[This is a guest post written by my good friend and food lover Darrin Carlson from theguycancook.com. I asked Darrin to prepare this post for Bloom to Fit because I know he is incredibly passionate about teaching people how to prepare simple and healthy meals. Learning how to cook for yourself isn’t hard and it can literally transform your life. Take it away Darrin.]
80% of your health and fitness is the result of your diet!
We’ve all heard sayings like this, and most people who have been successful at getting and staying in shape will agree that changing their diet had the most dramatic effect.
But how can you eat a healthy diet in a world of fast food and chemically-engineered food products?
Easy: learn how to cook.
When you learn how to prepare your own meals from scratch, you have 100% control over what you put into your body.
You don’t have to struggle reading nutrition labels, and plenty of research suggests that reducing the amount of “high-calorie, high-flavor” food that you find in most prepared meals is a successful way to reduce overeating.
Oh, and knowing how to throw together a tasty meal will come in handy on date night, whether you are a guy or a girl.
So you’re ready to learn how to cook? Awesome! Here are the basic guidelines.
It’s Better to Get Started Than to have all the Right Information
Which cookbook should I buy?
Which brand of cookware is best?
How many knives do I need?
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by information when learning how to cook. Everyone’s got an opinion on what equipment you should buy, and what recipes you should start out with.
(Heck, even I’m about to make these suggestions later in this article!)
But make sure that you prioritize action before information.
It may sound obvious, but you need to be in the kitchen, working up a sweat, in order to learn how to cook.
Get whatever equipment you have on hand, buy whatever you can afford, and start cooking whatever recipes you can find.
You will make mistakes at first. But don’t let that get you down. Keep trying, and you will learn how to cook over time.
Use What you Have, Supplement as you go
Don’t want to drop an entire paycheck on kitchen equipment?
You don’t have to.
Even the poorest college student is bound to at least have a cheap set of pots, pans, spoons, and spatulas for making pasta and scrambled eggs.
So you have no excuse for not learning how to cook!
Yes, a cast-iron skillet is great to have, but a cheap aluminum one will get the job done as well. A nice knife is killer to have, but that crappy Ikea one you have is all you need to get started.
In the following section, I’ll give examples of important pieces of equipment to have in your kitchen when starting out, including low-cost alternatives that you might already have on hand.
(But I’ll also suggest some more expensive options for those of you who are interested in upgrading.)
Either way, don’t sweat it too much. You will already have most of this on hand. And if you don’t, it won’t put you back too much to buy it.
Stick With the Basics
There are a few basic tools that will allow you to cook 90% of the things you’ll ever want to eat:
Knife and Cutting Board
Perhaps the most important tool in your kitchen is a good knife.
I suggest getting a 8-inch (20 cm) chef’s knife. They are easy to find and can perform 95% of a home cook’s cutting tasks, including slicing, dicing, chopping, and mincing.
Chef’s knives can be dirt cheap, exorbitantly expensive, and everywhere in between. You generally get what you pay for, so it’s up to you and your budget.
You’ll also want a cutting board, although quality is less of an issue here. Just get something that will keep you from chopping up your kitchen table and losing your security deposit.
Pot and Spoon
The next most important tool is a large (6–8 quart or 6–8 L) pot.
Soups, stews, and pot roasts are some of the most foolproof meals you can make, and are perfect for beginners. And you can make them all in a large pot.
The large nonstick pot you make your pasta in will probably do fine, but if you are looking to upgrade, I’d suggest looking into getting an enameled Dutch oven.
These bad boys can go in the oven (which the cheap pots rarely can do) and will last you the rest of your life.
They can be expensive, but if you look around online, you can usually find good deals on the pots made by Lodge and Tramontina.
You’ll also want a large spoon to stir whatever you make in your pot, and I’d suggest a wooden one.
They are cheap, long, and don’t conduct heat well. And again, they will last forever if properly cared for.
Pan and Spatula
The last “major” piece of equipment is a pan, which is used for frying.
Again, I’m sure you have a flimsy aluminum pan on hand, but I’d highly suggest you get a cast-iron skillet about 10 inches (25 cm) in diameter.
Cast-iron can go in the oven, which means you can use it for roasting, essentially getting two pieces of equipment for the price of one.
Unlike aluminum, cast-iron will last you the rest of your life.
Oh yeah, and cast-iron is cheap!
You won’t pay much more for an iron skillet than you would for a cheapo one, so unless you are completely broke, I strongly suggest going for the upgrade.
You’ll also need a spatula for stirring and flipping food on the pan. If you have a nonstick skillet, you should use a plastic one, but if you are using cast-iron, then it’s best to use a metal one to scrape the pan and help keep the surface clean and smooth.
The Secret Weapon…
As great as these basics are, you might want to treat yourself to something a little more high-tech as well.
A slow cooker serves much of the same purpose as a Dutch oven, but has the added benefit of being an electrical appliance you can leave alone.
[Editor’s note: the slow cooker is probably the most useful and financially feasible tool for making simple and healthy meals especially for those who don’t have much time to prepare food. You can get a solid one for about $30.]
If you’ve ever wanted to come home to a hot meal ready to eat, then the slow cooker’s the way to go.
- Add meat, veggies, herbs and spices, and some stock to your pot in the evening and put it in the fridge.
- The next morning, take the pot out of the fridge and set it on the “low” setting before you head off to work.
- Come home to the most delicious smells and prepare yourself for a mouthwatering homemade dish! Voila!
Learn the Fundamental Skills
It’s easy to be intimidated by most cookbooks.
Thousands of recipes! Obscure ingredients! Expensive equipment!
But when it comes down to it, there are really only a few basic knife and cooking skills you need to master, kinda like the “wax on, wax off” of the kitchen!
There are only five knife skills you need to master:
- Peeling–Cutting off the outer layer of a food.
- Slicing–Cutting thin layers.
- Dicing–Cutting cubes.
- Chopping–Roughly cutting.
- Mincing–Like chopping, but smaller pieces.
With the exception of peeling (when you’d use a peeler), you can perform all these knife skills with a chef’s knife.
There are also four cooking skills you need to master:
- Boiling–Cooking in hot liquid.
- Roasting–Cooking at a low temperature in a closed environment.
- Frying–Cooking at a high temperature in an open environment.
- Steaming–Cooking above boiling liquid in a closed environment.
You can perform all these basic cooking techniques with just the pot, pan, spoon, and spatula I listed above, with one exception.
Steaming requires a steamer basket, which you can get for a couple bucks anywhere, but should probably hold off on to start with unless you really want to start steaming veggies.
So what’s the best way to learn these skills?
Should you buy a whole bunch of equipment and vegetables, practicing away on ingredients that you don’t even want to eat in an effort to learn these valuable skills?
The best way to master the basics is to…
Cook What You Want (and What You Love)
The typical fitness-minded person who loves to cook will usually have the following in their repertoire:
If you can’t make these things (and are interested in including them in your diet), then they are a pretty good way to start to figure things out in the kitchen.
But I suggest you take things to the next level.
Some good recipes for beginners include the following:
- Pot roast and mashed potatoes
- Chicken and rice (or noodle) soup
- Roast chicken
- Pork chops with sweet potatoes
Now, I know that you might have specific dietary needs that don’t jibe with my suggestions. That’s cool. From Paleo to vegetarianism, one thing you gotta admit is that there isn’t much consensus as to what constitutes a healthy diet.
But that’s the great thing about cooking for yourself.
If you are avoiding carbs, it’s easy to keep starchy veggies out of your diet if you cook for yourself.
If you are avoiding fat, it’s easy to keep red meat and dairy out of your diet if you cook for yourself.
What’s important when learning how to cook is that you learn to make the things that you want to eat, based on your dietary needs and what you find delicious.
I truly believe that the most important part of any healthy diet is that it is made of food that comes from farms and fields rather than factories and laboratories, and cooking and preparing your own food helps you to do this more than anything else.
[Editor’s note: Amen to that!]
Have Fun With It!
Learning how to cook a few solid, healthy, and tasty meals will do wonders towards helping you reach your health and fitness goals.
You will also learn a great skill that will come in handy whenever you want to have people over to your place to hang out instead of going to a restaurant, and will give you an opportunity to contribute an amazing dish during holidays.
But most people are simply too afraid to learn how to cook.
They think they will ruin things. They think they don’t have enough equipment. They think it is simply a waste of time.
When you are learning, sure, you will botch things every now and then. You’ll make mistakes. But you will learn from them. And if you don’t give up, over time, you will hone your skills and end up mastering an important and practical skill that will serve you a lifetime.
So what is the next step YOU need to take RIGHT NOW to learn how to cook?
[Once again, a huge shout out to Darrin for putting together this awesome post. If you want more simple, in-depth tips like this, I highly recommend you sign up for his kitchen-hacking 101 newsletter. He doesn’t send emails too frequently, but the ones he does are worth reading more than once.]