I need extremely basic help with meal planning and grocery shopping.
October 4, 2012 3:45 PM   Subscribe

I need extremely basic help with meal planning and grocery shopping. I don't even know where to start. I have a psychological block against cooking to the point where actually I'll forgo eating if it's going to be more difficult than microwaving something.

Long version: I was raised by a mentally ill parent who was unable to properly care for me. The vast majority of my meals were cereal, fast food, hot dogs, mac and cheese, and potted meat. The only thing my mom "cooked" was fried chicken. I really had no idea that this was abnormal. In college, I lived in the dorms and everything was prepared for me. When I moved out, I mostly bought packaged, microwaveable foods or ate in restaurants. When I was single (or when my husband's out of town), I often either forgot to eat or became paralyzed at the thought of making something.

Bizarrely, I am not even a little bit overweight and I don't have diet-related health problems. I eat a normal amount of food when it is served to me. So, my health isn't a dire emergency, although y'all would probably be disgusted if I detailed my average diet. I don't have any allergies or other restrictions, nor does my husband. There are things we refuse to eat (me: chili, him: mushrooms) but they're easy to work around.

My husband and I spend absurd amounts of money on packaged foods and eating out. I'd be okay with spending the money, but I don't even feel like I'm eating well. My husband likes to cook, and he's good at it, but all too often we default to the same 3 or 4 meals. (He'll ask me "What do you want for dinner?" and I will literally have NO IDEA AT ALL so he'll say "how about chicken with pasta again?" and I'll agree.)

I get extremely flustered when I try to cook because everything just seems to be happening SO FAST and I'm going to burn and ruin everything and what's the point let's just eat energy bars instead.

We have a normal amount of kitchen space and appliances and I wouldn't hesitate to buy more stuff if I felt confident that I'd use it. We live in a medium-large city and have access to many different stores. Let's ignore cost as a concern for right now, although saving money in the long run would be great. We don't have any kids to feed.

I would like to get to the point where I can:

1. Make a decision about what to eat
2. Know how to prepare it
3. Have the appropriate ingredients on hand
4. Not waste food (it gets forgotten about and/or goes bad)
posted by desjardins to Food & Drink (67 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
From reading your question, I think #2 is the most important issue. What about looking into community cooking classes? If you went to a class and learned one dish, then that's one dish you won't be stressed about making. Each class is a new meal and new skills - at some point, you're going to be standing over the stove and thinking, "I'm effing cooking! Go Me!"

I bet once you have some basic skills mastered, the meal planning thing will fall in place. There have been lots of AskMe queries on meal planning that you might want to check out.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 3:55 PM on October 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

I taught my husband to cook about 4 years ago. He had exactly the problem that you have about feeling like everything started going too fast. The solution for this was to prepare a mise en place and have everything that went into the recipes prepped before the cooking, and to then just have to add the items in order. We now plan it out so that most nights I do all the prep work for him, and then he cooks dinner.

We meal plan every week. I use an app for this now, but we didn't for a long time. To start, we would stack in meals that we make all the time that one of us was confident making. Then we would add in maybe 1 new recipe. I use Cooking Light a lot, as I find a lot of the recipes are pretty straightforward. From there, I make a grocery list and buy everything for the week.

It actually took me quite a while to really get the hang of not wasting much and getting the portions correct.
posted by Nimmie Amee at 4:04 PM on October 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

Do you own a slow cooker? Would you be better able to manage getting a meal into the crockpot first thing in the morning, and then just serving it up when you're ready?

The plus side of this is that it forces you to plan ahead. Here's a great recent AskMe that has some recipes that I intend on trying.
posted by sparklemotion at 4:05 PM on October 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

There are probably a lot of different ways to do this.

What worked for me was to get (buy or check out from the library) Rachel Ray's 30 Minute Meals. There are a ton of them, this is the one that I used (and liked). The first third of the book are the really easy recipes; they get progressively more intricate, but never difficult or intimidating.

Buy everything in the "pantry list" at the front of the book. Just go with your spouse to the store, buy it all at once, then treat yourselves to sushi or something to celebrate knocking one thing off the list.

So you get the book one day. You stock the pantry another day. Maybe you set a goal for the first week that you will cook three dinners from the first third of the cookbook. The night before, pick which recipe you want to try. Jot down the added ingredients so you can pick them up on your way home from work (these are marked out separately on each page so you know at a glance what you need). Cook together. Eat. Rub your tummies and get seconds, or pitch it and get Chinese takeaway, and try again the next day! If you like it, mark the page so you remember you liked it and can make it again another time.

Best of luck--I'm sure others will have lots of good suggestions but this method and particular book really takes the thinking out of the process (which is what I struggled with too).
posted by stellaluna at 4:06 PM on October 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

Farmers Markets! If you're in a medium-large city, I'm guessing you'll have access to year-round ones. This allows you to partially base your food choices on what is in season in your local area, and that is likely to mean it's more nutritious because it's fresher and hasn't been trucked thousands of miles.

Or, even better, join a CSA and get fresh produce delivered to you weekly. Your selection of produce will be chosen for you (though most CSAs allow you to opt out of one or two itms, so you could nix mushrooms).

Also, there isn't really a need to do much prep on farm-fresh fruits and vegetables. Fruit can literally be: wash, peel and eat whatever is ripe today! Vegetables can be simply: wash, chop up, mix, and add dressing; or wash, chop up, and sautee. You absolutely don't need a recipe, you can wing it just using extremely basic procedures.

If forgetting about food is a problem, maybe focus on things that can be left out on the counter where you will see them? Many fruits, avocados, squash, etc?
posted by parrot_person at 4:08 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, if you have the time and the local resources, definitely look into a multiple session cooking course. Just buying nice stuff at the farmer's market isn't going to help you know what to actually DO with it.
posted by elizardbits at 4:11 PM on October 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, also, another way to avoid waste: you can use recipe web sites like epicurious.com, go to the advanced search, plug in items on hand that seem like they need to be used up or they will go bad soon, and get recipes that use each of those items!
posted by parrot_person at 4:13 PM on October 4, 2012

elizardbits: What I'm trying to convey is that you really don't have to DO anything with fresh, local produce. It is delicious without being made into an official recipe. It can be as simple as "wash, peel and eat". The OP seems to believe that eating requires making a recipe, and it doesn't--it doesn't even require cooking.

I am also suggesting CSAs as a way to have part of the decision of what to eat made for the OP. She will still have to decide on a daily basis, but the produce selection for the week will be made for her, hopefully reducing some of the feelings of being overwhelmed with choices.
posted by parrot_person at 4:16 PM on October 4, 2012

You said extremely basic, so.

There's nothing wrong with having a short list of go-to meals. It's a lot easier to plan, it's easier to shop for (because you know to stock certain items that you'll use a lot), and many people tend to eat the same things over and over again anyway. So first I'd advise you both expand your default list to, say, ten healthy (or at least relatively well-balanced) default meals and don't overextend yourselves - pick stuff that is super-easy to prepare.

Some ideas to consider could be:
*pasta with sauce and veggies (dump frozen veggies into the pasta water) - the sauce could be tomato, or alfredo, or pesto (buy the sauce already prepared)
*baked potatoes (take potato. stab with fork all over. put in microwave until baked. split and top with sour cream/cheese/broccoli/creamed corn, etc.)
*a type of sandwich you like (deli meat and cheese on sub rolls maybe, or grilled cheese - which can be made in the microwave - toast bread in toaster, put cheese in, wrap in paper towel, nuke for 30 to 45 sec.)
*green salad fixings (don't knock yourself out here - get everything pre-prepped - so bagged pre-washed lettuce is fine, boxed cherry tomatoes, bagged baby carrots, bottled salad dressing - then all you have to do is open packages, dump into bowl, and eat)
*nachos (bag of nachos, shredded cheese, canned black beans - dump bag of nachos on baking sheet, dump cheese on top, open can of beans and drain in colander then dump on nachos, throw in the oven for ten minutes; put salsa on top)
*rice and something (rice in pot, cook meat, add a prepared sauce)
*eggs and something (you can make scrambled eggs in the microwave, just scramble and cook 3 min., top with whatever you like)

For ease in assembling a meal, for ease in shopping, and for ease in food not being wasted, buy veggies/fruits/etc. pre-prepped or packaged. Yes, it costs more to get lettuce in a bag and not the heads of lettuce, but it's less prep time and if you're in an avoidance pattern because of anxiety over the time it might take to make food then anything that you KNOW will take less than a minute or two to do is the way to go. You're saving money over take-out or microwave meals at least. I used to go out of my way to get the cheapest option (make my own hummus than buy it) but as I had less and less time I had less guilt over picking easy over cheap if it meant I would eat healthier food than, say, drive-thru fast food.

To shop, just drill down your default list of meals. If you have baked potatoes once a week, then you know to buy potatoes when you run out. If you have two meals that involve cheese, then you keep cheese stocked. You're going to end up with a core list of groceries and it'll become automatic - dairy aisle, get this this and this; produce section, get this this and this; every time.

As well when you shop, buy things that are really easy and can work as a filling snack - yogurt, cottage cheese, granola - or stuff that you can eat out of hand - apples, grapes, bananas, berries - and dips such as hummus or tzatziki - that's an easy meal if you don't want to do a thing; grab some pre-prepped fruits and veggies, open dip, eat. Pita bread or wraps - you can stuff salad in them. Bagels - toaster, cream cheese, a lettuce leaf and a deli slice if you're feeling fancy.

Make it really easy on yourself at first: don't bother with recipes, pick stuff that doesn't need a recipe. Don't bother with stuff you have to prepare, because you'll avoid it even though logically it might only take five minutes. Make it really easy to just wander into the kitchen and wander out with something relatively healthy to nosh on within 90 seconds. Remind yourself that making a toasted bagel takes as much time as microwaving a meal and the same amount of effort.
posted by flex at 4:25 PM on October 4, 2012 [18 favorites]

As a long time CSA member, I'm not sure that I can second that suggestion for someone who is not a confident cook to start with. There have definitely been weeks when I've been too overwhelmed to figure out what the heck to do with eggplant/cucumbers/etc, and ended up guiltly tossing eggplant/cucumbers/etc the next week when it's gone all moldy.

Starting out, I think it is really helpful to just have a set few recipes, with a set few ingredients that you know you can always get at the local supermarket. It probably won't be local and seasonal, but it is _easy_
posted by sparklemotion at 4:26 PM on October 4, 2012 [11 favorites]

desjardins, I say this with respect: You are worth feeding. You are worth the effort that this project is going to take. It is OK not to know what you like, and it's OK to experiment.

A fairly simple thing to make in advance: Homemade pasta. I use a Kitchenaid and a pasta roller, but the point is that it can be made out of what's in the pantry (flour, salt, eggs) and it can hang to dry in advance or while the pot comes to a boil. The other pot is for a simple sauce. It's really, really tasty, and it's also a great project for two. You can either make enough for leftovers, or else cut some of the pasta and put the rest of the dough in the 'frig. Pair it with a (premade) salad.

I really like a clay pot-roasted chicken because the work of it is basically an hour before you saute a pan of veggies, or make rice. (Helpful tools: Clay pot, rice cooker.)

Crock pot potatoes.


Acceptable once-in-a-while breakfast-for-dinner meals (aka the emergency Dutch Babies, or awesome French toast from the pre-sliced bread rounds in the freezer paired with fresh fruit). Sometimes making breakfast is easier than making "Oh-my-God,-what-are-we-eating-in-an-hour-no-pressure-DINNER."

Listen to Nimmie Amee's solid advice about setting up before you start cooking. Read some threads about keeping a pantry. Maybe, when you're in the mood, write down two or three meals you like, send that in an email to your husband, and ask him to add two or three different meals; make a list of those you agree on so you have a starting point for which meals are possible for both of you.

You don't have to get all of it right immediately. Progress, not perfection. Good luck.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:27 PM on October 4, 2012

First of all, I'm 48, a mother and a grandmother, and I still get a bit of deer-in-the-headlights when I am meal planning. Love to cook, hate to plan!

Get good at one thing at a time. The easiest thing for me is soups, because they are very forgiving in terms of burn-y-ness. Start with a big soup pot:

- put in an onion, chopped, or half an onion, with 2 tablespoons of oil, cook on med-low for 5 minutes;
- Add anything else hard or veggie, like carrots or celery;
- Add one-four chopped cloves of garlic after all these things have simmered about 10-15 minutes on low;
- Add something liquid, like chicken broth, diced tomatoes or both;
- Add some meat, chopped up beef, chicken, etc.
- Thyme goes with everything, I have a huge jar of dried thyme;
- Salt and pepper, dime size of each.

Let it cook an hour, throw in some cut-up potatoes or a small handful of rice, let cook another half hour. Orzo pasta is also good at the end (not too much, or it will soak up all the liquid).

Once you learn how to make soup, you can play around with the ingredients. Bake up some frozen garlic or cheese bread, or some tube biscuits in the oven, and you're good to go.

Then learn a good meatloaf: 1 lb. beef or ground turkey, one egg, ketchup or tomato paste, breadcrumbs. Add anything else you both like: chopped onion or garlic, shredded carrot, but not necessary. Worcestershire sauce is always a good thing in meatloaf. Bake 45 minutes in a loaf pan. Serve with microwave rice and nuked steam veggies.

One thing I do is look at what's on sale for protein and look up recipes associated with that. I've learned not to buy stuff I won't eat (drumsticks, no). Pork loin on sale? Yes! Sear it and stick it in the oven, done in 15 minutes. Ask the butcher how to cook certain cuts of meat. Imitate recipes I see on takeout (for instance, I will get shaved beef and cook up onion, green pepper, and mushrooms and throw in the beef and then top with deli swiss cheese for steak bombs at home and yes, I will get my husband to help chop if I don't feel like it!).

I only do the soups when I have time and inspiration, they have to last a couple of days at least or go into the freezer or compost pile.

I usually have at least 2 cans of chicken broth, 2 cans of diced tomatoes, several cans of variety beans, one to two heads of garlic, one to two onions, potatoes, a green pepper, bag of carrots, celery, fresh parsley, various condiments like mustard, hot sauce, mayo, curry paste, capers, and spices like salt, pepper, hot pepper flakes, thyme, curry powder, cumin, poultry seasoning, and a few others, depending on what I'm making. Frozen veg can be spinach, corn, broccoli or peas and green beans. Sometimes I'll do a special soup with cut up Italian sausage, fresh fennel, sweet potatoes, red pepper, hot red pepper and chicken broth, with a bit of cream added at the end. The spices in the sausage add to the soup.

I do a pretty good quiche using premade pie crust and eggs with milk and lots of veggies, sometimes a bit of sausage or ham and shredded cheese, just mixed together and baked for almost an hour till it's done (in a deep dish pan).

It took me ages of watching TV shows and experimenting to get to the point of not overcooking roasts and things. But just start with one thing that appeals to you. If it's pasta, learn to make carbonara and that's your specialty. Then learn something else. I've messed up things and set things on fire and had exploding pies, so you can't do any worse than I have. But you can't learn it all at once so don't expect yourself to! Learn one thing at a time! Once you've mastered that, then go on to the next thing. No one has to be Julia Child, it's just food, as long as it tastes good, you're okay. I do meal planning once a week and often I'll just go off it and get bored. Even tuna melts or grilled cheese with tomato soup is a meal, as far as I'm concerned. Done.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:28 PM on October 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

put in an onion, chopped...

...YES! And pick up one of those silly choppers from Oxo. Magic, I say!
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:32 PM on October 4, 2012

I've found the most stressful part of meal preparation to be the staring-into-the-pantry stage, where I'm trying to figure out what I can make a meal out of: let's see, creamed corn, pickles, tortillas...there's nothing here, might as well microwave something or go out. If it's 6 p.m. and I don't know what's for dinner tonight, things are off to a bad start and often go downhill from there.

On the other hand, sitting down on Sunday and picking three things to make for dinner that week, then getting everything you need in one shopping trip, is a lot easier. Sometimes it's still difficult to get started after a long day, but at least I can skip the mental effort of decision-making. I say three things, because another mistake I made was trying to go straight to cooking six or seven days a week, which isn't realistic when you're starting from zero.
posted by five toed sloth at 4:42 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can you make Breakfast?

I'd start on a saturday or sunday, where you have no time pressure. Also, Breakfast for Dinner is a perfectly acceptable Meal.

Start with Eggs, Bacon and Toast.
- toast bread in toaster (if you have one)
- fry up bacon on low heat. (this will take 8-10mins), tip out some of the bacon fat when you're done, but not all of it.
- figure out what sort of eggs you like (I find scrambled eggs the least intimidating, but a simple sunnyside up egg is also pretty damn easy), and prep those
- for scrambled eggs- crack 2 eggs into a bowl. add 1/4th cup milk. (basically a splash), mix ferociously with a fork. fry in bacon fat.


once you're comfy with that, move on to pancakes.
- buy a mix, mix with water/milk as per the instructions on the side (make up twice what you need)
- heat up a frying pan, add butter/oil, drop in pancake mix.
- flip when bubbles appear. if any pancakes burn, throw em out, and try again. (see thats why you made more than necessary!)

serve either of the above with some fresh fruit cut up, and you've got yourself a fancy homemade breakfast.

(optional: get cheap champagne and orange juice. mix half and half for mimosas. do this AFTER you are done cooking)
posted by larthegreat at 4:47 PM on October 4, 2012

I was coming in to suggest what Marie Mon Dieu did: soup. I used to feel exactly the way you describe, with the panic and the speed and the burning and oh god. Making pot after pot after pot of soup is the thing that got me over the hump. You do some onions so you practice a bit with the sauteeing, but that's it. When the onions are done you put in a bunch of water or stock, and from then on there is zero time pressure. You can contemplate each step and double-check yourself before you do anything, and the soup will be no worse for it. Today I consider myself an entirely competent cook.

You might want to look at the book How to Cook Everything. I've found it very helpful in terms of figuring out what I need and don't need to keep in my kitchen, how to mix-and-match ingredients for things like salads, what "chopped" versus "sliced" means, etc. You should allot yourself at least twice as much time as Mark Bittman suggests for anything though, at least when you're starting out.
posted by ootandaboot at 4:50 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with the commenters who say plan the menu, shop, and then cook when you know you have the ingredients on hand. That will help with #1 and #3.

For your next step, get some cookbooks or browse the Internet for "heat and eat" recipes. By this I mean any recipe where you combine the uncooked ingredients, heat once (bake, fry, simmer, etc.) and you've got food. Pancakes, eggs, French toast, meatloaf, enchiladas, eight million variations on the chicken breast, pasta and sauce, hamburgers--all "heat and eat". I too worry about timing issues, so I tend to stick to these kinds of recipes. Best of luck!
posted by epj at 4:57 PM on October 4, 2012

There are a lot of suggestions for cooking class above, and if it appeals, that can be a good long-term solution. It will certainly help you get more confident in the kitchen. In-person instruction (from a pro or a friend, whatever) is useful; as Laurie Colwin put it, "This is why a friend beats a cookbook hands down: you can't cross examine a cookbook."

But that's long-term. In the meantime, how about breaking down your four points like this:

1. Make a decision about what to eat

First, this is a really really common problem. I'm an avid cook and I run into this blankness about what to prepare at least a couple of times a week. So don't feel like you're the only one --- not at all!

If I don't have a hankering or an idea, I usually run through a process of elimination and induction.

For example: Did I have eggs already today? Then not eggs. That rules out a lot of my go-to meals (frittata, omelet, simple soufflé [which sounds super-fancy but is not at all hard]). Did I have tacos for lunch? Probably don't want burritos. Have I eaten a good chunk of protein yet? If not, I probably want to for dinner. Have I had enough green vegetables? If not, I might plan on a salad or pasta with broccoli.

I also use this process when The Fella is making dinner and asks if I have any preferences. One night this week, my stomach was unsettled, so my only preference was "Not tomato-y: no salsa, no tomato sauce, no cream of tomato soup." That helped him narrow it down.

2. Know how to prepare it
3. Have the appropriate ingredients on hand

For #2 and #3, it might be helpful to think in terms of templates rather than recipes. Figure out what elements you like and you'll be able to throw together dishes easily with what's on hand.

For example: My favorite salad have similar elements; a bowl of greens [e.g., spinach, watercress, mixed baby greens], something crunchy [e.g., toasted almonds or walnuts, pumpkin seeds, croutons, sesame sticks], maybe some protein [e.g., cheese, fried tofu; if you eat meat, leftover chicken or cooked shrimp], maybe some fruit [e.g., apple or pear slices, orange segments, dried cranberries], and a dressing [which you can make or buy]. That means that I can usually put together a great-looking, great-tasting salad in minutes, often from a bag of greens and a bunch of shelf-stable stuff.

I treat other simple, get-dinner-on-the-table dishes the same way.

- an everyday frittata at our house is usually an onion, a potato if we have it (and not if we don't), some cooked green vegetable [often leftover: e.g., broccoli, kale, spinach], and maybe some extra pop of flavor [e.g., Greek olives, red peppers (fresh or roasted), red onions], sometimes some cheese [whatever's on hand], all bound together with seasoned egg mixture.

- an everyday pasta dish is often pasta [e.g., boxed penne, frozen gnocchi, store-bought sweet potato ravioli], a sauteed onion, a cooked green vegetable [usually broccoli, just because we both love it, but you could put in anything you like], something sharp [usually a squeeze of lemon and a grate of lemon zest], and some hard cheese, some very soft cheese, or something to make it saucy [e.g., parmesan, goat cheese, pureed pumpkin or smashed sweet potato, or classic seasoned tomato sauce]. If you eat meat, it's easy to sear some chicken or shrimp (or briefly reheat leftover), or cook or drain some Italian sausage, or add store-bought meatballs.

If these meals don't appeal, that's no problem. I'm really recommending the idea, not the dishes themselves. Think about variations of dishes that you like and figure out what their elements are.

4. Not waste food (it gets forgotten about and/or goes bad)

The template-not-recipe idea might help reduce waste, too; it does for us. When you're buying specific items for specific recipes, it's easy to come up empty when it's time to use the rest of the [whatever]. But if you're thinking in terms of elements, it gets easier, because you can swap out, say, spinach for broccoli in that ravioli dinner, or add that lefotver goat cheese to your frittata instead of buying more gouda, or top your salad with shelf-stable dried fruit instead of buying more apples.

For example: I eat a lot of spinach, and the regionally-grown kind comes in a GIANT container. I won't eat all of that in salads and sandwiches while it's still crisp and perfectly fresh, but I can eat it sauteed in a panini or beaten into frittata or an egg sandwich or blanched and tossed with pasta and cheese or satueed and used to top homemade pizza or tossed with soba noodles and soy sauce... you get the picture.

I also use the freezer a great deal to avoid waste. If the last of the spinach is looking a bit sad but I just can't face spinach for dinner, I might blanch it, squeeze it dry, LABEL IT, and pop it in the freezer for another time.
posted by Elsa at 4:57 PM on October 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Soup is your friend when you're a new cook, I think. Because:

1. Soup is tolerant of timing. Even if the recipe says "saute the onion, and then add the carrot, celery, and tomatoes," if you're still caught chopping the celery when the onion's done sauteeing, it is really totally fine if you put just the carrot and tomatoes in first, and then add the celery a couple minutes later when you're done chopping it. Also, a lot of soups get a little better if you let them cook a little longer, so it's not like it will burn if you aren't standing there ready to eat when the timer goes off.

2. Soup is flexible with ingredients. If you're missing one ingredient from a soup recipe, it's actually okay. Your chicken noodle soup will not explode if you're missing the thyme or something. If you're missing chicken, then just call it "vegetable noodle soup." Or you can switch things much more easily with soup -- if you want to make chicken noodle soup but you don't have noodles, try adding cooked rice instead - ta-da, you have chicken and rice soup now.

3. Soup is nutritious. There are a ton of soup recipes that are nothing more than "steam vegetable x until it's cooked, then puree it with some broth, and then heat it through again"; so you're getting pretty much pure vegetable matter, just....in soup form. One of the best ways I know of to get vegetable matter into myself is to make soup out of it, because I can ingest about twice the recommended daily allowance of vegetables without even thinking about it simply by having a big bowl of soup.

4. Soup can be made in advance. If you make a couple of different big pots of soup and just keep them in the fridge, you can dish yourself out a bowl any time. And -- honestly, a bowl of soup plus a green salad, which you can get pre-bagged from the supermarket, plus maybe a roll you picked up on the way home, equals a perfectly lovely supper.

5. Soup is really, really hard to screw up. Seriously -- something with that much liquid in it will not burn unless you've got it on a full boil for something like an hour. even if you do forget an ingredient, or leave it cooking a few minutes longer than you intended, the worst that usually will happen is that the flavor will be a bit different, but it will still be edible.

For a very very beginning cook, try acquainting yourself with just a bunch of different soups. Make a couple pots of different soups and dole it out into smaller containers, and you can make a meal from one of those things of soup heated up and some bread. Or, one of those things of soup and some salad. Or, one of those things of soup and a really simple pasta-and-sauce.

that will at least get you into a kitchen and confident that you know your way around basics; then you can take it from there. Good luck!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:57 PM on October 4, 2012 [7 favorites]

Oh, forgot to mention -

The bulk of soupmaking consists of "dump things in a pot and let it simmer for an extended period of time." No scary technique there.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:59 PM on October 4, 2012

Really love flex's plan there, it's very close to what I'd suggest.

Make a list of all the meals you know how to make. Decide how much repetition you can stand, how many times you can eat out in a week. How many new recipes you want to commit to trying. Then make your menu - it doesn't have to be specific meals on specific days, it's just enough meals to cover a certain length of time. Then print or make a folder with the recipes so you have how to make everything right at your fingertips, and then make your grocery list.

You can find easy stuff in the frozen section and that's a great way to ease into cooking meals for yourself. Some sort of patties - for burgers, whether you want veggie burgers or turkey burgers or good old fashioned hamburgers. Cheese-filled ravioli, or frozen pierogies. Frozen pizza with self-rising crust. Baked potatos, sandwiches, soup, chips and dip - sometimes we have homemade hummus as a main dish, it's so good. All of these are great and simple. I'm a big casserole fan, you can make a lot with out a lot of effort, even stuff like hamburger helper - I make three boxes with one pound of ground turkey and that's more than one dinner.

Having a set list of things you are confident making will help with anxiety. And have stuff around for when you really don't feel like cooking - canned soup or even a few frozen entrees. You don't have to start out making everything from scratch, though you will hopefully segue to that because all of the prepared food is not the healthiest option, though it's probably healthier than takeout.

I like to keep things like canned chicken and flash-frozen chicken tenderloins around. You open a can of chicken, a jar of alfredo sauce and cook some egg noodles, and you've got a decent meal. Or a can of diced tomatoes, noodles, and generous splashes of italian salad dressing, some parmesan cheese, and voila, another easy meal.

It might help to look for cookbooks that emphasize a very small number of ingredients - 5 ingredient meals, 3 ingredient meals, etc. Desperation Dinners is a book I really like.

Good luck. And keep in mind, you don't have to fix this overnight. You're building new habits. If you eat out one less night a week, that's progress!
posted by lemniskate at 4:59 PM on October 4, 2012

There is a lot of background knowledge in cooking that can be mystifying to beginners, and invisible to people who've already absorbed it. Like, how big is diced? You could guess it's bigger than minced, but how does it compare to, say, chopped? How thick are thick slices? How do you tell when the onion is done sauteing? (Hint: it always takes longer than the recipe says.) Make a roux - what? On a stovetop, what's "medium" heat? What's the best knife to use, and how do you use it safely? Why are the wet and dry kept separate? Can this thing really be eaten raw? How do I peel it? And so on.

Depending on your individual strengths and fears, you could go any number of ways with this. If you are worried about burning things or wasting food, I actually think "just improvise" will not work for you. Improvisation requires confidence - or at least, a willingness to fail, perhaps spectacularly, and to continue without getting discouraged. I would start with a basic recipe - say, for a vegetable soup - that is well documented and fully explained, and then branch out with variations. For example, you could look at Mark Bittman's Customizable Soups. Not that these are the gold standard of documentation, but they give you an idea of how to take a base recipe and then change it.

As for deciding what to eat: Get some popsicle sticks or something and write one of your favorite vegetables on each one. On a day when you have some time, draw a stick at random. Find a simple recipe that features this vegetable. Cook it and eat it with some rotisserie chicken from the deli counter and some bread or rice or something. The next time, draw a different stick, but try to find a recipe that uses the same techniques as the previous one. In this way, you can practice techniques without getting too bored. After you feel confident with your ingredients and techniques, add more vegetables or meats/fish to your draw pile.

You might want to pick up a cookbook that has basic recipes and lots of tips. I haven't bought a cookbook in a long time, so there may be better ones around, but I like Fannie Farmer. The recipes are very Americana, but there is a ton of info on basic cooking techniques, and recipes organized by main ingredient. Or if you like to geek out on things, check out Cook's Illustrated books. They do lots of variations on each recipe and explain why things worked out as they did. Joy of Cooking is also good for the basics.
posted by expialidocious at 5:01 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I get extremely flustered when I try to cook because everything just seems to be happening SO FAST

The only thing that has to be time sensitive to that degree is pasta and baked goods. Which aren't all that great for you, so it's fine if you don't eat them very often. And there is nothing wrong with cooking real food in the microwave, even semi-prepared real food that will take some of the stress off you.

I think a great place to start off, with lots of training wheels to help you get your bearings, is frozen *food* (not meals). Your grocery store (also IKEA) has frozen meatballs, probably 1-3 pounds in a bag. They are probably fairly near the frozen veg, and I'm thinking in particular about the steamer-bag vegetables (unsauced) that nuke in the bag you bring them home in. Get some broccoli, or broco-cauli-carrot. From either the pasta aisle or the cheese-related cold case, get some pasta sauce, either tomatoey or alfredoy.

Follow the instructions on the meatballs (you're going to have an option of oven or skillet, probably - I like them in the oven myself). 7 minutes before the meatballs are done, put the vegetable in the microwave and cook per instructions. Once you hit start, open the container of sauce, take the meatball cooking vessel out of the oven, put the sauce in and stir everything around, and put the vessel back in the oven.

Leave the vegetables in the microwave until you're ready to serve. When the timer goes off, take the meatballs out. Put vegetables on plate, put some meatballs and sauce over.

(Tip: you can cover either of these things and walk away for half an hour if you need to. Just warm them back up in the microwave. You don't have to know this magically, but you will learn it as you keep cooking.)

Make a green salad on the side, or toast, or don't. We often eat variations on the above during the week.

When you've made this meal half a dozen times, you will know a whole new set of things about cooking. Maybe you'll decide to try the meatballs in a skillet instead. Maybe you'll decide they could use 5 minutes more than the instructions. Maybe you'll get some chicken breasts and do them instead. Small changes, don't go nuts.

Keep a frozen pizza in the freezer in case you burn something. It's actually super hard to burn things unless you're frying or broiling, so don't try those just yet.

But if you do burn something, if you ruin it, if you make something unspeakable...throw it away and make a note about what happened. You're not going to be in trouble. I think that's a mindset a lot of people have who grew up with people who didn't/couldn't cook - my husband is the same way, except that he can fry chicken so I have no idea what the hell it is with fried chicken because it is *tricky* - and I think there was a certain amount of catastrophizing that gets internalized.

You don't have to be Julia Child in 10 days. Plan to cook two nights a week for the next 4 months, same thing every time if you want, until you feel you have a feel for how that meal works. Eventually, when you've reached a comfort level, you're going to want to try new things, and you're going to remember that you love squash or whatever and want to give that a go. That's how cooking skills grow.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:04 PM on October 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

1) make a list of some dishes you have liked in the past but don't know how to cook. Run it by your husband and find out which ones might be good to start with.
2) go to a bookstore and find a couple different cookbooks that have a recipe you want to try. Read over the recipe and make sure all the steps are clear to you. Double check that any ingredients they mention at the top are in the recipe and vice versa, and that they describe them properly --- like it shouldn't say "1 red pepper" up top and then "add the cup of chopped red pepper" in the instructions. When you find a book that's clear and you're comfortable with it, bring it home.
3) pick a day when you have plenty of time and your husband's around for backup. Buy the ingredients for that one recipe.
4) Read over the recipe beforehand a couple times and make sure you understand the steps. If in doubt, check YouTube --- there's tons of videos that can show you the difference between "minced" and "diced," for example.
5) Prep. Prep prep prep. Measure out your ingredients, chop all your vegetables to the required size, and lay 'em out in order on the counter.
6) Cook. Eat. Be pleased.
7) Next weekend, try a different recipe and repeat steps 3-6.

After a while, you'll build confidence and have a bunch of different things you like and know how to make. When you're at that point, you'll be able to plan meals and have a good understanding of what ingredients you need to have on hand, and it'll be a lot easier to shop and not let things go bad.

Lastly don't be intimidated. Cooking is a bit like driving a car --- when you don't know how it can seem mysterious and scary, even dangerous, but all the actual steps involved are incredibly simple. Press a pedal, turn a wheel, cut a vegetable, stir a pot. It's just a matter of practicing them until you can put them all together.

Seriously --- you'll find that about 90% of sauces, stews and soups have the same basic four steps at their core: put some fat in a pan and get it hot, add meat and let it turn brown, add vegetables and stir 'em around until they get soft, add a liquid and cook until the meat's done. Sometimes you add herbs and spices. You can do this, man.
posted by Diablevert at 5:04 PM on October 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are a lot of great ideas on here already, but one of my go-to rescue foods (for those times when you've put off eating for so long that it feels like a crisis only take-out can solve) is couscous. It is incredibly fast to cook (i.e., 5 min.), and if you have it on hand you'll find that it's typically faster to put together a couscous dish than go get anything take out (up to and including fast-food).

It's a great base because it's got a passable amount of protein in it and you can add about anything to it in terms of meat, vegetable, dried fruit, cheese, etc. and have something at least sort of good, and often quite good.

E.g., it's raining here tonight, which nixed my grocery store plans, so I microwaved a sweet potato, put my couscous on the stove, diced and (optional detail) briefly fried the sweet potato in olive oil, with a bit of honey, butter, and sriracha at the end. Then I mixed it all together and ate it. I wont' be writing home about it (although the irony of writing the internet about it is not lost on me), but it was good and reasonably healthy.

Other common variations I do are sauteed spinach and feta cheese, or chicken sausages (which you can keep in the freezer for long periods but put to use very quickly) cut into thick nickels then browned and whatever veg is at hand. In both instances you can pretty much do all of your other prep while the couscous is cooking.

Anyway, it's not an every night thing, but it's a great no-recipe, use whatever's to hand back-up plan that has kept countless value meals out of my stomach.
posted by jimmysmits at 5:09 PM on October 4, 2012

I have recommended this book before on here: Real Fast Food by Nigel Slater.

Recommended because
- it's designed for busy people who don't have a whole lot of time to cook
- recipes are for 1-2 people, not a family of four
- recipes are quite simple, but the flavours are interesting/sophisticated

Good luck!
posted by pink_gorilla at 5:14 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

And have stuff around for when you really don't feel like cooking - canned soup or even a few frozen entrees.

This is especially great if you can find a way to amp up those prepared foods so they satisfy you more. Sometimes it just takes a simple addition to make a frozen packet of food more appealing and more nutritious.

For example*, one of our stand-by hurry-up dinners relies on a package of frozen vegetarian Chinese dumplings (either from Trader Joe's or from the local Asian market. We tend to keep a package in the freezer just in case. When we need to have dinner RIGHT NOW OR IN TEN MINUTES, I chop up a head of broccoli, steam the dumplings according to directions along with the broc in a giant pan (handy tip: for a huge lidless pan, use a cookie sheet as a lid), then remove the cover, add a splash of oil, and let everything sear til it gets a bit of color and flavor. That's it. (Sometimes I use frozen blanched broccoli florets, in which case I just sear them.)

If I have 20 minutes, I can gussy it up by reducing some OJ and soy sauce with garlic and Sriracha for a sauce and by adding some scallions and toasted sesame seeds, but if I don't have 20 minutes, the 10-minute version is jusssssst fiiiiiiine. It's reasonably nutritious (all that broccoli!), quite tasty, and nice and filling.

I'm not saying "Eat potstickers!" so much as I'm saying "Having some staple prepared foods on hand and an arsenal of extremely basic tricks to jazz them up to your standards." Sometimes a prepared dish will already be up to your standards, and that's great. Less work for you!

*Again, with the examples! But I feel like concrete examples help convey the basic idea, even if the specific dishes don't appeal to you.
posted by Elsa at 5:19 PM on October 4, 2012

I realized not too long ago that I really dislike cooked veggies. Love them raw, but steam them up and . . . gag. For some reason that took so much pressure off my cooking endeavors. I did not have to worry about cooked veggies. I'd throw together a nice salad or a veggie tray. And it was one less item to have to worry about making sure was cooked correctly and done at the right time. It has become so much easier to throw something in the crockpot, or cook up some chicken and serve it with the salad or veggie tray. ta-da! happy healthy easy meal.

You don't need to achieve the perfectly cooked piece of meat, the steamed veggies with sauce and the side of mashed potatoes. That just sounds exhausting. Piece of meat and some sliced tomatoes = perfect meal! Easy and not overwhelming.

So, perhaps focus on learning how to make the main dish (meat, pasta, etc). And then for the side, some sliced fresh veggies or fruits or a simple salad.
posted by Sassyfras at 5:26 PM on October 4, 2012

Response by poster: I realized that another problem I have is that I go from "not hungry at all" to "I'm so hungry I'm getting lightheaded" in about 5 minutes. Thus if I don't have anything planned, I will just eat whatever. (I've had my blood sugar checked many times, I'm not diabetic.)
posted by desjardins at 5:31 PM on October 4, 2012

I hate cooking. Hate it. Over the years my diet has gone from Hot Pockets and fast food to frozen veggie burgers, pre-made food from EarthFare, Trader Joe's super easy frozen rice bags, black bean burritos (can of beans and a wrap), granola and almond milk, organic canned soups and salads with limited ingredients.
So, you can still manage to eat kinda healthy without having to cook stuff.
My boyfriend likes to cook but does so about 3 times a week. Sometimes I'll find a recipe and ask if he'll cook it. Maybe pick up a cooking magazine and see if anything looks good.
posted by KogeLiz at 5:31 PM on October 4, 2012

There is a lot of background knowledge in cooking that can be mystifying to beginners, and invisible to people who've already absorbed it. Like, how big is diced?

This is huge. I hadn't realized how big until I moved in with my now-spouse who didn't grow up cooking. All kinds of basic cooking terms and skills just weren't there. It's like, if the recipe says "simmer," do you just turn the dial on the stove to "sim," or does it mean something else? Those aren't trivial issues, and for someone starting out I think classes or the kind of cookbook that doesn't assume that kind of extensive "basic" knowledge are the best approaches.

People above have made the suggestions I was going to: Classes, meal planning, and starting small. Even people who grew up cooking and cook every day tend to have a quite small set of dishes in constant rotation, and add in new or complicated dishes infrequently. Having that repertoire allows you to cook fast and efficiently, and it's ok to have a large percentage of those dishes be variations on very simple themes. For example, pasta with chicken, omelettes, and rice and vegies can each be made in minutes, take no thought, and yet can have endless variations to keep them interesting.

In other words, don't treat this as a huge project where you need to be able to whip up a complex Thai seven course meal on a moment's notice.

And don't be shy about planning things out. Spontaneity is great, but so is just basic agreement that Wednesday is leftovers, Thursday is rice and chicken, Friday is date night, and Saturday brunch is going to be an elaborate experiment with omelettes and bacon but if that turns out to be a disaster there is cereal in the cupboard. That way shopping is easy, wastage is minimized, and no one has to stress.
posted by Forktine at 5:36 PM on October 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Also, seriously it's not mandatory to be a person who Cooks Things From Scratch. I am that person and it makes me happy. My partner is not, and so I take care of 99% of the cooking most of the time, but when I go out of town she doesn't starve to death. She just eats salads, goes out with friends, and probably eats all kinds of stuff that I don't allow in the house when I am here. (What I don't know won't hurt me, so I don't ask.)

In other words, there's nothing wrong with having one person be the Chef and the other person be the dishwasher and cheerleader. There are gazillions of prepared foods (frozen, boxed, etc) that are not awful for you; filling your freezer with those kinds of foods is a way of giving yourself happy eating options with none of the stress of trying to radically change your relationship to cooking.

I'm not saying don't cook -- I'm just saying that there are ways of attaining your stated goals of eating better without having to go full-bore at cooking from scratch if that turns out to not work well for you, or turns out to be a longer project than you had anticipated.
posted by Forktine at 5:42 PM on October 4, 2012

the "not hungry at all" to "i'm about to pass out" is something my husband i do constantly. the only way i reliably get around it is to decide on dinner hours or days before. it seems daunting at first. it freaked me out. however, after you get used to it, it's so freeing. as the hours of the day tick away, instead of getting anxious about dinner you think "ok, i should start chopping the onions at 5:00 so i can get the meal on the table by 6:00."

it also helped us with the indecisive/freeze up problem. i love to cook lots of different things. my husband likes to eat lots of different things - even still, if you ask us when it's time to eat what we should eat it's like a grand existential crisis has just been proposed and then we eat mac and cheese or hot dogs or we just sort of skip it. if i make a meal plan, or at the very least decide on dinner while i'm getting ready in the morning, so much of the anxiety just disappears.

when i feel penned in by this habit, i pick two or three things that take the same amount of time to cook so i can decide closer to dinner.
posted by nadawi at 5:54 PM on October 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

I realized that another problem I have is that I go from "not hungry at all" to "I'm so hungry I'm getting lightheaded" in about 5 minutes. Thus if I don't have anything planned, I will just eat whatever.

OH MAN, me too. Or I blow right past "will eat anything" stage and go into "am cranky and feel awful, have forgotten how to eat." Once that happens, my day is ruined.

So I have a handful of small, nourishing staple snacks that will bump up my energy and knock down my hunger long enough to prepare something more substantial. For me, those include: a handful of almonds; a few crackers with cheese or peanut butter; an apple with peanut butter; a small smoothie made with OJ and frozen strawberries and/or blueberries (which we always have on hand for exactly this reason, and so I can make blueberry pie); yogurt; chopped up vegetables and hummus; edamame. Sometimes all it takes is a glass of juice. Figure out what small snacks appeal to you and have one as soon as you realize this state has descended on you.

When I get emergency-hungry as you describe, I STOP EVERYTHING and have one of those snacks with a big glass of water or, if I feel like it, a glass of milk. Then I sit until I feel better and think about a rocket-fast meal I can make when I stand up.

The favorite rocket-fast meals chez nous include:
- The potstickers and broccoli I describe above. You could sub in any green vegetable you want, altering cooking time appropriately. Spinach would be great, or green beans, or maybe edamame.
- frozen ravioli, boiled along with a whacked-up head of broccoli. Drain it and toss it with shredded parmesan, a glug of olive oil, a ladleful of pasta water, and a squeeze of lemon. The starchy pasta water and Parmesan will combine to form the barest glistening layer of sauciness.
- omelet or egg sandwich stuffed with whatever leftover cooked vegetable and whatever cheese, served with toast or a bagel or (again) whatever bread is in the house.
- a microwaved "baked" potato or sweet potato (wash it, stab it through with a skewer, and cook for 5-8 minutes, I guess, depending on your microwave and your potato) topped with whatever appeals. Some classics: cheese, salsa, rinsed-drained-heated canned beans, that now-famous leftover green vegetable I keep talking about.
- any kind of salad, made according to the template method I described above. For me, that's usually Something Green, Something Nutty, Something Cheesy, Something Fruity --- and because salad usually has marginal appeal when I'm already cranky-hungry, I also make cheese toast or cheesy garlic bread, both as a little nugget of protein and as treat on the side.
- when I'm alone (because my partner hates green beans), I'll eat a huge bowl of green beans sauteed with garlic and soy sauce for dinner, maybe on rice, maybe not. (I'm having it tonight!) That usually means I'll be protein-hungry the next day, though.

I agree with Forktine: there's no reason to be Cooks From Scratch person if that doesn't appeal to you. There is a reason for you to feel well-fed, both nutritionally and aesthetically, and from this in your question:

My husband and I spend absurd amounts of money on packaged foods and eating out. I'd be okay with spending the money, but I don't even feel like I'm eating well.

it's clear that you don't feel well-fed. There are lots of ways to achieve that, though, and "cook from scratch" is only one of them. I love cooking things from scratch, but I'm also grateful that there are so many appealing, nutritious shortcuts I can take to feed us well.

Oh, I have one more suggestion for the "how to decide on a meal" problem, and it's a suggestion I learned from AskMe, I'm sure. We call it "3-2-1": Person A (who will take responsibility for this project) suggests three things --- in this case, the cook/fetcher of take-out would suggest three meals. Person B eliminates one of the three choices. Person A chooses between the remaining two.

For example, your partner might offer three options from his repertoire (which I will make up): chicken with pasta, pork stir-fry, or mac & cheese. You knock out chicken with pasta. He gets to decide whether to make pork stir-fry or mac & cheese. Easy!
posted by Elsa at 6:06 PM on October 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

Are you an app person? I have one called mealboard that I really like. It comes with some recipes loaded but you can also import recipes from allrecipes and other popular recipe websites. You can then choose your meals for the week (I just do dinners but you can do the whole shebang if you want). From there you push another button and the app generates your grocery list.
posted by Cuke at 6:14 PM on October 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Women's magazines like Woman's Day/Redbook etc often have a monthly meal calendar. The recipes are usually very beginner friendly.
posted by vespabelle at 6:14 PM on October 4, 2012

desjardins, you sound a lot like my early attempts at cooking. The #1 thing I wish people had told me is:

You have to learn by doing. You will ruin food. That's okay.

There is no other way to learn to cook. You have to try, fail, try, fail, try, fail, try -- oh, hey, this is sort-of like food! Yay! You can learn a lot from youtube tutorials, questions on ask, books, beginner websites, food blogs with lots of detailed pictures, etc., and those things are great to figure out basic questions, but you have to just try, and fail a lot at first, to learn how to do it.

Anyway, there are my tips from learning from ground zero:

1&3) Make a menu for the week. Don't be too ambitious! Pick a few days of take-out or frozen food, a couple days where your husband cooks (and you decide in advance what to make!), and one day where you cook. You will expand as you get better! Have some backup food you can nuke if something fails. As I've gotten better and I know how to cook more things, I try to organize my shopping so if I'm going to use 4 oz. of heavy cream in one thing, I'll use up the rest of the package in something else, but it's okay at first not to! Plan meals with ingredients that spoil faster earlier in the week. Do your shopping for the week

2) Start with easy things, which lots of people are giving great advice about. I started with pasta and canned sauce. Then I learned how to add meat to my sauce. Then onions and meat! Then a different kind of sauce! Read the recipe ahead. Get out all the ingredients and equipment (including timers). Read the recipe again and picture how you need to do everything. Then do it. As you do more cooking and get more practice, it will be less overwhelming. But still the first time when I make a recipe, especially one with a lot of steps or a new technique, it's overwhelming for me and I feel a little rushed and panicked about it.

4) I have a whiteboard in my kitchen, and this helps with planning and not wasting food. I write out the week, and then I write next to any day I have things that will interfere with dinner (evening meetings, husband at work late, even a TV show I particularly want to watch), and I actually put the high temperature on the days too, so I can plan to not cook on super-hot days and to make chili on a cold, wet day, or whatever -- it makes me feel more like eating what I've planned when I've planned to suit the weather. THEN after I can see the weather and all dinner-time events, I plan out my meals (researching on a laptop, or using cookbooks, or whatever). And THEN I sit down and make my shopping list. It's a big process but I have to be pretty formalized about it. That's the left side; on the right side, I write what leftovers are generated as they're generated, so I remember what's there and my husband knows what to take for lunch. Whoever takes the last of that leftover erases it or puts a line through it. (I also put things like "ham & cheese sandwiches" if I've got that there for lunch.) At the bottom of the menu-planning side I'll add my backup meals ("frozen pizza" "pasta with red sauce") so I know what I can do in an emergency, cooking failure, or unwillingness to cook my real thing.

Good luck! Don't be afraid to screw up.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:18 PM on October 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

So much great advice in this thread. The one thing I might add is to find a food blogger who makes things you like and posts a lot of step-by-step pictures. And leave yourself lots of time. Maybe even make something right after you've eaten a regular meal, with the intention of having it later.
posted by lakeroon at 6:19 PM on October 4, 2012

There is a lot of background knowledge in cooking that can be mystifying to beginners, and invisible to people who've already absorbed it. Like, how big is diced?

First, this is the kind of question that the internet is great for! Look at the first photo on this page (just below the video) to see a diced onions (largest) compared to chopped onions (medium) compared to minced onions (smallest).

A cooking class will teach you those basics, or you can look though the introductory section of an old-fashioned cookbook. my 1960s Fannie Farmer and my 1990s Fannie Farmer both have long intro chapters outlining chopping and preparation techniques, heating techniques (simmer vs. boil, roast vs. bake), pantry/fridge basics (baking powder vs. baking soda, milk vs. half & half vs. light cream vs. heavy cream), and even some menu-planning suggestions.

Second, it isn't usually disastrous to dice something that the recipe says should be chopped. It will add some cooking time --- onions or potato especially will need longer to soften --- but as long as you know that, you can account for it. The biggest exception to this is probably highly-flavored or very textured elements: if you mince garlic instead of chopping it or slicing it, you get a lot more flavor, and not always in a desirable way. If you dice ginger instead of mincing or grating it, you get slower flavor infusion and probably some unpalatable fibrous chunks.

Though cooking can seem mysterious to the unfamiliar, it isn't magic and it is susceptible to rational investigation. What happens if I dice these onions instead of mincing them for the stir-fry? Oh, they'll cook more slowly, so I should probably cut the other hard vegetables larger, too, or add the onions sooner and cook them longer.

There are a very few kinds of cooking that must be done precisely (or altered only by people who understand the complex processes at work). Home canning requires precision of acid and processing for safety. Don't mess around with that. Baking relies on chemical interactions and random tinkering will probably produce poor results. But for the everyday dinner-on-the-table kind of cooking, there are fewer absolute rules and you can tinker with recipes to good effect.

You have to learn by doing. You will ruin food. That's okay.

Yup! I've been cooking for decades, since I was a tiny kid, and every so often I still ruin something. Sometimes it's totally predictable. There is a particular coffee cake in which I routinely --- like, one time out of five! --- forget to add either the sugar or the salt. It's a waste of time and food and a big disappointment, but it's not a character flaw. Plus, now I know to watch myself when I make it and double-check those steps.

As you develop habits, you'll learn where your gaps are and learn to be vigilant about them. And you'll still ruin something once in a while. That's okay.
posted by Elsa at 6:46 PM on October 4, 2012

How about exploring pizza? You can ease into it gradually since (here in the northeastern U.S. at least) you can initially buy all the components at the supermarket - dough, sauce, cheese, pre-diced vegetables, pepperoni - and simply assemble and bake them. Then you can branch out to making your own dough (using a bread machine isn't cheating! I got my bread machine for ten bucks at the Salvation Army), preparing fancy toppings, and maybe making your own sauce. Then all of those things can be stepping-stones to other cuisine.

Another great advantage of pizza is that if you've bought or made the dough ahead of time you can have a completely baked pizza ready in twenty to thirty minutes. Also, to my taste at least it's still pretty good even if it comes out burnt or undercooked.

My favorite pizza cookbook is The Ultimate Pizza by Pasquale Bruno. In addition to lots of good information and recipes it's got a "Troubleshooting" section to help you analyze particular problems like the dough tearing too easily or the crust not coming out crispy enough.

Also, just as a general cooking tip I find a mandoline slicer indispensable. Seconds to do what takes forever with a knife and hence it makes me much more willing to include some nice fresh veggies in what I'm cooking. Oddly enough I like cheaper ones better because often you can more easily remove the blade and sharpen it with a knife sharpener.
posted by XMLicious at 7:21 PM on October 4, 2012

I taught myself to cooking using Everyday Food magazine and the food blogs like Smitten Kitchen and Simply Recipes. Then nice thing about food blogs is that the authors often show photos of intermediate steps, so you can see how things are supposed to be chop and stuff.

Even 6 years later, I cook entirely from recipes. I look around on Pinterest, food blogs, and my always-growing collection of proven recipes and stare at the pretty food pictures until something look good. I go to the store and buy the ingredients for the recipe and then just follow directions. It's not a creative form of cooking, but it works for me.

I also have the problem of going straight from not hungry to completely starving. I solve it by never cooking a day's dinner that day. I live alone, so I'm generally only cooking for myself, and I cook a few meals each weekend. It helps that I like things like stews and pasta bakes that often taste better after the flavors have a chance to meld. Having a home-cooked meal during the week just means sticking a portion in the microwave for a couple of minutes.
posted by capsizing at 7:59 PM on October 4, 2012

I have to recommend Mark Bitman's How to Cook Everything: the Basics.

It doesn't have as many recipes as the regular How to Cook Everything but I think it's a superior book because it has so many photos -- of what you should stock your pantry with, recommended cookware, and recipes in various stages of completion. It's the book for the person who needs to have everything spelled out for them when it comes to cooking (this is me as well). And even though it has 'basic' in the title, not everything is as simple or boring as pasta with marinara sauce -- there are also recipes like pad thai, which I consider not terribly basic.
posted by Asparagus at 8:16 PM on October 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

How hungry are you when you're trying to make decisions about what to eat (or cook)? I CANNOT make food-related decisions when I am hungry; I get super stressed out and panicky and I just can't decide what to eat or cook or anything.

It sounds like you're not in tune with your hunger - if you were, you'd gradually get more hungry, rather than going from zero to starving. So, maybe you're hungry when you're trying to make decisions, and it's affecting your decision-making-ability.

One strategy that's helpful for me is to have snacks around, easy ones - like a yogurt, granola bar, handful of nuts, etc. I have taught myself that if I get panicky-hungry, I eat something, wait a couple minutes, then try again with the making decisions part. I highly recommend this strategy for anyone who gets too hungry to make decisions about food (I have known other people who this happens to, also).
posted by insectosaurus at 8:31 PM on October 4, 2012

A slow cooker (aka a crockpot - you can get a basic 4 quart crockpot - big enough for most 2-person meals - for about $25) is really a very good place to start, for a couple reasons.

First, there's no time crunch. You put stuff into the pot cold, you turn it on, and you walk away. No stirring, no checking to see if stuff is done, no multi-step processes (most of the time. If you want to get funky, you can find multi-step crockpot recipes, but, well...why bother?).

Second, many, many crockpot recipes are sort of dump-and-run deals - that is, you're not combining the zest of an exotic orange, four different chopped things, a Pekingese bison, and a homemade stock. At the shallow end of the pool, most crockpot recipes look something like "Buy a hunk of meat. Buy a bag of frozen vegetable-like things. Buy a can of Campbell's soup. Dump it all in the slow-cooker. Walk away."

Third, you do all the "cooking" involved in a crockpot meal ahead of time. By the time it's "Oh crap, I've broken out into a clammy sweat, my hands are shaking, and if I don't eat right now I might pass out" time (yeah, I get that too) in the evening, it's done. Literally the only thing you have left to do is turn off the crockpot and spoon food into your bowl.

This series of cookbooks for slow-cookers is very good - it's not high cuisine, but it is easy cuisine that's better for you than Mcdonalds, and starting out with this sort of low-investment cooking might de-stress you enough to get a headstart on deciding whether you want to delve into more complex stuff.

Oh, also, meal planning! My boyfriend laughs at me for planning meals ahead on the weekend, but if I come home from work at 6 and there's not already a plan for what we're eating? 95% chance we're going to Mcdonalds at that point. Not having to think at food time is really useful.
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE at 8:33 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding soup.

Seconding xmlicious' idea of pizza, but adding: you should grill it in the summer.

Speaking of, an outdoor grill is your friend. Throw a piece of protein or two on, a veggie wrapped in foil with some olive oil and spices and some whole potatoes or sweet potatoes? Done. Full meal. Super easy.

Also easy: roasting things. Put some root veggies and chicken in a pan. Stick them in the oven with olive oil and maybe a little chicken stock. Cover. Leave cooking for an hour or so at 350. Done.
posted by slateyness at 8:56 PM on October 4, 2012

I could have written most of what you wrote. All the advice above is great, but to suggest alternatives - let your partner cook or rely on prepped food. If your partner likes cooking, let them plan and cook, with you washing up and shopping. My husband makes an omlette on the side for me if he's cooked something for dinner that I can't eat. I have a bunch of prepped foods in the fridge and pantry as well - frozen pizzas, calzones, pasta with jar sauces, quick salads, cereal, etc.

I feel crummy sometimes for not being Martha Stewart but I've learned to accept that Subway is a staple in my diet. Years of childhood crud don't get undone quickly, and because my partner and kids like to cook, I can focus on other stuff.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:58 PM on October 4, 2012

As someone with a similar history w/r/t food-prep & family, and who has faced many of the same resultant challenges, I heartily recommend the book Timing is Everything. This is broad and thorough yet easily referenceable while you're in the kitchen Doin' Stuff.

Using this (along with practice), I've found that knowing how long something *should* cook for, goes a looooong way to lowering stress in the kitchen.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 9:26 PM on October 4, 2012

I find him kind of annoying sometimes, but Gordon Ramsay has a new series out called his ultimate cookery course and you can watch all the episodes online after they air. They are super simple recipes but they sound really delicious. I don't even eat 99% of the stuff he makes (I'm vegan) but I'm mesmerized by the show. He really breaks things down and even gets into knife skills, cooking techniques, how to select ingredients, and essential tools for the kitchen.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 9:40 PM on October 4, 2012

Other people's advice reminded me: You're allowed to write in cookbooks.

Print off recipes if writing in cookbooks is too intimidating. Divide up long recipe lists with a couple of lines to group them for step 1, step 2, step 3. Highlight the actual active, time-sensitive part of the step: "add all these ingredients, chop mushrooms, smell the aroma, season to taste, then (HIGHLIGHT) stir for five minutes over low heat (HIGHLIGHT END)." Count the timing backwards -- if I want to eat this soup at 7 p.m., I need an hour of simmering here and it'll probably take me 20 minutes to add these ingredients here and it has to cook 90 minutes here ... so I need it on the stove at 4 p.m. so I should start prep about 3:30 because I'm a slow chopper. Then write the timing on the recipe! "Begin prep: 3:30 p.m. On stove: 4 p.m. Step 3: start at 5:50 p.m. and on stove at 6 p.m." Or on a post-it to stick on your recipe.

It's way less overwhelming when you're not trying to manage everything in your head.

Also the first time you make ANY recipe, double the active prep time. If it says "10 minutes prep, 35 minutes cooking," the 35 minutes cooking is probably about correct, but the 10 minutes prep takes at least 20 minutes your first try at the recipe -- even if you're a really good cook. You have to keep checking the recipe and you're just slower at unfamiliar steps. You'll also find you're fast and slow at some things ... I measure and mix faster than the recipes usually call for, but I chop waaaaaaaaay slower. That used to stress me out but now I just know I'm slow, and it's okay, it's not a race, and I like my fingers attached, so I chop away slowly and methodically and get zen-like about it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:13 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have the same problem with going from not hungry to really hungry very quickly. The solution for me has been to remind myself at 5:20 that I need to start dinner NOW and not at 6 when I'm starved.

Can your husband teach you what he knows? This could be a gentle way to get started, by helping him make something he already knows how to cook. That way he can handle all the timing issues at first and you can just focus on what you're doing and then the next time
you can take more control. Plus if you end up with leftovers, the next time you cook you can remind yourself that even if everything gets burnt and gross you can still heat something up and have dinner five minutes later. Give yourself permission to fail.

nthing the How to Cook Everything rec. It's a good reference for all of those basic cooking terms and techniques that everyone else seems to know and has and detailed suggestions for pantry items and kitchen tools. The other great thing is that the beginning of each section he has a bunch of "essential recipes," which are just the most basic type of whatever that section is. So in his soup section he starts with a recipe for "boiled water" (really just broth), vegetable soup, and noodle soup, all in their simplest to cook versions. He also lists a bunch of variations next to each one, a lot of which are simple but keep things interesting (eg use broccoli instead of cauliflower or add a little soy sauce or add some pasta etc).

For inspiration, I use food blogs. I don't necessarily make what their recipe, but a lot of the time seeing a post about fish tacos will make me want burritos or whatever and now I know what to have for dinner next week. Don't get intimidated if the recipes look too complex and the pictures are (too) perfect. Just use this as a way to get ideas as to what you'd like to eat. You can find a simpler recipe elsewhere. That said, I really like Smitten Kitchen and think that she's one of the more approachable seeming food bloggers. She even has a section on her recipe page called Disasters!

Last thing: curry. I buy canned curry paste and that way it's only a little more complicated than soup but it seems way more exciting.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 10:58 PM on October 4, 2012

Cook with your husband. Let him do the half that you don't want to do. Eventually you'll be able to cook more elaborate meals on your own without freaking out.
posted by pracowity at 11:13 PM on October 4, 2012

These are my go-to basics that I eat a lot. All of them are simple to make and forgiving of mistakes:



posted by JaneL at 1:02 AM on October 5, 2012

As if you're not overwhelmed enough, here's a thought I haven't read yet. One of the things that got met started cooking was trying out a non-Western cuisine. Often "ethnic" cuisines have meals that rival pasta with tomato sauce in simplicity and are as healthy, or sometimes even healthier. Indian cooking and Chinese cooking are good examples. Although you're probably familiar with these from restaurants, they taste quite different if you make them on your own, can use real fresh ingredients, use as much spices as you like, etc. The advantage of learning such a cuisine is that you get a skill that not everyone around already has a decade of experience at. You get to learn something that is "your own".

Chinese stir-fry is a good place to start, for a number of reasons. You use fresh ingredients, many of which (such as spring onions) are easily available and inexpensive. You can eat a decent amount of vegetables, and you have both carnivore and vegetarian (tofu) optons. It is really fast -- with a bit of practice you can go from "I'm hungry" to a complete meal in 20 min. Making Chinese stir-fry on your own tastes much better than your average American-Chinese fast-food restaurant. Plus it's fun to use a really hot pan (no wok needed) to fry pre-chopped vegetables in a few minutes, with lots of savory ginger and soy sauce smells. A great in-depth "algorithmic" explanation of the stir-fry technique is linked in this post, though perhaps a simpler starter's cookbook will do to get you started.
posted by faustdick at 2:13 AM on October 5, 2012

When I started out, it was all about soup and lasagna. The lasagna I made in our biggest pan and froze so that if I ever wondered what to eat I could just pull out a portion.

I also made pizza dough in batches and froze it. It defrosts quickly and you can just top it with anything - corn, tuna, tomato etc.

In the last year, when I know I have a busy week coming up I do a roast chicken on Sunday night. It takes 90 minutes to roast and this lasts until Wednesday in various combinations with no wastage:

Sunday: Roast Chicken and Vegetables
Monday: Chicken and vegetable soup
Tuesday: Chicken pasta or omlette
Wednesday: Chicken curry over rice
posted by wingless_angel at 3:54 AM on October 5, 2012

I also get occasionally lighting-fast "SO HUNGRY MUST EAT NOW BUT I CAN'T THINK". And - you know, once in a while it's okay to eat just one thing, as long as that one thing is something healthy. Sometimes I've made a whole meal out of nothing but a big pile of green beans, or as many apples as I can eat, or a couple potatoes.

This shouldn't be, like, a habit, of course; but it's actually okay. I know it goes against everything that we learned in school about balancing your meal out with the four food groups and all that; but the food writer MFK Fisher had the observation once that you know, maybe another approach to it could be to balance the day OVERALL rather than having every single meal be balanced. You know, have a grain-heavy breakfast (because then you can do toast or cereal, and that's way easy), and then with lunch and dinner, one can be meat-heavy and one can be vegetable-heavy (and if you do, like, a big salad for one of them, that takes care of it).

And yet another benefit to soup -- If you take like one day every other week to make up a couple big huge pots of soup and then dole them out into single-serve freezer containers and keep them in your freezer, then it's really easy to just pull one out and microwave it when you're starving. I also had several years when I was working two jobs (day job and theater) and I would be both starving AND braindead when I got home. I would pre-stock my freezer with single-serve soups like that before the rehearsal period started, though, and so it was easy to come home, drop my bag, throw some soup in the microwave, and then go change into my jammies while it was heating up. By the time i was in my bunny slippers it was done and I could eat.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:21 AM on October 5, 2012

there is tons of good advice up above.

I love to cook- and my boyfriend does not. It can be intimidating to people who don't have issues with food- and there are some pretty annoying (to me) myths that people who like to cook propagate.

Cooking doesn't have to hard. It doesn't always have to be timed perfectly, and you don't really have to follow every direction like it's gospel.
You already know how to do some stuff (can you boil water? Look at that, you already know how to Blanch things! what a fancy cooking word for Boiling Shit) The worst thing that could possibly happen is that the food doesn't taste that great. Usually it's even still edible!

You don't have to change everything overnight- it's completely ok to just learn one recipe every two weeks, and only cook once a week for a while.

I would like to get to the point where I can:
1. Make a decision about what to eat
2. Know how to prepare it
3. Have the appropriate ingredients on hand
4. Not waste food (it gets forgotten about and/or goes bad)

you can totally do all these things. Focus on small changes that get you a little farther down that road. Don't think about how you need to be some dynamo in the kitchen. All you need to do is get a little better this week.

1. Make a cheat sheet you can add to. Start with what your gent all ready knows how to cook and move from there. When you have to "make a decision," actually looking at your list.
2. Make small variations on what you all ready know. chicken and pasta? Instead of pasta, blanch some veg.
3. The cheat sheet is great for this- having stuff on hand for the basics on your list becomes habit. Deciding what you're going to make for dinner three days from now can be helpful, but not necessary. I like to look at my list when I'm making coffee in morning. I make a decision (looks like it's taco night) look in the fridge (ok, we have salsa and ground beef, we still need to pick up avocado and lettuce) and pick them up on the way home. AND if you forget the avocado it's just not that big of a deal.
4. Not wasting food just takes practice. I like to have a "clean out your fridge meal" like on Saturday afternoon. We eat all the leftovers and saute all the vegetables in the fridge, throw some garlic and pre-made marinara and that's it. You can also make it a goal to eat all your leftovers for lunch the next day most days. Really as you get more comfortable, you naturally tailor how much food you prepare to fit into how many meals you can use it for.

This is exciting- you're going to learn this very rewarding skill. Try not to think about it like a mountain to climb, it's more like a nice leisurely bike ride you're already kinda taking.
posted by Blisterlips at 6:24 AM on October 5, 2012

I'd like to echo planning out a week of meals in advance. After a day of thinking and making decisions the last thing I want to do is open the fridge and play guess what's for dinner. I have a running list posted to the fridge of tried and true meals and veggie sides we like. On Saturday mornings (or Friday nights) I will take out a couple of cookbooks and maybe the tried and true lists, and I'll make my meal plan and shopping list. I personally don't like eating the same thing all the time so I plan for variety like one day is chicken, one day is pork, one day is beef, one day vegetarian, and I plan for different veggie sides. Write down each day of the week and the dinner. I write down the ingredients I'll need on the other side of the paper and that is my grocery list. Check the fridge and pantry for staples that might need to be replenished and add to list. I also make sure I look at the recipe steps and plan for anything with a long cooking time or complicated steps to be Sunday dinner, and make the meals for the week progressively easier through the week, so by the time Thursday rolls around it's usually leftover soup from the freezer with some crusty bread. Finally, I try to plan the Sunday dinner to be something like soup, chilli, pot roast, lasagna, something that will generate leftovers that I can put in the freezer. My goal is to put some new leftovers in the freezer once a week and once or twice a week to use up some leftovers from the freezer (that's Wednesday and Thursday dinners). Fridays we usually do homemade pizza using the Pillsbury pizza crust, 20 minutes to cheap and relatively tasty pizza.

The easiest veggie sides: salad (bagged pre-washed), or oven roasted veggies. Oven roasting is super easy- wash your veggies (this basic template works for green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, brussels sprouts), chop, sprinkle with salt & pepper, drizzle with olive oil. Put in 425 degree oven for about 20 minutes and move on to whatever your main dish is while that cooks. If your veggies are done before the main dish they will be rocket hot and can stand to sit for a few minutes while you finish up.

Also, read your recipe before you start and chop anything that needs chopping and measure out whatever needs measuring. I have little pyrex bowls for spices and whatever, so if one step is to saute onions and garlic, then add spices, then add liquids, I will have a bowl for each step pre-prepped so when the food starts cooking you're not searching for a measuring spoon or wondering where the vinegar is, you can just move methodically along dumping food in as everything cooks. Sometimes this produces like 5 bowls from prep that need to be washed and my husband will joke about using ALL THE BOWLS but it gets the food cooked in a sane way and it's worth the extra dish cleanup.

A couple of easy go-to dinner ideas I haven't seen mentioned yet: BLTs, with some hummus and baby carrots and cucumber slices on the side; bagged caesar salad mix with grocery store rotisserie chicken, tacos!.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 6:27 AM on October 5, 2012

Like you, I get hungry quickly, and I currently cook just for myself, which is hard to do well. A lot of the time, I buy some veg stir-fry mix and cook with some Quorn (easy protein) - put the Quorn in first, put your noodles on to boil, then cook the veg, add the sauce, and by this time your noodles should be done too - the 'fresh' filled pasta you get at supermarkets that cooks quickly, or baked potatoes (I do several at a time and eat them over a few days - for some reason potatoes taste really nice a couple of days after cooking.

Here's what I did this week - I had some halloumi in the fridge, and I was given some tortilla wraps, so I went and bought a pepper, a carrot, some mushrooms, bagged salad, two sweet potatoes, some guacamole and salsa.

On Monday, I cooked the halloumi in a pan until browned (slice it into small, flat pieces) then cooked sliced mushrooms and pepper in the same pan. I spread some guacamole on a wrap, put in some halloumi, salad, veg, and a spoonful of salsa. I grated some carrot on top and wrapped them into a burrito type thing.

On Tuesday, I had the leftovers in the same way, except I forgot to grate the carrot.

On Wednesday, I baked both sweet potatoes like a regular potato, by microwaving for 10mins then in the oven until crispy. I had one of these with a tiny bit of butter in the flesh to stop it from being dry, some guacamole and some salsa from Monday.

On Thursday, I had the second potato in the same way. And some ice-cream, because I was grumpy.
posted by mippy at 6:45 AM on October 5, 2012

I've been cooking since I was 12. My Mom and Dad worked so I was default dinner preparer. I was 12 in 1974, in Phoenix, so we didn't have the wide variety of stuff that's available now. But Mom made it pretty easy and as I did it more, I got more confident about it.

For Example.

Mom would make a huge pot of spaghetti sauce and freeze it. She'd leave one of the cubes of sauce out for me. I'd brown the hamburger, throw in the sauce and cook the pasta. Add a salad, et Voila. Dinner.

Spaghetti sauce is very easy to make, but just to get you started, don't make it. Buy it in a jar. You can get whatever is on sale, or if you're picky, a high quality kind.

Put the water for the pasta on, then brown the meat while that heats up. Putting a lid on the pot will help it boil faster.

Spaghetti dinner is ready to go in about 20 minutes, from start to finish.

Meatloaf. Ground meat, packet of lipton onion soup mix, handful of crumbs (matzo meal in my house, Panko or bread crumbs are fine) an egg and some ketchup. Combine, cram into a loaf pan, throw in the over with some potatoes. Cook at 350. Use smaller potatoes, or give them a headstart by nuking in the microwave for about 4 minutes.

Should be ready to eat in an hour.

The idea is to get some quick and easy go to meals. Getting some neat appliances can't hurt either. If you like rice, get a rice cooker. You can set the timer and it will cook and keep your rice perfect.

It's easy to throw meat into the oven, and now with so many cool frozen veggies you don't even have to prep anything.

For example, get a bag of pot roast veggies in the freezer section. Or they may even have it cut up for you in the fresh produce section. Carrots, Celrey, Potatoes. Throw a 7 bone roast on there (it's flat, cheap and has 7 bones in it. Chuck roast works well too) Salt, garlic powder, pepper, cook at 350 for an hour or so.

Crock pot cooking is good too and VERY hard to screw up.

Use as many convenience products as you can, this will make the whole thing less overwhelming.

Frozen chopped onions, peppers, celrey, etc.
Frozen veggies
Bagged Salads
Pre seasoned meat
Recipe sauces

Sure, doing everything organic and from scratch is better, but you've got to start with baby steps.

You can even decide to cook just two days a week, just until you get into the groove. Rome wasn't built in a day.

Start small, start easy and work your way up. You may find that cooking is a great outlet for your creativity. Or you may hate it. But you should be able to do it if you need to.

Good Luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:12 AM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, a follow-up on my Praise Of Soup.

The Moosewood cookbooks are pretty new-cook-friendly, for the most part - one of them even has an appendix where they break down what they mean when they say "one medium onion" (they have a little chart where they break down "one medium onion = x number of cups chopped onion" and stuff like that). Another one of their books, "The Enchanted Brocolli Forest," even has a section with pictures of what "diced" vs. "chopped" vegetables look like.

Another one of their cookbooks, though, is one of my big go-to books -- becasue it is literally nothing but soups and salads. Which I know sounds boring as hell, but it totally isn't -- because they have over a hundred different kinds of soup and over a hundred different salads. The idea is that in their restaurant, they just make up a few different soups and different salads each day, to go as side dishes with the entrees, but their daily lunch special is "a cup of one of today's soups and a dish of one of today's salads," so they mix and match a lot of the soups and salads anyway. And that means you can too. For each recipe, they also have suggestions at the bottom for "here's some other recipes from this very same cookbook that this dish 'goes with'".

But that's actually not the reason I'm recommending it. I'm recommending it because, after cooking with that cookbook for a year, it suddenly hit me that "wait a minute....these soups are all basically the very same recipe, just different ingredients." And it was like a lightbulb went off, and I realized I could improvise soup recipes -- and that changed my cooking a lot.

I did have that year of practicing with the book first, though, to get familiar with it all, and I recommend the same. Besides -- their soups use a LOT of vegetables, and that means damn, are they healthy. Here's the book in question.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:17 AM on October 5, 2012

Wow- I really hate How to Cook Everything. Every damn recipe is more complicated than it needs to be. (Eggs scrambled into your borscht? Really? Two kinds of chocolate for your pudding? No.)

I like the Joy of Cooking and for even easier meals, I like any cook book that focuses on 5 ingredients or less.

I agree about a basic cooking class, though. Learning the jargon will keep things from seeming so overwhelming.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:07 PM on October 5, 2012

Oh dear
I hope you made it through all this great advice.
Me, I'm a cook, and I've cooked for a living before changing profession but I agree with the great french chef who said a lay person needs to know just one dish, an easy one.
I have three wonderful and intelligent sisters who have all chosen to put their efforts outside the kitchen. The eldest will probably never get the point of cooking, but gets products and recipes delivered from a company called something like easy planning. In each box are the exact ingredients and a very precise recipe. It works to a fault. If you live in a big city, something similar may be available. The second sister takes on the fight with recipes and shopping. Last time I was there, it was great. But for her, it is always a struggle. The third has settled with the one menu option, but over the years, she has actually developed it into three different menus. Time helps. And as she becomes confident with her three recipes, she gets braver.
posted by mumimor at 12:46 PM on October 5, 2012

There are some really great kids cookbooks out there -- lots of illustrations, simple and tasty recipes. There are even cookbooks aimed at teens that you might enjoy. We use our Sesame Street cookbook surprisingly often for supper prep.

Do you subscribe to any food magazines? Cook's Illustrated is text-heavy with lots of explanation about why the recipes work. Everyday Food, on the other hand, is small and simple and has a theme every month. Their websites offer videos and other info too.

The question of what's for dinner... well. That's harder. :) We have a spaghetti night once a week (spaghetti and pea pesto, spaghetti and broccoli, spaghetti and meatballs, etc.). Another night we'll go with a frozen thing (chicken nuggets or something) with a healthy side. Thursdays I try to do a slow cooker meal of some kind. You could have a sandwich night (try paninis!), or a vegetarian night. The routine helps suggest what we make. Weekends are for bigger/longer/nicer recipes. Weeknights are for getting dinner on the table before the kids melt down.

I use a combination of Pinterest and Ziplist to track recipes and keep shopping lists. There are also specialized notepads for the kitchen, sites with lists you can download and print, etc. I used to use a 3-ring binder and sheet protectors to save and organize recipes from magazines or copied from cookbooks, too.
posted by hms71 at 8:38 PM on October 5, 2012

Just an observation, since you worry about burning things. Most people starting out turn the heat on too high. Unless you're doing a high heat sear on meat or boiling water, you should really be cooking over medium, or at most medium-high heat. It may extend your cooking time, but it gives you much more control.

Gas burners heat up a lot faster than electric ranges, and can easily get away from you if don't lower the flame.

Try starting with simple things like boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Medium heat, oil in skillet, four to six minutes on each side, and you're done. From there, you can do pork chops and steaks. Add a microwave steamed vegetable and you're eating.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 9:09 AM on October 6, 2012

I hope all this advice isn't too overwhelming. I think you should start with your husband, and the things he knows how to cook. Write those things down, on index cards or popsicle sticks or in a notebook, whatever works for you. Then, get a book which has a few recipes that you want to try - maybe Rachel Ray or Ree Drummond (The Pioneer Woman), or whoever you like.

Together, choose one recipe from the book (you don't need to choose 3 or 6 or one for every day of the week or whatever - just choose one). Pick a day when you both can work together. Shop ahead of time, then work together to cook that one thing. If you like that new thing you cooked, add it to the cards/sticks/notebooks with.

The other days of the week, just do what you've been doing - eat out, packaged foods, husband cooks. Oh - this time you help husband cook. Have him show you what he is doing and why, and you try some chopping/stirring/etc.

Next week, together, pick out another recipe and do it again.

After a while, your collection will have grown. So when husband asks what you want for dinner, now you have some things to suggest. Start small, add to it, and don't worry about it.
posted by CathyG at 5:04 PM on October 6, 2012

Together, choose one recipe from the book (you don't need to choose 3 or 6 or one for every day of the week or whatever - just choose one). Pick a day when you both can work together. Shop ahead of time, then work together to cook that one thing. If you like that new thing you cooked, add it to the cards/sticks/notebooks with.

A variation on this suggestion which I've found very helpful for diversifying what I eat is to cook a dish a week from a Sunday newspaper's (or weekly magazine's) recipe section. The smaller range of choice is less likely to provoke indecision. Plus they are usually seasonally appropriate.

Also (speaking as a poor cook myself) I've found that "a bit bland" is vastly more likely than "entirely inedible" so it's rarely wasted effort to have a go at something.
posted by Erberus at 9:43 AM on October 7, 2012

I think, given that you're starting out, that you should drop the 'not wasting food' requirement until you get the hang of things, or at least be easy on yourself if you do waste food or ruin dishes. Everybody does.

That said, here are some things that are good to have around and take a relatively long time to go bad:

- grains, if you like them (pasta, rice, couscous, quinoa)
- canned beans or chickpeas (saves a lot of time cooking them)
- canned tomatoes for cooking
- other canned veggies that you like (note: imo, a lot of canned veggies taste worse/different than fresh or frozen ones. Experiment)
- frozen veggies
- pickled vegges that you like
- pasta sauces, if you like them (you can add them to things other than pasta, too)
- onions/garlic, if you like them - they last a long time and go well with almost anything
- potatoes or sweet potatoes - ditto. A really easy way to prepare sweet potatoes is to wrap them in aluminum foil and put them in the oven at 400 or 450F for an hour or so until you can stick a fork into them easily. (Put a baking sheet or more foil under them when you bake - they can leak.) Then take them out and let them cool. When you're ready to eat, unwrap one and tug the skin off. Inside it'll be like a mashed sweet potato.
- apples and raisins or other fruit that don't go bad quickly. You can add raisins into a lot of random things, especially if they came out a bit bland
- green or red lentils - you can add them to soups if you don't feel like making lentil dishes specifically, and they're good for protein
- eggs (most useful when you're frying things, but you can stir an egg into soup and other things, and if you like hardboiled eggs you can make a bunch in advance. You can also microwave them as someone said above.)
- canned tuna or other fish/chicken, if you like them
- nuts (keep them in the freezer if you think it'll take more than a few weeks to eat them)
- cheese
- salt and pepper
- other spices (experiment)
- oils. Olive and canola are good for cooking. Olive is also good on lots of things that aren't cooked, like salads or pasta or beans that seem too dry and boring, or whatever. Lots of things become better with some extra olive oil and salt. Then there are all sorts of oils like sesame, walnut, truffle, and so on that are mostly used for flavor.
- condiments. Soy sauce, sriracha, those little bottles of lemon juice, whatever you think you might like or have never tasted.
- coconut milk and curry paste, if you like them

With those things on hand, you can make a decent meal pretty quickly and easily. For example, boil some pasta, drain it, add some canned beans/tuna/frozen or canned veggies, and mix with either a sauce you think would taste good or a bunch of olive oil and salt and pepper. Or mix some cheese in while it's hot and let it melt.

You might not know if you like, say, asparagus in a jar or dried rosemary. Make it a project to get something new every week or two and try it out.

I agree with all the suggestions to start with things that don't take much technique, like soups, salads, and easy baked things like lasagna.

Also seconding the recommendations to have really easy snacks or meals on hand that don't take much or any preparation. That way if you mess up a dish or get hungry while it's still in progress, it's not a big deal. Don't be embarrased about buying frozen meals or those soups you just add water to or whatever. Treat it as a way to figure out some dishes or tastes that you like. Also, try different brands or versions of the premade foods that you buy, and think about what you like or don't like about the differences.

Be easy on yourself in general. It's okay if things don't come out exactly like in the recipe or if you can't even think of a name for whatever it is you made. The only thing that matters is that it be kind of on the road to tasty. If it's not you can learn from it, maybe try out some spices or condiments to see if there's anything you can add to make it better. When things taste bland, try adding some salt or vinegar or lemon juice or pepper.

Try being flexible with recipes, and make observations about the results. Trust that eventually you'll get a feeling for what makes things taste good and what things don't really matter. For example, soups often have you sautee onions or other things first, but in the beginning you can skip that step and just dump the onions/whatever in along with everything else. You can also experiment with adding things that aren't in the recipe. For example, if you're making macaroni and cheese from a box you can add some beans or frozen peas or fresh tomatoes, or maybe some different spices. If you're making a basic vegetable soup you can dump in lentils, or rice, or pasta or quinoa, etc. You could even break in an egg at the very end and stir it. (If you don't have much practice breaking eggs, break them into a separate bowl first.)

If you like rice but have trouble cooking it, get a rice cooker. (You can use it for more than just rice. I think Roger Ebert once became a die-hard rice cooker addict and wrote a book with recipes for it.)

Frying might be the most complicated thing to learn and the easiest to mess up, so feel free to hold off on that for a while. Get some practice making soups and salads and lasagnas or casseroles. Work up to roasting different kinds of vegetables, or get a slow cooker, or make some stews (like soups, but thicker). When you do start to fry, don't worry if you burn things at first. Use more oil than you think you need. Try nonstick pans to start out with. Learn some techniques that have a lot of uses, like different ways to fry onions or eggs.

Basically, treat cooking as something that will take a while to get used to and good at, and be easy on yourself while you're learning. Have fun figuring out what kinds of tastes you like. Eventually you'll get to a point where you're wasting little food and saving much more money, but it'll take a while and that's okay.
posted by trig at 1:09 PM on October 10, 2012

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