I didn’t grow up in a cooking family. My dad traveled a lot for work, and my mom admittedly has never loved cooking. She certainly made us dinner a couple of times a week, but it was usually one of a few things we had on rotation — tilapia and broccoli, quesadillas, spaghetti, taco salad or other easy things. Otherwise, we relied a whole lot on takeout.
I was super fortunate, of course, that we could afford to order food and go to restaurants pretty regularly. But it also meant that I was pretty much still a novice at cooking by the time I left my college dorm for my first apartment. At first, I avoided cooking altogether. I didn’t really know how to do it and was also pretty lazy. I lived within walking distance to a bunch of places to eat in my great college town — it was too easy to be lazy about cooking. But eventually, my roommate Alice and I decided to start doing our weekly shopping together. That led to cooking together most nights. Alice taught me most of the cooking basics I’d missed out on growing up — even things as simple as steaming vegetables. (I grew up thinking it was the norm for people to buy those steam-in-the-microwave bags of broccoli, which I now find hilarious.)
I’m so glad I lived with someone who knew how to (and enjoyed) cooking and was willing to show me the ropes, because otherwise, I might not have ever learned. I love cooking on my own now (though it’s great to live with a partner who’s happy to split up kitchen time evenly), and I think it’s one of the most important parts of being a self-sufficient, independent adult. It allows you to have so much more control, both over what you put into your body and what you spend on that.
And a big part of cooking, of course, is having the right tools. If there’s one big thing standing in your way and you still haven’t figured out how to incorporate cooking into your routine, your problem might simply be that you’re under-equipped, and the job seems a lot more daunting than it should. Whatever it is that’s keeping you from cooking — unless, of course, it’s a disability or health issue — I bet that there is a simple way to fix it. And that starts with preparing yourself with the right items, so you’re ready to cook at any moment. Here are some of the biggest issues I’ve noticed stopping people from cooking, and the tools that could surely help them out.
Problem: Lack of counter space
1. Immersion blender. I love my food processor as much as the next person, but I only have room for a small one. A larger one or a large blender just wouldn’t fit on my counter and would be too bulky for me to want to ever take in and out of the cabinet. Enter my new (to me) favorite kitchen appliance, the stick blender. I used one of these for the first time the other night to make a broccoli cheddar soup, and it was magical. You can use it to blend anything you’d use a regular blender for, and you wouldn’t even need to transport the liquid between containers. It also stows away quite easily in a drawer or cabinet. A win for small kitchens!
2. Pot rack. In my experience, a lack of counter space often also means a lack of cabinet space/storage in general. A pot rack like this one is both cute and functional, as it can store your pots and pans up and out of the way of the rest of your small kitchen. AKA no more noisily rummaging for the right size pot that’s, of course, buried way in the back of your cabinet.
3. Butcher block cart. We have a very narrow kitchen (that is thankfully pass-through and not a true galley), and we keep a pantry cart just outside of it to hold baking ingredients, snacks and other cooking supplies. I love that cart, but I often think that we should have gotten a butcher block cart to put there instead. It would intrude a little more on our hall space, but I think it might have been worth it to add that extra bit of counter. If you’re lacking counter space but have enough room in your kitchen to add a makeshift counter of your own, I’d definitely check one of these out!
4. Sponge holder. I am a messy person. I know what it’s like to have to physically force yourself to do dishes because it would be so much easier not to. My best solution for this — living with a partner who is always clean, so, therefore, you are now also clean because you don’t want to be the gross one in this relationship — is not feasible or desirable for everyone. My second-best solution is almost as good, and that is making sure everything in your kitchen has its rightful place. That includes your sponge. (Seriously, your sponge needs a place that is *not* just sitting in the bottom of the sink.) If having to clean up a mess you make is what’s holding you back from cooking, set yourself up to succeed by having a designated place for everything in your kitchen.
5. Prep bowls. It’s much, much easier to clean up a cooking workspace that you’ve kept neat throughout the entire process. Prep bowls make it so simple to keep your area neat as you chop vegetables and for keeping raw meat separate from other ingredients. Plus, they never get all that dirty, making them easy to clean even if you don’t have a dishwasher.
Problem: Laziness/lack of time
6. Frozen food arsenal. If you are often too lazy or too tired to cook and your go-to is ordering takeout or delivery, I get it. But that kind of spending adds up quickly. If you really don’t want to spend time cooking, start stocking up on some of your favorite frozen foods that you can quickly heat up. Frozen dumplings probably aren’t as healthy as a meal you could make yourself, but they’re certainly going to be cheaper than ordering food delivery.
7. Slow-cooker. If you hate standing over a stove, a slow-cooker might just be your new best friend. You can often find great deals on slow cookers on Amazon, or just pop over to Bed, Bath & Beyond — now that the weather is cooling down, they’re likely to be on special. I love using ours to make everything from beef stew to bread pudding. Plus, it’s safe to leave on and then run a few errands for a couple of hours.
8. Food chopper. Most of my favorite meals to cook at home are super heavy on the vegetables — they’re cheaper than meat and also, of course, up the health factor. But I’ll admit that spending ~30 minutes of prep time just chopping vegetables can get tiring. (Though I usually turn on a podcast, and I’m all set.) If prepping produce is the biggest thing standing in the way of you cooking, you have two options: buy pre-cut veggies (which can be more expensive, but worth it for some people), or invest in a food chopper or processor. It may not give you the precise cuts you’d get with a good knife, but it’ll certainly save time.
9. Pressure cooker. Pressure cookers are awesome — you end up with food (like chili) that tastes like it’s been simmering in a slow cooker all day, but it actually took less than an hour. Of course, they can be a little more expensive than standard slow cookers. But if you work long hours and don’t always know whether you’ll be home in time to relieve the meal sitting in the slow cooker, it’s worth considering! Here’s a great list of pressure cooker recipes to get you started.
Problem: You hate grocery shopping
10. Meal kit delivery. I will admit that I am entirely biased on this one. Peter has been using Blue Apron since before we started dating, and now that we live together, it accounts for several my dinners each week, too (three, to be exact). I love it because we never get the same thing twice, all of the ingredients are good quality, and I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything we’ve eaten. It comes out to about $10 a serving, which isn’t bad, considering the convenience factor. Obviously, if you’re super frugal and on a tight budget, it may not be your best option. But if you hate grocery shopping and meal planning (the two reasons Peter started doing it in the first place), it’s definitely cheaper — and likely a lot healthier — than ordering takeout every night.
11. Grocery delivery. I can’t speak to this personally, but as I live in a city and don’t have a car, I’ve thought about getting my groceries delivered many times. My friend Laura lives in D.C. and has hers delivered regularly, and this is what she has to say: “Sometimes with a crazy travel schedule and an even worse work one, grocery shopping becomes a chore. Grocery delivery apps allow me to get all my favorites from my favorite local grocery store, brought to my building within a chosen time period, for $6 more. Plus, I always spend less. I give up one bottle of terrible wine or two fancy yogurts, and it pays for itself.”
12. Freezable containers for leftovers. I love making big meals and saving a bunch of leftovers for lunches and dinners later in the week. It just makes life easier. But I have also had to learn how to make sure all the food in the fridge gets eaten before it goes bad. There have been too many times in my life where I’ve accidentally let leftover food go to waste because I simply forgot to eat it — or even more simply, forgot to put it in my freezer. If you aren’t great with remembering your leftovers, just put them in the freezer right away. They’ll last a lot longer, and you won’t have wasted the food. Stock up on some containers specifically meant for the freezer, and you’re all set.
13. Frozen/canned vegetables/fruits. Fresh, in-season produce is wonderful. It is not so wonderful if you buy too much and then let it go bad before you get around to cooking it. You can, of course, buy a bunch of produce to prep and freeze for use later. You can also start cooking more with frozen or canned produce. They’re usually already cut up — saving you prep time — and generally cheaper than fresh. Win-win!
Problem: lack of tools
14. Cast iron or nonstick pan. Maybe you haven’t started cooking because you don’t know how — and you literally don’t have anything in your kitchen. That’s okay! You don’t need a bunch of fancy supplies to get started, but rather just a few basics. A good pan should be one of the first things on your list.
15. Good knives. A good set of knives is, in my opinion, the second-most important thing for any home cook. Technically, you can buy meats that are pre-sliced and vegetables that are pre-chopped, but that will limit you to whatever is available already prepped. If you’ve never regularly used kitchen knives, be sure to learn the basics for your own safety.
16. Cutting board. Seriously, you don’t want to be cutting directly on your countertops (or on a plate, or a paper towel). Get just one, large cutting board, and you’re all set.
17. Stovetop/hotplate. An oven is great and means you can cook and bake so many more things, but it’s not 100% essential to being a home cook. A stovetop or hotplate, however, is. I’ve seen many NYC apartment listings that include a “kitchenette” with simply a microwave, mini-fridge, and sink. If you live somewhere without a stove, definitely invest in a hot plate (like the ones you see them cooking on in all those Buzzfeed recipe videos). Be sure to store and use it somewhere safe.
Problem: limited budget
18. Coupon/savings app. If you’re cooking on a limited budget, start looking into savings apps like Ibotta to save money on the food you’d already buy at the grocery store. Familiarize yourself with what’s on sale or what’s earning points back this week, and start planning your meals around that.
19. Master list of stores. You don’t just have to be shopping at the large chain supermarket down the street (though there’s nothing wrong with that). Between smaller grocers, discount chains, and specialty stores, you probably have more options available to you than you think. Start visiting more of the food shops in your area and mapping out which ingredients are most cost-effective at which ones.
20. Tupperware for work/events. Finally, there is absolutely no shame in bringing tupperware wherever you go, in my opinion. Obviously, never take leftovers for yourself before everyone has eaten. But often, especially at catered events, there’s so much food that goes to waste. Bringing a take-home container with you is just being prepared.
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