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For my 23rd birthday (we’re pushing ten years ago now :/), I asked my boyfriend for a cookbook. I had just graduated from college and my culinary skills were broad enough to include making boxed macaroni and cheese and reheating frozen burritos. I wasn’t joking with my gift request.
He knew, of course, that I was trying to prepare to be at least a somewhat adequate wife. Not that qualifications for wifehood these days necessarily include kitchen prowess; nonetheless, I knew it was time to learn.
And so he took drove me up the side of a mountain outside of Anchorage to take pictures on my birthday—and then he gave me this.
He gave me a ring too.
As cute as the story is, my skills didn’t improve much after we said, “I do.” I got slightly more proficient at baking and a few family recipes that generally relied on processed ingredients. Before we had kids, Marc got home from work earlier most days and frankly, he was a better cook. So I wasn’t greatly motivated.
Then babies happened, we moved across the country, and I transitioned to being home full time.
About four years ago—around the time I started blogging, incidentally—I started to feel more inspired. Like maybe I shouldn’t be doing what was fastest and easiest when it came to feeding my family. I was also becoming more aware of where our food was coming from and how to prepare it in healthier ways.
And so my food journey began in earnest.
Today I’m not a phenomenal chef, but I’ve got a decent repertoire of healthy meal options that the family enjoys. I’m not a fanatic, but as much as possible I stick to whole ingredients. I genuinely enjoy cooking. And I enjoy eating even more!
It’s an age of convenience when it comes to preparing our food, but there’s also a growing movement to source food responsibly and prepare it healthfully. I find a lot of the advice out there to be inspiring but overwhelming.
As a busy parent, I had to take baby steps.
It doesn’t happen overnight, but if you’re persistent you can teach yourself basic cooking skills—even with absolutely no previous experience or natural talent. Trust me, if I can do this, pretty much anyone can.
Need some help getting started on your own food journey? Here’s what worked for me:
- Start with a great basic cookbook.
I know that cookbooks are going out of style…why bother when you have a million recipes at your fingertips through the Internet? While I’m a big fan of Pinterest recipes, you don’t always know what you’re getting. I love my very first Betty Crocker cookbook and use it to this day more than any other resource. It covers a variety of tried and true dishes that are easy to make.
Betty Crocker is also helpful because it thoroughly answers all those random questions you have like what temperature your meat should be or how to tell if your muffin batter has been overmixed.
- Transition slowly.
I went through a phase when I was implementing a meal plan that introduced a new dinner recipe every night. I quickly discovered that, while I was working very hard, my family didn’t not appreciate the sudden changes (particularly my husband, who liked the old family recipes). You might have the best intentions, but being too adventurous every day isn’t encouraging for picky eaters. Plus, if you’re still learning the basics, you have a high likelihood of botching something up.
While I was slightly disappointed, I compromised and only introduced one new meal a week. In the long run, we still have the variety I desire but the transition wasn’t as painful.
- Make homemade substitutes for processed foods.
Over time I’ve learned that I can replicate pretty much any boxed food—resulting in healthier, tastier dishes. I regularly make my own pasta sauce, chicken stock and a substitute for canned condensed cream soups. Sometimes when I’m feeling motivated I’ll even make my own bread and granola.
One caveat: don’t beat yourself up if you don’t make all the things from scratch. I’ve been through that guilt trip. If you love to make everything from scratch, that’s fantastic. But I confess that my kids still like boxed macaroni and cheese and I am happy to feed it to them. Someone arrest me (hey at least it’s the organic brand!).
- Plan, plan, plan.
There are endless ways to approach this and I’ve tried a lot of them. When I was first starting out, it was helpful to plan meals and grocery shop weekly. Now I do it a little more loosely because I’m more confident about pulling together what I have on hand.
The situation you don’t want to be in is discovering at 5 p.m. that you have no food in the house and no dinner plan. If this is you, it’s not that hard to start: write down at least five meals that you want to make during the week and make a grocery list. Eventually you’ll start knowing how to plan for not just dinner but other meals as well.
- Keep a list of your favorites recipes.
Eventually you’ll find that some of your meals are really tasty. That’s great! Make sure you write down which ones everyone likes so you don’t forget about them. I have a list of our favorites in my planner, which I refer to regularly whenever I plan our meals.
- Take advantage of leftovers.
It only makes sense: if you have a great recipe, make lots of it. You can eat the leftovers for lunches, or freeze a big batch for later. As much as possible I also try to get the most bang for my buck; for example, when I make pasta sauce, I use half of it on spaghetti and save half of it for lasagna later. Soup recipes are easy to double. I also like to make a batch of smoothies and freeze some into popsicles.
- Invest in quality kitchenware…slowly.
Preparing food is so much more enjoyable when you have the right equipment. I say this cautiously…because nothing is more annoying than a kitchen full of gadgets you don’t use. But there are some I love and would highly recommend to everyone getting serious about food prep. I acquired these slowly and I think that’s important because you will know better what you need once you have more experience:
- Good knives. We got our Wusthof set as a wedding gift, and nearly ten years later they’re still fantastic. Just don’t forget to get them professionally sharpened from time to time.
- Cast iron cookware. We have two Lodge skillets and just recently acquired a dutch oven as well. Food just tastes better in cast iron because of the residual oil left in it. It’s now the only way I can make soup.
- Crockpot. If you don’t have a slow cooker, do yourself a favor and go get one. Now.
- Rice cooker. It’s just better this way, trust me. Get the Asian brand.
- Stand mixer. I was skeptical about whether I wanted to spend that much money on a kitchen appliance until I finally got it as a birthday gift. I’m a convert. There is just no other way to make any kind of dough. Plus the ice cream maker attachment is the best!
- Food processor. This is quite handy if you want to make your own salsa, creamy soups, nut butter, pesto, hummus…you name it.
- Airbake cookie sheet. I feel a little silly posting this one, but it makes such a huge difference in the quality of my cookies.
- Quality blender. I don’t have one yet. But I want one. Making smoothies and other drinks would be so much easier. So the Ninja is next on my hit list.
- Don’t give up!
If you only have one takeaway lesson from this post, let this be it. Try and try again until you figure out what works. You can do this. Your family will not starve and you will not live on takeout forever. Don’t feel guilty when you make a mistake; use it as a learning opportunity. You will get better. I promise.
Where are you in your food journey? Are you an expert cook or just starting out? Share your tips in the comments or on social media.
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