Help me overcome my mental block: cooking edition
February 16, 2015 5:14 PM   Subscribe

I have a major aversion to cooking, at least as an all-the-time thing. Is it possible to change this?

Almost every meal I eat is either eaten out (usually fast-casual), or something really simple from the grocery store like fruit or yogurt or a frozen dinner. I was essentially raised to eat this way, and I have never been in a dire financial situation that required me to cook to survive. I live in a city with a lot of great food, too, so eating out has always been a reasonable option for me, even after I became vegetarian.

Unfortunately, I feel like a completely lazy, useless person due to the fact that I don't cook regularly (and I am a 25-year-old male, so there's no sexist social programming going on in that statement). I used to be able to avoid working on this because I live alone and no one was paying attention, but now I have a boyfriend who is a great, seemingly effortless cook and I am so jealous of his abilities and feel like I need to start getting better about it. I'm not even a bad cook per se, but I don't know how to integrate cooking into my life, on top of a full-time job and commute and everything else. Even simple meals seem to me like big events that require tons of planning, shopping, and preparation...not something I'm inclined to just *do* all the time.

I'm not looking for recipes, I'm looking for ways to overcome my psychological block. I have tried looking at recipes, I have even asked a question here about recipes before, but I get overwhelmed as I read through them. Again, it seems like such a hassle and I just can't bring myself to do it. Yeah, I can do ONE recipe if I want. And I have. But it feels like a big event every time. I'll make the food, pat myself on the back for it, and then revert back to my usual ways because I just don't feel like I have the time or energy to do that all the time. Also, when I try to research recipes, I tend to get caught in this really unproductive shame spiral where I feel like it's so impossible to improve in this area or even meet the same level of most people in society that it's not worth even trying.

If there were a support group for this particular issue, I would totally join it, but sometimes I feel completely alone with this problem! Any ideas on how I can approach it?
posted by cosmicbeast to Food & Drink (31 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Can you let yourself off the hook? If you're not into cooking, that's okay.

A couple suggestions:

Forget about recipes and make scrambled eggs for breakfast or pancakes or muffins from a mix on weekends. Put a steak in a frying pan and microwave a baked potato for dinner. I know you didn't want "recipes" or food ideas. I'm suggesting that you forget about recipes at the moment, because they tend to overwhelm you, and cook simple things, no recipes required.

And if you don't want to give up recipes, may I suggest reading a cookbook or two. Cookbooks always inspire me more than internet recipes.
posted by Fairchild at 5:34 PM on February 16, 2015 [7 favorites]

Cook with your boyfriend? He could assign you smaller tasks like chopping ingredients. Or have you pick up some [foo] on the way home. Maybe that way it wouldn't seem so overwhelming to you, and you could pick up some ideas for yourself? Also, cooking together can be a fun activity to do with your honey.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 5:35 PM on February 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

Think of something you've eaten that could have been interesting if it were done a little differently. A spicy dish with chipotle instead of jalapeƱo, an apple pie with the slices arranged like rose petals, a salad with only veggies you picked yourself. Looking up food pictures on pinterest can be good for inspiration.

Then try to make it, and see how it goes. Often you'll come up with other ideas along the way for changes or improvements you might want to try subsequently.

It's possible to get into an "optimization" mindset, that is habit-forming and can overpower your blocks.
posted by Phssthpok at 5:39 PM on February 16, 2015

Here's how cooking fits into my life: I plan on grocery shopping and make a list. I take into account my schedule, what's already in the kitchen, and my mood - am I going to be out every night? do I feel like serious cooking or basic cooking?

I cook between one and three dishes on the weekend, and probably freeze some of it, and do all the dishes. It's a big chore - I listen to music or podcasts while I work.

Once I've done that, I have no need to cook every night. I can whip up a grilled cheese if I want, or make a salad, but I'm more likely to heat up some or soup or meatloaf that I made on the weekend.

When my schedule is unpredictable, I have some recipes that I can throw together mostly from frozen foods and potatoes, which stay good for a while.

I have the same sort of block about housework - I have trouble figuring out how it fits into my life. So far the answer seems to be to find one very basic program and just follow it. Don't read all the recipes. Find 4 or 5 that cover your bases and ignore everything else.

It's an experiment. Things will go wrong - you will find yourself staring at a sinkful of dishes at midnight, you will buy something expensive and burn it, you will buy groceries and they will rot forgotten in the fridge. It's okay. I have done all of these things. It's just part of the experiment that is your life - you try to figure out what went wrong and adjust, and move on.

Good luck.
posted by bunderful at 5:44 PM on February 16, 2015 [11 favorites]

If it's financially (and geographically) accessible to you, you might try doing a week of Blue Apron. While I am usually a great home cook, I lost my cooking mojo for a while, and meal planning just felt like a horrid amount of work. I was eating similarly to how you describe yourself, and hating it. The Blue Apron subscription has been awesome because it takes all of the planning effort out of the equation, you get 2 servings of each meal (so you aren't stuck with an entire week of eating the same thing over and over), and the recipes are fairly simple and easy to follow (good for folks without a lot of cooking experience). It's expensive, but it might get you over the hump if you give it a shot? Or maybe you just don't like cooking - you might learn that, which is frankly okay too.
posted by amelioration at 5:46 PM on February 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

I did not cook at all until I was 24. Today, I am the primary cook in our household, and I love it. Here's some stuff that's worked for me:

- When you buy ingredients that require further processing (e.g. fruits/vegetables that need to be washed and chopped, meat that needs to be portioned and frozen, etc.), DO THAT PREP WORK as soon as you bring the ingredient home from the market. Having ready-to-go ingredients makes things a LOT easier.

- Read Cook's Illustrated/Cook's Country obsessively, even if you do not make any of the recipes. It's the best way to absorb the vast body of arcana that makes for a decent cook. You don't have to read with a purpose; just browse 'em when you're bored.

- Learn how to make ONE simple dish from memory. Doesn't matter what, so long as you enjoy the finished product. A pasta dish, a roasted chicken, whatevs - just make it over and over until you can do it by heart. Here's the deal: being GOOD at something feels good. LEARNING to be good at something sucks. But you can't get to the former before you plow through the latter. You can get to the point where you are an absolute MASTER at one basic weeknight supper in a month or two, and at that point, you'll get a taste of how awesome it feels to be able to dance through the preparation sans effort.

- Cook for people you love. That always feels better and more inspiring than just whipping together food for yourself (I am a very, very capable cook, yet when I'm alone I'll subsist on fruit and peanut butter, just because "why bother?").

- Feel free to PM me if you want any specific recipe/technique suggestions, or just some encouragement. I was around your age when I transitioned from "doesn't prepare anything more taxing than a smoothie" to "can make an entire multi-course meal for a dozen people singlehandedly without having a crying freak-out". If CAN be done!
posted by julthumbscrew at 6:02 PM on February 16, 2015 [7 favorites]

I'm someone who enjoys cooking, but oh god, integrating it as a regular thing with work and a commute? The last thing I want to do when I'm getting home at 7, 8, 9 at night is Cook Dinner.

What's helped me eat food I make more often is two things:

1. Keeping it simple. Scrambled eggs is good enough. Sandwiches count! We have a rice cooker and that means we almost always have a grain ready to go with whatever else we want to eat with it.

2. Cooking something on the weekend, and making enough of it that we'll have leftovers for a couple of lunches/dinners. We pick one large meat dish: roasting a chicken, cooking a family pack of chicken thighs in a sauce, rubbing some spices on a huge pork butt and dropping it in the slow cooker overnight. Then we roast some chopped up veg (and yes, I'll spend the extra money to buy the veg already cut up, because cutting up veg stresses me out!). Then I have leftovers well into the week, and can just toss a bowl/plate of whatever in the microwave. Maybe spend some time on a weekend cooking with him to see what he enjoys about it, when you're not tired from working and commuting?

But not loving cooking is honestly okay. Just because your boyfriend does doesn't mean you *have* to, too.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 6:04 PM on February 16, 2015

First, don't be so hard on yourself. Lots of people in their mid-20s don't really do much cooking for themselves. And it takes a fair amount of practice to get good at the whole planning meals/buying groceries/making-time-to-cook thing. But it's good that you want to get a little better at it! Just start small. Make a list of things that are easy to prepare - eggs and toast, simple salads, pasta and sauce from a jar, quesadillas, baked potatoes, ramen with some spinach tossed in,stuff like that. Start with just committing to one night a week where you fix yourself something for dinner. Doesn't have to be a big production, just make yourself some eggs for dinner. Once you're in that habit, you can start making your once-a-week meals a little more involved.Then maybe you can expand to two nights a week. And so on. And if you're always a person who doesn't really like cooking and prefers to eat out, that's ok too.
posted by aka burlap at 6:06 PM on February 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

Oh, and also: 1. Don't compare yourself to your boyfriend! Unless he's the reincarnation of Escoffier, the only thing HE has that YOU don't is practice, aaaaaand, 2. Try reading a bunch of recipes, but then cooking WITHOUT THE RECIPES. I think the recipes themselves may be adding an extra layer of stress to the proceedings, and honestly, you do NOT need them for most meals (with the exception of baked goods). For instance: learn what goes into a simple pasta dish... spaghetti all'amatriciana involves chopping up bacon, frying it, frying some onions in the fat, tossing in some crushed tomatoes, red pepper, and pecorino, then tossing in some pasta. No need for a recipe or a struggle - you CAN do that via improv.
posted by julthumbscrew at 6:06 PM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

The thing that really got me to start cooking more regularly was realizing that it wasn't the cooking that I disliked. It was all the work that went into meal planning for a week. So I solved that problem by outsourcing that part of the work.

I joined a meal planning service. Every week I get a shopping list and recipes sent to me. I buy everything on the list and make everything I'm told to make. It takes all of the thinking and planning out of it, which makes me much more likely to do it.

I use Mealime, which I love. There's plenty of competition to choose from though, like The Fresh 20 or eMeals. The cost is amazingly reasonable for the amount of money I save in not eating out. I've dramatically improved my cooking skills, and I'm much more willing to plan for myself now if I don't like a week's list of recipes, since I've seen examples of successful meal plans, so I know what goes into them. I'm not longer forced to do all of the heavy lifting myself. The result? Fresh cooked tasty meals almost all the time!
posted by Arbac at 6:11 PM on February 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am also in my mid-twenties! And I actually quite like cooking, I think it's pretty cool and fun, I'm good at it, and I like looking at recipes with pretty pictures...

...and also, by the way, I pretty much never cook on weekdays because who has the bloody time? I do pretty much the same thing bunderful does, re: making a big amount of stuff on weekends and keeping it in the fridge for later. I freeze most of mine because I tend to be bad about leaving stuff in the fridge for long periods before I decide I actually want to eat it, so I make a lot of things that freeze well like pasta dishes, soups, and quiches. One of the nice thing about doing the huge weekend cooking thing is that once you've done it a few times, you have quite a nice variety of potential meals to go for between the thing you cooked this weekend and last weekend's totally different thing and so forth.

My favorite cooking resource right now is Budget Bytes. It's got lots of pretty photos, which is a thing that always makes me more excited to make things, and the recipes are all very well explained for someone who doesn't have a lot of background with cooking. I would also encourage you to, where possible, cook with your boyfriend--ask him if he wants help doing chopping, for example, or look at stuff it might be fun to try together. I get a little bit of a vibe from you that you're kind of intimidated by his cooking skills and a little ashamed of where you're at, and I suspect that approaching cooking from a perspective of "what do you enjoy about this hobby, and can I help enjoy it with you? it looks useful!" might help you look forward to spending a little quality kitchen time with him.

Oh, one other thing I'd suggest: Look into getting a crock-pot and trying that. Crock-pot meals are my one exception to not cooking on weekends, and that's because I can set 'em and forget 'em all day and come home to something yummy. They are really great for minimal work and effort.
posted by sciatrix at 6:15 PM on February 16, 2015 [9 favorites]

I mean, you're balking because the reality is that cooking three squares a day, even for one or two people, is a grind, including shopping, prep, cleaning (jesus, cleaning) etc. And planning a menu for the week entails skills that are separate from cooking.

julthumbscrew's advice can work, I've seen it. (I know a few young men who started with steaks and moved on from there.) Just do a couple of meals a week. You may find yourself excited by the learning process, and then branch out from there. When you're really invested in making something special, the planning feels less like labour. You get to wanting to choose the nice cuts, and thinking, what else can I do with the leftovers? If you don't, you don't - who cares, really? If you're fine with restaurants and takeout, do that.

And I agree, don't compare yourself to your partner. It takes time to figure all this out, and this just isn't in your current skill set (though it absolutely can be if you want it to).

Do anything that makes it easier - use the services above, and definitely get a dishwasher if you don't have one.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:30 PM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Even simple meals seem to me like big events...

Another way to help overcome this is to stock up on frozen/shelf-stable meal components so that you can pull together something respectable from things that you already have at home in front of you. Tonight we didn't feel like cooking and had frozen peas (microwave), mashed potatoes (chop, boil, mash with buttery stuff and whatever spices you like), and pre-packaged beef brisket from Trader Joe's (microwave; premade vegetarian protein-heavy dishes definitely exist). My partner, who was once even "worse" than you in that he saw nothing wrong with eating out all the time except that it was expensive, did most of the prep, including picking out a palatable combination of protein/starch/vegetable. It was way better than a hypothetical frozen dinner made up of the same items but nowhere near as much work as going back in time and deciding to make brisket ourselves or otherwise cooking a meal from scratch.
posted by teremala at 6:56 PM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

You are so young in cooking years! I don't think I was confident about cooking until I was 30 or so, and even now there are things that baffle me. My advice is just to keep at it, and try lots of different kinds of recipes whenever you feel like it, but don't stress out about it too much (which can be hard, especially if you're cooking with/for someone who already cooks). Also, if someone cooks something for you, and you like it, ask for the recipe and ask what cookbooks they like. When you first start out, you will cook some terrible food, but you have to remember that it's all learning. There's no shame *at all* in being a beginner.
posted by unknowncommand at 7:02 PM on February 16, 2015

Oh, also, I've found it helpful to copy/paste interesting recipes into one big Google Doc and take notes if/when I try them (things I liked, things that didn't work at all, things I'd do differently next time, things I still don't understand, etc.)
posted by unknowncommand at 7:12 PM on February 16, 2015

I think cooking regularly is easier than cooking occasionally, because then you're in the habit of starting to cook, and you have enough stuff around that you don't have to do special shopping runs, plus opportunities to use up those extra half-packages of ingredients. Can you set up for a week of feeding yourself dinner, or two weeks of feeding yourself Monday-Wednesday-Friday? In terms of what you actually feed yourself, I'd go pretty simple: my staples are fried rice and kedgeree, but you could buy some good bread and make fancy sandwiches/ grilled cheese, or make different kinds of scrambled eggs & omelets for a couple of days (or maybe frittata, which is better for leftovers), or make your own burritos.
posted by yarntheory at 7:51 PM on February 16, 2015

I cook professionally, so you might think I'm biased. The funny thing is, most of us actually eat like three year olds because we just give no fucks anymore by the time we're home.

The best way to get over this, if it's something you want to get over, is by doing really really really simple stuff that takes as little time and prep as possible. The first thing I'd suggest is looking up the NYT No-Knead bread recipe, and do that every couple of days. Ignore all the fancy stuff at the end--just throw everything in a bowl, mix, leave it alone for 18-24 hours, throw onto a floured pan, and bung in the oven for 45 minutes. Makes your home smell wonderful, it is literally about six minutes of actual work, and it builds confidence. It takes so little time that you could pretty much do it on a commercial break while watching TV.

Give yourself permission to use shortcuts. Don't make stock, buy it. (Just aim for as low-sodium as possible, especially if you're going to reduce anything). Some pre-chopped veg in a pot with vegetable stock and maybe a cup of barle, simmer for say 25 minutes--nice nourishing soup that takes 5 minutes of actual work, and goes well with your home baked bread. Cheap, easy, no effort; much easier to get past your block. Also seek out slow cooker recipes--chilis, curries, stews. Most of them are "put all this in here and walk away, come back when it smells good." Again, little effort.

And absolutely cook with your boyfriend! Cooking together is a wonderfully intimate and domestic thing to share.

Basically, if you're having a block about doing this sort of thing it's probably because it seems like a lot of work, a lot of cleanup, barriers to be overcome. So start out with making absolutely dead simple no-effort things. It'll still require a little bit of work on your part to overcome the hurdle, but every small success will help. Cooking occupies this weird mental space, especially in our chefutainment-obsessed culture; there's a sort of feeling floating around that you must be producing seven-course meals without breaking a sweat or you're not doing it right. And so everything becomes a huge event fraught with tension, and small wonder most people chuck it in and buy something instead.

So give yourself permission to take small steps. You don't have to cook a fantastic dinner for you and your guy--maybe just worry about baking bread to go with the meal. See how that works out for you.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:24 PM on February 16, 2015 [22 favorites]

make it easier for yourself and get tools! by this I mean a food processor to make prep work faster, a rice cooker or crockpot that you can set and forget, and a griddle or cast iron skillet for frying up veggies or finishing off pasta.

veggies, noodles, sauce = yummy pasta
veggies, eggs, rice = yummy stir fry
beans, meat, potatoes = yummy dinner(?)

those are fast dinner ideas and some days make mac and cheese or crockpot soup and call it a day. for breakfast you could try eggs, yogurt and granola, pancakes and hashbrowns, french toast for lunch: egg salad, blt, canned soup, pb & j, just ease into it and you'll be cooking more meals at home. but some appliances help and are moderately inexpensive.

don't worry about recipes right now. think simple and experiment. if you really want something but are unsure how to make it, look up a recipe online and pick one with a high rating that isn't complicated and try it. cooking is mostly trial and error and you won't get better unless you try. no one is asking you to be a five star chef, just boil some noodles, throw chicken on a george foreman and toss it with spaghetti sauce.
posted by lunastellasol at 9:52 PM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

If it helps: many, many people all over the world consider one hot meal a day to be plenty. No one here in the Netherlands expects breakfast or lunch to be hot meals, and I know we are not alone in that.
Breakfast is bread, or cereal. Lunch is bread (rolls or sandwiches). So that leaves you with just one meal a day that you may or may not want to cook.

If I were you, I'd start off by picking one day a week and cooking dinner on that day, and see how it feels. It'll be a big event at first, but a slightly smaller event the next time. Get the logistics worked out and keep doing it until it's a settled habit and not a big event anymore.

Also, keep in mind that there is no law that says everyone needs a home cooked meal every day! You don't HAVE to cook as an all-time thing.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:03 AM on February 17, 2015

When you say you don't like to cook, do you mean you don't want to start out on some huge intricate recipe, or is boiling some pasta equally hard to motivate yourself to do? Is perfect being the enemy of good here?

Because I consider that I cook every night, but I only cook out of a recipe book once or twice a week (and that is usually to make a dal or stew that lasts me a few days). Most of the time I'm cooking pasta (good stuffed pasta with butter, or penne with pesto and an egg, or with broad beans, peas, feta and a splash of vinegar - I do not faff about making complicated sauces). We eat jacket potatoes and toast-based dinners. We eat burritos using tinned refried beans. We eat yakisoba using fresh noodles, a pack of prepped stir fry vegetables, and some tofu. Hot salads are also a godsend - who can't put some leaves on a plate and top with grilled figs and ricotta? But it looks and tastes great.

My main barrier to doing things I don't like is intimidation at the size of the task. I can make myself do 15mins of hoovering, because how bad can 15mins be? Maybe a similar approach to cooking would work for you? Kind of the pomodoro method applied to cooking. None of the meals above requires much if any chopping or prep, and they all take less than 10mins, but they are proper fresh food that I cook at home. Maybe look into some 30 minute meal cookbooks and see if cooking from those appeals more?

And definitely definitely cook with your boyfriend - cooking alone is boring, cooking with your partner and a glass of wine while you talk about your day is actually a really nice way to spend half an hour or so decompressing from work. You can get whoever isn't cooking to wash up as you go along too so there isn't a sink full of dishes to face afterwards.
posted by tinkletown at 1:17 AM on February 17, 2015

Can I tell you a secret? Cooking is 90% shopping. If you have groceries in the house - and at least some kind of plan for how to use them - then throwing them into some kind of meal is a breeze. If you *don't* have things in the house then actually cooking a meal becomes much, much harder.

We recently started using Paprika to streamline our planning/shopping process and I couldn't recommend it more highly, if you want to try that.

But most of all, cut yourself some slack!
posted by nerdfish at 2:52 AM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

What do you want to eat? It's a lot easier to motivate yourself to cook if you are making something you want to have, rather than something you chose only because it was easy. I personally would have a hard time resisting takeout if I knew the home option was scrambled eggs and a pan to wash. What do you order at the fast casual places you go to? Fish & chips? chicken piccata? Pad Thai? That's what you like. Start there.

Pick a dish from your usual takeout order. Avoid anything requiring deep frying, which leaves a disheartening mess. Find a recipe online. I like the Pioneer Woman website for things I have never made before because the results are usually very good and she photographs every minuscule step of the way. Buy all the ingredients you will need, and then set aside an evening to practice. Play music or put on Jeopardy and be sure to have a glass of wine or beer. Make cooking at home as enjoyable as possible, and it will soon seem much preferable to Cheesecake Factory.
posted by apparently at 4:48 AM on February 17, 2015

Thanks so much for the advice and encouragement! Here's what I think will be most helpful for me:

- Hitting up the bookstore and buying a nice physical cookbook instead of getting recipes online. I can do that tonight. It just feels less intimidating for some reason, it's a bit more traditional and less scattered/competitive/toxic than the Internet can get.

- Picking one moderately complex recipe from that book and cooking it periodically, mastering it, learning it from memory, tweaking it every now and then.

- Starting out by having just *one* night a week where I cook something simple and maybe making a nice breakfast on a weekend.

- Trying out that NYT No-Knead bread recipe that was suggested.

- Preparing ingredients as soon as I bring them back from the grocery store. Or at least doing that before I actually start cooking so that the ingredients are all ready to go (I read that advice in another thread).

- Treating it like an experiment and giving myself permission to fail, let stuff go bad, let dishes pile up sometimes, etc. (A discomfort with allowing ingredients to go bad has been a big part of this mental block for me).

Perfect probably is being the enemy of the good, and I've been so wrapped up in my own psychodrama about this that it really helps to hear some outside perspectives. Although, to give people a better idea of the scope of my problem: I have a crockpot, I've had it for many months. I have used it only once.
posted by cosmicbeast at 6:28 AM on February 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

I recommend the cook's illustrated 30 minute meals recipe book. The recipes are very tasty, simple and the ones I make frequently were quickly memorized.

No knead bread is perfect also, very satisfying and delicious.

I also wanted to say that I have cooked my entire life and it is one of my favorite hobbies, but between the ages of 18-35 (when I was single and living with roommates or alone) I ate pretty much like you do. It's not that fun to cook for one person and shopping, planning etc feels like a lot of wasted effort. If I did want to cook for myself I would make chili, lasagna or other freezer friendly meals and eat them for a few days. I bought a lot of semi-prepped foods at trader joes also, which is a cornerstone of many people's diets in your age group. All that to say, you don't need to cook. Everyone else isn't doing it, there is no shame in not cooking much or ever.

I am now the main cook in my family because I like it - my husband makes a few specialities and breakfast fairly often, but usually one partner becomes the day-to-day chef, so that can be your boyfriend if you prefer!
posted by rainydayfilms at 9:15 AM on February 17, 2015

- Hitting up the bookstore and buying a nice physical cookbook instead of getting recipes online. I can do that tonight.

As usual, I very strongly suggest The Family Meal by Ferran Adria. It's a collection of the recipes served for staff meal at elBulli. Don't let that frighten you! The staff meal was virtually always really solid everyday food. The recipes are grouped into meals (app/main/dessert), with lists + photographs of all ingredients needed, and a timeline for preparation. Each individual recipe is specced out for varying numbers of people being served, and every single step is photographed so you know what you should be doing.

Some of the recipes are slightly more complex than others, but basically everything in the book is something you'd easily find on a dinner table in many homes, and the special equipment needs are few and far between. It's a fantastic book.

Preparing ingredients as soon as I bring them back from the grocery store. Or at least doing that before I actually start cooking so that the ingredients are all ready to go

Oh yes. Cannot overstate the importance of mise en place. As you get more experienced you'll start learning that when you've got this going, you can start chopping that, but until that time it's always best to have everything ready to go before you start applying heat to any product. You know how TV chefs always have everything ready to go in little bowls? Adds to the dishwashing, but trust me it helps. Also: clean as you go. If you've got something burbling away in a pot and don't need to touch it for a few minutes, wipe down the counters and do some of the dishes. Helps avoid Mount Crockery mocking you from the kitchen after dinner.

Starting out by having just *one* night a week where I cook something simple and maybe making a nice breakfast on a weekend.

Excellent idea! Simplest thing to start making for breakfast: pancakes. Really hard to screw up, blank canvas for experimenting (try yogourt instead of milk! Add cinnamon!), and everyone loves pancakes.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:43 AM on February 17, 2015

Hi, I am you. I loathe cooking and I have had to learn to do it a lot more recently because my partner, who is a much better and more enthusiastic cook than me, started working nights. Here is what I have done:

- Got a few weeks of an ingredient delivery service (Hello Fresh, in the UK, your local service may vary) to help me with the overwhelming task of planning recipes and shopping for ingredients. This really helped me learn how to improve really basic shit - put onions in things! put spices in things! and learn to find my way around some recipes.
- On days where I've had more energy, thought about individual ingredients that I like and googled simple recipes involving them. I make this chicken and sweet potato curry a lot, it's super easy and doesn't require many ingredients
- Jars of curry sauce. Makes plain meat more interesting. Then add rice.
- Roasted a fuck of a lot of veg. It's easy and tasty and makes me feel like I have Cooked. Chop up some courgette and new potatoes and peppers, drench them in olive oil and a bit of salt and pepper, put in the oven at 200 degrees for half an hour. You can then just do a bit of chicken or something and there you have a Healthy Meal.
- Miso soup (get the little packets of paste) is easy and filling
- Instant ramen (see above) but instead of eating it in the sauce in comes it, I cook it, drop it into a bowl of hot miso soup, crack an egg in and stir. The hot soup cooks the egg. This is my go-to meal when I am hangry and don't want to cook. Instant ramen can also be gussied up with some grilled chicken (mix some olive oil, salt and pepper and dip the chicken in before you grill it)
- Rice cooker. That shit has changed my life. Perfect rice, one hour, no prep.
- Fish that comes with a packet of sauce is super easy to fry up in a pan and have with your roast veg or whatever (I get this, local availability may vary etc)
- Scrambled eggs, when all else fails. Break two eggs into a jug, add a bit of milk, salt and pepper, mix it up with a fork a bit, pour into warm pan, stir a bit. Food.

The critical thing for me is to always have a basic stock of ingredients (eggs, chicken or fish, rice, miso, ramen, soy sauce, maybe some sort of (frozen?) veg I can roast or steam, curry sauce), and to start cooking it before I actually get hungry and start to sulk about having to cook. I worship my rice cooker because at any point in the evening I can put the rice on and not have to worry about anything else until it's ready, and then it will keep warm for as long as it takes for me to get my shit together and cook some protein, and when I only have to worry about cooking the protein it doesn't seem like so arduous a task.

Tonight I'm just going to eat pancakes. (Betty Crocker mix. No shame.)
posted by corvine at 11:04 AM on February 17, 2015

A lot of awesome suggestions upthread. I also hate the idea of cooking and cleaning up all the time. Right now, my husband and I cook once per week on Sunday nights. Knowing that it's a routine and a scheduled activity helps a lot with getting it done. We usually cook a casserole or throw something in the slow cooker and eat it all week long. We've gotten used to it, so we know which foods keep the best throughout the week and are still palatable by Friday. Throughout the week after we get home from work, it's just a simple serve and reheat in the microwave. Sometimes, I'll boil some vegetables mid-week. Or make salad. But there is absolutely no "cooking" during the workweek. It might sound totally boring, but it's so easy to just nuke something homecooked after getting home from work.
posted by watch out for turtles at 12:28 PM on February 17, 2015

My partner was exactly like you! The most complicated thing she'd ever made was a stirfry with frozen mixed veggies and bottled sauce. We both enjoyed my homecooked meals, but I was getting stressed out being the primary cook in the household on top of a bunch of my other duties. One year she decided that she was going to master 10 recipes in a year - roughly try a new one a month. We bought Super Natural Every Day because it has a variety of types of recipes, is entirely vegetarian, and isn't full of overly complex meals. The result was that by learning 10 different recipes, she learned soooooo much about meal timing, ingredient prepping, flavor profiles and how to read recipes in general.

I won't lie: the first few times were really stressful for her and she made a COMPLETE mess of the kitchen. Like holy disaster - I didn't even know one could use so many utensils and dishes while prepping a simple vegetable curry! And she'd get super obsessive over the details - if we didn't have ground cumin but had cumin seed, she'd want to go to the store. I told her just to use the cumin seed and maybe add some garam masala if we had some.

16 months later - it's amazing. She is probably the primary cook in our family now. She does the meal planning each week. I'm still the more 'intuitive' chef but you NEVER could have imagined how far she'd come in just over a year. Confidence came from practice.

Definitely browse through the cookbooks and pick out a few that look good to you. Try one new recipe a month, and the next month, do that again + one new recipe. So by month 6 you've made 6 new recipes, and have practiced 5 of those multiple times.

Here are the types of vegetarian food you might want to try:
Vegetable curry with rice (get the curry paste from the grocery store!)
Kale salad with fried tofu
Lentil soup
Simple rice and beans with avocado, cilantro and fresh cheese for serving
Tomato soup with grilled cheese
Omelette with simple green salad

You can totally do this! The key is just focusing on very simple things, and new things no more than 1-2 times a month.

Pro tip: Keep a Google Doc with the list of recipes you like. Make notes about what you'd do differently or how long it takes you. Then in busy times, you can refer back to a list of recipes you already know! Much better than trying to remember "what can I cook?!"

Bon appetit!
posted by barnone at 1:57 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

The book Everlasting Meal changed the way I think about food. Instead of a cookbook, it's a book about why we cook and how gratifying it can be to make something simple. The best tip - when you're hungry, start boiling water, then worry about what your going to toss in it second. It's a great read.
posted by itsamermaid at 5:28 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I live alone and have a full-time job with a long commute. This is my approach:

- I make sure I have certain staples at home - rice, dried pasta, bread, condiments, shelf-stable things I can eat on bread.

- I look at how I'm feeling when I reach the last grocery shop before home. Tired, fed up, just want to get in and collapse? Then I'll grab a microwave meal, or just make a sandwich when I get in. Moderately energetic (and hungry)? Then I'll pick up ingredients for something I fancy right then: fresh vegetables for a stir-fry, cream or tinned tomatoes for pasta, eggs for an omelette. I specifically don't try to shop ahead; that just leads to food going off in the fridge (and feelings of failure), because invariably there will be fewer evenings in the week when I feel like cooking than I hope there'll be.

- If I'm going to cook something, I do it as soon as I get in: I don't sit down, I just take off my coat and head straight into the kitchen. That way I don't lose momentum.

Worst-case - I get in and can't face cooking after all, or I screw things up and burn the eggs, or the ingredients I chose actually don't go well together - I can always make a sandwich.

I rarely cook from recipes after a day out of the house, even at the weekend; I just do things that amount to "bung things in a pan and apply heat". Reading through recipe books, and sometimes following recipes on slower-paced weekend days or when cooking with friends, has given me confidence in my judgment of what ingredients will taste good together; and if I want to know how to prepare a particular ingredient (should I salt the water I cook pasta in? do I need milk for an omelette?), I look that specific thing up online or in a basic cookery book.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 2:51 AM on February 18, 2015

Oh, I'd also like to add that many kinds of pasta can be ready to eat in the time it takes to cook the actual noodles.

- mac and cheese: start water boiling, reduce cream in a pan, noodles in water, shredded cheese in reduced cream, add cooked noodles to cheese sauce. Done.

- carbonara (minus bacon, for you)

- simple tomato sauce: olive oil in pan, sweat (cook until translucent) some chopped onion, add a little garlic and sautee briefly, add chopped tomato, cook down while water boils and pasta cooks, toss pasta in and throw in a whack of whole basil leaves, eat
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 4:33 AM on February 18, 2015

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