The ability to cook has been passed down from generation to generation in my family. The women on my mother’s side seemed to possess a preternatural sense of how to chop, how long something should simmer for, and whether or not flavors would meld together perfectly. For a long time, though, I was afraid these skills had skipped my generation entirely.
Cooking provoked a feeling of anxiety in me that it never did for my mother and grandmother. During college I learned how to make passable food for myself, but the combination of food, heat, and time constraints felt like it would likely always stress me out.
But when I graduated and moved to New York, I received an incredible opportunity. A friend of a friend offered me a room in her beautiful apartment — in exchange for walking her dog and cooking dinner every night for her family of four.
I said yes, and with the help of cookbooks, foodie Instagram, many blogs, and lots of practice, I’ve actually become a decent cook. But I still can’t shake the residual anxiety that comes from cooking for five people every night after working a full-time job. (It goes without saying that I have since realized what a superstar my mom was when she would do this while raising our family.) So I spoke with Joy Bauer, M.S., R.D.N., a health and nutrition expert for NBC’s “TODAY” and author of Joy’s Simple Food Remedies, about how she keeps the stress out of cooking. Here are her tips for staying relaxed in the kitchen.
1. Embrace convenience and semi-prepared foods.
Bauer recommends helping yourself out by minimizing prep work. “I’ll get frozen veggies already cut up or riced, so all I need to do is pop them into a bowl and microwave,” she says. “I also always keep a few staples to help meals come together like jars of marinara sauce, lentil or chickpea pasta, and veggie and chicken stock for soups and stews.”
2. Cook it once, eat it twice.
If you like a particular dish, make your life easier by making more of it (so you can eat it for longer). Bauer will double or triple recipes and stash the rest in the freezer for future meals. “Chili, casserole, lasagna, burgers, and breakfast muffins all freeze beautifully,” she says. “Just remember to label foods or stash in clear containers so you’re not left with mystery meals later on. Been there many times!”
3. Create dinner themes.
In Bauer’s house, she chooses a theme for each night of the week: Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Wok Wednesday, Pasta Thursday, Fish Friday, Poultry Saturday, and Surprise Sunday. This helps lessen the stress over deciding what to make at the last minute. “This way, the cuisine is already chosen and I simply vary the meal and ingredients. So for Wok Wednesday, you can choose shrimp, chicken, or tofu as a lean protein for your stir-fry, and then toss in whatever veggies you have on hand. When flipping through your recipe repertoire, try to choose dishes that feature in-season foods to get the biggest bang — and flavor hit — for your buck,” she says.
4. Start a recipe collection.
To further help with decision-making stress, Bauer saves the recipes that pop up in her daily life — and makes sure they’re in a place she can find them later. “Whether you prefer browsing blogs, flipping through cookbooks, or pinning your favorite dishes on Pinterest, gather a collection of recipes that look delicious and interesting,” she suggests. That way, when you quickly need to make a call on what to make, you have an inventory at the ready.
5. Go easy on yourself.
“It’s a matter of planning and experience… and the more you cook, the better organized you’ll become,” Bauer says. She also emphasizes the uselessness of panicking and beating yourself up. “Remember, it’s a process, and no one is perfect. Keep in mind that it helps to go through all the recipes and ingredients first to plan ahead. And whenever you can, try to choose one-pot or sheet-pan meals. I’m obsessed with those,” she suggests. They’ll give you less to clean up (which is another nice thing to take off your plate!).
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