“Hey baby, do you like fine cooking? Cause you know what? I got Swanson's Dinner in the freezer with your name on it."
May 29, 2012 3:08 PM   Subscribe

How can I learn to like cooking?

I'm a stay-at-home-mom of three. I've recently realized that I really dislike cooking. Baking, I love. But we really can't eat the most delicious cookies and cake all the time, can we?

So, how can I learn to like cooking? I'd like to make tasty meals for my family more than twice a week. But thinking up menus + grocery shopping for stuff + finding the time prepare + finding the time to cook it all up = I'm too tired just thinking about it, so how about we go out to eat (again) or have pancakes for dinner (again)?

A few difficulties for me:

1. Dinner-time comes at a time when I'm most tired. I'm low-energy anyway. But, even when I could throw something in the crockpot, I typically flake out of doing that as well. So, not sure that tiredness/low-energy has anything to do with it other than it being a pretty decent excuse.

2. Grocery shopping - due to some anxiety with going to the grocery store I tend to put off getting groceries. Also, spending money and finances stress me out a lot. Although this means we go out to eat a lot = not good for the wallet but for some reason that's okay.

3. The effort to come up with menus. That's just as draining as anything else associated with cooking. My brain just isn't functioning beyond "pancakes for dinner."

4. Food that I make doesn't taste good to me. I could make something really super delicious and it won't taste good to ME. Why put all that effort into a meal when it just makes me gag? I've had genuine compliments on some things that I've made, but for some reason when I make something it's not tasty to me.

I should be able to put together some good nutritious tasty meals for my family. My kids are (basically) in school all day. I have the time, but lack the "want to."

Any ideas? Has this happened to you? How does one go about learning to like to cook?
posted by Sassyfras to Food & Drink (32 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
What about working from a cookbook like How to Cook Everything to find food you already love to eat? That cookbook also has a number of suggested menus, so meal planning would be somewhat easier.

It also sounds like you're maybe being a bit ambitious: look for recipes that don't have too many ingredients or too many steps.
posted by mchorn at 3:21 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I haven't used it myself, but I have some friends who swear by emeals.

Also, with the crockpot, try setting it up in the morning when you have more energy, and let stuff like stew (cough, cough) slow-cook all day.
posted by Gator at 3:21 PM on May 29, 2012

2 is the easiest. Peapod is relatively affordable, especially with free delivery for the first month.

For the rest, I think the key is that the foods you make don't taste good to you. Why is that? Are you trying too hard to be "nutritious" or please others? I'd try to figure out a couple of things that you could make that you would really like and see how that motivates you.
posted by callmejay at 3:21 PM on May 29, 2012

I think you are a prime candidate for meal plans - ones that take a week (or more) into consideration with shopping and "carryover" (ie cook enough chicken on Monday to make tacos on Tuesday and freeze for chicken spaghetti next week) for efficiency. It'll also mean you'll cook and finish pretty much everything you buy.

Taking the anxiety out is, I think, the best first step. Being armed with a plan should help tremendously and simply make the process more pleasant to start with.

The hardest part is learning to like what you cook, and I think part of the problem (and a lot of people get this, including people who love to cook) is overexposure/fatigue from the cooking stage. The fix for that, in the end, is to get over it. Whether you do that with pride or relief that the work is done or pleasure in your kids liking it or because you're actually fond of the food. If you can learn to swizzle your timing so that you can go outside or to another room for 5 minutes before the food hits the table and just not have the food up in your face for a second (maybe go in the bathroom and have a nice face-wash with something unfood-smelling and then you feel all refreshed and ready to face it), that might help.

Hopefully other Mefites will have a suggestion for good plans. I'm a low carb/primal/GF DINK, so my good plans are probably the absolute worst for you.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:24 PM on May 29, 2012

Take a class! You'll be seriously amazed how much more you will enjoy cooking when you have a couple of meals and techniques that you were taught by a professional in your repertoire.

#4 is a very common phenomenon, even with professional chefs.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 3:24 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

To address this:
Food that I make doesn't taste good to me.
I've had this problem too. I think, for me, the issue comes up when I make something complicated and time-intensive. By the time it's ready, I'm tired of tasting, smelling and thinking about all the ingredients. Not surprisingly, I've found that my favorite cooked-by-me meals are very simple. For instance, my go-to is some sort of simply-prepared protein (grilled chicken breasts, steak, roasted chicken) with simply-prepared veggies (roasted asparagus or sauteed mushrooms are my current favorites, salad is also good) and maybe a starch (rice and quinoa are both easy and delicious when boiled in broth and maybe some spices).

These types of dishes are easy to shop for (no long list of ingredients), easy to plan for (I just need to buy a bunch of veggies and a bunch of protein and then just make whatever sounds good on a given evening). They also happen to be pretty healthy!

Also, the answers to my question a while back gave me some really great ideas for making meal planning less stressful.
posted by lunasol at 3:52 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

How to Cook Everything is an awesome book to start with. The recipes are pretty simple to follow, even if they use a lot of ingredients, and for me they've pretty much always turned out great. There are so many different kinds of recipes that you can look through them and tweak them and come up with new ideas.

Chow is a good website too if you're interested in food.

I think the way to learn to like cooking is to just start cooking with a good cookbook.

You could also get the family in to help out.
posted by fromageball at 3:53 PM on May 29, 2012

I have been terrible about meals in the past. In the interest of nutrition I've had to get myself together - things that have worked for me:

Leftovers. If you choose dishes that keep well, and make a little extra every night you cook, those leftovers can become the basis of what my family called "potluck" growing up and what I call "bonus food" now. My lunches now are usually leftovers from the past couple of dinners. Having good storage containers helps a lot to keep leftover food fresh and visible.

Thirding "How To Cook Everything." The recipes are simple simple, I was never an enthusiastic cook until I got that book. The nice thing about the book is that while the base recipes stand on their own, the author takes the time to give lots of options for ways to change them up to add variety or take advantage of whatever food is already in your home. But since the recipes are simple and work well they are incredibly satisfying.

Also grocery shopping - I used to hate it for reasons of my own - but a list helps. Just in case you aren't used to using one, I didn't always before, and I could shop for 45 minutes without actually buying anything.

Finally - two-stage prep. Whenever you have energy in the day (for me it is early morning) I prep food for later (chopping vegetables, cooking grains, marinating meats, etc) and put it in the fridge until dinner. Then it all gets put together in the evening and heat is added and then dinner feels like it is done in 20 minutes.

It might feel like a lot of work at first, but if you're eating better then you might find you have more energy to do everything, including continue cooking. It's a positive feedback cycle.
posted by newg at 3:58 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have completely given up on the idea of liking to cook. I will never like to cook. Instead, I focus on these three things: saving money, saving time, being ok with cooking (in that order). Some people will tell you it's about baby steps, but that didn't work for me. Making one extra meal a week didn't save me enough money for me to find it worth it. But making dinner 5 times a week? That's worth it. Here's how I went from eating out every night to cooking most nights. This is long, but your post makes me think that you need concrete steps.

1. Don't give yourself too many options for things to cook. Find one recipe source that has recipes with 3-5 ingredients, maybe a few more ingredients if you feel up to it. Cook ONLY recipes from that source. Don't surf around or buy a lot of cookbooks. You don't need the single best chicken+rice recipe. You just need one that you think is ok that your family will eat. I've listed some recipe sources down below. You can expand on your one source later, but start with one single source for now.

2. If you cook something and your family thinks it's ok, take a pen and write a note at the top of the recipe. Something like "Yes" or "Good, but needs more pepper" or "Liked it but too spicy." If you don't like it, write "No" at the top so that you won't accidentally cook it again. All the yes recipes will be the beginning of your Rotation. The Rotation is a set of recipes that your family likes that you don't mind cooking. As you move stuff from your recipe source to your Rotation, you are building up an easy set of things you know how to cook that are ok. Keep track of the recipes some how. A stack of print-outs is fine. You really only need 7 recipes in your Rotation -- you can repeat those over and over again if you want, that should be enough variety for most people. As you get more comfortable, you can keep building it, but at first you should just aim for 7 recipes.

2a. (Advanced level) If you feel up to it, transfer the recipe to a personal reference book (I use a 3-ring binder with page protectors -- I call my binder my Rotation Bible) -- transfer it by copying it, ripping out of the cookbook, re-typing it, printing it, whatever. Put it in your reference book.

3. Every week (pick a time when you feel like you have energy), write a menu. Write down what you are going to cook every night, taking into account your family's schedule (on a night that your kids have extra curricular activities, you probably want something quick, like pork chops). At first, your menu will be based on your recipe source. As you go on, it will be based on your Rotation. You don't have to stick to your menu -- if you feel like chicken instead of pasta on one night, make what you want. The point is to have a plan, in writing.

4. Once your menu is finished, make a shopping list. What do you need to buy to make those things that you don't already have? Write those things down. I make my shopping list in order of the aisles in my grocery store. You don't have to do that, but it makes things easier to find in the store and takes some of the stress of shopping out for me. I can get out of the store faster.

5. Schedule a time to go to the store. Try to go at the same time every week -- pick a time that's not very busy that feels comfortable to you. I'm terribly jealous of people who can shop before noon on weekdays. The stores are nice and quiet then.

6. As for how to like your own food -- I think most cooks have this problem. You know how much work went into it, so you think it should be amazing. When it's only ok, you are disappointed. My solution to this problem is to just lower my standards. All I need is for the food to satisfy my hunger and my family's hunger, and to be reasonably ok to eat. For delicious food, I'll go out. Over time, as my expectations have adjusted, I've come to really like my own cooking. But you don't have to start there or even aim for that. You just need ok.

7. (Optional). Read Mark Bittman's Cooking Solves Everything for motivation. It's very short. I have a Kindle copy that I would be happy to lend to you (contact me by me-mail). It's wonderfully down-to-earth and not snobby at all. He talks about how cooking even basic things like your own hamburgers will save time and improve your health and your bank balance. You don't have to be a foodie. You just have to get food on the table.

Recipe sources (remember, just pick one)

The Six O'clock Scramble. This costs money. You have to subscribe to their service, but they send you a menu every week WITH a shopping list. You can also cruise their archives.

Taste of Home monthly magazine. Not fine dinning at all, but reasonably healthy simple options. You don't even need to subscribe, in fact you shouldn't. Buy 3 issues at the supermarket. Those three issues will have more than enough recipes for you to get started.

AllRecipes.com Top 20 5-ingredient recipes. The top 20 highest rated recipes from allrecipes.com. You can learn to cook just 20 things, right?

500 3-ingredient recipes. I recommend this book with some reservations -- 500 might be too many for you. If you get it, you might play a game with it, like only look at the recipes on pages with numbers that end in zero, or something like that, just to narrow your options a bit.
posted by OrangeDisk at 4:00 PM on May 29, 2012 [26 favorites]

Some people don't like cooking, dude. As the immortal Peg Bracken put it, they'd rather wrap their hands around a dry martini than a wet flounder at the end of a long day. If you truly hate cooking, if you basically never ever get any satisfaction out of it, you're never going to browbeat yourself into liking it any more than you can brow beat yourself into liking golf or knitting or something. If that's the case for you --- and frankly, the tone of your whole question is so defeatist and negating it reads like a a kid wanting to be told how to like algebra --- then you're probably better off accepting it and seeing if you can think if some compromises that aren't cooking but are cheaper and healthier. Most produce sections now have tons of pre-cut veggies for salads and dips, trader Joe's, Costco and Whole Foods sell lots of frozen stuff like stir-fry mixes which call for opening the bag, tossing the contents in a hot pan and stirring a bit, and maybe microwaving some rice or adding some chicken if you want to get fancy.

I mean, I say this as someone who's about to go home and cook orrichetti with asparagus, lemon and goat cheese on a weeknight. But then: I like to cook. I enjoy the challenge of thinking up stuff that will be tasty and find the process itself relaxing. Not everybody does and it's perfectly fine if you don't.
posted by Diablevert at 4:01 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I love to read food blogs and get inspired by the simple, comforting and beautiful dishes people churn out. Try browsing Foodgawker and clicking on what grabs your eye. (Oh, and don't compare your own kitchen or plating to the rustic-yet-polished approach you see; I've gone down that road.) You may find some websites that cater to a no-fuss style of cooking that you like.

Meal planning is a tough task to keep up with, but do it in small chunks. What will you cook this week? Here's a roast I can make in the slow cooker or oven on Monday. With that I can do tacos on Tuesday, lettuce wraps on Wednesday, a frittata on Thursday (no more than a scramble of eggs and fixins baked in a skillet), shredded on a pizza on Friday, etc. etc. When you have that tackled (on, say, Sunday night), draw up a grocery list and do the week's shopping. Don't buy for extra meals, or you may get overwhelmed and the food will spoil and you just order takeout instead and you're back where you started. I knew people who would do massive, time-consuming, insanely stressful, very expensive grocery trips once a month because they hated going to the store. Well guess what, you just created your own cycle of bad shopping trips. Buy a little every week and use it up that week. And if you cheat by getting a frozen lasagna for the days you're too pooped, then so be it. Make a salad and call it a night.

And I can only imagine how exhausting it is to raise three children, but try to get them involved in the cooking process with you, so it can be a learning experience for you and them and a way to show kids responsibility and self-reliance. Maybe have them look through some cookbooks, magazines, or websites and pick what they want to make for dinner that weekend, and cook through it with them. You're not the only one who should be working for your dinner! There's nothing as satisfying, at least when I was a kid, to eat something that you made yourself.

Plus, as my chemistry teacher used to say, "If you can cook, you can do chemistry." Take that, stoichiometry! And I believe in you--you say you like to bake, so this is just taking care of the appetizer before dessert.
posted by therewolf at 4:14 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I dread food shopping or making dinner, the easiest thing for me to do is to treat the activity like a game. I know that I need to have one vegetable, one starch, and one protein on the plate, so I buy big bags of vegetables and value packs of chicken from Costco and make sure to have an ample variety of grains and pasta in the cupboard; having everything I need goes a long way towards helping me enjoy preparing a meal. Each time I go grocery shopping, I have a set number of each item to shop for, and from there, meal planning is simple - I roast a veg, braise a meat in a flavorful sauce, and boil whatever carb will go best with the other items. If I plan efficiently (boil water while I prep the veg, veg in the oven before I saute/braise the meat), this takes about an hour.

Weeks when I feel lazy or pressed for time, I make something that can be used for multiple meals, like Lyn Never suggested. Roast chicken is excellent for this (I often just buy one from Costco - cheap and tasty). Pasta dishes that use a whole box of pasta should be able to feed your family of five for two nights, providing you have sides.

As far as learning to like cooking, cookbooks, cooking shows and blogs can really help. I became more excited about cooking once I learned to appreciate food, and Nigella Lawson and smittenkitchen are to blame. The previous suggestions, especially allrecipes and Mark Bittman, are very good and make meal planning and preparation less intimidating.
posted by constellations at 4:25 PM on May 29, 2012

I hate cooking too. Start with just a few recipes that you can pull together in only a few minutes, this makes it tolerable. For me this includes:

-The Costco Meal: Salmon Burger Patties, Sweet Potato Fries, and Steamed Broccoli. The patties and fries both cook in the oven at the same time, about 20 minutes at 400. Broccoli can be steamed in a steamer, or in the microwave. Prep time is literally just pressing a button on the oven and putting things on cookie sheets. I probably do this about once every couple weeks when I simply have no idea what to make for dinner or when I have no time to devote to it.

- Soup and sandwiches: this is nice because it's really no more trouble to make what people actually want. If one person wants tuna but someone else wants peanut butter, no big deal. However, if someone wants grilled cheese, we all have grilled cheese, since I'm getting the pan dirty anyway. And if you just keep a bunch of different canned soups on hand, people can choose what sounds good to them right then.

- The Standard Protein/Veg/Starch: this is usually chicken breasts at my house, and whatever veggie we have, plus rice (usually just a quick basmati), quinoa, or instant mashed potatoes. Just throw the chicken in the oven, and the veggies too if you have the type that roasts well, or steam the veg. Rice/potatoes is as simple as boiling water.

-The Frozen Stir-Fry: bag of mixed frozen veg, tofu or protein, in the skillet with soy sauce, garlic, and ginger (or one of those premade stir-fry sauces) over rice or quinoa.

-The Pasta Dish: this can be spaghetti and meatballs (or just spaghetti and sauce, or I like it with some roasted or stir-fried veggies mixed in, maybe from a previous meal), or mac and cheese, or tuna pasta salad. All are very easy.

-The Snack Meal: veggies and hummus, cheese and crackers, whatever nutritious snacks you like, just put them all on the table as a light meal.

-The Big-Ass Salad: this one is great because there is generally enough left over for a side dish the next night. I try to do this on nights when there is some kind of protein left over from a previous meal, but not enough to feed all of us as a main course.

If you can manage to get something into the crockpot once a week, you can get generally 2-3 meals out of that, so it's worth it, just remind yourself that you're saving the time later! Leftovers are my favorite thing to have for dinner, because it's just sticking food in the 'wave, on the plates, so hardly any dishes either (I don't have a dishwasher, so this is important to me).
posted by rabbitrabbit at 4:26 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I used to like to cook, but I lost interest and at this point can really identify with the sense that the shopping and the menus etc. are all kind of too much. Lately I was looking through Tamar Adler's book and remembered that I used to just make a thing here and a thing there. Like a batch of roasted vegetables or some baked potatoes or a beautiful salad. This is usually fueled by seeing something in the market that looks good. I don't know where you are, geographically, but maybe if it's spring you could start going to the farmers markets or get a CSA share and just have some really really nice vegetables and fruits. If you have those, you have a nice meal no matter what you put with them.
posted by BibiRose at 4:26 PM on May 29, 2012

Me too. It's compounded by the fact that I'm the only veg and my two kids are such picky eaters. It's a spiral of self-defeating dinner time self-talk.

I find I do best when I suck it up and plan. I plan what meals on which days and try to stack them so leftover whosiewhatsis is used in tomorrow's whatchamadoodle. If I'm really on top of my game, I chop, slice and dice everything for a few days at a time and stick my prepped veg in a dated bag.

The time it takes to do it kinda sucks, to be honest, but the stress free dinner time is way worth it. Plus, I build in a sub shop night and an out to dinner night so it's really only 5 days of cooking. Always make extra for lunch the next day.

I tried eMeals and didn't like it. For one thing, they don't plan a complete meal (for the veg option anyway) and the time spent to flesh out the meal negates the purpose of the service. I didn't think the main dishes were enough protein either. I found CSA share boxes WAY too stressful! Now, on top of all the other guilt, I've got unused veggie guilt - no thank you. I did establish a great relationship with a local lady who organizes CSA boxes/sells produce. I text her a list and she delivers (often for less $ than Whole Foods) and that is awesome.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 4:39 PM on May 29, 2012

I was once like you: Low energy mom who didn't really like to cook (and didn't enjoy eating either). I have a medical condition that was diagnosed late in life. It impacts gut function. Learning what foods I had issues with and changing my diet gave me more energy, made food enjoyable for the first time in many years, and helped me enjoy cooking more.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 4:57 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't like it either, but eating out every day of the week was getting expensive. Plus, I stopped really enjoying dining out because it was no longer a treat.

Tips I am currently living by:

Do NOT feel guilty about buying almost-prepared foods (e.g. those roasted whole chickens from the deli; salad mixes already in the bag; etc.). Sure, they're more expensive than cooking from scratch but they are cheaper than restaurants and a hell of a lot easier than roasting your own damned bird.

Nobody can complain about lack of variety if you serve 5 *different* kinds of easy pasta in a week.

Not every meal has to have 3 courses. I'm not a fan of cooking a starch PLUS a protein PLUS a side veggie. Sometimes a big salad is the whole meal (with cheese and meat for filling-ness, of course). Sometimes the aforementioned pasta and a bag of baby carrots.

I like meals with the same ingredients across different dishes: chopping up dill, basil, etc. just once and using it both in my soup and in the side salad. Vietnamese shrimp rolls where the dipping sauce is also the dressing on the noodles and chicken. Jarred pesto on both the penne and the green beans.

Finally, if you do the math, it can be cheaper to buy takeout. There's no way I could make the delicious and filling shwarma plates served down the road for the $5 apiece they charge. Embrace indulgent frugality and treat yourself now and then.
posted by Pomo at 5:11 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Hi, I'm not a mom, but as a single woman who can't afford to eat takeout/delivery every night, I am in much of the same boat. First: Don't think of it as cooking. I call what I do assembly. I have groups of ingredients that I mix and match according to my taste, the day, and my energy level. There is a vegetable element, a starch element and a protein element.

Once a week, I make a big pot of soup/stew/something that you can eat from all week. If you have a family, get a really big stock pot. Start with sauteed onions and garlic, and make a soup base with beef or pork or bacon or whatever suits you and create something. Just that alone will make a heavenly broth that you will be spooning straight from the pot.

Also, I used to think things had to be nutritious. Result: boring! Then I met somebody who schooled me in the art of judiciously using fat and salt. The marriage is over, but he taught me how to use heat and fat to create good food. Don't be afraid of a very hot pan and a healthy dollop of olive oil. Most days I rarely season with more than salt and pepper.

Delicious ingredients, cooked simply, are hard to mess up. Join a CSA, so you get regular allotments of produce that you have to use every week. That promotes creativity! When all else fails, I throw it into a pan with garlic and olive oil and a bit of salt and pepper. During the winter, I was roasting vegetables every Sunday night.

Nthing the recommendations for "How to Cook Everything." My ex took that cookbook with him (the cookbook collection was, in my recollection, the only hotly contested portion of stuff that we had to split up) and I keep reminding myself to get another copy.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 5:15 PM on May 29, 2012

Seconding Saving Dinner. I have two of Leanne Ely's cookbooks: Saving Dinner and Saving Dinner the Low-Carb Way. Both are great.

When I had a young family (still fairly young -- kids ages 9 and 11) I got into planning and cooking a lot. I still cook five times a week and I go through phases of really liking cooking and just getting it done. It does make me happy to feed my kids and husband healthy and great tasting food so that keeps me motivated. Plus, it's a priority of mine to have the evening meal together as a family.

If you eat meat, buy what is on sale and plan. Along with the Saving Dinner cookbooks, Ellen Satter's book: Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook. This book is gentle and encouraging. Anybody can cook and feed their family well. Cooking does not have to be fancy and you don't have to be a foodie to provide your family with nutritious meals. Besides instilling the reader with confidence to feed her family, Satter also shows you how to plan meals, shop, and provides a lot of great, simple recipes like Tuna Noodle Casserole and Meat Loaf. All of Ellen Satter's books are great and I recommend them to any family with young children and expectant parents. How she approaches feeding kids is simply wonderful and so worth reading.

Ninthing Mark Bittman. Lots of people like to diss Rachel Ray but her 30 minute meals are worth looking into. Also, any of the cookbooks or food personalities that use five ingredients or less. And if you don't want to spend money on cookbooks, I do not blame you. You can find any recipe on the internet or sometimes when I'm desperate for inspiration I will go into the store and follow a recipe on the back of a box of pasta or soup can. It's not complicated once you get going.

The fact that you dislike your own cooking is something to work on. I think once you get cooking and practicing enjoying the food you make, that will be a thing of the past. I basically make the same things over and over. Sometimes I mix it up and make something more inspired but usually it's regular, simple food. My dinner staples are:

1. Simple Turkey Chili (I do not mash kidney beans) with whole grain tortilla chips or corn bread.

2. Spaghetti

3. Ina Garten's Asian Salmon or salmon steaks dotted with butter, fresh squeezed lemon, and salt and pepper before roasting.

4. Roasted whole chicken with potatoes, onions, carrots, Ceasar salad kit, or homemade green salad with lime vinaigrette.

5. Rotisserie chicken from grocery store with frozen broccoli, red potatoes, Caesar salad kit

6. Cubed steaks with sautéed onions and brown gravy, smashed red potatoes, peas or broccoli

7. Pork chops, applesauce, rice pilaf, peas

8. Herb roasted turkey breast, cranberry sauce, peas, potatoes

9. Frozen fish filet, frozen french fries, peas,

10. Tacos or Fajitas

11. Hamburgers on George Foreman Grille with frozen french fries

12. Crockpot meals: beef straganoff, beef stew, pork for tacos or sandwiches, etc.

13. Cooking Light's Chili Mac. Been making this for years. It's a family favorite. I omit the corn.

I am a mother of two and I am familiar with the afternoon slump. I don't have that slump when I: 1. Get enough sleep 2. Eat well (no junk food) and 3. Exercise. When I am really tired these are the days I get my husband to cook, make leftovers, or make beans and hot dogs, tuna noodle casserole, or rotisserie chicken.

I hate grocery shopping too. My husband does it 80% of the time. Most of the time I am not so organized. Sometimes I go to grocery store (or husband goes) three times a week. I have never been good at planning all of my shopping for the week. Although, Ellen Satter's book and the Saving Dinner books will show you how to do this. I like to go in and buy what I need for that night or the next two or three nights. I suck at freezing meat and remembering to thaw it so I generally don't.

Another thing that helps the afternoon fatigue: Drink tall glass iced water, put on some upbeat music, and start clearing the decks to cook. Get the kids to help, too. I have mine set table and shred cheese, toss salad, etc. Good luck.
posted by Fairchild at 5:44 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Did I write this post in my sleep? Or, are you my celebrity double? This is exactly me, (I even have three children) except for #4. My #4 is that food tastes too good to me by the time I make it at the end of the day and I'm tired and cranky and I overeat. But that is another post.

Anyway, my strategy to get around getting to the end of the day and not knowing what to cook and defaulting to "breakfast for dinner", is to meal plan. How I made meal planning less exhausting: I started a three ring binder. It started out small and has expanded. This binder is MY recipe book custom made for ME. *Every time* I make a meal and it is successful, meaning it is easy, quick, and (nearly) everybody in the family likes it, I photocopy or print out the recipes, and I make notes and put it in the binder. I make notes about food substitutions I used or how long it REALLY took me to make. Once you hit about 14 "successful" recipes - that is half a month of recipes to rotate between, technically you'd make each meal twice in a month, and as you get bored, try one new recipe every two weeks to keep adding to your binder, so your family does not rebel. Because I plan out my meals and at least 5-6 days in advance, by flipping through my Binder of Successful Meals, I know exactly what to buy in the grocery store, and I don't end up panicking at dinner prep time - I just pull out my list of 5-6 meals and pick one. Much less daunting than staring at an entire printed cookbook.

Also, I swear by those frozen veggie bags that you cook in the microwave. Vegetables are never an issue because I just grab a bag from a freezer and pitch it in the zapper. None of that "too tired to chop the darn broccoli, does ketchup count as a vegetable?" feeling.

I also double things like casseroles all the time. I try never to serve the same things two days in a row, but if I make a huge casserole on Tuesday, it is perfectly acceptable in my book to serve the second half of it on Thursday, and it's a tiny fraction of the work.

If you take your typical week, and one night is a leftover night, one night is take out/eat out, and one night is "breakfast for dinner", you are only left with 4 nights that you have to really think about things.

I also love the cookbook "Desperation Dinners". It has lots of very practical cooking shortcuts that I would never have blundered into on my own. And the most of the meals really do take 20 minutes or less, at least the ones I've tried.

I still like baking much better than cooking, but cooking has become less dreadful.
posted by molasses at 5:49 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Ahh! So you are a baker and not a cook in your mind and heart. I get it!

FWIW, I'm the opposite (in culinary school, the joke was if it involved me + an oven - burnt!) and I STILL can't get meals together for my family many nights. Seriously! You are not alone here.

- Stay away from processed foods. Frozen veg, grains, and meats in their "plain" state (no frozen fried chicken or fish sticks, for example, and you'll stay much much healthier for you and your family.)

- Trader Joe's has packets of organic brown and white rice pre-cooked and frozen. They live in your freezer! A total time and mind saver!!

Add them frozen out of the bag into sautes and soups, or whatever. Go wild. Rice is a big effort and time consumer. I haven't cooked rice from scratch since my son was born 14 months ago. I feel no shame about that:)

- You bake! Crust or crust-less Quiche should be easy and obvious - yes??

- I've been known to assemble casseroles and place them in the freezer. Memail me for ideas. This one os a no-brainer.

- Here's a sneaky sneaky secret - ANYTHING frozen, wrapped air and water tight in plastic, will defrost in a giant bowl (or sink) full of COLD water between 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the thickness.

I'm thinking mostly of proteins here. A thick top sirloin or london broil? 35 minutes flat. If you pack ground beef flat in a ziplock bag after you buy it - 20 minutes, tops. Shrimp defrost as you cook, or you can put them under running cold water for 5 minutes. You know those bulk vac packed organic chicken breasts you can get from Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, or the like? You can split off a packet and defrost that between 20 to 40 minutes, depending how much water you use. So basically, if your freezer is stocked with proteins, you can defrost in the morning or the day before, pop whatever it is into your fridge, and start cooking a meal start to finish within 30 minutes or less, depending on the protein.

- I could go on. I just don't know what you and your family likes, and where you live (which effects what is available. Not every area has a Trader Joe's, but usually there is an equivalent, etc..)


One last thing that ties into the up top intro...

Most professional chefs (me included) love comfort foods and one-pot-meals over fussy food at home. We want to eat well, but often even the idea of cooking something at home brings on "work stress" type-feelings.

I've had a lot of time to consider this over the years and have implemented all sorts of work-arounds to accommodate my family life.

If you can pop back in and tell us what your family likes to eat - wow - it will be so much easier to answer this question.

Recipes that work for me, might not work for you. But there is a huge arsenal in my back pocket of recipes and techniques waiting to be deployed:)

I'm wondering about farmer's market's in your area, and how those might be more helpful (and cost/time/financially) effective for you than grocery stores, which frankly, I find super unhelpful and expensive because so much of what the sell tastes crap, plus is over-priced because of the distance and distribution schemes involved.

-If I don't get to check this thread again, please memail. As a private chef I've helped clients with requests like yours, I just don't know what is most convenient for you where you live, and especially how you live.

My mother was a Nutritionist, I grew up with that concern as a part of any meal planning. We definitely had pancake nights as kids! That said, food is not nutritionally as complete today as it was back in the day.

Does you family take vitamins regularly?

As long as everyone takes a good multi-vitamin and stays away from chemical processed crap, you could probably feed your family pancakes (or the like) regularly and drop your worries about cooking diverse foods on a regular basis. If your order-in options feature lots of factory farmed proteins (beef, fish, and chicken with lots of hormones and antibiotics) no amount of vitamins will help there - that stuff is poison if eaten on a regular basis. It is what it is.

It's not that much of a PITA to shift your habits. It just takes a little info and an open mind. Every system can be refined when it comes to time and effort spent.

posted by jbenben at 5:53 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

My mom handled this by making the same stuff all the time. She got really good at making five or six recipes and just made them constantly. I have nothing but fond memories of her sauce, chicken thighs, and giant salads. The nice thing about this is that after awhile you get really good at making those five or six things and they become your specialty. You've got signature dishes that you're really good at making!

I basically do the same thing now, too. I have a few regular meals that I've made so many times that I can do any of them in my sleep. They are: pea soup, butternut squash soup, turkey chili, turkey meatloaf, big salads with chicken on top, poached chicken and canned/frozen vegetables or steamed fresh bok choy, spicy lentils, and a cucumber/tomato salad with yogurt-marinated chicken. Most of these meals last for several days so I can minimize kitchen time on the other days (although I do cook the chicken fresh daily usually).

We eat a lot of chicken around here, but it's pretty good for you and protein is important. Find something that you can stand to make and just make the heck out of it. Oh, and listen to music while you cook. Music you really like.

Personally I actually really like to cook, I just don't have the time for it, so I do own a couple of cookbooks and use them occasionally when I'm feeling fancy. How to Cook Everything is awesome, but might really overwhelm you. It's nice if you're like "hey I have a craving for black beans" because voila he has like 19 different ways to make black beans in there. Bittman does do a good job of demystifying cooking, and makes it seem way less stressful. All those variations kind of help me to realize that there's so many ways to cook the same stuff that it's harder to mess up than I might initially think.

Good luck!
posted by k8lin at 6:18 PM on May 29, 2012

The recipe rotation idea is great; I do a variation, where there are things we generally like to eat and I just make those over and over again.

I have housemates who cook for us all two nights of the week, which makes me responsible for three meals, and my basic plan is: one meat-based meal, two vegetarian meals. Only one of those vegetarian meals can have soy protein. That really helps me plan. Here's how I approach things from there:

- For the meat, I buy whatever's cheap at the butcher's counter. This is usually a roast of some kind, which I'll cook in the crock pot. It's really easy to make veggies to go with that at the end of the day.
- For the vegetarian meals, I often do one Asian-inspired and one not. So, stir-fry or curry; chili or quiche.

But, really, the plan of Wednesday, we have meat; Thursday, we have curry; etc., helps SO MUCH.
posted by linettasky at 6:53 PM on May 29, 2012

The easiest way in the world to make baked chicken different every night is salad dressing.
You may never love cooking, but there are plenty of tricks to make it less of a chore.

Chicken marinated in any kind of salad dressing is going to be fine. You don't need much, just put the chicken in a zip-top bag and maybe a cup of dressing and smush it up so all the pieces are covered. Do this in the morning and leave it in the fridge all day. Cheap dressing is fine. Stock up on five or six different kinds of dressing when they're on sale, and you have a week's worth of meals for a couple of weeks. Just remember to salt and pepper your chicken before you marinate so it tastes extra good. You can also do this with pork chops and pork tenderloin.

Make a big pot of rice on Monday and it will carry you through the week.

An easy quick dinner is a scrambled omelette. Yes, you could learn how to make and flip the perfect omelette, but it's just as easy and good to scramble some eggs with some cooked veggies (or just drained canned veggies, which are already soft), cheese, and bits of leftover meat (or not). Easy to scale up and down as needed. Serve with toast and salad.

Fresh veggies are lovely in season, but really, frozen is just as good (and often better, depending on how far the fresh veggies have to travel to your store).

Pasta is as easy to make as pancakes. Make a pot of short, sturdy pasta (rotini, for example) and mix with any cooked veggie you like. For a hearty meal, toss with a jar of alfredo sauce. For a lighter meal, toss with a bit of olive oil or butter and top with grated cheese. Mix in some chopped cooked chicken, pork, shrimp, salmon, or even canned tuna. Chickpeas or cannelini beans are also good. This is an endlessly variable formula.

Even easier: Spaghetti with a jar of red sauce and a salad on the side. You can add some cooked ground beef or turkey or precooked meatballs or italian sausage if you like. You can totally do this once a week without it getting boring.

Easiest black bean tacos in the world: Mix one large or two small cans of drained canned black beans and one jar of salsa in a pot. Simmer on the stove for about 20 minutes (or put it in the crock pot on low for a couple of hours). Serve on tortillas or in taco shells with the usual fixings.
posted by elizeh at 7:34 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

How is your sense of smell? Are you someone with a very sharp sense of smell or do you have a weaker sense? I find that smelling and cooking are very intimately related. That said, one reason why your cooking doesn't taste good to you is that you've been smelling everything for a while as it cooks. Take a walk or shower or just play with your kids for a little bit between after the food is done but before everyone eats. Growing up, my mom tended to garden for a little bit after she finished cooking while my dad played basketball with me and my brother. Maybe you can turn this into a bit of family bonding time too.

Learn to Cook Everything that other people have recommended is a great book. I didn't know how to cook, thus hated cooking, when I first moved out into my apartment. Most of it for me was that I didn't know what I could cook. The cookbook is great in that it's simple, but it also offers some tips on how to make the meal more interesting/different. Since then, I've become a bit more adventurous in my cooking and have started to enjoy it immensely.

As for meal planning, do you get random cravings in the middle of day? Or just cravings for something comforting and healthy?? You'll be surprised at the most random things you'll cook if you cook by your cravings. Your kids will probably also be pleasantly surprised everyday. Hopefully they aren't picky eaters. Cook by what you crave, though this method really doesn't work out if you constantly crave cake/burgers/fries and other unhealthy things. (I tend to crave things chockful of veggies, but I'll gladly eat a red pepper like an apple).

As for your low-energy, you mention that your kids are at school all day and you're a stay at home mom. Is it possible for you to take a quick power nap before the kids come home so that you'll have more energy to deal with them and cooking in the afternoon and evening?

Also, there is absolutely nothing wrong with pancakes for breakfast. I personally don't understand why certain foods are classified as "breakfast", "lunch", or "dinner" foods. In my world, everything goes, from steaks at breakfast to toast and omelette for dinner. Don't limit yourself by what you cook because of pre-conceptions of what foods are served at meals.
posted by astapasta24 at 8:40 PM on May 29, 2012

I'm a 35-year-old guy that went from hating cooking and making my wife do all the cooking (hey - I did all the cleaning though) to loving to cook and food shop with the wifey.

What did it for me was watching amazing food documentaries and shows. It totally happened by accident. My wife and I are huge Gordon Ramsay fans (early BBC Gordon Ramsay more than Fox Gordon Ramsay). Watching really great shows - the love of food and cooking kinda rubs off on you.

Here are some of our early faves:

Boiling Point - an amazing documentary about how Chef Ramsay got his 3rd Michelin Star.
Kitchen Nightmares (UK) - fascinating cultural insights. Loved every episode.
Kitchen Confidential - this show is fantastic. I can't believe it was only one season. Hilarious; a must-see.
Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution - a young, passionate chef from the UK tries to fight obesity in U.S. schools. He heads to West Virginia. It doesn't go so well. Painful to watch at points, but a great show.
Hell's Kitchen (UK) - unlike the U.S. version, the UK version is a laid-back, funny show that pits celebrities with very few cooking skills against each other. Really cool show.
posted by blahtsk at 8:41 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

To answer a few questions:

~My kids eat pretty much anything. They eat what's placed in front of them.
~My sense of smell is pretty strong/sensitive.
~Breakfast for dinner is my favorite. Soup for breakfast is another favorite.
posted by Sassyfras at 9:36 PM on May 29, 2012

I feel your pain! I feel much less alone now in my dislike of cooking extravagant food. I feel very jealous of my friends who somehow have the energy after a long day's work to put together amazing meals from scratch.

But I have been cooking a lot more than usual recently, because I was spending too much money on takeout. These are some ways I have found of working around my issues with it.

I'm usually home from work at around 9pm and the LAST thing I feel like doing is throwing together an elaborate dinner, as I'm so hungry and tired by then I would eat my own leg if it meant I didn't have to cook. So I assuage the raging hunger monster by eating something small, like a pot of yogurt or something, and then make a meal that doesn't involve too many steps.

Some examples:
1. baked chicken and vegetables: You can cook them all together, and the only washing up you have to do is the bowl that you mix the chicken and marinade together, and the dish that you roast the chicken in. I tend to use whatever marinade or spice mix that I feel like, so this isn't a recipe, just a guideline. I like using turmeric, cayenne pepper, masala curry powder and tomato puree for a South Asian version, or store-bought marinades, or whatever's lying around. It works with most spice combinations.
2. easy pasta: You can use a store-bought sauce and "health" it up a little by adding some veggies to the spaghetti as it's boiling. You can also pop some (prepared) meatballs in the oven for spaghetti and meatballs while the pasta is cooking
3. omelettes! boil some veggies and potatoes and serve them alongside a nice ham, cheese and mushroom omelette.
4. somewhat related to omelettes, I have also made some of these "egg casseroles" which are great; they are really easy to make (layer boiled veggies, cheese and egg), easy to clean up after, and can be kept in the fridge for upto a week. They are low-carb, but you can carb them up if you serve them with some boiled potatoes on the side or incorporate them into the casserole.
5. soup. I buy it.

These are not haute cuisine by any means, but they are easy, relatively healthy, and (to me this is important) easy to clean up after. You don't need too many different pots and pans to make them, and they don't leave too much residue on the pots so they're easy to clean up. Also they make unapologetic use of store-bought sauces, marinades, spice-mixes, and meat. Don't let anyone ever make you feel guilty for buying these things. Don't make the perfect the enemy of the good, as they say.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:27 AM on May 30, 2012

You know what's super-easy and delicious? Steaming or microwaving just about any veg and drizzling olive oil and lemon over it. I like to put some olive oil, lemon, and rough-cut garlic cloves in a small jar and shake it up vigorously beforehand and then again just before the drizzle. It will also keep in the fridge for a few days, so you don't have to make it every time.

I boil potatoes (enough for a couple of days) in advance and then slice them into 1/4 inch-thick discs and drizzle. I steam or microwave cauliflower or broccoli and drizzle. I use it on spinach, green salad, sliced boiled eggs, mixed vegetables, avocado and tomato salad, artichoke hearts, greens, beans – everything, and it doesn't have to be hot; these are all fine (or better, most of the time) at room temperature, so you don't have to time everything to be hot from the stove. The wondersauce also works on fish, chicken, pork, beef, shellfish, and just some nice crusty bread, so you don't need to dream up ways to enliven a stovetop cutlet.

You can add bits of fresh herb of your choice, if you'd like, and either way it's basically just everyday magic, without preservatives, added sugar, MSG, etc. (And as an added bonus, I now love quite a few vegetable items I used to hate since I started trying this with a lot of different things.)

Get frozen vegetables that are pre-cut, quick and easy to deal with, do the olive oil/lemon thing, and add some rice-cooker/microwave/boil-in-bag rice and a protein that just takes a few minutes in the frying pan (or pick up that part already cooked from the deli), and you're good to go.

Just use fresh lemon, and not bottled (except for emergencies), that's my only convenience caveat. :)
posted by taz at 3:57 AM on May 30, 2012

Oh, I meant to mention: my smart mom put me in charge of salads once I got old enough. My parents made it a big deal to praise me about my saladmaking skills, and let me come up with my own salad combos and salad dressing experiments, so it was fun... and also helped my mother out. My dad wasn't much for kitchen cooking, but would grill fish or meat a couple times a week and took total charge of desserts, whenever we had them. We kids also always set the table and had a significant share in table clearing/dishwashing chores, so that also helped. It takes a village family to make a supper!
posted by taz at 4:13 AM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Try Once a Month Cooking. It can get a little intense so I tend to do once a fortnight cooking and supplement it by when I do cook I make double batches of food and freeze the "leftovers" to have another week. So if I do make a pasta sauce say, I make enough for 4 meals for my family, freeze 3 and then one night when the idea of cooking makes me want to cry, all I have to do is boil pasta and microwave the sauce bam dinner is on the table.
posted by wwax at 8:18 AM on May 30, 2012

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