in the kitchen

New to Cooking at Home? Fear Not

fish rice salad with chicken variation
My go to weekly meal: fish-rice-salad with the chicken, quinoa and salad option.

New to cooking at home? Fear not. You can do it. People are often intimidated by home cooking.  They think, “But, I can’t cook.” Or, “I’m not a very good cook.” Perhaps they’re not adventurous in the kitchen and always make the same thing. Even with the knowledge that it will cost much less, taste better, and be healthier to eat than restaurant food, people are reluctant to cook at home and they don’t do it nearly as often as they’d like. There’s also the, “What will I make for dinner tonight” dilemma.

New to Cooking at Home? Fear Not

But, really, fear not. We all have cooking disasters and some more than others – thinking of mine here! My first cooking disaster happened when my husband and I were first married and I made beans and rice in our slow-cooker that we had received as a wedding gift. After a long day at work, we came home to a meal where every bean and rice kernel was almost the size of a hockey puck! We ate every bite of that “hobo-dinner” as we came to call it and it lasted nearly a week. After that disaster, I decided it was time to look at a cookbook or two and learn how to cook.

To help alleviate some of this cooking at home anxiety, here are a few rules that have helped me over the years. They’re not really rules as much as they are attitudes and letting myself off the hook ideas about cooking.

Cook with foods that are fresh and in season

Even if you don’t consider yourself a good cook (yet – just keep at it), fish is a great place to start. Fresh fish, cooked simply, always tastes good. Look for fresh fish that’s on sale and get some for tonight’s dinner. Don’t know what’s good in your area? Ask someone at the market what they’re buying and how they’re cooking it. I like a cast iron skillet that’s really hot and fish seasoned with salt and pepper – that’s it.

I cooked these boquerones (little white sardines) while in Spain after asking another shopper how she was going to cook them. They were delicious!

Ask locals how to cook foods

Fresh vegetables are an excellent accompaniment to fish and the fresher the better. Again, cooked simply by oven roasting or sauteing in a skillet, with very little effort, dinner is fulfilling and healthy.

Maybe it’s just me but with pork, poultry and beef I can hardly taste the difference whether it’s straight from the market or if it has come out of the freezer after a month or two. When I find Draper Valley Farms chicken on sale at my local market, for example, I buy several and freeze them.

Learn what’s in season where you live. Try cabbage in the winter, corn on the cob and tomatoes during the summer, and squashes in the fall and your meals are bound to taste good.

You’ll also find seasonal produce almost always cost less that non-seasonal. Not only will this help your meals to taste better but you’ll be saving money, too.

New to cooking at home fear not

Find a go-to meal

Every week, when I meal plan, I schedule a dinner that includes fish, rice, and salad. It’s my go-to meal. We call it “fish-rice-salad” but really it’s a three part meal that takes less than 20 minutes from start to finish.

  1. Fish: (or some other protein that’s easy, tasty, and healthy) Try chicken, pork or beef, or substitute a meaty-like vegetable such as mushrooms or tofu if you like.
  2. Rice: Brown rice or quinoa. Both are super good for you and can be easily spiced up with garlic, onions, or broth.
  3. Salad: A green salad can be dressed with a quick, homemade dressing in minutes. Sauteed greens (kale, Swiss chard, spinach) are another great option. Chop the greens and with onions, garlic, and a splash of fresh lemon at the end of cooking, you’ll be thrilled with the result.

Thinking of cooking this way (a protein, a grain, and a vegetable or salad) takes the edge off what’s for dinner and makes meal planning for what you need from the store much easier.

Seasonal cooking vegetables
In season vegetables are usually a better deal at the market. Stock up!


Cooking – versus more scientific baking – is not rocket science.  Check out some recipes that use the main items you like, whether it’s fish, chicken or pork and then emphasize what you, and your family might like. If you like things spicy, put in more or different spices than the recipe calls for. If you like certain flavors (salty, citrus-y, sour) adjust the recipe to account for this. Believe me, experimenting will not mess up your meal. Be adventurous and the food will taste good and then you’ll have delicious leftovers. I like to call leftovers a night off in the kitchen!

Cookbooks and recipes can provide a great meal or inspiration, but they can also add a stress factor, and many times, countless steps that really don’t add that much to the ultimate taste. If there are too many steps in a recipe, I get lazy and skip steps. For example, when making marinara sauce, don’t remove the tomato seeds like many recipes say to do. Why waste them? Just eat them. I also never peel peaches before making a peach pie. Once peaches are in a pie, they’re delicious, skins and all. Plus, have you ever heard anyone complain when they’re eating a pie?

Use several cookbooks and recipes and see what looks good and then take the parts that sound best from each and use them. It’s taken me a while a few years and a little (okay, lots!) of practice, but just like everything else – but the more we do it, the better we get.

What’s your worst cooking disaster? Have you ever had a “hobo-dinner?”

Go Gingham related links:

My food philosophy (who knew there was such a thing!): Food is life
Just say NO to baby carrots – you won’t be sorry – I promise!
Why I cook with pork – as opposed to other meats – in case you were wondering
Could you give up fast food for a year? Find out here

17 thoughts on “New to Cooking at Home? Fear Not

  1. Sounds like we have the same go-to meal. Ours is either with rice or potatoes – we have a potato loving family.

    I’ve had lots of disasters too – though mine tend to be messy, “I Love Lucy”-worthy, epic disasters.


    1. Oh, Heidi! That made me laugh….actually my daughter and husband had an absolute disaster about a year ago with a pressure cooker that I bought at an estate sale. We cook rice in the pressure cooker and they did a double batch but it was too much and the rice blew out the top and went everywhere! The ceiling still shows signs of it even though they really cleaned it up. Thankfully, I wasn’t home at the time 🙂


  2. Great advice! I don’t know why it took me so long to figure this out, but libraries have more than just novels in them–you can check out cookbooks, too. I have been having fun doing that. If I don’t like the cookbook, guess what? I can return it. If you are new to cooking, I would suggest checking out cookbooks with titles like “Quick and Easy” or “Five Ingredients or Less”. The vast majority of my meals require less than 30 minutes of prep time, and many are only 15 minutes. You don’t have to spend a lot of time in the kitchen to cook from scratch.


    1. Good tips, Kris! Yes, the library is a great source for cookbooks!! And, you are so right – cooking from scratch doesn’t take long at all! Thanks..;)


  3. I’ve often thought that if I were ever to go into business for myself, I’d teach home ec out of my house for teens and adults – male or female! We have about 95% of our meals at home, and I cook almost all of them. Roger will do some, and Meggie is becoming more and more adventurous. My suggestion is to find a good, basic cookbook and use that for a reference. The Betty Crocker cookbook was always “The Bible” when I was first learning how to cook. The first family dinner I cooked all by myself was when I was about 8 years old – it was meatloaf, mashed potatoes and peas. I got out of yard work that day! I cooked my first complete Thanksgiving dinner when I was 15 – my mom had a severe kidney infection, and couldn’t get out of bed. If you cook at home, have your kids in the kitchen with you. Let them do age-appropriate things to help with meal prep. There are a lot of “mistakes” that can be redeemed. I’m not certain that I’ve goofed up enough that I’ve had to throw it out and start over. Things that don’t quite end up like we wanted can usually be turned into refrigerator soup.


    1. Cathy, very impressive list of dinners at such a young age! I love it. You’re right – kids can cook and help in the kitchen from very young ages. And, yes, I agree, with you – home ec is missing from schools! How’s that business of yours coming along???


      1. If I can ever get away from needing a “real” job, then it’s full speed ahead! One of these days, I’m going to start it part-time, and see where it goes! Meggie is more of a baker than a cook right now – her latest venture was “perfect chocolate cupcakes” with peanut butter cream cheese frosting. I had to bring them to work. They made too much noise in the middle of the night! They kept calling to me.


  4. Our “Hobo Dinners” are called soup. According to my family I am the worst cook in the world and not getting any better. The more I cook, the worse I get. Following recipes — I do and the meal ends up in the garbage.

    My family has told me they eat because they have to otherwise they wouldn’t touch my cooking. Since they are old, they cannot cook, so I do it. So, I cook without salt, limit the oils (grease), sugar, and seasonings. I use veggies, fruits and my meats are always too tough for them. Fish? Dry and tasteless. Pork? Tough and hard to chew. Beef? Beef jerky. Considering that they used to be the best cooks ever, my cooking serves as a reminder, “Yes Virginia, there are folks out there that just cannot cook or bake.”

    Not a Domestic Diva


    1. Sue, keep at it!! If it seems too dry, cook it less. Try ground pork – you can’t really go wrong with it. Also, try cooking with a little oil in the pan or chicken broth and onion/garlic. These are always a nice ways to add taste and it does really enhance the flavor of the food. I’m giving you full credit for trying!! It sounds like you cook a lot, too. Thanks for the comment.


    2. Sue–do you have a crockpot? I find it helpful for tough, dryer cuts of meat. We occasionally have venison (what can I say? I’m from Michigan!) and a crockpot goes a long way with tenderizing that (the other thing I have learned about venison, for those of you not too grossed out to eat wild game, is that its texture and “game-iness” is vastly improved if you marinate it in a 1:1 mixture of vinegar and water for at least an hour).


  5. Agreed, no one complains about pie :p A colleague once complained about less than stellar brownies, and he’s not living it down every time he tries a new batch I bring in!! I think I realised I could ‘cook’ when I realised it was ok that it didn’t come from my brain, but I could just read someone else’s steps and that’s ok! Mum doesn’t follow recipes, so I thought that was normal (and her cooking is not normal… like… in a not so positive way :p).


    1. Sarah, I’m shaking my head! No one should complain about brownies either. Glad you’re still bringing brownies in and sharing! Thanks for leaving a comment.


  6. I really like this post. For me, grilling is the life-saver. For some reason, meat almost always tastes good when it’s grilled. This summer we got our grill up on our main level and under cover, so I’m looking forward to grilling all winter. I get away with buying less-expensive cuts by marinading it. (And I learned that marinade is super-easy, too.) And vegetables often get steamed. I did find a great rice cooker at Goodwill this spring (a Cuisinart! $10!), and that’s a staple that’s super-easy.


    1. Rita, so true about grilling! I wish we had a covered grill area but old houses like ours are not equipped with smart outdoor cooking areas. Great find at Goodwill! Your dinners sound delicious 🙂


  7. Oh Sara – you are an inspiration. I have been trying to get myself on a Weekly Meal Plan, but I have only had a little success so far. Usually, because the kids have activities or I have meetings in the evening. My kids are also super picky (probably because I have let them get away with it all these years!). This Fall, I am planning to implement your system of setting the Weekly Menu and making each child cook a meal. I will let you know how it goes! Thanks for the great post!


    1. Dear Annie! Thank you! You are, too 🙂 Getting kids cooking is hard at first (at least for me!) because they like to act helpless but really they can do it. One night, my daughter and her friend cooked dinner by themselves. The kitchen was an absolute mess but they did it together and had fun. That may be a place to start – if your kids have a friend who knows how to cook. Using peer pressure to help us moms and all!!


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