The Real Reason You Don’t Cook

by | Apr 28, 2015
Photo by BruceTurner

Photo by BruceTurner

Yesterday I told you that cooking is the habit that has had the biggest, most positive impact on my life. But unless you’re already a regular cook you probably thought this was super depressing.

People who don’t cook inevitably groan when I suggest that cooking is the solution to their problems.

Cooking? Ugh. Something about it just makes it sound like so. much. work.

Even struggling your way through one meal is a pain. Taking the time and effort to actually learn to cook regularly? That’s just nuts.

Or at least there’s no way you could do it right now. Maybe you’ll do it this summer or something. (Translation: it will never happen)

But I also told you yesterday that there was something deeper lying underneath your aversion to cooking. Because the truth is that if you really found cooking rewarding, then you’d figure out how to make it happen day after day.

So what is it exactly that separates those who cook from those who don’t? What is it that can transform cooking from a tedious, burdensome chore to a fulfilling, creative endeavor?

I did months of research, talking to people about their experiences in the kitchen. It was clear people understood the value of cooking at home and truly wanted to develop the habit, but something hadn’t clicked.

Over and over I heard that grocery shopping was a pain. That it took too long and often required multiple trips to different stores.

I heard that meals didn’t turn out well, and would result in criticism from family or flat out refusals to eat.

I heard that cooking was too much effort after a long day’s work.

That deciding what to make was too much of a burden and required too much planning.

That lots of food would go to waste, either through not being used or from dishes being too large.

I heard that cooking for one wasn’t worth the effort, and that cooking for a big family was too much effort.

Over and over people told me they don’t understand how to make meals taste good, how to get themselves and others excited about what they cook.

But I also spoke with people who DO have a regular cooking habit.

For these people (myself included) grocery shopping is easy, and takes only about 20 minutes a week.

They are confident that they can make delicious food, and find it easy to throw something together in a pinch with pretty much anything they have on hand.

They know intuitively what tastes good and how much food to make, so waste isn’t a problem.

For cooks, deciding what to make is a fun, creative process and not a crushing burden.

The whole process, including cleanup, is only mild to moderate effort, and the reward is real and tangible.

For them, cooking is totally worth it.

What makes it so easy for these people to maintain their cooking habit?

They have learned to cook without recipes.

When you can cook from your intuition instead of from a recipe you can make something from almost anything you have at home. And you can certainly improvise if you are missing an ingredient or two.

It means you know what tastes good together, and how to fix a dish that is a little “off.”

You develop a sense of how much food is appropriate to cook for your family, and can easily adjust how much you make according to how much you’ll actually use.

When you’re bored of a dish always tasting the same, an intuitive cook knows how to change it up just enough for it to feel fresh without reinventing the wheel.

Grocery shopping is easy when cooking is a regular part of your life, because most of the things you need are already in your house.

And when cooking is a habit, it feels natural and doesn’t require a ton of extra willpower.

Learning to cook without recipes is the secret to building a lasting cooking habit.

This isn’t to say that cooking from recipes is innately bad. Recipes can be a great source of inspiration and guidance for things you’ve never tried to make before.

I often use a recipe (sometimes several recipes) as a template for making something new.

But I am not a slave to recipes. If I want to swap out the spices or the meat type, or add a sauce, or put an egg on it, I know exactly what to do.

Knowing how to cook without recipes is another way of saying I have developed a cook’s intuition. And this is a skill you can learn.

Cooking feels difficult because it is a combination of several different skills that must be used together. But anyone can learn to cook without recipes with the right strategy.

Tomorrow I’ll explain how I taught myself to cook without recipes after not touching a stove for the first 25 years of my life. I’ll also show you how you can learn to do the same.

Do you think recipes make it harder or easier for you to create a cooking habit?

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27 Responses to “The Real Reason You Don’t Cook”

  1. Adam Trainor says:

    Agreed. Consideration: How about don’t cook? Raw veggies are a better source of food than cooked one anyways. A dash of seasoning and chopped anything can be a very rewarding meal, especially if it is served with a decent protein source.

    • Becky says:

      I do tend to like uncooked veggies over cooked. Chopping and prep is part of why I don’t like cooking. I don’t like doing prep either. Luckily my local grocery store has a lot of pre-chopped produce..

  2. Casi Newell says:

    I hate hate hate grocery shopping, and for the longest time I just couldn’t get myself to cook. Then I discovered a grocery delivery service, and now I cook all the time! The money I save cooking more than compensates for the delivery fee, and I eat more healthily because I chose my groceries from the comfort of my home, without the supermarket craziness and temptations. I’d definitely recommend trying it out for anyone else whose hatred of grocery shopping is standing in their way.

    • Becky says:

      Oh me too. At least I discovered a grocery delivery service, and I think it saves me money from not being tempted to buy things not on my list and from going out to eat. It still doesn’t make me want to cook, but it does leave me a little more time for other things.

  3. Angie says:

    I hate cooking. I work all day and when I get home my kids and husband are starving and want something fast. I also have a very picky eater and if I try something new they will not it eat. I feel like I always cook the same thing over and over.

  4. Bonnie says:

    It was a given: I should stay OUT of the kitchen. But with a family of 4, It’s so expensive to eat/order out. I went to a free pressure cooking class and was mesmerized. It’s become my best friend. Quick, healthy meals! Not to mention, no more “canned” beans or vegetables. I tried a couple of your easy recipes and voila: I OWN my kitchen! It’s so funny how empty my pantry is now that I don’t buy packaged/processed foods nearly as much. Yet there’s always something to whip up. We LOVE your cabbage/egg recipe. Who knew kids would love cabbage? Thanks Darya!

  5. I have to use recipes. I cook every night. I shop every week and I menu plan. Recipes taught me to cook. Without recipes I wouldn’t know what to buy. Without recipes, I couldn’t say to my husband, whoops, I can’t cook tonight, you do it–or say the same to my resident teenagers. Without recipes, my food life would fall apart.

  6. Mary D says:

    I use recipes to learn new techniques, to learn new taste profiles and usually for baking (gluten free). I really believe that once you master the basic techniques of cooking, you can make nearly anything without having to rely on recipes.

    Julia Child’s books are an excellent source of basic technique, as are Diana Kennedy’s books (Mexican cuisine). It’s hard to beat a good, basic cookbook for solid instruction – and with those skills in your kit, you can do anything!

  7. Jeffrey Bunn says:

    Interesting post, and not what I expected from yesterday. I suppose that’s a good thing! Personally, recipes have helped me learn how to cook and improvise in the kitchen. Even now, they often introduce me to new cooking techniques.

    But you’re spot on that being intuitive in the kitchen and confident with improvising makes grocery shopping and cooking WAY less stressful.

  8. Going to be sharing this article for sure! So many of my friends are “afraid” to cook, and miss out on so much! Great article!! 🙂

  9. april says:

    It’s not so much the cooking and shopping, or figuring out what to cook ( even though my family can be picky ) its the clean up. Full bellies mean lazy helpers.

  10. Good points. I guess I cook mostly because what I cook is better-tasting than most take-out, and most restaurants that I want to afford on a daily basis. AND I know what is in my food. For one (and two), no added sugars, and few if any added starches. I also can vet my fat sources. Cooking my own food for lunches at work seriously helped me lose 40 pounds without feeling deprived. Even the alleged “healthy choice” items there are loaded with extenders.

    I mostly don’t use recipes, but I will check them out mainly for timing how long to do something — or if on a weekend I want to play around with foods from other cultures than my own, and wish to learn a few pointers. I love playing with an extensive spice selection!

    I grew up with a mother and a father who both enjoyed cooking from scratch. I’m glad to be doing this as well these days — it is healthy, and mentally it is creatively stimulating.

  11. I started my cooking journey by cooking things I basically knew how to cook from watching my mom. Stir frys, just boiling some veggies, salads, and other easy things. Then I tried out different seasonings, toppings, and maybe followed an easy side dish recipe OR main protein recipe (never both). Over time I just started to learn those recipes by heart and mixed and matched everything. Soon I was dyeing to learn new recipes so I could spice things up. Now it’s just fun to find a new (sometimes) more complicated recipe. And when I don’t feel like cooking I still have those easy go to dishes I started my whole cooking journey with….except my stir fry tastes much better than it used to!

  12. Calvin says:

    I’m still a recipe person as I don’t usually cook. I will occasionally whip up something but other than that, it’s following the recipe while getting inspiration from sites like yours

  13. Marcia says:

    Followed the link from Casual Kitchen. This is all very true!

    I learned to cook at about age 31/32 when I got too fat on my husband’s cooking. Prior to that, I was a disaster in the kitchen. Oh, I tried, but didn’t do a very good job and cut or burned myself often.

    I spent a LOT of time watching cooking shows (back when they taught useful tips), and took a couple adult ed cooking classes. I really got into cooking. And what’s most important, I did all that BEFORE kids. So cooking, shopping, etc on a budget is a pain (I estimate about 2 hours of planning and shopping per week, plus about 6-8 hours cooking on weekends, plus about an hour each day weekdays for reheating, cooking and packing lunches). I’m kind of tired of it.

    But at least it’s healthy, and it tastes good! My food is a mixture of tried and true recipes (I’m an engineer), and just “winging it”.

  14. Nick Alexander says:

    Can’t cook, won’t cook.
    Life is too short to waste spending hours on something that goes through the same chute as something else that comes out of a packet/microwave.
    Cooking is really for people who have no purpose in life.
    Boil it down to basics and nobody NEEDS to cook.
    You’re not gunna die or get ill if you eat out of tins/packets/microwaves – but you WILL have much more time to spend on IMPORTANT things.
    If I’m honest, cooking is the preserve of women and men in touch with their feminine sides.
    Nothing wrong with that – but spending half your life clucking over recipes, shopping lists, chopping boards and cooker hobs is a total waste to me.
    Cooking is really about improving the quality of that socialised activity, eating.
    I think if you’re a social person, you’re likely to be a food-centric person.
    I don’t find socialising particularly rewarding, so it’s natural that I don’t find social eating that appealing.
    Indeed, I find the pleasure of eating vastly enhanced by the ability to do it in private – free from performance anxiety and distraction.
    It’s not that there’s any right or wrong in cooking – but simply that for a good proportion of people, it lacks any appeal.
    So in summary, cooking is a household chore that women are wired to enjoy and male social non-butterflies to abhor.
    I’d rather iron than cook – and that’s saying something.
    Hehe.

    • ksol says:

      I’m glad you have found priorities in life that matter to you. I have, too, and one of them is cooking, for many reasons. You say toward the end, “It’s not that there’s any right or wrong in cooking,” yet you begin by disparaging those of us who choose to cook. We are each individuals, and we each get to set our own priorities. My choices do not make your choices wrong, and vice versa. I don’t claim any moral superiority because I cook, but I do not accept that I have no purpose in life because I chop onions to relax at the end of the day. Neither one of us needs to justify how we live our lives, as long as we’re not hurting anyone.

      On the main topic, I learned to cook from a mother who never used recipes, so I tend to use them as initial suggestions when I do. If I ever wrote a cookbook, half the instructions would be, “So it looks right.”

    • Becky says:

      I must have missed out on the the “wired to enjoy” part. I’d rather work out than cook (and that’s saying something).

  15. Andy Christ says:

    Nick A.: You’ve said much more about yourself than you probably realize. Maybe you are inept at cooking, but unless you’re going to live on grass and what ever fruit fall on the sidewalks in your neighborhood, you sure as H*ll need the people you denigrate to cook for you (even if in a food plant) so you can accomplish your “IMPORTANT things”. So, just what life-changing accomplishments have you delivered with all the time you’ve saved by paying others to cook for you?

    Given the condescending and stereotype-filled drivel you chose to share, it’s no surprise you’d rather eat HotPockets in the safety of your apartment where your disorders won’t be triggered due to the stress of interacting with carbon based life units. Performance anxiety because your eating with someöne else?! It’s eating: it’s not sex! You are a hurting unit.

    I had no idea that my enjoyment of cooking for myself and my loved ones around me was because I was tapping into my feminine side… I always thought it was just sloppy chemistry that ended up with food to fill the belly that also managed to bring pleasure to us all. The fact that you’d rather iron than cook only says that you relate better to a two pound hunk of steel that another human being. Sheesh.

  16. Dave says:

    As a male that cooks I think gender bias is just that. My doctor neighbor actually laughed at me last week when I excused myself from a front yard conversation so I could retrieve a sheet of cookies from the oven. His belief and bias was that cooking is women’s work.
    I cook because of a very selfish reason: it feels good. I can find joy in every part of the process either planned or impromptu meals snacks or deserts. Shopping allows me the option to put only the best ingredients into play. Life is way too short to deprive yourself of this amazing opportunity to live life and create something new every single day. I hope that gender biases doesn’t stop my son or anyone from the priveledge that cooking in the modern age really is. Bon adventure in your kitchen!

    • Nick Alexander says:

      It’s not gender bias – it’s just gender.
      It’s not biased to say that on the whole, women enjoy cooking a good deal more than men.
      And from an evolutionary perspective, it makes complete sense.
      Gender studies from the 60’s and 70’s show time and again, that children raised in gender-neutral environments share the same activity preferences as their counter-parts raised in traditional family settings.
      It’s nature not nurture.
      I’ve lived with a lot of people – and it’s always been women and gay/in-touch-with-their-feminine-sides men who cook.
      That said, there are many aspects of cooking that mean a dis/preference for doing it are down to personality.
      I’m not one of those who look down on cooking as women’s work.
      I look down on it as an activity I find extremely tedious.
      It’s the activity itself, not its status as an activity that I look down on.

      • Becky says:

        Are you sure women really like doing it more than men do? I’m skeptical. If I went by my personal experiences, it’s men who like to cook (and not girly, feminine maybe gay men either). I wonder if they are able to like it because it’s not forced on them. I think women often get roped into doing it whether they like it or not. I agree, the activity of cooking just seems intensely boring. I’d rather read a good novel or non-fiction. Work on a course in statistics, or sql. Learn something new. I’ve suffered through cooking as much as I could make myself for my kids’ sake or to save money, but I’m relieved they’re adults, so I don’t feel obligated to cook for them. I might force myself to do it for that reason, I’ll even try to like it, but I suspect if there’s ever an affordable, healthy meal prep service, I’ll be first to sign up. I think it is more of a personality thing than a gender thing.

  17. M says:

    I dont mind buying the food. I dont mind doing the dishes. I hate cooking because when I (try to) make things, the food either is undercooked, overcooked, too lumpy, too runny; basically something is always “off”. Cooking for my kids? I dont care about their opinion. But if I have to cook for adults (parents, grandparents, inlaws, neighbors, strangers, etc) I become overwhelmed of the outcome, and terrified that I will make a total fool of myself. I HAVE to know that the dish is going to come out perfectly. I was never taught how to cook when I was a child, so gone are the days of being “too young to know better”. And it doesnt help that my kids paternal grandparents are fantastic cooks, their life revolves around the latest “made from scratch” recipe. My kids are not picky eaters, and I do make amazing turkey tacos. But cooking is such an anxiety-ridden venture, that on the rare occasion I do think “I can do this!”, the moment it starts to go wrong, then I feel overwhelmed and production stops.

    • Alexa says:

      I’m with M. I hate to cook because it doesn’t taste good. everybody else likes my cooking, but by the time I am done with the prepping and cooking, I don’t even want to look at the food, much less eat it. It’s a lot of work for a couple of minutes of eating – shopping, prepping, cooking, washing, cleaning – for a couple of minutes? Ugh. I read a lot when I eat – because I don’t want to taste the food. Sandwiches I like, but not a lot else. I’ve taken cooking classes that teach technique, but nope – still doesn’t do it for me. Nothing seems to help. So, any suggestions for when you done’t cook because you don’t want to eat what you cook?

  18. Yinka says:

    I love this article! It’s so true. I’ve always wondered what separated me from my friends who are more tentative in the kitchen and not confident that they can make great food. I read a lot of recipes growing up so have the memory of food combinations in my head but for the most part, learnt from my mother who never used a recipe book. She could taste food and know what was in it and cook it from scratch without using a recipe book.

  19. Yinka says:

    I love this article! It’s so true. I’ve always wondered what separated me from my friends who are more tentative in the kitchen and not confident that they can make great food. I read a lot of recipes growing up so have the memory of food combinations in my head but for the most part, learnt from my mother who never used a recipe book. She could taste food and know what was in it and cook it from scratch without using a recipe book.

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