Help Me Hack My Reluctance For Cooking
June 16, 2021 8:11 AM   Subscribe

I hate cooking, but I’d like to hate it less. Help.

I know WHY I hate cooking. I’m not good at it, and while normally I’m not so proud that I avoid tasks I’m not good at, for some reason I’m not this way with cooking. Maybe it’s because it’s such an unremarkable thing that millions of people do daily that I feel ashamed of not being able to do it to my own satisfaction. (We can unpack this statement, but I don’t want to get bogged down in the contextualizing.) It takes time—to cut, to mix, to apply heat to ingredients. Then you’ve gotta clean up after, so it’s like double the work! I don’t have much by way cookware, and I’m rubbish at knowing what food to buy while staying within my budget (and without letting stuff spoil). And frankly, I’m tired at the end of the day, and though I know some people like cooking, I don’t, so the last thing I want is to do more work.

So for all you reluctant cooks out there, how have you tricked yourself into making the process easier? More pleasant? Less of a time-sink? I don’t have money to throw at this, so please no recommendations for pricey kitchen gadgets, meal subscriptions, or the like. Thanks in advance!
posted by xenization to Grab Bag (41 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I found that watching beginner-level cooking videos on YouTube really got me into cooking. That and "Extreme Budget Meal Planning," which I didn't have a need for, but started being suggested to me when I started watching cooking videos. There's something about watching someone who's in a home kitchen, explaining step-by-step how to put together a one-pot meal, or a quick meal with limited ingredients, that piqued my interest and got me trying things in the kitchen.

I'll also say that cleaning as I go, and prepping things well before cooking help a lot. Eating a meal with a pile of dishes in the sink gives me such anxiety, I can't enjoy it, but if I wash things while I'm cooking, and only have my dishes and silverware to do when I'm done is great. Having carrots and celery and onions already chopped up and in containers for the day I want to make a sauce is so helpful in enjoying making a sauce for me, as well..
posted by xingcat at 8:15 AM on June 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

I actually just...didn't. I hated cooking and just super hated it every single day. The only thing that helped a little was just settling on the same 4 meals, and then eating out the rest of the time.

When I broke up with my live-in partner and moved out, I didn't really bring any kitchen stuff with me and my new cheap apartment has no real kitchen to speak of, and I decided I just wasn't going to cook anymore. This isn't to say that I eat takeout all the time--I just don't COOK. I found a level of food prep that I don't hate and that's how I roll:

-Sandwiches and wraps
-Homemade charcuterie plates
-Salads (vegetable and fruit)
-Baked goods (for whatever reason, I don't hate baking)

Most of this stuff is fairly easy to restock on autopilot. Lots of it is stuff that keeps well for a while, especially the charcuterie, so it's not hard to eat before it spoils. It's not more expensive than regular cooking unless I want it to be -- obviously I could spend a TON on fancy cheese, but also I don't have to. You can get elaborate with a sandwich or just keep it very basic, depending on your mood and energy.

Some folks think it's weird that I don't really have proper, hot, meat-and-two-veg meals, but it works well for my mood and my body and my budget, and it's none of their business :)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:34 AM on June 16, 2021 [17 favorites]

This youtube channel (Pro Home Cooks) is pretty great. A lot of info on making meal prep actually....helpful, and really clear easy to follow instructions.

I also adore this free .pdf book, Good and Cheap. It's focused on stretching food stamp dollars but the advice is fantastic for working with less everything in the kitchen and still eating healthy good food.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 8:35 AM on June 16, 2021 [5 favorites]

The absolute best life hack for me is having various kinds of frozen veggies on hand in the freezer to add to pasta, a pot of boxed broth, eggs, etc. This saves on the exhausting prospect after work of washing vegetables, chopping them, and figuring out how to store the leftovers. Very much a game changer and just as nutritious as fresh.
posted by nantucket at 8:37 AM on June 16, 2021 [9 favorites]

(Oh, also--my method keeps the cleanup pretty minimal. You can chop all the fruits and vegetables and cheeses and meats at the start of a week; keep the baking to a day; and then during the week, all your cleanup involves is just washing out the blender or your actual plates/silverware)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:39 AM on June 16, 2021

Best answer: For me, I found that starting very small was important. The idea of making a menu for the entire week and then sticking to it? No, thank you. But saying "I am going to cook one night this week", then picking a meal I want to eat and following a recipe for it--that I can handle.

In terms of doing that one meal a week, I'd say look for "one pot meal" recipes to cut down on cleaning. Even better, look for ones that have cook time in the oven. That way you can clean up all your prep stuff (cutting board, countertops, knife) while the food is cooking. Also, cooking in the oven is less stressful than stovetop stuff where a minute off can lead to a burned dinner.
posted by you'rerightyou'rerightiknowyou'reright at 8:39 AM on June 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

I decide what to eat by looking at what's about to expire in the fridge, and finding a recipe that uses it. Despite not being an especially enthusiastic cook, I have an absurdly large number of cookery books because Reasons, so I also have an Eat Your Books subscription that helps me there (I can plug in the ingredients I've got, and then it tells me which of my recipe books have something suitable), but the internet will obviously furnish you with a recipe for anything you can think of.

I start by copying out the recipe with any adjustments I'm going to need (usually reducing the quantities - doing it on the fly is a good way to make a mistake - but sometimes also substituting ingredients or converting units). That gives me a record, so if it goes well I can make it again, and also means I'm not putting a cookery book or an expensive bit of electronics where it's likely to get wet, dirty or accidentally incinerated.

I make sure I have a clear space to work in, and get out all the ingredients, utensils and cookware I'm going to need. I empty the dishwasher, if it's full and clean (and I try never to start cooking with the dishwasher full and dirty). Then I start the washing, chopping and whatnot. I listen to a podcast or similar while I'm doing that, to keep my mind from wandering. Or I chat to a friend on Facetime.

I tidy up as I go: when I've taken what I need to from a container (e.g. one egg from the egg-box), the container goes back where it lives; when I've used a utensil or a chopping board for the last time, it goes in the dishwasher.

If ingredients need adding to the pan in several batches, I use bowls to group together the ingredients that go in together, then put them by the stove in the order in which they need adding. My aim is to make everything as smooth and easy for myself as possible, so that I'm never having to cast about for the next thing (or, worse, peel and chop it) while something is bubbling furiously or threatening to set the smoke detector off.

By the time the food is on a plate, the only things still out that are dirty are whatever I cooked it in, anything I stirred it with and whatever I used to serve it.

I feel no shame in using pre-chopped, pre-washed, canned or frozen ingredients: having convenience ingredients on hand lowers the hurdle, and makes me more likely to go to the trouble of cooking.

I also, in all honesty, eat a lot of sandwiches.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 8:41 AM on June 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

I am hardly a great cook, and I empathize with a lot of your reasons for not wanting to cook. That said…

- Unless I'm just stir-frying stuff that I pulled out of the fridge, I'm following a recipe. If the recipe is reasonably well-designed, it will have a workflow that makes sense. Spend a minute reading the whole recipe to figure out where its chokepoints are before you start prep work so you don't find yourself suddenly surprised that you need to perform some time-consuming prep work while something is burning on the stove.
- Some of this comes down to practice. Once you develop knife skills, you can chop an onion very quickly. And you learn that you can do a lot of the remaining prep work while the onion is sautéing, so you shorten your overall work time. That sort of thing.
- Some cookbooks have easy recipes, some have hard recipes. Joy of Cooking is dependable for easy recipes. America's Test Kitchen's recipes are usually more work but are bulletproof if you follow them exactly. No need to jump into the deep end.
- A good, sharp chef's knife makes a big difference. A couple of stainless mixing bowls and maybe some spice cups.
posted by adamrice at 8:41 AM on June 16, 2021

If it's in your budget, try a meal kit subscription. I like that everything is very clearly laid out in the recipe and that it dumbs things down to my level (i.e. super low before I started cooking the meal kits). There's a little bit to learn with knife skills, time management, etc., so it's a good challenge to build your practical knowledge in those areas. I found the kits to be a real good confidence booster--I am someone who food poisoned themselves multiple times in my youth, and have since been scared of doing it again--and from there, I've branched out to recreating some of the recipes without all the ingredients laid out for me and have made other simple meals outside of the kits.

Also, if you're a meat eater but scared of cooking meat, invest in a meat thermometer to help build confidence to know when it's done.
posted by pised at 8:46 AM on June 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I've lost a surprising amount of my cooking interest and mojo lately. So one thing I got was this ebook called "Cooking is Terrible", by Misha Fletcher. It's targeted at people who don't want to cook, don't like cooking, don't have the energy, etc. It cost I think $5 for Kindle but there are other formats linked from her page, or possibly your local library system would have a paperback or ebook of it.

It has categories, a lot of which are no-cook, like "Assembling Plates of Things," "Dips That Are Meals", "Salads, Most Of Which Are Not About Lettuce", etc.; also some like "Things on Toast", "Food That Requires Some Cooking" and "Food That Requires Some Cooking, Also Waiting'.
posted by theatro at 8:47 AM on June 16, 2021 [11 favorites]

I don't love cooking, but I do it because we need to eat healthy food at home.

My favorite way to prepare a meal is to get it all in the oven, not on the stove top. My "favorite" meals to cook are roasted veggies - chop the veggies, put them on a cookie sheet, sprinkle with a seasoning (I buy premixed seasoning blends because I tried doing that myself and it did not work out), roast, eat. Second favorite meal to cook is lasagna because you just layer everything and put it in the oven, and then you have meals for days.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 8:49 AM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't enjoy cooking, for many of the reasons you outlined above. One thing I've come to realize is that if I "plan" to start cooking a meal after work, the vast majority of the time this does not actually happen because I'm tired and really, really don't feel like it.

What has helped me some is doing some or all of the prep work at a different time. Setting a crockpot in the morning before work, for example, when I'm freshly awake and not tired. Or, when I work from home, often times I will start dinner mid-morning or mid-afternoon, whenever I want a break from sitting at my desk. I'll fry up the hamburger for chili, or mix up the meatloaf and then stick it in the fridge to pop into the oven later. You could also do some of the pre-prep on weekends if your schedule is not conducive to doing it in the morning or afternoon. You can also maybe do some of it the night before, such as throwing all your crockpot ingredients into a storage container that you just have to dump into the pot in the morning.

Also, I make a LOT of use of pre-chopped fresh veggies such as celery, onions, etc to save on all the chopping of ingredients that go into a recipe. I buy the steamer bags of frozen veggies for side dishes, I get the baking potatoes/sweet potatoes that are individually wrapped in plastic, so you just stick them in the microwave with no need for scrubbing. I use instant mashed potatoes which I doctor up with garlic powder, salt and pepper and they taste fine. Or canned sliced potatoes, which I heat up then slather in butter and parsley. I use disposable plastic liners for my crockpot and heavy-duty aluminum foil to line baking pans, to save on cleanup.

Basically, I take every shortcut I can find. Some of the items are more expensive, I mean I'm sure buying a bunch of celery and chopping it up myself would be more economical than buying the little plastic container of diced celery. But if I have to chop celery in order to cook a meal there is a very high probability I'll just order from DoorDash instead, and that was WRECKING our budget.

If the convenience shortcuts are out of budget, maybe think about investing in a good sharp chef's knife. I've heard the chopping process sucks a lot less when your knife is up to the job.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:49 AM on June 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

You haven't gotten good at cooking using any general approach. I recommend getting the Betty Crocker Cookbook(or search their recipes online); it's really straightforward and has recipes for lots of basic stuff. What do you like to eat? You can learn to make pancakes, and add blueberries to them, or add grated potatoes or zucchini and lots of scallions to make fritters. You can learn to buy chicken strips, season them, cook on high heat and serve asap while they're juicy. Roast vegetables, especially cauliflower, brussells sprouts, sweet potatoes, or asparagus. Make BLTs. But start with things you like that are not difficult. You can develop a set of meals that you like and are pretty easy. You don't need fancy equipment other than a decent knife or 2 (chef's knife & paring). Make a list of meals and shop with the list.

Do you have a Trader Joe's nearby? They have excellent frozen foods, lots of variety, and you can eat tasty foods, just make sure to add vegetables.
posted by theora55 at 8:55 AM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I also often cook a double batch of a meal so I can eat for a couple of days without cooking again. I'm making a big pot of chili today which will get me out of cooking again until Friday.

And while this obviously doesn't count as cooking, we did figure out an easy go-to for nights that cooking is just not going to happen... I buy cans of hearty heat-and-eat soup in a variety of flavors. Sometimes dinner is just a bowl of "the soup of your choice" and a piece of fruit or a handful of pretzels. It's not exciting but I feel better about it when I remind myself I've just saved 40-60 bucks from not ordering DoorDash.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:56 AM on June 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

What I did for the longest time was to avoid cooking meals and just cook a thing. Like, I'd be at a farmers market and see one gorgeous vegetable and roast some of that with salt pepper and olive oil. Then have it with bread, cheese, rice or pasta until it was gone and then do something else.

If I did cook something a bit difficult, it would be because I had guests and would splurge a little on ingredients, and sometimes we would cook together. That's a fun activity, not a chore.
posted by BibiRose at 8:59 AM on June 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

I don't want to cloud your head with tons of 'advice' but if I can offer two things that made cooking more enjoyable for me (caveat: I love to cook, so pardon my enthusiasm)

1. Make it easy: easy to find things, easy to clean things, easy to store things. What I mean here is like, get a salad spinner. It makes washing, prepping, and storing lettuce easy. Etc. If you find a pain point, figure out what will make it easier, and make it easier.

2. Go easy on yourself: toast (for example) is cooking. "Cooking" doesn't need to be complicated. See: my favorite food article of all time: Mark Bittman's Summer Express: 101 Simple Meals Ready in 10 Minutes or Less (NYT)
posted by niicholas at 9:03 AM on June 16, 2021 [6 favorites]

I don't enjoy chopping or measuring ingredients or cleanup or watching the stove, either. What has helped me most is... Instant Pot. I had read several threads about this device and didn't think it was for me. Finally I bought one (because I switched to a whole-food plant-based diet last year and had no choice but to prepare more meals), but even after I bought it, it sat unopened for two months.

Then I tried it and by golly, it works. I mean, I can work it without much hassle at all. I still chop onions or cabbage or whatnot sometimes, but you can buy frozen veg that do not need chopping and canned beans or bagged lentils, etc that you just pour in there (for canned beans, maybe rinse first). Also, it is one pot and I just clean it each time and it is not too bad (especially because I don't cook with oil). ALSO, you don't have to watch it or worry about it or pay attention to it, it turns off when it is done.

So, I suggest an Instant Pot. And sure, since I don't measure stuff, once in a while clearly I poured too much curry powder or something in there, but otherwise, it is seriously so much easier than I imagined before I actually started using it. Finally, if you search YouTube for easy Instant Pot Recipes and some ingredient you want to use, you will get plenty of options.
posted by Glinn at 9:04 AM on June 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

Hm, while I understand and respect the people who learned to cook by finding a thing in their fridge and then searching for recipes that is the exact opposite of how I transitioned from "chicken nuggets from a bag are too much work" to "people regularly comment on the complexity of the meals we cook". For me, the block was in the amount of mental overhead that went into planning for meals and then translating that into having the right ingredients on hand and then figuring out the steps needed to make it happen. Ug.

Honestly, what changed my relationship with food was the Paprika app. I spent a small amount of time putting in a few recipes that were in the range of work I was okay with trying, and then I could spend an hour or so a week 1. putting those on a schedule, 2. have Paprika assemble the grocery list for me, and 3. then go to the grocery store and buy all of the items when I needed. When I went to cook, I just opened the app and followed the steps while listening to a podcast. It can't actually cook and wash dishes, but it reduced that tedious mental work that had to come before the cooking by about 90%.

Eventually, over time, I started adding more and more recipes to try but the same general process held. I still have back-up easy meals like keeping frozen pizzas on hand, but it's much easier to cook something when I know that I have all of the ingredients there and ready to go.
posted by past unusual at 9:12 AM on June 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Oh oh oh, this is also me. My ex-husband was the (excellent) cook in our family, so when we divorced, I was (still am?) pretty adrift for awhile but I still needed to feed myself (and two children) so I had to figure it out quickly. I'm not BAD at it but I'd just had next to no practice for years. I was also broke AF so reliance on takeout was totally off the table, and he took most of the kitchen gadgetry, which was fine because I wasn't going to suddenly start using them anyway, and I was still single parenting a lot of the time so it wasn't like oodles of time to dabble and experiment had suddenly opened up.

I developed a HUGE reliance on frozen, canned, and refrigerated shortcuts. I honestly can't remember the last time I chopped a fresh vegetable and this is the part that makes all the difference, it completely removed the burden and element of panic of needing to plan for and stay on top of what's in my fridge and making sure nothing went bad. This way literally nothing goes bad, like ever. I haven't tossed any food waste in over two years. Frozen chopped onion, frozen chopped peppers, frozen broccoli and carrots, frozen spinach, frozen mixed veg, and canned mushrooms are my staples, tossed straight into a hot pan. I use the freeze-dried refrigerated herbs where you just revive them with a bit of water (or, if you're me, just toss straight into the dish). Pre-shredded rotisserie chicken is a godsend, and so is pre-chopped sweet potato and other veg from the deli section. Sometimes I buy premade pulled pork or shredded beef from the refrigerated section as a special treat and put it over rice or the microwaveable Simply Potatoes which are super good. My local grocery store has a premade meatloaf that you just bake that is divine. Put simply, we are in a golden age of reasonably healthy and not-terribly-costly convenience foods, and even with spending a few extra dollars on these, I am still coming out WAYYYYY ahead. Because the choice is not between spending extra on convenience or making everything myself, it's spending extra on convenience or not eating/eating only snacks/ordering takeout. Making everything myself just isn't an option right now and I'm leaning fully into it.

The meals that I actually cook (not just heat up) are ridiculously simple. Roasted veg is as elaborate as I get. Shaking a bit of seasoning on some fish or chicken thighs and baking it. I cook up big batches of a ground meat with a ton of veg and some kind of seasoning blends and serve over rice. I make eggs every way I can think of. Snack platters are wonderful in summer. I often get the "nicest" canned or jarred soups available (Rao's is great, Costco's are good, a local restaurant sells their soups in big to-go containers which I love) and I doctor them up with lot of extra frozen veggies or a bit more meat I have on hand or a dash of a seasoning to make them just a tiny bit more my own. I'm only just now thinking about getting an air fryer so I can more easily cook big batches of chicken or treat myself to better cuts of steak or fish.

Even with all the shortcuts, my energy for cooking (such as it is for me) is realllllllly limited and I've had to be honest with myself that I'm probably only going to cook one "proper" meal a week, maaaaaaaaybe two if I am feeling really ambitious, and I fill in the gaps with simple soups and sandwiches and eggs and fancy cheese and crackers with fruit and frozen burritos and the like.

Watching YouTube videos for beginner cooks are a great suggestion that I think makes it a lot easier to grasp and see the actual time and scale that a meal is going to take in a way that reading recipes online or cookbooks doesn't really hit. Gear-wise, I currently have one good chef's knife (there's on on Amazon that is very highly rated and I think it's only about $30), a single mixing bowl, a set of measuring cups, and the most basic Ninja cookware set (two pots, two pans) and that is literally it.

I also recommend "theLAminimalist" on Instagram, she doesn't cook much and meal planning stresses her out tremendously so she decided awhile ago that she just wasn't going to do it, but she always eats SO well and her plates are always gorgeous but take less than 5-10 minutes to put together. She's got a lot of suggestions and ideas pinned in her highlights on how she figures out what she's going to eat each night and assembles her meals and does her grocery shopping that I've gotten a lot of value from.
posted by anderjen at 9:24 AM on June 16, 2021 [6 favorites]

Seconding the Instant Pot for easy to make, cheap meals (bonus: you don't have to use a lot of meat for a tasty outcome). As you improve with the pot, you may feel more confident about making other types of food.
posted by kingdead at 9:24 AM on June 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh my god, I feel this so hard. I get so resentful of the time and energy it takes purchase, prepare, cook, and clean up after food. And especially in the summer time, I LOATHE turning the oven on if I don't absolutely have to.

If you don't already have one, even the cheapest of rice cookers will deliver you perfect rice (or whatever other grain you put in it—barley, farro, whatever) with an absolute minimum of effort, just wash your rice and add water. Also, rice cooker pots are non-stick, so cleanup is super easy. I like to get the 25lb bags from my local Asian grocery store and not have to shop for rice again for MONTHS.

If it comes with a steamer tray (most do), even better—throw your desired veggies (frozen or otherwise) in there and let the rice cooker handle it. Just add butter and/or spices when the rice cooker clicks.

I also like to use the rice cooker steamer trays to heat up foil packets of stuff. One of my favorite quick dinner hacks for a long time was to get those ready-to-eat S&P curry packs and put one of those in the steamer tray while my rice cooked. The madras lentils packets from Trader Joe's can also be cooked this way. There are definitely other types of foil packet foods to explore.

My other go-to is stir fry (usually in tandem with making rice in the rice cooker). I like ground meat the best for this because it comes in small packs and requires no prep, just throw it in the pan and break it up with a spoon. My favorite meal for awhile was ground turkey and green bean stir fry with soy sauce, rice vinegar, a little bit of sesame oil, garlic and ginger (both from tubes for max time saving), and some hot chili paste. Super tasty, super easy, relatively nutritionally balanced.

Also: chili, especially if you have a crock pot or Instant Pot already. Brown some ground meats, open a couple cans of beans and tomatoes, chuck it all in a pot with spices for a few hours. I like mine over rice, but obviously there's tons of ways to jazz up a chili.
posted by helloimjennsco at 9:37 AM on June 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If you can't afford meal subscription boxes something you should note is that some of them them make their recipe cards available online even without a subscription so you can print them out and follow them. I know for sure that Hello Fresh still do and Blue Apron used to, you just have to poke around the site. I've done this when we've been broke as their meals are usually very reasonable price wise per serve if you are buying your own ingredients. I just printed out the recipes, made a shopping list for things we didn't already have from the ingredients list. Their recipe cards make cooking so much less stressful for me, I've have saved most of the ones from when I do subscribe now to fall back on during times we can't afford the subscription just in case.
posted by wwax at 9:39 AM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd suggest a YT channel like One Meal a Day -- maybe not this channel specifically unless you like Korean food, but there are a lot of them out there for all kinds of cuisines. Why:

- person who lives alone cooking only for themselves
- usually the minimum amount of ingredients + seasonings
- minimum amount of cooking utensils (pan + wooden spoon + measuring spoons mostly)
- simple home cooking style
- through exposure over time, it encourages you to think "I think I can actually manage that, or something like it"

Examples: Perfect Egg Scrambled Chicken Rice | Chicken Mayo. Uses frozen chicken nuggets, 2 eggs, half an onion, rice. The only "prep" is slicing the onion (and cooking the rice if you don't have any leftover). If you were tired you could just fling most of it in the pan at once rather than cook it in sequence. Yes, it's all protein + carb, but if you can get to a place where you don't feel exhausted at the idea of cooking things in a pan, that's really the point.

Curry fried rice. Egg, green onions, curry powder, leftover rice. Again, basically dumping everything in the pan and mixing.

Soy sauce egg noodles. A package of any kind of noodles. Two eggs. Green onion garnishing. Soy sauce. Some ingredients you may or may not have like sesame seeds, sesame oil.

The pattern is pretty obvious here. Eggs + a carb + a softball vegetable that barely needs any cooking like green onions + light seasoning. All cheap stuff, but something that will be warm and make you feel full, for a small amount of effort.

Another channel I might suggest is Cooking Haru. They tend to speed through their videos so you might need to slow them a bit. Their recipes range from very simple (combining foods with some microwaving + sauces, a number of egg + toast type breakfast meals) to a bit more elaborate (3 ingredient homemade ice cream without an ice cream maker). Honestly I find this one more inspirational/fun than practical. They like to smack certain kinds of food with a wooden spatula because it makes a satisfying ASMR noise or something, which is disproportionately funny to me at high speeds. But hell, if it helps me feel more enthusiastic about cooking, I'll take it.

If/when you get to a place where this isn't too much effort, then you can think about ways to make the food better. Different sauces. Prechopped vegetables from the supermarket. Meat or seafood if you eat those.

I started cooking in 2018 as a depressed person with a decreased interest in food. I'd just spent 2 years living in a place with a tiny kitchen, eating discount salads, cold tofu, and instant ramen. The only reason I persevered is because I was also cooking for my elderly dad (who can cook for himself but it takes him hours, he's overambitious/impractical, he doesn't cook vegetables for himself, and other problems along these lines). I just did my best to follow recipes. Watching professional cooking shows like what might end up on Food Network or one of the big name YT channels would make me feel exhausted and demoralized. Simpler ones like these help build my tolerance for the mental work of cooking.
posted by automatic cabinet at 10:09 AM on June 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

I listen to podcasts (often something funny like Make My Day) while cooking. I use headphones with noise cancellation so that I can hear it over the cooking sounds. I think if you found some dishes you really enjoy eating, that might help some. I think improving your cooking skills would also make it less horrible. Maybe you could do that with the help of a friend? Have them teach you one of their quicker/easier recipes and then you both have some leftovers to eat and could laugh about things while you go?
posted by purple_bird at 10:11 AM on June 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

One suggestion I didn't see above is learning to be clever with a microwave. There are lots of things a 'wave can't do, but some it does very well. Most frozen veggies dont really need to be cooked, certainly not very much. You need a small glass container with a lid. Add veggies, add a splash of water, nuke for 1-3 minutes (after a couple tries you will know how long), and you're done.

Lots of things that need to be heated do best with the minute-stir-minute-stir method.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:13 AM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

nthing a meal kit subscription - we do one (chef's plate, not sure if that's canadian only) every second week with 3 meals, and I really do think it has kind of taught my husband to cook over the last year or so!

If you want a hack on how to like cooking more - pick a show, or a podcast or something that you're very excited about, and only allow yourself to watch/listen to it while you cook. I don't like gardening very much but am trying to learn, and this is what I'm doing. It seems to be working.

For a long time I didn't really cook - I would make just a variation of the same meal all the time. it was:

Rice (or rice noodles, or regular noodles, or farro or quinoa or pre-washed spinach or whatever as your base. even a microwave-baked potato works pretty good as a base!)
Meat (ground pork, ground beef, ground chicken, ground turkey, shrimp)
Cooked Vegetable (cabbage, kale, grated carrot, peppers, zuchinni, asparagus, frozen vegetables)
Sauce (jarred sauce of any kind, or mix like, 1/3rd spicy sauce into 2/3rds mayonnaise)

So you just put the rice on to cook in the rice cooker (seriously, get one, I used to think I didn't really like rice, I was wrong, I had just only ever had it cooked in a pot) then you put a couple tsp of neutral oil (I like corn oil) in a pan over medium heat, then when it's hot you add the meat, stir it a few times over about 6 minutes until it starts browning. Salt. Then add your sliced vegetable and keep stirring occasionally until the vegetable starts looking cooked. Salt again. Less-cooked vegetables tend to be more delicious than overcooked vegetables, so I usually go about 3 minutes here maybe?

Then put a layer of rice in a bowl, add the vegetable and meat on top, and drizzle your sauce across the top. I usually throw sesame seeds on because I like them.

There's a lot of stuff you can do to this "recipe" to make it different - when I like cooking, I'll add more flavours like soya sauce and rice vinegar and mirin and ginger and garlic and scallions to the meat and vegetable mixure, or multiple vegetables, or sometimes I'll quick pickle carrots or something and add them after to brighten it up. But often I just need something to eat and want to wash exactly one pan and put one small cutting board in the dishwasher, and so I just eat this a lot.

You also have my permission to not cook :P when I lived alone, I cooked at home for every meal for a whole month, and kept track of my expenses, and then I ate out or grabbed ready-made food for a whole month and kept track of my expenses, and they were not significantly different when you're only feeding one person. Certainly not different enough to warrant the 30+ hours of dishes I had to do in the first month. (also if you don't have a dishwasher get one. I had one for a long time that I had to move around and hook up to my sink to use, but it was worth it. Doing dishes is a drag.
posted by euphoria066 at 10:37 AM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

I hate cooking and I'm not very interested in food, so I only cook a week. My approach requires you to be cool with eating the same thing over and over, which doesn't work for everyone. I'm also single and cooking only for myself.

Lunch is my biggest meal of the day, so I change that one up from week to week (most of the time - sometimes I get lazy and cook the same easy meal over and over for a while) and eat essentially the same thing every day for breakfast and dinner.

My basic meal plan is:
Breakfast: a bagel
Lunch: the one big-batch meal I cook that week
Dinner: toast, cheese/nuts/canned anchovies, raw fruit and veggies

I decide what lunch is going to be by Friday (mostly, I pick a dish that's supposed to feed 5-6 people from Budget Bytes - this is one of my favorites, if you want something very simple and tasty that stays good for about a week), do my shopping on Saturday, and then spend about 2 hours cooking on Sunday morning. I pack my lunches to take to work, so I have a bunch of small containers in the fridge, but that's not necessary if you're cooking to eat at home. I also cut up any of my fruit or veggies or cheese that needs that on Sundays during meal prep time so that I don't have to do so when I'm ready to eat. The two hours on Sunday still suck because cooking and cleaning still sucks, but it's contained to that single period of time, rather than spread out throughout the week.

And then I don't cook at all for the rest of the week! I just pull stuff out of the fridge and put it in the microwave or the toaster.
posted by darchildre at 10:39 AM on June 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

The part that struck me from your question is the weeknight dinner component. You're right, cooking dinner after working all day is terrible! I like cooking (sometimes), but I hate dinner. Is there a time in your week that you can devote to cooking something that's not weeknight dinner time? I would give yourself a break after working all day and just reheat a frozen meal or make a quick sandwich or salad, and focus on learning to cook at other times.
So if there is a time of week that's less stressful, what would you want to eat during that time? A Saturday breakfast or Saturday dinner may be a better time to focus on trying a recipe. I have taught my kids, and frankly my husband, some cooking skills, and I found the two things beginner cooks like to make are chili and pancakes. After those things, you can try making eggs. Chili is hard to screw up, it can be fun adding lots of spices or flavors, and you can make it with just beans when you're learning (meat can be intimidating, right?) Then you can eventaully add a simple cornbread - just use the recipe on the Jiffy box or cornmeal container to start. Pancakes can be hard to master the flipping part, but once you've got that down, you can add variations to them and make that with a fried egg for a lunch or dinner. Avocado toast and guacamole are also good things to try for beginner cooks. Maybe get into smoothies for a simple dinner along with the toast. For a really simple weeknight dinner, you could try rice in a rice cooker and then add a can of beans and diced avocado and shredded cheese with it. When you're ready for more, maybe dice a sweet potato and steam that along with the rice and try a flavored sour cream/creme topping too.
posted by areaperson at 10:39 AM on June 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Wanted to add that if you want to get some confidence in the kitchen, you may like the show "Worst Cooks in America." It's available on Hulu. I find it inspring watching some of those people learn to cook (some turn out to be real chefs, others not so much!) and the hosts provide cooking demonstrations on the show. My family LOVES that show.
posted by areaperson at 10:45 AM on June 16, 2021

I too have always been a reluctant cook. I find everything about cooking and meal planning daunting and overwhelming. However, I recently gave PlateJoy a try and while I wasn't expecting much, I'm about to wrap up my 10 day trial and I think I'm going to subscribe. It helped me plan meals for an entire week for me and my husband taking all our dietary preferences into account as well as the fact that I wasn't interested in complicated recipes or recipes that required exotic ingredients you can only find at rich people grocery stores. I bought the ingredients and have prepared the recipes and honestly it hasn't been that bad! I feel like I could competently cook for us now for a whole week if I had to. I liked all the recipes they gave me and at least half of them were permanent keepers. You can also request "make ahead" (aka) freezer meals which was something I had never done before and it's just really cool knowing we have meals to tide us over for a while. They also do breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks and the whole thing is just very flexible. I'm digging it. It's $99 a year but I think it's going to be worth it.
posted by Jess the Mess at 10:47 AM on June 16, 2021

Best answer: Have on hand basic fresh and frozen ingredients someone else chopped.

Fresh pre-chopped onions; pre-peeled garlic; frozen, microwaveable brown rice; bags of frozen veggies of all types for sides, stir fries; sheet pan meals. (you can also buy fresh pre-cut broccoli, etc. make something with it then store rest in zip freezer bags for another time; pre-sliced beef, chicken, pork in many butcher cases at the supermarket to be combined with frozen veggies and pre-mixed bottles of Asian stir fry sauces. Boxes of chicken and veggie broths in cabinet then in fridge when partially used.

Always have on hand olive and one other kind of cooking oil that doesn't burn as fast (safflower, corn, canola, etc); complete array of very small containers of spices (online Penzy's is great) in a drawer.

Set-up: One big good knife; two decent paring knives; kitchen scissors; 2 different size synthetic cutting boards; bottle of oilive oil; salt and pepper. Keep these on the counter closest to stove.

Every time you cook, line up all your recipe ingredients ahead of time in the order you use them. Fill a dishpan with hot, soapy water in the sink and drop in prep dishes as you use them to wash or to put in dishwasher later. (hand wash/dry or put in dishwasher as you wait for food to cook) Consider prep, cooking, eating, and clean up as ONE process.

Master 3-4 soups; 3-4 stews; 3-4 stir fries; 3-4 sheet pan meals, and rotate. Make two meals at a time and eat the other a couple days later or freeze it (in labelled dated container).

Newbies and reluctant cooks often buy too much food, e.g. bags of onions and potatoes, which they wind up throwing out because they hate grocery shopping. Buy very small quanties of fresh ingredients like onions, fresh vegetables, fresh meat and fish so you consume fresh ingredients in the same week. Clean out your fridge of leftovers once a week; clean out expired stuff in the freezer on the first of the month.

Everything everybody else said about having a dedicated prep space with a synthetic cutting board, a good knife, a couple paring knives as close as possible to the stove. Get a small wok, a good, heavy no-stick frying pan, a small no stick sauté pan, a small le Creuset type Dutch oven (Marshall's has very affordable, small colorful Cuisinart ones all the time, which you can proudly leave on the stove so it's always there.) You can make a small sheet pan meal with precut everything in a good toaster oven--so easy and delicious. Check out Melissa Clark's sheet pan meals. I line my sheet pan with foil for easy clean up.

I love to cook but totally get why many people don't. With so much prep ingredients in fresh veggie sections or frozen case, you can cut out half the drudgery.
posted by Elsie at 11:48 AM on June 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Are grocery store salad bars common and open where you are? If you just need a small quantity of a sliced/chopped something, get it from a salad bar. Yes, it is more expensive per pound, but your time is valuable and there is value in removing obstacles to getting yourself fed. It may also help you avoid having to toss whatever spoiled perishable you couldn’t use up in time.
posted by corey flood at 12:08 PM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I also see cooking primarily as a chore, which is a bummer because I like to eat. My solution has been to give myself permission to do less cooking, though I don't have the pressure to prepare healthy meals for anyone except myself. I cooked bacon this weekend. Last night I made BLT wraps for my supper (tortilla from fridge to microwave, open bag of lettuce, slice a tomato w sprinkle of salt, throw the already-cooked bacon on, squirt on some mayo). For lunch I frequently eat cucumber, hummus (I like olives so I add those on top), and pita. Hardboiled eggs (can do in batches). Cut a bell pepper in half and dollop some tuna on (I like the flavored tuna that comes in pouches). Apple, cracker, cheese. Sometimes I eat sandwiches or cereal for supper. I leave a cutting board and knife on my counter all the time. Just rinse it off after and it's ready for next time (I do a real wash if I prepped anything germy).

I have used Hello Fresh and have enjoyed virtually all the meals and have had very little bad luck (haven't gotten rotten produce, etc.), but I know you said that wasn't in your budget. And for me it didn't completely solve the problem because even without having to do the planning labor, it's still cooking and cleaning labor. Whether or not you use their service, one thing I've learned is that a sauce can make a plain meal much better. Zest (lemon or lime) packs a big punch. For example, sour cream is fine, but sour cream with lime zest &/or juice, & a little salt is very good. I guess the advice here is condiments can make a plain/easy/simple meal much better. If you don't want to make them, experiment with pre-made stuff from your store.

Finally, my local grocery store has a pretty large "ready meal" section. They are individually portioned meals in foil trays where all I do is put it in the oven. Not frozen food (though I use that too)--it's near the deli and prepared foods section for me. They might be more expensive than doing it from scratch for yourself, but they are less expensive than eating out (a tray with a portion of salmon + veggie side is about $7). I regularly include these in my rotation.
posted by kochenta at 12:39 PM on June 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

I've recently come to the realization that while I enjoy the idea of cooking, I never really get fired up to actually do it. The process itself is more like a chore, even though I enjoy eating what I make.

I'd consider myself a good cook, because I cook regularly enough that I've gotten better at it over the years. I'd say for me the important things are:

1. Lowered expectations. I don't expect myself to cook a unique meal every night! That's sheer drudgery and just leads to burnout and wasted ingredients.

When I feel up to cooking, I usually go for big dishes that will give me lots of leftovers. When I don't feel up to it, I have a small repertoire of easy-to-prepare meals that use cheap ingredients I can easily keep on hand, like a makeshift udon with frozen noodles. Or I eat a frozen meal/pizza. For me, it's really important not to approach cooking as an all-or-nothing thing, or like something I have to do to fulfill the narrative of what type of person I am.

2. Podcasts, podcasts, podcasts. For most chores, really. My house is so much cleaner after discovering podcasts...
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:04 PM on June 16, 2021

Best answer: Is there a dish that you really love when someone makes it for you or when you order it at a restaurant? Pick your favorite. Start there. Look for a stripped-down recipe for it, or ask your friend who makes it for the base recipe. Then make it a couple times. Don't think about any other recipe, just make that one. Get comfy with it. Nail the dish that you love.

I started this way—a family friend made this wildly complex levantine lentil-tomato soup. It was lemony tart, loaded with greens I couldn't identify, spiced in mysterious ways. I eventually worked up the courage to ask them about it. What is this? Is this a national dish or a family recipe? What are those greens? How do you make soup taste like lemony tomatoes when I can barely boil water? And I was gifted two things: the full recipe, and a simplified starter recipe. I made that thing at least weekly for the next year. I got good at the basic version, and started stepping up to the "real" version. And now both of those—the simple and the real soups—are things that I'm known for among my family and friends.

Getting my sea legs with those soups laid the foundation for how I approach everything. It's twenty years later, and not only do I have a repertoire of a solid dozen dishes that I confidently make well, but I've gotten over that feeling of the labor of cooking. And I've since passed on this approach to my own kids, and even a few friends and colleagues.

Thanks, Miranda, for getting me started on the right foot!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:43 PM on June 16, 2021

Give yourself permission to buy chopped onions, peeled garlic, bagged lettuce, washed and cut veggies, etc. from the produce section's refrigerator case. It'll save you time on the front end and make cleanup easier afterward, and you won't have as hard a time using up your fresh ingredients. If you end up with extras, you can toss chopped onion and broccoli/carrots/cauliflower/whatever with oil, spread it on a sheet pan, sprinkle with salt, and roast at 425 until caramelized (check after 20 minutes).
posted by theotherdurassister at 4:30 PM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Thirding Instant Pot. I hate cooking and never cooked until I got the IP. I use it several nights a week.
posted by Mavri at 5:52 PM on June 16, 2021

Yeah, Instant Pot. But you mentioned you didn't want to spend too much $ on gear. Still if you can afford the $100 or so, I'd say go for it.

Failing that, the key for me was small successes. The 4 hr Chef takes this approach (Tim Ferriss), it's got a handful of very easy recipes to start. These are no-fail ones e.g. avocado and boiled egg! cauliflower curry mash! braised lamb shanks!

Failing that, grab a "beginner's cookbook" from the library. Or a bunch of them, and then spend one day each week to try a recipe.
posted by storybored at 7:30 PM on June 16, 2021

Best answer: I reeeeeally struggle with this. Sometimes even the effort of making a thing of ramen is too much for me because I'm tired, it's the end of the day, and I'm supposed to think about washing up after I eat? NO THANKS. I think the irony is that I am actually a good cook, but everything I am good at cooking is majorly labour-intensive - with lots of pre-cooking prep and messy, tiring post-cooking clean-up.

Because I live alone, I can feed myself what I want to. I have a personal 'Can I be asked to cook' barometer which is mostly, these days, at 0 or 1. For times like that I will do something involving extremely minimal prep and clean-up, e.g. toast and a boiled egg. If I'm at a 3 or 4 on my barometer I will do something like chop some veggies and dress them with salt and olive oil and put them into the oven with some salmon. It's worth your while thinking about some basic meals you can throw together depending on where you are on your personal scale. So you can tell yourself "I'm at a 5 this evening, maybe I'll make a shepherd's pie" or "Hmm, I'm a 1 today, I'm going to make an omelette."

I go through phases with those meal prep services. In the UK we have Gousto which is good, I don't know if they are international. I try to only order them during periods when I am feeling good about cooking anyway. They're good for when I'm at about 5 or 6 on my personal scale. I would recommend them, with the caveat that even though they don't give you the whole 'what do I do with this gigantic jar of poppy seeds when this recipe only calls for 1 teaspoon' nightmare, they can still be relatively fiddly as recipes because the whole point is to make you comfortable with different cooking methods. If you do go for them, definitely pay attention to the descriptions of the recipes before you decide what goes into your box that week. I ONLY go for the 'Prepped in 5 minutes' option - the kind where you chop stuff and put it into the oven.

I've taken the pressure off myself to make proper meals unless I'm really in the mood for all that work. It's something I have to hype myself up for over days. But without the pressure, it makes it not too onerous when I do do it.
posted by unicorn chaser at 4:36 AM on June 17, 2021

Best answer: I like food and cooking, but like you I am really into minimizing the time & energy I spend on it. I've gone through periods where I lived 100% on restaurant food, and I've also had long stretches of regularly cooking elaborate meals but resenting the time it took. Here's what I've landed:

I have a slate of about 8-10 complicated, awesome dishes that I really like and have learned to cook really well. Once or twice a week, I make one of those things, including extra for the freezer where the food is freezer-appropriate. That supplies me with maybe 4-5 meals a week on average. (The rest of the time I eat a sandwich with no regrets.)

Doing it this way has major benefits. I only have to cook once or twice a week. Shopping is easy because I'm always stocking the same things. I don't waste ingredients because I know exactly what I need. I don't need to house and organize a million kitchen tools, just the 12 or so I regularly use. Prep and cleanup are faster because I've done the exact same task a million times already.

In general, it means that cooking takes up way less space in my head, and yet I still end up with good food. Which is good, because I like food :)

This won't work for everybody. I see it as the food equivalent of a capsule wardrobe (which I also have), and so if you're that kind of person, you might also be this kind of person :)
posted by Susan PG at 10:01 AM on June 17, 2021

There is a ton of great advice here.

Two things that have worked well for me, that overlap a lot with the advice above:

1. Minimize decision making. Ideally, make as many decisions ahead of time as you can. When I'm tired, trying to figure out what I feel like eating takes more energy than I have. But if I use the weekend to decide that I'm going to eat leftover chili on Tuesday and Thursday and a big lentil salad on Monday and Wednesday, I've just saved myself a surprising amount of dithering and annoyance, because the decisions are already made. (This also helps with shopping and with cutting down on prep and cleanup time, because you're making 2-4 meals every time you cook, but it's surprising how much less hassle things are when you just don't have to make a decision every day.)

2. Super simple can be great. Frozen and pre-chopped vegetables are great for all the reasons above, but also: they can be great by themselves. A bowl of frozen corn, microwaved, with butter, salt, and pepper? SO GOOD. A bag of pre-chopped cabbage, sauteed in butter for five minutes, with pepper and thyme? Really, really good. If you have hard boiled eggs on hand, you can easily make a tasty, nutritious dinner with a single type of pre-chopped vegetable, butter or oil, and a bit of seasoning; add in a slice of bread and a bit of fruit if you want to round it out.
posted by kristi at 7:19 PM on June 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

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