Is one of your goals to cook more at home? Maybe you want to improve your nutrition and your health. Maybe you want to cut back on ultra-processed foods. Maybe you’re trying to save money, and all those restaurant and takeout meals are straining your budget. There are many excellent reasons to cook more at home — it can even be fun, creative and deeply satisfying. But there are a number of mistakes new cooks make that can be frustrating. (Trust me, I’ve made them all myself.) Here are a few of them — and how to avoid them.
1. Being impatient. Don’t want to wait for the water to boil? Your pasta will take longer to cook. Hurriedly cutting veggies into large chunks instead of smaller dice? They’ll take longer to brown and soften. Crowding meat in your sauté pan instead of cooking it in batches? This encourages steaming, not quick browning, and it leads to worse results in roughly the same amount of time it would have taken if you just batched them to begin with.
2. Biting off more than you can chew. While there is merit to making a weekly meal plan and making one big weekly grocery expedition (or Amazon Fresh order), this is aspirational for many people. What if you come down with a cold midweek and can’t cook? What if an unplanned work dinner pops up? What if your child forgot to tell you about an extra evening soccer practice? Make the meal plan, but shop for two or three days at a time. You could also plan a few meals that come from your already stocked fridge/freezer/pantry. This will help you avoid food waste — and guilt.
3. Not making smart use of the freezer. Notice I said smart. Keeping a supply of frozen broccoli from Costco? Making a double batch of soup or lasagna then freezing half? Those are excellent ideas — unless you don’t remember to defrost them in time, or they sit in the freezer for years. That quart container of lentil soup doesn’t help you much if it’s a solid brick when you come home from work hungry. And while freezing extends a food’s shelf life significantly, quality can diminish within a few months for some foods. According to StillTasty.com, you need to eat that lasagna you froze within two to three months.
4. Not reading the recipe — really reading it. There are few worse things than starting a recipe at 6 p.m. only to discover that one of the early steps should have been done two hours ago (or yesterday). I’ll admit I’m guilty of this one, and I know better. But seriously, read through new-to-you recipes to get a sense of the pacing. Should you chop everything before you start cooking, or will you have time to prep one ingredient while another one simmers? This will also allow you to double-check that you have all the ingredients you need, and that the total cooking time will fit your schedule.
5. Not planning to fail. Cooking is both an art and a science, and at some point you will end up cooking something that even the dog won’t eat. If you’re lucky, your misses will be more along the lines of “I can eat this, but I definitely won’t be making it again.” Use any failures as learning opportunities — did you not read the recipe? Would the recipe be tasty with some future tweaking? Or do you just really not like recipes involving a certain ingredient?