The Young Adult’s Guide to Cooking 101

man learning to cook

“It’s not that I’m a bad cook,” I’d say to myself as I tapped “order now” for the fourth time in a week. “I don’t have time to get groceries and then learn a recipe that I’ll just mess up anyway,” I’d think, as I made my way to the drive-through at Whataburger.

It took me well into my twenties to hit a point where I was comfortable in a kitchen. The problem wasn’t finding the recipes. It wasn’t knowing what supplies to have on-hand. It wasn’t even learning the basic cooking skills I’d need in order to find my way around the kitchen. The problem for me, and for many young folks who fear their kitchen, is where to start.

So Many (Too Many) Resources

To explain what I mean, we’re going to look to the Internet, where a thousand recipes for any dish you love dependably await you. Where millions of hours of video cooking tutorials promise that “even you can do this”

These seemingly helpful resources are exactly what makes the Internet the worst place to visit if you’re at the starting line of your cooking journey. Where do you begin in that sea of information as a lost youth who doesn’t even know how to boil water?

By the time you open your 15th “These Are the Dishes You MUST Make if You’re Learning to Cook” you’re likely to do what I did. Close those tabs, pull out your phone, and order takeout to soothe the terrible headache all of that reading gave you.

learning to cook

So, how do you start? Well, the most important thing to remember is that you’re learning to cook for yourself. The moment I became truly interested in cooking was the moment I stopped looking for a general guide. I started trying to find guides to make the kinds of foods I want to eat. The goal of becoming a good home cook is to make meals that you enjoy, or at least at first, to make meals that don’t feel like homework.

I had this revelation when I finally made perfect breakfast grits, and then after the first mouthful remembered, “Oh right, I hate grits!” Of course, learning recipes for dishes you may not like can expand your palate, and it’s an opportunity to try new techniques. Trying something new is a great idea once you’ve got the basics down, but speaking from experience, start simple: just try to put a few decent meals together each week.

5 Tips for a Successful Cooking Journey

In no particular order, consider these 5 pieces of advice that I’d like to offer, now that I’m a seasoned beginner Chef:

1. Start with WHAT: Ask yourself this: “What is it that I want to eat?” If you love pasta, start by learning to cook pasta dishes. If you want to have a burger, learn how to make a good burger. There isn’t one right way to begin cooking. Begin by learning to cook what you like, not what the Internet says you should make.

2. Don’t get fancy (yet): Focus less on the serious work of becoming a Food Network Star and instead learn what I like to call functional cooking. This is the sort of cooking that helps you put something you like on the table in a half an hour on a weeknight. (This is not the time to try to make duck confit with a Moroccan carrot salad! Keep it simple, folks.)

learning to cook 2

3. Try big-batch cooking: Consider making bigger dishes that can last you through the week. Lasagna, chili, a casserole, or anything else you can make in a big batch…start with these. You’ll feel great having something delicious ready to go on days when your schedule is too busy to cook.

4. Trust your instincts: Don’t be afraid to deviate from the recipe to make it your own. Many young people feel we have bad instincts about cooking because we’re still learning. If you think the dish could use more spice, more garlic, more salt…go for it. It’s your meal and improvising to make it your own is an important part of growing as a cook. A recipe can be a good starting place, but the benefit of cooking at home is you can play, try new things, and make it your own. How do you wish things tasted? Making those flavors a reality has been my favorite part of the cooking journey.

5. Make it fun: Let go of the intimidation that can accompany learning something new. Invite friends or family to cook with you, find a good music playlist, and allow yourself to be creative. If you lower the fear factor, you’re more likely to enjoy exploring this new skill.

friends cooking

Once you become comfortable with basic, functional cooking, you’ll not only enjoy the benefits of time and money saved, but you’ll likely find cooking to be rewarding. For me, the breakthrough came when I loved what I made. I stopped trying to learn for someone else and embraced the curries and pasta that I’d previously wanted to order online. An okay version of a dish you love is a much stronger motivation than a great version of a dish you don’t want.

Cooking is a personal journey. It’s a skill you can enjoy your whole life, and one of the most valuable things you can learn.

It took me a long time to start learning to cook, but in recent years I’ve grown to love it. I find it to be therapeutic and rewarding. Getting to that point wasn’t easy, and it was only made more difficult by the overwhelming stress of “where do I begin?”. You’ll find your own starting line if you just take a leap of faith and give it a try.

Please leave a comment with any additional tips you’d like to offer to wanna-be cooks.