It was 2010, I had just gotten out of a long-term relationship. I was a new bachelor, and moved in with a roommate for the first time in my life. Our apartment was in an area of town that is still among my favorites. Great restaurants. Great neighborhood bars and cafes. I didn’t need a car to get around. I lived in that apartment for a year, and it was one of the most fun years of my life.
If you’ve ever been in a similar situation, though, you can probably guess that it was also the most expensive, and least healthy year of my life.
One day, after over six months of living together, my roommate came home to unusual sounds in the kitchen.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m making dinner,” I replied.
With a bizarre look on his face, my roommate said, “I didn’t even know you knew how to turn on the stove.”
After having lived together for over six months, my roommate didn’t even know I knew how to operate a stovetop. The revelation shocked me as much as him, and suddenly, the hole that seemed to have appeared in my bank account, and the inches that had added themselves to my waistline made sense.
I knew I needed to make a change. But it didn’t happen over night.
Why You Should Cook More
I have never been an unhealthy eater. I don’t have a sweet tooth, and I don’t avoid green things. As such, even when I wasn’t doing any of my own cooking, I still sought out “good” food. However, as it turns out, no matter how “good” the food you think you’re getting at restaurants, or pre-prepared at the grocery store, is, it can never match the health benefits of anything you cook at home. Pre-prepared foods are loaded with preservatives, and restaurant meals generally use much more salt and fats than you would normally use at home. There’s a number of places where you can read about the benefits of cooking at home, but I’d suggest starting with just about anything by Michael Pollan.
If reading an entire book doesn’t tickle your fancy, check out this short video put together by the RSA, based on Pollan’s work. The video succinctly describes the differences between the way individuals cook, and the way corporations cook.
How You Can Cook More
Answering why you should cook more is easy. And chances are, if you’re reading this, it’s because you already realize that you should be cooking more. The real question for most of us is, how do I get started? Well, that’s why we’re here.
1. Figure out the real reason you’re not cooking
As with most habits, the real work starts with a little bit of introspection. Most people I’ve spoken to who don’t cook cite one of the following two reasons for not cooking: either they don’t have time, or they don’t know how. In 2010, I would have claimed the former. And yet, somehow, years later, with even less free time on my hands, I still manage to eat home cooked meals six days a week.
No, when I really started thinking about it, the real reason I wasn’t cooking wasn’t that I didn’t have the time, it was that I wasn’t prepared to cook. Before you start cooking, you have to first know what you’re going to cook. And then you have to buy the ingredients that go into that recipe. For the most part, when I wasn’t cooking, I skipped those two steps, and so I would get home, open the cupboards, wonder what to make, and after already having put in a long day at work, I was saddled with the mentally taxing challenge of figuring out what to make with what I had.
The undue stress of going through that exercise was enough to make me give up, and walk around the corner for a burger or a burrito, or to heat up a frozen pizza.
You see, the issue wasn’t that I didn’t like to cook, or that I didn’t know how to cook, or even that I didn’t have the time to cook. Rather, the issue was that there were steps leading up to cooking that I just hadn’t done, which made the process of cooking that much more difficult.
It’s the equivalent of trying to create a daily workout routine, but every day, you need to decide which gym you’re going to go to, what exercises to do, oh, and you’ll need to learn the movements on the fly. No one ever got a six-pack that way.
2. Address the Issue
Now that you know the real reason you’re not cooking on a daily basis, address it. For me, it was just a matter of creating a weekly routine.
Now, every Saturday, I plan out which meals I’m going to be having for the week, and then write out a grocery list for the coming week. The whole process used to take about twenty minutes when I first started out, but with repetition, I’ve now got it down to less than ten. On Sunday, I’ll head to the grocery store, list in hand, and because I already know what I need to get, can be in and out of the store in under 30 minutes.
If the issue is the cooking itself, find easy 30-minute recipes. These days, there are so many cooking resources, that recipes have timing, and level of difficulty associated to each. Start with a handful of recipes and repeat them regularly to get the hang of them. That’s how you learn to cook. And keep a library of recipes, that way over time, you don’t need to go scouring the internet for meal ideas, but you can return to your tried, tested and true recipes.
If you need a little help getting started, you have a few options that exist today that didn’t exist when I first wrote this article 4 years ago. Meal prep services like Blue Apron (and a slew of other ones) do away with the need to find the recipe, plan your week, and do groceries. You get a box every week, and all you need to do is follow instructions. There is no easier way to start building the cooking habit.
If you want a cheaper (read: free) option, but that’s not quite as easy, try out Mealime. The app will give you a weekly meal plan, along with a pre-prepared shopping list of everything you’ll need to make the meals for the week. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.
3. Start small
As with any new habit, the key is to start small. Most people fail at exercising, because they can’t go from couch potato to an hour in the gym every day right off the bat. That’s normal, you need to work your way up to that level.
Same for cooking. If you currently don’t cook at all, start off by cooking once per week. Over time, as you get more comfortable, increase to twice a week, and so on. Otherwise, the enormity of changing your habit to go from never cooking at all, to cooking daily will be too much of a shock to your system.
4. Make larger portions and have leftovers
Our ancestors didn’t have the luxury of refrigeration. We do. That can cut your cooking time in half for the week.
When you start off cooking once per week, make enough that you’ll be able to have leftovers for a second day of the week. No, you’re not cooking daily, but suddenly, you are eating homemade meals two out of seven days of the week.
Some people recommend cooking for the entire week on Sunday. I’m not a fan of this approach because it gives you such a major block of responsibilities for a single day that you’ll be hesitant to work on it. However, cooking once and eating twice is a really easy way to be a little more efficient.
5. Grow slowly
When you start cooking, you’ll feel like you’re cheating if you’re only cooking once per week, and you’ll want to immediately start trying to cook daily. You’re not cheating, you’re just succumbing to the same reflex that tells us that going to the gym isn’t worth it unless we do it every single day for an hour. In truth, every incremental bit helps.
So, instead of risking burning out (no pun intended), slowly increase the number of days per week that you’re cooking. Remember that you started with barely ever eating home cooked meals, so even eating them twice per week is already a big win, and every additional step is another win.
6. Start with food that you enjoy
One of the main motivators for cooking at home is getting healthier. Because of this, there’s a tendency to want to launch into your new cooking habit by cooking the healthiest meals you can find. While I won’t discourage healthy cooking, I will say that for most beginners, “healthy” meals are usually not as appetizing as less healthy alternatives. Recall that if you’re used to eating restaurant or pre-prepared food, your tastebuds are used to foods with lots of salts and lots of fats. Moving from that to a diet of Brussels sprouts and lentils is a difficult move.
Instead, acknowledge that every step towards cooking more is a good step, and start off by preparing foods that you enjoy. By and large, most cooking you do yourself is going to be better for you than anything you eat that is pre-prepared elsewhere, so don’t worry so much about what you’re cooking.
As you get more experienced, you’ll be able to introduce more and more healthy foods into your diet, and you’ll also learn how to prepare them so that they’re more appetizing. Plus, your tastebuds will actually adapt and get used to eating less salty and fatty foods, and you’ll be able to appreciate those Brussels sprouts and lentils.
7. Share it with others
One of the toughest parts about getting motivated to cook for yourself is cooking for one. Cooking for multiple people encourages you to put in the time to prepare a good and nutritious meal. That doesn’t mean that if you’re single, you should immediately head to a dating site and start looking for a significant other for the sole purpose of cooking for them (although that might be a good dating profile).
Instead, there are plenty of people in your life who would be happy to share a meal with you. Instead of meeting those people at restaurants or for coffee, like you’re likely already doing, invite them over for dinner and show off your newfound cooking skills. In the beginning, I would suggest inviting over only those that you’re comfortable having some missteps in front of, but as time goes on, your confidence will grow, and you’ll be making new friends all over town when people find out you’ll feed them.
8. Enjoy the process
One of the biggest mental shifts that happened when I went from never cooking, to cooking regularly was that cooking went from a chore, to something I actually enjoyed doing. And as with anything I enjoy doing, I wanted to share my experiences with people. Yes, cooking is a solo activity, but at the same time, foodie culture has become so pervasive, that you can share your cooking with the world, and it can become an activity that you discuss, share and enjoy with friends. So, forget how dorky you feel doing it, and feel free to post that casserole you just made to Instagram, Facebook and anywhere else foodies reside.
9. Appreciate the benefits
You know what the biggest motivator of continuing a new habit is? Appreciating the benefits. So, as you get into your habit of cooking at home, make sure you stop at some point to take the time to appreciate all the good that has come of it. Appreciate the look of that slimmer waistline in the mirror. Enjoy the better sleep, increased focus and energy, and general well being that comes with having a healthier diet. And perhaps most rewardingly of all, count the extra dollars in your bank account that have accumulated from no longer eating out all the time!
10. Pass it along
Now that you’ve developed this new habit, and you appreciate all the benefits that come with it, what better way to stay motivated than to share your newfound joy with those around you? Cook for them. Teach them how to cook. Share recipes with them. In my experience, no one ever says no to a free meal. The side benefit to this is if the cooking craze catches on in your circle of friends, you will start getting invited over to other people’s places for home cooked meals. Now, you have all the benefits of eating home cooked meals even more often, and even less work to do!
Building a new habit is never easy, and building a habit as complex as cooking is even harder. That said, by breaking it down into a few, smaller, easier to achieve steps, I know you can succeed. After all, if a hopeless case like me can do it, I’m sure you can too. You’ve already shown a willingness by reading this far, which is more motivation than most people have. So, give it a shot. The benefits are worth it, and once you get going, I bet you’ll even begin to enjoy it.