even less prep area than I do now, plus a smaller stove and oven, and I still managed to cook and bake most of the foods I ate. When I get it in my head to do something, I am determined.
Cooking isn’t hard. It can be, however, FUN. It can be, actually, relaxing. For me, it is both of these things – it’s become a ritual, helping to wind down my mind and re-focus. It’s a bit like putting together a puzzle. It is a practice, like yoga or tai chi, yielding tangible results. I love that. And as with most things, the more you practice, the more skilled you’ll become.
So where to begin, if you’re new to cooking? Start small – with yourself. Learn how to make a few simple dishes for one person, and realize how easy it is to multiply amounts of ingredients to serve more people. Add new dishes to your repertoire as desired. Try these books for inspiration: Going Solo in the Kitchen, and Healthy Food for Two (or Just You). Read Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, for even more inspiration. Try making an omelette. Try making an open face grilled cheese sandwich with tomato and Parmesan and herbs. Try reading How to Cook a Wolf, by MFK Fisher. Read most of MFK Fisher, actually.
Go to farmers’ markets. Buy good-quality ingredients and buy only what you need for yourself (or any others you are cooking for). Make some mistakes. Adjust. Try unusual seasonings. Try weird vegetables. Have friends over and cook a one-pot meal for them, or something fancier because you want to, not because you feel you have to (because you don’t). Stay in and make a meal just for you, complete with a nice drink and a little dessert, if you want. You can totally do this.
Stop relying solely on others to prepare your food, whether because you think you can’t handle it, you’re obsessed about it not being “right,” or whatever other excuse you’re using.
Incidentally, a writer whose blog I enjoy reading, Mr. Money Mustache, compares people that work in restaurants to hired servants. Having worked as a bartender and server before, I find that pretty amusing, ’cause it’s kinda true. So, give the servants a night (or a few) off and make your own damn dinner!