When our twins were born, though, I couldn't bring myself to buy prepackaged food and wanted to know exactly what my munchkins were eating. So I surprised myself by cooking their baby food from scratch as soon as they were able to eat purées and solids (thanks to the fantastic, easy recipes on Weelicious). Since my twins couldn't talk yet, they couldn't complain about my cooking, making them the perfect audience as I honed my skills.
In November 2013, we moved cross-country from the heart of Manhattan to the suburbs of Northern California, and then my whole (cooking) world changed. I could no longer rely on takeout-the local Chinese food we've tried is abysmal-so I am actually cooking. Every. Single. Night. This would have been my nightmare in the past, but I realized if I wanted my family to eat healthfully, cooking was the best way.
Thanks to a wealth of simple, healthy recipes I found on Pinterest, handy gadgets such as my slow cooker, and lots of practice, I'm good at cooking now, with more hits than misses. Yes, there are nights when I'm bone tired and do not feel like going anywhere near a pot or pan, but the thing is, once I get started and have tasty, healthy food bubbling on the stove, with sautéed onions and garlic wafting throughout my kitchen, I actually enjoy cooking. Now there are four words I never thought I'd say. And if I can say that, so can you.
Granted, it's not always easy to rewrite the script you've written for yourself (in my case, "I'm not a cook") or know where to begin if you've never made anything more than spaghetti before, so we tapped the experts on how to develop the habit of cooking-one of the healthiest, most rewarding things you can do for yourself and your family.
• Let go of preconceived notions. You're not alone if you find cooking intimidating."Like any multi-component, complex skill, cooking is daunting," says Darya Pino Rose, Ph.D., author of "Foodist" and the healthy eating blog Summer Tomato. "There's fire involved. If you mess up you might go hungry. [But] you have to believe you can do it." And forget about perfection. "The perfection of cooking is in the imperfection," says chef Elana Horwich, founder of Meal and a Spiel cooking school in Los Angeles. "You are looking for food with great taste and that will come from loving the food as you cook it and from using top quality ingredients. Let go of notions of ideal presentation for the time being. Everyone would rather eat something that looked and tasted homemade than some fancy thing that has no feeling or love in it."
• Start small. The first time I ever tried to cook a big dinner years ago, I decided to make risotto (harder than it looks) and crème brûlée-mini-blowtorch and all. Seriously? It was too ambitious and a total disaster. Instead, start small, such as with one- or two-ingredient recipes, like sautéed kale or lentils. "I recommend people build an arsenal of home court recipes-things that are so dead simple and easy you can cook them with your eyes closed and they're tasty," suggests Rose. "I have an easyrecipe for cauliflower that tastes like French fries. Most people just steam their cauliflower, but if you roast it, the cauliflower crisps up and gets sweet. Start with a recipe like that. It's not a full dinner-it's the first step."
Adds Rose: "What people don't realize is that once you've got the habit, then elaborating and expanding on it isn't painful anymore."
• Take shortcuts. Buy rotisserie chicken to use in your recipe rather than making a roasted chicken from scratch (and when you're ready, read Rose's great blog post on"Finding the courage to roast a chicken"). Or pick up marinated beef or Parmesan-crusted fish from the supermarket that you can simply heat and eat. Also, let technology be your friend: Use a slow cooker, which makes cooking super easy. To make slow cooker barbecue chicken, you just throw in five or six chicken breasts (they can even be frozen) along with some sliced onions, slather it all with barbecue sauce before you head to work in the morning, and then set it to cook on low for eight hours. That's it-and you'll have a tasty dinner waiting for you when you get home from work. Easy-breezy, right?
• Plan for obstacles. Some nights you just aren't going to feel like cooking. "After a long day at work, your cognitive resources are totally depleted, so mustering up the willpower to cook is hard to do," says Rose. "Recognize what those barriers are and break them down." She recommends making grocery shopping a regular habit so there's always food on hand to make easy dishes that take little effort and time. Also, pick one night a week for big batch cooking. "Get in the habit of cooking a double portion once a week, and then freezing the second half so that you can pull it out on days when life is just too busy to cook every day,'" suggests Art Markman, Ph.D., YouBeauty psychology advisor and author of "Smart Change: Five Tools to Create New and Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others." "My dad did all of the cooking in my house growing up, and he used to cook on Sunday nights for the week, making double portions of two dishes and keeping them in the refrigerator so that we could heat them up."
• Find a cooking community. Get a cooking buddy or join a cooking site where you can exchange ideas and get some encouragement on those days when you're at a loss as to what to make. "I recommend taking a few cooking classes as a way to inspire you to learn new tricks and recipes," suggests Horwich. "You can also do an exchange with a friend to share your one or two go-to recipes. Spend the afternoon together showing each other what you do best. Find a blog or two that caters to a type of cooking that feels yummy and do-able to you and sign up for their mailing list."
• Build new skills along the way. Once you have a few recipes down, it can be tempting to make them over and over again since they're in your comfort zone, but it's important-for your sanity and taste buds-to keep learning and expanding your recipe repertoire. "Try to make it fun by setting aside 15 minutes each week to learn a new skill," suggests Markman. "Improve your knife skills or use the Internet to discover a new cooking technique. That improvement will help keep you from feeling like you have gotten in a rut."
Above all, adds Horwich: "Respect your unique learning process and be proud every time you learn any new trick, no matter how small."
My mom, an incredible cook herself, says that cooking is an act of love-I get that now and couldn't agree more. You are truly nurturing someone from the inside out. Cooking for my twins and my husband-who is thrilled to have home-cooked meals each night-and watching them fill up on food I've made fills me with happiness. Whether you're cooking for one or a whole family, I hope it does the same for you, too.
- by Rachel Grumman Bender