7 Ways to Cook Healthier Meals Without a Recipe

If you're someone who struggles at the stove, you may be more inclined to hit up delivery apps or plan meals out at your favorite restaurant to avoid culinary catastrophes in your kitchen. When the delivery driver knows your name, chances are you're not fueling your body with the right kinds of food. Many restaurant-prepared meals use extra ingredients and oversized portions that could be getting in the way of you and your ultimate health goals. 

Did you know that if you were to prepare many of the same meals you love from restaurants at home, you'd be saving hundreds of calories and reduce your sodium intake? Studies have shown that those who cook at home save significantly more money every month and have a healthier diet overall. With total control over the quality and quantity of ingredients you choose to use in your kitchen, you can ensure that you know exactly what is going into your body without fear of added fillers, salts or sweeteners commonly used in large kitchens.

You've probably heard this before, so why aren't more people getting their hands dirty in the kitchen? Compared to dining out, cooking at home is on the decline.

As a culinary-focused dietitian, I see so many clients afraid to put on their aprons for fear of "messing it up" without even giving it a try. Here's a tough truth to swallow, though: If you're committing to your health, you should also commit to spending more time cooking in the kitchen.

But, don't worry! You don't have to be the Barefoot Contessa right off the bat. While you can turn to a recipe, many of the greatest cooks are the ones who can create dishes without relying strictly on a recipe. Skipping the recipe route might help calm your anxieties about having to create the "perfect" dish, too. Where does a timid new chef start, though?

Just as I recommend learning to listen to your body to determine when you're hungry and full, it is also possible to become a more intuitive cook. You won't become a seasoned chef overnight, of course, but there are several ways you can rely less on recipes to become a better, healthier cook.

1. Learn How to Build a Healthy and Satisfying Meal

How many times have you found yourself staring into your fridge—full or empty—with no idea where to start crafting your meal? If you're not comfortable in the kitchen, it may seem overwhelming to come up with a meal idea from seemingly random ingredients lining your refrigerator (or even store) shelves.

Instead, think of it like a math formula: Together, one vegetable, one protein, one carbohydrate, plus one source of fat will create a well-balanced meal.

When you include a variety of nutrients on your plate, you'll be more satisfied at the end of your meal and automatically pull together a myriad of flavors, regardless of your cooking expertise.

2. Choose One Ingredient as The Focal Point

A nourishing meal will be well-rounded with a variety of elements, but if you're just learning to cook without a recipe, choose one superstar ingredient as your base. Every lead actor needs a viable supporting cast, but it's the lead who will make or break the ratings.

In the kitchen, choosing one ingredient as your superstar is more practical. It can be easy to get caught up in the planning aspect of cooking when it really can start with one great item. Then, use your flavor preferences to build the rest of the meal around that one item. Most of us don't have time to create a Michelin-star worthy meal nightly, so having one focal point makes the whole meal less overwhelming.

3. Get Acquainted With Basic Cooking Techniques

If you're going to cook without a recipe, it helps to be familiar with some classic cooking techniques. Amanda Hibshman, R.D.N. advises, "Learning the order to add vegetables and herbs to stir-fry dishes and sauces is a key to cooking intuitively with healthier foods, [for example]." It also helps to understand how long different types of meat take to cook. These easily Googled cooking times can help you better design your plan of attack in the kitchen, always remembering to use a thermometer to ensure your food is safe to eat.

Then, learn a handful of cooking methods, like roasting, sautéing and boiling to round out your skills. By incorporating a variety of cooking techniques you'll automatically add a lot of flavor to your meals and avoid the boredom that often comes with cooking meals at home. For example, you can sauté vegetables, but also proteins like chicken or tofu to create a simple stir-fry. On the other hand, you can roast a sheet-pan meal by combining your favorite vegetable and protein on one pan and popping it in the oven. It's not cheating to make simple dishes that require little clean-up!

4. Stock Your Pantry With Flavorful Ingredients

While salt and pepper are a great start to seasoning your food, a bountiful spice rack will provide so much more flavor. Registered dietitian Gisela Bouvier encourages her clients to keep fresh herbs, spices and sauces on hand to flavor their foods, without the need to follow intricate recipes. If you're serious about cooking, you may want to invest in "The Flavor Bible" or "The Vegetarian Flavor Bible" to become comfortable with mixing and matching different spices, suggests registered dietitian and blogger E.A. Stewart.

Skipping the salt shaker in favor of spices is also beneficial in reducing your overall sodium intake and providing extra health benefits. While more research is needed for some, spices like garlic, oregano and turmeric seem to provide health benefits like anti-bacterial aid, anti-inflammatory effects and digestive relief, respectively.

Just don't forget to taste as you go, says Los Angeles-based chef Megan Mitchell. "Adding a little more acid [lemon, vinegar] or spice instead of just adding more salt can brighten up your dish," she advises.

5. Be Prepared Before You Start the Process

There's nothing worse than having an idea of what dish you're going to create, only to realize halfway through the process that you don't have an ingredient you intended to use or you couldn't chop the onions fast enough.

Before you even turn on the heat, make sure you're prepared. In culinary lingo, it's called "mise-en-place," which is French for "putting in place." Think through the process in your head, which ingredients you'll need and when in the cooking process you'll need them. As you get more familiar in the kitchen, you'll be able to do less planning with an equally tasty result.

6. Pair One New-To-You Food With Others You Know How To Prepare

It's hotly debated whether or not it truly takes 10,000 hours to master a new skill, but you can expand your cooking repertoire, one new food (or skill) over time. Learning new cooking techniques or using new ingredients don't have to be an entirely new skill to hone; instead, build on the existing skills you've already grasped.

For example, you may have learned how to make scrambled eggs in college. This is no small feat, but now how can you elevate your classic scrambled eggs? Chef and registered dietitian Sara Haas makes it sound easy, "You know what tastes good together, so go with that!" That could mean pairing your scrambled eggs with new herbs to jazz up your breakfast or mixing it with veggies and cauliflower rice for a healthy dinner dish. Or perhaps you tried an interesting flavor or textural combination at a restaurant. The next step is to test it out at home!

By doing this, you're simultaneously adding new-to-you foods with those you're already familiar with eating while reducing your anxieties about being in the kitchen. Sarah Pflugradt of Salubrious RD adds, "Watching someone else cook up a healthy meal can be very motivating. After watching about four chefs on TV make pesto, I felt pretty confident I could do it myself. Now, I [can] make 10 different types of pesto."

7. Make "Clean Out the Fridge" Meals

A great way to dip your toes in the culinary pool is to use what you have on hand and force yourself to get creative. Author of the "52-Week Meal Planner" Jessica Levinson, R.D. says that to reduce food waste, she uses up what's in her fridge, freezer and pantry before hitting the grocery store. "Sometimes this leads to interesting combinations that work well, like my Red Cabbage Blueberry Salad. Sometimes, the combos aren't winners, [but] it's about experimenting and getting comfortable trying different things." Levinson explains. "Once you find combos that work, they can become your own 'recipes' without a recipe."

It's easy to forget about the quick meals you already know how to throw together, too, Stewart adds. "Keep a grocery list of pantry staples in your kitchen. Write down five easy meals you can make with those staples. I pin it on the inside of my pantry when I'm too tired to cook and need easy inspiration!"

When you're using what you have on hand, remember to look for a variety of nutrient groups (a protein, carbohydrate and fat) to create a nutritionally-balanced dish.

While it takes time to become a better cook without a recipe, don't forget that cooking is all about having confidence in the kitchen! Whether you're a strict recipe-follower or new to sautéing and mixing, dressing the part in a new apron or by stocking your kitchen with a good set of pots and pans, may help you approach your stove with a newfound sense of security. Most of all, remember that food is meant to be fun, so turn up the music, enjoy the process, learn from your mistakes and dine with a smile on your face.