Ask LH: How Can I Get More Into Cooking At Home?

Dear Lifehacker, I eat takeaway food all the time. I know if I actually cooked my own food I'd eat better, and I spend a silly amount eating out every week, but I just can't bring myself to get excited about my kitchen. Cooking takes so much longer, and I always feel like a novice in the kitchen. Got any suggestions? Sincerely, The Hesitant Cook

Title image by Swimphoto.

Dear Hesitant,

It can be tempting to just budget for delivery instead of groceries, tell yourself that you don't really cook, and go out to eat every night. But doing so sacrifices your health for fast and expensive (for both your wallet and waistline) meals. Thankfully, you've already got the drive and the motivation to change that, and the only way to overcome being a novice in the kitchen is to get in there and start cooking! Here are some suggestions to help you get started.

Optimise Your Kitchen

The reason your kitchen may make you uncomfortable might be because it's not laid out well for cooking. You may not have the tools needed, or your cabinets and countertops may be cluttered with appliances you never use. It may be time to reboot your kitchen and organise it so you can actually use it. Kevin's guide (and the video that went with it) inspired me to transform my kitchen from a place where unitaskers went to die to a space where my knives were within reach of my cutting boards, my spatulas and spoons were in the drawer next to the stove, and the only appliances on the countertops were the ones I actually used regularly. Everything else should move to the back or be disposed of entirely. Photo by Michael Kroepfl.

Once you've organised what you do have, take stock of what you don't have. Check out our list of budget kitchen upgrades to help you get started stocking your space with the utensils and equipment to help you cook and eat better. If you have most of the things on the list already, you're in good shape. Honestly, all you really need to do some serious cooking are a few pots and pans, a cutting board or two, and a sharp knife. Other tools can make the job much easier, but don't break the bank.

Plan Your Meals

Once your kitchen is a place you actually want to spend time, you have to come up with a way to hit the supermarket without emptying your wallet. The best way to start is to actually plan out your meals. Come up with a weekly menu for yourself. It doesn't have to be fixed (as in you'll have X on Monday and Y on Tuesday), but it should include enough main dishes and sides to carry you through the week. Write them down, and what it will take to make them, and then hit the supermarket to pick up the ingredients. Want a high-tech approach? Previously mentioned iOS and Android app Food On The Table can help. Our own Whitson Gordon uses Menu Planner (or Food Planner for Android) to plan his weekly meals, and he actually hates cooking. Photo by Michael Ocampo.

If you need inspiration on what to cook, go recipe-hunting at sites like All Recipes or Food.com. Your mileage may vary, but at least you'll get some inspiration. When we showed you how to reboot your diet, we offered up a number of quick snacks and meals that are easy to make and nutritious. Many of them take only a few minutes to prepare. Even though it may feel like cooking takes longer, in reality the 30-45 minutes you wait for a driver to bring your pizza is as long as you need to cook some chicken and steam some vegetables. Get inspired, make your shopping list and hit the supermarket.

Mind Your Budget

Once you start cooking for yourself, it can be easy to get caught up buying expensive gear or gourmet ingredients. To a certain extent, that's fine: you want to use quality ingredients and healthy food in your meals, even if it costs you a little more than the empty calories in the bargain-basement crap, but not all home brands taste awful or are bad for you. Photo by Kate Ter Haar.

Once you've brought your meticulously planned meals home, make sure you store them properly and use your freezer efficiently so your hard-earned money doesn't go to waste. This salad storage trick can stretch a bowl of greens for days, and we have plenty of tips to help you keep food fresh where that one came from. Shop wisely, store carefully, and you won't find yourself wasting money on spoiled food.

Plan For Weakness: Make Leftovers And Easy-Prep Meals

If you're cooking for one, it can be especially difficult for you to not slip back into old habits and order out if you come home one night and don't feel like cooking. That's OK, it's normal. Anticipate those nights by giving yourself easy meals to just toss in the microwave and heat up, or something healthy you can pull down from the pantry and toss on a plate.

My lazy-night dinners are often a bit of cheese from the fridge, some crackers or day-old bread, and maybe a can of sardines or kippers. Alternatively, when you do cook, make extra and store it in the fridge or freezer for the next few days. If you have a crock pot, make a big stew or casserole on the weekend, enjoy a bowl and then portion out the rest into smaller, single-serving containers you can reheat through the week. This way, you have dinner options, and even lunch options to take to work.

It Takes Practice

Falling in love with cooking in many cases involves just doing it. Once you get inspired to make something delicious, get the ingredients together and actually do it, you won't look back. You just have to get in the kitchen and get started, and then do it as often as you can. Cooking for one may make it a little trickier, so if you have someone else to cook for, whether it's a spouse, crush, coworker who never eats lunch or elderly neighbour who could use some company, do it.

Sure, it takes practice and time, but once you've been bitten -- and it sounds like you have been -- your newfound love of cooking won't go away. Before long, you'll find yourself making delicious meals at home that you know you wouldn't be able to get in a restaurant, and certainly not from the delivery guy. Good luck!

Cheers Lifehacker

PS Do you have any additional tips to offer our friend the Hesitant Cook? How did you beat the urge to order out every night? Share your tips in the comments below.

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Comments

    I find that planning ahead and shopping is the hardest part. Once I have the ingredients I can cook (even though I'm not much of a cook). Shopping is also the point at which I prevent myself from eating junk food - if I buy it, I hate to waste it so it's gonna get eaten sometime. If I don't have cookies in my pantry, I have to snack on something else!

    all of these are good suggestions, but the length in itself may be intimidating for an already intimidating task...my best suggestion is: stop thinking of take away as FOOD - it is convenient, expensive, low in nutrition and high in fat...it's all junk...accept that and cooking a home well become a welcome and enjoyable task

    TSH - I'm quite the opposite. Planning and shopping are the easy parts for me. Bringing myself to spend 30+ minutes of activity that I don't find "fun" for something that's going to take 10 minutes to consume, followed by another 10-20 minutes to clean up/pack away ... it really doesn't seem worth it, so it's hard to motivate myself to do it.

    You could point me to those "10 minute meals", but they never are actually 10 minutes in reality. There's significant time periods they don't count towards their "10 minutes", so entire time spent from walking in to the kitchen to walking out with food is still 20-30 minutes.

    Buy a slow cooker. You toss in everything in the morning and come home to awesome tasting food. The ingredients are simple and you get leftovers that'll freeze well for future meals that you can substitute for your take away crap. My tips for good slow cooker veges are to cut the veges smaller and put them on the bottom of the cooker with the meat on top of the veges. They go soft enough that way.

    Once you've got the slow cooker down pat, try some stews, curries, pasta bakes, stir fries. Simple stuff like that.

    Then if you get the passion move on to Duck Confit.

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