Mother Knows Best: What Cooking Lessons Did Your Mom Pass Along?

By , Melissa Rudy, Health & Fitness Journalist
From bandaging skinned knees to doling out punishments for missed curfews, Mom always knew best. With Mother's Day approaching, there’s no better time to show our appreciation for all those pearls of wisdom she's passed along over the years--particularly the fundamentals of cooking, from scrambling an egg to marinating a steak to frosting a cake.
We asked some nutritionists, trainers, friends, our office staff and some SparkPeople members to share the most valuable morsels of knowledge they received from Mom (or Grandma, or a mother figure). Some are to be expected, and others might surprise you. Leave your own favorite lessons in the comments!
"Being Italian, my mother insisted on homemade sauce. She taught me that to thicken spaghetti sauce, you need to add tomato paste."
- Lisa Andrews, Owner Sound Bites Nutrition
"From pickles to pies to persimmon pudding, my mom taught me how to cook almost everything from scratch. However, the best thing she taught me about cooking is how to make yeast bread. She said if you have the skills to follow a recipe and make a great loaf of bread, then you can make anything."
- Becky Hand, Registered Dietitian
"My mother taught me how to use all fresh ingredients. She grew her own vegetables and used them when she cooked. She cooked everything from scratch, even made her own bread–although in today’s world of no carbs and gluten, that may be frowned upon. She even had a meat grinder that attached to the edge of the kitchen table so that she could grind her own meat to make sure she knew what was in it."
- Cheryl Russo, Fitness Trainer
"My mom is the 'queen of casseroles.' She taught me that you can make one dish with lots of ingredients that saves time and still tastes good. She also taught me not to be afraid to try new things. Even today, my mom is always trying new recipes and likes to have variety in the meals she cooks."
Jen Mueller, SparkPeople Community Director and Fitness Coach
"Cook to last. Meaning, cook enough food to last for a few days that can be used for more than one meal."
- Maurice D. Williams,  Owner, Move Well Fitness
"The best thing I learned from my mom about cooking is to not do what she does (the all fried meat, simple carb and convenience food diet)."
- SparkPeople member MACKENZIESAGE
"The best thing my mother taught me about cooking was the importance of food safety. As a mother of four, she ensured that the food she prepared for us was not only nutritious, but also safe to eat. She made it a point to cook foods to their minimum internal temperature; I specifically remember a handout she had from the USDA with minimum safe internal cooking temperatures. With a background in medical technology, she was highly aware of the dangers of foodborne illness. She had separate cutting boards for meats and vegetables, always had a food thermometer on hand and made sure to properly store food at the correct temperature."
- Lisa Mikus, RDN with Laura Cipullo Whole Nutrition Services
"The best cooking/meal planning advice my mom gave me was to eat clean, whole foods in moderation. This habit has lasted my whole life. It's nice, because when it came time to lose weight, I didn't have a problem with the nutritional aspect of losing. It was the exercise part that I wish I would have continued past my teen years."
- SparkPeople member MIAMIRN
"She taught me how to make whipped cream in a Cuisinart, a blender and with a stand mixer, and why each whipped cream comes out a little differently. Also, the importance of good, sharp chef knives."
- Joe Robb, SparkPeople Marketing Guru
"My mom was an awesome cook. She could throw anything together for a quick and healthy meal. She made so much from scratch and really stressed whole foods, which made good, balanced, wholesome meals. I mainly learned to bake, so with [losing] weight, I struggle with every meal. Keeping them simple and yummy is my motto."
- SparkPeople member SEATTLE58ANEW
"My mom taught me how to make just about every meal from scratch. As I got older and began cooking for myself, it was less scary to make a complete meal from scratch versus opening jars, boxes and bottles to compensate. As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I like being able to have control over the contents of my food, and teaching my clients that making their own meals doesn’t have to be as overwhelming as they may think."
- Mandy Unanski Enright, Creator of Nutrition Nuptials
"The best thing my mother taught me about cooking was to cook from the heart. We make a lot of traditional German dishes, and the main ingredient is love. If you don’t love what you are doing or cooking, then it will show."
- Meghan Wilkinson, Clinical Dietitian
"She always showed me how to double recipes (having a big family means always doubling—sometimes tripling—recipes!). Also, she taught me that you have to follow recipes when you're first learning to cook, but eventually you'll get the hang of it and will learn to make things on your own after a lot of trial and error."
- Elizabeth Lowry, SparkPeople Editor
"You might have heard the message from [the] USDA or a nutrition leader to tell you to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. I learned this over 30 years ago from my mother. Half of our dinner plate was filled with vegetables. There was a salad every night, and then she cooked a different vegetable for us every night—carrots, broccoli, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, etc. She taught me by example that vegetables were an important part of our diet and exposed me to the vast variety of produce that is available."
- Tricia Silverman, Nutrition and Wellness Consultant
"The first and best thing my mother taught me about cooking is how to make a basic tomato sauce to pour over pasta—thinly sliced onion and garlic cooked in olive oil with a can of tomatoes and just a dash of sugar to take the acidic taste out of the tomatoes. The beauty of this sauce is that almost any meat or vegetable can be added, and the combinations are endless."
- Shane McLean, ACE Certified Personal Trainer
"When I moved out with little to no experience in cooking or preparing meals that didn’t require the microwave or a can opener, my mom said, 'If you can read, you can cook. Following a recipe is just following directions, but with food—you’ve got this!' She was right, and her simplified approach helped me to stop putting so much pressure on myself with the end result."
- Kelly Crockett, SparkPeople Office Manager
"Life is too short—lick the beaters!"
- Kristin Carr, Cincinnati, OH
"If you want something thicker to cook more evenly turn the heat down in the oven and cook it longer."
- Megan Clarke Walsh, Cincinnati, OH
"My mum taught me how to cook from scratch at a very young age. She wasn't a particularly good cook herself, but she encouraged me to practice the basics until I was capable across a wide range of dishes. By the age of eight, I was cooking meals from scratch for my entire family—eight of us. These skills have been invaluable as I've gotten older; I never buy pre-packaged food and love cooking everything I can using fresh produce. There is nothing quite as satisfying as looking at the ingredients you have on hand and being able to make all sorts of meals without a recipe."
- SparkPeople member KILOLOSER
"Every meal starts with onion and garlic sautéed in olive oil."
- Rachel von Nida, SparkPeople Accounting Director
"The best things Grandma ever taught me were the family holiday recipes: Red velvet cake and homemade mashed potatoes."
- Amanda Young, Cincinnati, OH
"Experiment! Try different flavors, textures and spices. Make each recipe your own. Cook with love and taste EVERYTHING. You never know when you might accidentally put in a cup of salt instead of sugar. Use cold butter and water in pie crusts. Always cook extra chicken once a week, so you can make quicker meals later in the week when you’re more tired. Meal plan when you're working. It takes the stress out of late afternoons."
- Rebecca Sheerer, Cincinnati, OH
"Extra virgin olive oil! My mother told me when I started college that spending a few extra bucks on a nice olive oil is the ticket to rich dishes. Plus, you can easily toss in some herbs, slice up a baguette and have a great appetizer ready for when unexpected guests pop by."
- Alicia Capetillo, SparkPeople Editor

"Save butter wrappers in the freezer to grease pans when baking."
- Lori Christian, Cincinnati, OH
"My mom taught me that good, simple ingredients are all you need to make great food. It doesn't have to be fancy to be tasty. She also taught me to put a metal bowl and beater into the freezer before making whipped cream, as it helps keep everything cold."
- Merle King, SparkPeople Customer Support Specialist
"The lessons my mother passed on to me were all about starting with the freshest, best quality of food. She had vegetable and herb gardens, as well as apple, apricot and plum trees. We went to our grandmother’s house to pick cherries from her orchards. We loved going to the wild asparagus field to pick fresh spears."
- SparkPeople member REBCCA
"The advice I took from both parents was more about making family and togetherness the best recipe ingredient, taking your time and putting passion in all you do."
- SparkPeople member LEEANTHONY40
"I come from a family of five children where my mom cooked a lot of food all the time. Some of the top things she taught me were:
  • Always keep your refrigerator and pantry fully stocked, especially with canned goods like beans, rice and tuna. You can always use these to make quick dishes.
  • How to make a steak omelet for breakfast and to always serve vegetables on the side, even at breakfast.
  • How to use real chicken bones to make a chicken soup--why buy bone broth or stock when you can make it at home on your own?
  • How to make Romanian and Israeli dishes. Some of these include a beef salad (a Romanian potato salad made with pickles and beef or salami), meatballs using beets in the sauce and babaganoush (eggplant salad) from scratch."
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, Author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen
 "She taught me how to make pie crust from scratch and how to roll it out well. It's now like riding a bike, you never forget! I can whip up a homemade pie crust every time now. She cooked simple meals -- tacos, spaghetti, chicken and mashed potatoes, etc. -- but I’m glad I learned how to cook simpl[y] from her."
- SparkPeople member CMRKSU12

"My mother always said you should have something of every color on your plate."
- SparkPeople member GRAMCRACKER46
"My mother taught me to use what you had--you don't need to go to cutesy farmers’ markets or follow the latest food fad. Buy what you can afford. Buy on sale and divide meats into dinner sizes before freezing. Plan ahead and have everything ready before beginning."
- SparkPeople member ETHELMERZ
"I learned how to make tender pork chops in a Dutch oven, and how to roast a turkey. Also I learned to make gravy by browning flour in the fat from the meat and adding the juices of the meat. She taught me to time all the food and get it all done at the same time. For many this is a difficult skill, but watching her feed eight kids helped me master that skill."
- SparkPeople member MAGMOM23
What culinary tidbits did your mother, grandmother or mother figure pass along to you? Leave your favorite lessons in the comments.