In a perfect world, we'd all have fully equipped kitchens stocked with fresh, nutritious ingredients, along with plenty of time, skill and inclination to whip up healthy and delicious meals for our families. But this is reality, where our best cooking intentions often get thwarted by hectic schedules, demanding jobs and—let's be honest—lack of interest (or a self-perceived lack of skill). This can all too often lead to ordering takeout, which is almost never budget- or waistline-friendly.
If you've ever used any of these common excuses to talk yourself out of cooking, allow us to be the voice of reason.
Excuse #1: "I don't have a kitchen."
Anyone who has ever moved or undergone a major home renovation knows what a hassle it is to go without a kitchen for even a day, much less for weeks or even months. Cooking is enough of a challenge when everything is up and running, but in the absence of a stove, sink and maybe even storage, getting dinner on the table (or even on top of cardboard boxes) can seem pretty darn near impossible.
Before you start plugging every takeout number in town into your phone, try these tips for cooking in cramped and unequipped spaces:
Excuse #2: "It's too hot to cook."
- Get cozy with the grill. Weather and outdoor space permitting, the grill can become the kitchen-less family's best friend. Go beyond burgers, steaks and chicken—with a little culinary creativity, you can grill everything from pizza and potatoes to fruits and veggies.
- Say hello to the slow cooker. If you have a power outlet and a folding table or counter, you’ve just found a temporary home for a slow cooker. (You can even use it outside if the elements allow.) Nearly any recipe can be adapted to all-day, one-pot cooking.
- Invest in a toaster oven. No oven yet? This smaller (yet still mighty) version of the real thing can cook a surprisingly long list of foods, from roasted veggies and potatoes to small rotisserie chickens.
- Utilize pre-prepared veggies and salads. It can be tough to wash and prep produce without a sink or countertop, so don't hesitate to seize convenient shortcuts.
- Borrow a kitchen. Do you have a family member or close friend who lives nearby? Ask if you can raid his or her kitchen for a few hours of baking or cooking, then stash the surplus in the freezer for the coming days or weeks.
When outdoor temperatures skyrocket, the last thing you want to do is spend time in front of a hot oven—but that doesn't have to mean succumbing to costly or unhealthy takeout. With these no-cook summer meals, you won’t sweat over keeping the family well-fed.
Excuse #3: "We're on the road."
In the heart of road trip season, it's easy for the best of cooking intentions to fly out the window. But when you follow this road map to healthy eating on the go, family vacations don't have to come with fast-food drive-thrus and greasy gas station meals:
Excuse #4: "I live alone and it's a waste to cook for one."
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals: Healthy, mindful grazing will keep your metabolic engine running as you drive, and will prevent the sluggishness that comes with an overstuffed belly.
- Pack healthy snacks: When your car is stocked with carrot sticks and hummus, almonds, dried fruit, cheese sticks and other nutritious nibbles, the chips and cookies at the rest stop vending machine won't seem nearly as tempting.
- Don't skimp on protein. You need it to keep your energy levels up for the long drive ahead, and for the adventures awaiting at your destination. Portable, protein-packed snacks include nuts, seeds, legumes, whole-grain crackers, fat-free yogurt, cheese sticks and cottage cheese.
- Check in at the grocery. When you've reached your destination city, find the local grocery store and stock up on healthy ingredients. Sure, it's natural to want a break from cooking during vacation, but it's nice to have the option to prepare at least a few nutritious meals.
Cooking for a crowd can be gratifying, but when you only have one or two mouths to feed, it may seem easier and more practical to phone it in than trying to scale back a recipe. But with some smart single-meal strategies, cooking for a small household doesn't have to be a chore.
Excuse #5: "We're too busy with evening activities to cook."
- Make friends with your freezer. Who says large families have the corner on big-batch cooking? If you've been dying to try a new lasagna recipe that feeds six, go ahead and make it, then portion out the leftovers into single servings and freeze them for future meals.
- Invest in smaller equipment. It's easier to cook for one when you have petite appliances. Look for blenders, juicers, pots, pans and bakeware that are scaled for single-serving recipes.
- Embrace eggs. Eggs are an ideal foundation for a single-serving meal, because you can use only as many as you need. An omelet filled with fresh veggies or meats becomes a healthy, just-your-size meal.
- Let food do double-duty. When planning your meals, look for opportunities to get two or more uses out of a single ingredient. The pot of rice you're making for Monday's stir-fry can also be paired with Wednesday's pork chop, and the same batch of broccoli can appear in Sunday's omelet and Tuesday's vegetable soup.
- Find right-sized recipes. Instead of trying to scale back recipes that yield six or more servings, look for recipes designed for a single serving or recipes for two that can be easily cut in half.
Most everyone has crazy schedules these days, but that's not a valid excuse to throw up your hands and boycott the kitchen. The key is finding cooking shortcuts and prioritizing what's most important to you.
Excuse #6: "I'm not a good cook."
- Have a plan. Planning is the key to efficiency in the kitchen. Create a weekly meal calendar and gather recipes. Keep a running list of staples you need from the grocery, along with a master list of ingredients for your recipes.
- Stock up on pantry staples. When you have the basic fundamentals on hand, throwing a meal together goes from daunting to doable. Start with these 10 non-perishable necessities.
- Make friends with the microwave. It gets a bad rap, but this hardworking kitchen appliance could be your most powerful weapon against the takeout trap. From defrosting meats to cooking veggies, side dishes or desserts, you may be surprised by what the microwave can do.
- Set up your staging area. Before you start cooking, gather all the items you'll need—like utensils, pots, oils, spices and a bowl for discarded scraps and trash—to cut down on mid-prep trips around the kitchen.
- Learn to love leftovers. When you do find pockets of cooking time, get more mileage out of them by making extra and saving it for future meals.
If you feel clueless in the kitchen, you're not alone: In a 2011 study, 28 percent of Americans claimed they don't know how to cook. If you weren’t raised in a cooking family, you may never have learned the fundamentals—but it's never too late to start. Remember, there was a time when you didn't know how to drive, how to change a diaper or how to navigate Netflix, but chances are you're a pro at all three by now. With a little patience, creativity and the following tips, you can add "sufficient chef" to your repertoire in no time.
Have any of these cooking obstacles thwarted your meal prep plans? What other reasons have you given for not cooking, and how have you overcome them?
- Start small. Rather than attempting a complicated recipe and declaring defeat, start with something simple, like scrambling an egg or seasoning a chicken breast. Once you've got the basics under your belt, you can move on to an easy meal, such as Light & Easy Vegetable Fried Rice, Easy Tuna Noodle Casserole or Easy Lemon Chicken.
- Don't be afraid to play. You could study cookbooks and cooking blogs for days, but the best way to learn is by doing it yourself. Get your hands dirty (not literally, of course), experiment with your own versions of recipes and welcome educational mistakes. Not every meal will taste great, and you may end up wasting a little food in the process, but you'll always leave the kitchen with a little more skill and knowledge.
- Consider a class. If you're not the self-teaching type, you might benefit from a hands-on cooking class. To make it more fun and less intimidating, recruit a friend or family member to join you.
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