Thursday, June 11, 2009

Overcoming Your Cooking Obstacles

When it comes to eating healthier and saving money on food, we’ve established time and time again that few strategies are more effective than cooking at home. Making meals in your own kitchen gives you total control over nutrition, flavor, ingredient quality, and expenditures, among other things. Plus, making a mess with flour is fun.

Still, for many, home cooking is nigh inconceivable. Maybe you work 80 hours a week, and can’t find 20 minutes to make a sandwich. Maybe you live in New York’s East Village, where your apartment galley doubles as your bathroom and your bedroom. Maybe you never learned to cook, and are afraid of blowing $10 on a chicken, then charring it beyond recognition.

Fortunately, we here at the CHG laboratory (translation: my bathroom) have the answer.

First, we isolated a handful factors that most affect peoples’ ability to fire up their own stoves. They are: time, space (in the capacity sense, not the extraterrestrial sense), inexperience, fear of failure, and The Damn Dishes. More than anything else, these five elements drive the average folk to takeout, restaurants, and pilfering fruit from sweet old ladies.

Then, drawing from extensive research and our own experiences, we brainstormed tips and tricks to combat these hindrances. Without further ado, here's everything.


The problem, defined: Since it’s a thrice-daily activity, cooking can be a total time suck. And if you have children, a demanding job, or stuff to do, it’s difficult blocking an hour or two per day for food prep. Consider this: in the 1950s, Americans (read: women) spent about 20 hours a week in the kitchen. Today, it’s less than six.

The solution, explained: Prioritizing cooking isn’t a full-throttle, 0-to-60 overnight deal. It’s a habit developed gradually, and you have to give yourself some leeway. So, start small. Eat breakfast at home everyday for a week, or take 20 minutes to make a basic, from-scratch meal. Try bringing lunch to work. Force yourself to sit down, at your table, and drink a full cup of coffee. Eat in your kitchen instead of in front of your television. Find three or four easy recipes, and cook all your food for the week on a Sunday. Enlist help from the kids/husband/erstwhile in-laws. Again: take baby steps, and don't forget to give yourself a break. With a few months and constant reinforcement, that hour-a-day will start to come naturally.


The problem, defined: Your place has exactly enough room for you, your roommate from Albania, and the dust bunnies you’re raising together as common law spouses. There’s no space for a box of cereal, never mind a 12-piece set of Calphalon.

The solution, explained: You’re already starting small, so that advice is out the window (if, in fact, you have a window). Instead, think big. Where else can you store food, besides your refrigerator and/or cabinet(s)? Is there room under your bed? On top of the microwave? Under the table? Can you install shelving over doorways? Are there Lazy Susans or mini-shelving you can cram under your sink? Check Apartment Therapy’s Smallest Coolest contest for creative ideas, and always remember: IKEA is your friend. For more, check Frugal Storage Solutions for the Small Kitchen, a CHG post from November 2008.


The problem, defined: When it comes to cooking, there are fetuses with more wherewithal. At least they know what to do with leftovers.

The solution, explained: Remember: everybody has to start somewhere. If you don’t know a scallop from a shallot, that’s fine. No one’s evaluating you. Don’t be afraid to experiment and play, and know that you’ll foul up on occasion, sometimes monumentally. Picking up a simple cookbook always helps (suggestions: any Betty Crocker tome, How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, How to Boil Water by Food Network), as do basic recipe sites (AllRecipes, Food Blog Search, etc.), beginners’ TV shows (Everyday Italian, etc.) and fun magazines (Everyday Food, etc.). If you know a good cook, take some time to watch them work. Because if he/she can do it, so can you.


The problem, defined: You buy the finest ingredients. You have all the cooking equipment you possibly need. You’ve watched hour after hour of Julia Child spatchcocking … whatever it is that can be spatchcocked. Still, everything you make ranges in quality from suck to blow. Why waste all that money and time if you know it’s going to be terrible?

The solution, explained: From Eric Ripert to your great-grandma Mary Sue, all chefs have had disasters, often repeatedly. While prompting you to “Suck it up and get back in the game, champ!” is clichéd and glib, there’s some truth to its underlying optimism. You’ll never get any better if you don’t learn from mistakes (your numerous, calamitous mistakes). If you’re concerned about cost, practice your technique on lower-priced ingredients with Craigslist-caliber cookware (and keep a few inexpensive insta-meals around for backup). Don’t forget to read recipes several times and taste your creations as you prepare them. It’ll save you from undersalting or overcooking. Finally, if you can find one, make a loved one your personal guinea pig. Eventually, as you get better, he/she will reap the culinary rewards. Now suck it up and get back in the game, champ!


The problem, defined: After 18 roommates and nine apartments spread over 13 years, I’m secretly convinced that 95% of cooking blocks come from one thing: nobody (me included) wants to do The Damn Dishes. Time-consuming and the total opposite of fun, they’re a pain in the tuchus for all involved. In college, I knew a guy who would leave his Damn Dishes in the sink for DAYS, until his roommates couldn’t take it anymore, surrendered, and washed them. Also - cooking shows and cookbooks NEVER, EVER consider The Damn Dishes when they’re telling you how to make food. I love Ina Garten, but if I ever saw her wash a Damn Dish on Barefoot Contessa, I’d drop dead.

The solution, explained: If you don’t have a dishwasher, I feel your pain. An already-tedious task becomes more difficult when it’s compounded by Whirlpool envy. Starting out with simple, one-pot meals can alleviate this somewhat, as can concentrating on cold salads and sandwiches, which naturally involve fewer dishes. You could also choose one day per week to do all your cooking, which condenses the dishwashing into a half-hour or so. If all else fails, try setting up a system with your roommate/family/Husband-Elect, wherein you do the cooking and he/she/they does/do the dishes. You’ll eat well and avoid dishpan hands.

If you DO have a dishwasher … use it. Lucky dog.

And that’s our ballgame, sweet readers. If you have any suggestions or ideas, please fire away in the comment section. We’re waiting for your call!


If you enjoyed this article, you might also dig:
(Photos courtesy of Mugglespace, Kitchen Monkey, and Photoshoppix.)

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Ayme said...

Fear of killing off the family with one's cooking IS powerful motivation for takeout...

Getting into the habit of helping out in the kitchen (a friend's BBQ, Easter dinner at Gram's, etc) not only makes you a much-appreciated guest, but all that cooking know-how rubs off over time. And having someone supervise can correct bad habits and prevent you from doing something that results in explosion.

I totally justify my cookbook-reading fetish by considering it "studying up" for cooking: learning how flavors are combined, which techniques are best suited to which foods, etc. No one has to know how much time you spend drooling over the pictures.

Cindee said...

This article could not have come at a more perfect time. My new apt has a beautiful, smaller kitchen...and I feel paralyzed every time I go to cook something. Nothing is in the right place,i don't have an oven thermometer, blah blah blah. Any excuse to avoid cooking right now.Deep down, I know I'll get my Ina on again very soon, so thank you Kris!!
Thank you for this.

Amy B said...

I keep recipes I've tried in a 3 ring binder. I write comments on the recipes like "substituted tomato puree for chopped tomatoes: came out too soupy." A favorite recipe is covered with comments describing variations I've tried and the results.
I am not a naturally good cook, but I hope I am learning from my mistakes.

Anne said...

The Damn Dishes get me every time. Tonight I made dinner with a cutting board, knife and cookie sheet for broiling. I ate it off a paper towel so there'd be no plate to wash.

Ficbot said...

I think it can be hard for a beginning cook to know when the recipe isn't telling you everything you need to know. I remember one time buying the ingredients for an apple cake, meticulously following all the instructions, and one hour later pulling a pan of mush out of the oven. I called my grandma, completely devastated over all this wasted time/effort/cost and no cake to take to my potluck, and the first thing she said was 'what kind of apples did you use?' The recipe never said ANYTHING about 'kinds of apples' and how only some should be used for baking. And how was I supposed to know?

I really need to learn to cook properly because I have been dealing with IBS and food allergies and have to make my own food. But it is so frustrating when when you buy a book and follow all the instructions and the food is terrible. If you are not even experienced enough cooking to know what they are NOT telling you, the whole 'if you can read, you can cook' argument is a moot point.

I just got the Food Network how to boil water book, and the chart on how to prepare every vegetable was worth the cost of the book in itself. I also got the Joy of Cooking as a gift recently (both a hand-me-down 1964 version from my mom, and the new one as a gift from some kids I teach) and have made 'learn to cook' my summer project.

Ambitious said...

All very good tips! I really enjoyed reading this article :)

Janet said...

I'm definitely in the Damned Dishes category and can endorse the I'll-cook-you-clean-up solution. Lacking that option at the moment, I also endorse the practice of minimizing dish use. I say, Why should I mix my flour, baking powder and salt in a separate bowl before adding it to the butter, sugar & eggs? I shouldn't, and I don't, and it works out just fine.

Janet said...

p.s. Just read Ficbot's comment, and I think she's totally right. that's why, if you'll forgive my tooting my own horn, I started my website,, to try to address the problem of cooking "illiteracy" and to promote home cooking. It's a work in progress, but the How-to category and Cooking Basics tag archive and Ingredients category, too, I guess, provide information that she/he might find helpful.

Anonymous said...

Great column! As a full-time employed single person with no dishwasher, I suffer from a combination of The Damn Dishes and finding the time to spend in the kitchen. Oh, and the concept of leftovers bothers me; I get bored eating the same thing all week.

These days I just cook family-sized recipes once or twice a week (often on weekends or Monday evening) and freeze most of what I cook. I started at Thanksgiving when I roasted my own (huge) turkey and then used it to make a bunch of assorted meals, stock, etc. After a couple of weeks, I had a nice variety. And pulling something from the freezer seems more like a planned-ahead meal than leftovers.

I also get economies of scale re: The Damn Dishes since most nights all I have to wash are the food container and utensils from dinner. (And I wash the lunch stuff at the office, obviously.)

Anonymous said...

I have an aunt and uncle who love the Damn Dishes. It's their 'us' time each night. With no kids around (they certainly don't want to help!), it's their half hour to catch up without interruptions. One washes and the other dries. Sometimes dishes can be a good thing...

Megan said...

Re: The Damn Dishes

My senior year of college I lived in a house with three guys: my boyfriend (now husband) and two of our good friends.

One day I just go so sick of doing the dishes when no one else was that I stomped into the living room (where they were all playing video games, go figure) and said, "If you don't do your dishes on your day, I'm going to put them in your bed."

And, low and behold, three days later, one of my roommates didn't do his dishes. I gave him two days, and then put the whole pan of dirty dishes on a trash bag in his bedroom.

After that, we never had a problem. Sadly, it doesn't work as well with my husband, because we share a bed. Le sigh.

TBeeker said...

Love the gorilla photo at the top of the blog - this is so me in the kitchen! Thanks!