I’ve failed at a lot of things over the years, especially in the kitchen. For most of my twenties, I asked myself the question: how can I improve my cooking skills?
Answering this didn’t require memorising recipes or inventing clever food hacks. What it took was time, experimentation, and coming up with simple systems that made food preparation healthy and enjoyable.
This is the story of how I learned to improve my cooking skills by creating and improving upon meal prep systems.
No Kids in the Kitchen
I grew up in a rather traditional family. My mother was an excellent cook, and the kitchen was her domain. I would occasionally poke my head in and stir a pot or two, but whenever I did she would run me out. I was supposed to be focusing on my domain: learning, studying, and acing my exams.
Once I hit age 12, the kitchen was like a foreign country to me. But as long as the food appeared, there was no need to understand how it was created.
I’m not proud to admit that it never occurred to me that one day I would need to make food for myself, that I would be clueless in my own kitchen, or what I would even care about learning how to improve my cooking skills.
Canteens, Cafeterias, and Calories
Many universities encourage students to focus on their studies. Basic life skills are pushed to the back of the plate (pun intended), which means we have to rely on the university to provide our meals. The canteen at Cambridge had an impressive rotating menu, so I never really thought about food. I just showed up, ate, then went back to studying.
When I was 20 I embarked on an Erasmus year in Germany, which was essentially an exchange program for studying abroad. This immediately changed my relationship with food. Now I paid for my own food out of pocket; no more ready-made meals at the canteen.
Finding filling and nutritious food was too much of a hassle, so I stuck with the cheap and tasty stuff instead: pizza, pastries, sweets, crisps, and my all-time favourite: sweetened smoothies. I even started pouring fruit juice onto my sugary breakfast cereal. Not exactly a healthy diet.
My diet was abysmal, and my health suffered as a result. There was a perpetual brain fog that dominated my mental world, and I gained pound after pound from the excess calories.
The funny thing was: I had no idea this was due to my dieting habits.
How Can I Improve My Cooking Skills Today?
It took a few years, but eventually, I came to my senses. If I wanted to think better and feel better, I needed to eat better. My kitchen skills were non-existent, so I started my journey to culinary success one awkward attempt at a time.
My first forays into cooking were simple meals of lentils, cheese, and tomatoes. Served cold or hot, they were filling, healthy, and economical. More importantly, these experiments helped me learn basic kitchen skills and develop my confidence in the kitchen.
What most people don’t tell you is that cooking doesn’t come naturally to everyone. It’s easy to burn a meal, over-spice a soup, botch a boil, or leave out an ingredient and ruin an entire dinner. I did all of these things ten times over, but I kept moving forward. On one occasion in Berlin, I actually nearly burned my kitchen down after leaving sweet potatoes in the oven for too long!
By focusing on creating a system of buying, preparing, and storing healthy meals for the week, I could save both time and money. I would also be able to improve my cooking skills incrementally without the pressure of having to cook every day.
Some of my first meal prep successes were simple proteins like pork or chicken with two sides of vegetables. I could make them on Sunday afternoon, put them in the freezer, and reheat them on busy days during the week.
Fajitas were also a win for me, as was Shepherd’s Pie and a fragrant pork and apricot stew with mixed vegetables. I still make that one to this day, and I still enjoy it.
By coming up with a prep system and experimenting with simple meals in the kitchen, I gradually answered my question from years before:
How can I improve my cooking skills?
By trying to cook, learning from my mistakes, and continuing to try again.
Better Food, Better Health
Eventually, my brain fog lifted, and physically; I felt like I was myself again. The more healthy meals I prepared the more I wanted to eat them. I gradually cut down on junk food and eventually stopped craving sweets. I even replaced the fruit juice in my cereal with coconut milk!
All of this was because I had healthy food sitting in the refrigerator, ready to eat whenever I was hungry. And the better my cooking skills became, the more confident I became in trying out new healthy recipes.
Using shopping lists and a blocked-off time for prepping, cooking, and storing freed me up to spend my mental energy on other pursuits. I also came to the realisation that I enjoyed preparing meals, which meant I spent more time in the kitchen improving my cooking skills.
All Systems Go!
There is inherent value in creating and adhering to systems that streamline your life. More often than not, these systems are not taught in conventional schools, which I think is a mistake.
Basic things like cooking skills are useful to us every day of our lives. They don’t just allow us to make fancy breakfast plates, they help us think more clearly and feel better physically. That adds up to improvements in all areas of life, not just in the kitchen.
I launched Universal Owl with the intention of ensuring that young people can obtain the skills they need to be happy, self-sufficient, and socially useful. This can begin in the kitchen with a simple pork and apricot stew.
Geoff Walters is a six-time entrepreneur and founder of Universal Owl. He has been fascinated by the subject of personal development for ten years, and enjoys passing lessons from his own life experience to younger people.
Areas of interest include wealth creation, nutrition, chess, classical music, psychology, communication and languages.
How much does it cost to educate a person from the first day of class to the moment they get their undergraduate degree? The numbers can vary widely, but if you’re in the UK or US, you could easily buy a new house for the same amount.
If you were buying a house, you would do research and consider the value of your investment before spending a penny. Few of us put in the same amount of effort when examining education. I think part of the reason is that school can feel like it’s free because it’s often subsidised.
There’s no such thing as a free education, though. In assessing the value of this huge investment, it’s important to know where the amounts come from and whether or not they’re justified in remaining so high.
Cost of Education in the UK and US
We’ll start by dividing education into two stages: grade school while we’re young, followed by our time at university.
The average cost of educating a child in the UK in 2018/19 was around £73,000. If we include other expenses covered by parents (books, uniforms, transportation), we can conservatively set the total cost of getting an education at £100,000.
In the USA, the estimated yearly cost of school ranges from $7,000 to $20,000 depending on the state of residence. Add in the same expenses as above and multiply across 12 years of schooling and we arrive at a total between $100,000 and $260,000.
The Cost of Going to University
A 2018 report released by HSBC found that most undergraduate degrees at public universities in the US cost $26,290 a year, with private university fees rising to $60,000. Over four years that adds up to a low-end total of $105,160.
In addition to actual fees paid for a university education, there’s also a measurement known as opportunity cost. This number represents income that could have been earned if a person started a career instead of going to university. If you attend university in the US your estimated opportunity cost is $40,000 per year.
Combining these figures we can estimate the total cost of attending university in the US is between $185,000 and $400,000 for a 4-year undergraduate degree.
In the UK annual tuition fees are capped at £9,250. If we use the same methodology as above and set the opportunity cost between £25,000 and £30,000 per annum, our ‘true cost’ of getting a 3-year bachelor degree in the UK is between £85,000 and £120,000.
Now let’s add everything up.
In the US it costs approximately $472,500 (£371,250) to educate a single person from grade school through college. In the UK it costs £202,500 ($257,352).
What about Free School?
Unless we’re paying for it out of pocket (or out of our parents’ pockets), most of us are used to thinking of school as “free.” The cost is covered through taxes.
Spreading out the burden of cost doesn’t make it disappear, however. In economically developed OECD nations, the average national budget reserved for education is 4%. As of 2020, the figure sits at 4.2% in the UK, but it rose as high as 5.7% in 2010. Those percentages may sound small, but at their peak they represented as much as £104 billion.
Even countries with reputations for affordable education bear similar cost burdens. Public universities in Germany are funded by the state, with students usually limited to covering a €250 semester enrolment fee. If we add in the opportunity cost and multiply the figures to cover getting a 4-year bachelor degree, the final cost sits between €98,000 and €224,000.
We all shoulder these fees, whether we realise it or not. It would be a mistake to ignore the costs or write them off as negligible when they clearly represent a major investment in many levels of society.
Getting What We Pay For
What do all of us get for this investment? It’s difficult to say, exactly. Most people are eager to point out that getting an education is an important part of becoming a useful member of society. Do the costs really need to be this high to achieve that, though? And does the educational system actually deliver on its promise of creating successful young adults?
After looking into the costs of educating a person and comparing it to the actual value of going to school, I came to the conclusion that no, we aren’t getting a fair return on our collective investment.
We previously showed that universities charge high tuition because they can, not because those fees are necessary to provide an education. Similar sentiments are also true with pre-university schooling. There’s a lot of bloat and inefficiency associated with education.
There are clear alternatives to spending this much on a system that’s failing its students. Universal Owl is working to build one such alternative that aims to teach useful meta-skills young people can use to improve all areas of their lives.
Many other organisations, from not-for-profit foundations to private business, are also offering alternatives to the university education system. Given the obvious issues with cost mentioned above, it can only be a matter of time before more models that challenge the status quo appear.
The most important lesson we can learn right now is that free schooling is anything but free. Like anything with a price tag attached to it, intelligent young people should question the value being provided, and take a good look at any alternatives there may be.
John Alexander Adam writes for Universal Owl on topics relating to finance. An entrepreneur, he has one successful exit behind him. John has almost 10 years of experience as a writer and editor on consumer finance, investment and tech topics.
He currently writes and consults while studying for his purple belt in SEO and conversion science. In his spare time, he enthusiastically pursues hobbies he’s not very good at, such as football, squash and raising a small child.
Do you have friends who get annoyed at you but complain behind your back instead of talking it out? Do you have a boss who rolls their eyes when you raise a serious issue? How about family members? Do any of them sulk or give you the silent treatment when you displease them?
This is called passive-aggression, and it’s incredibly destructive. I’ve seen friends lose friends over this type of behaviour, and I’ve struggled to communicate with passive-aggressive people in my own life, as well.
It can be difficult to recognise and react to passive-aggressive behaviour. But with a little effort and the right communication skills, we can build stronger, better, and healthier friendships.
How to Spot Passive-Aggressive Behaviour
The first step to dealing with passive-aggression is to identify it in ourselves and in others. We’ve all met passive-aggressive people who insist that they’re fine and nothing is wrong, all while continuing to behave in a way that makes it clear they’re angry.
Some of these behaviours include:
doing things deliberately badly
deliberately not doing something to cause inconvenience to others
Let’s look at an example. Gemma invites her close friends and a few of their partners to a party. She doesn’t invite Emily’s boyfriend, though. Emily attends the party alone and seems to have a good time, but in the days afterward, she gets up and leaves every time Gemma comes to sit in her group. When mutual friends ask her what’s up, Emily insists she’s fine.
This is classic passive-aggressive behaviour. Emily is angry about her boyfriend not being invited to the party, but she won’t say so out loud. Instead, she expresses her anger at Gemma through sulking and avoidance.
Gemma can tell that Emily is angry at her, but she might not know why. She feels like she has to walk on eggshells around Emily and that she maybe needs to beg her forgiveness, even though it’s not clear what she’s done wrong.
Emily is manipulating the situation to make Gemma feel guilty and uncomfortable, instead of expressing that she’s upset her boyfriend wasn’t invited to the party. It’s easy to see how unhealthy and frustrating that can be in any kind of relationship.
We can be passive-aggressive ourselves, too. A common example is having parents ask us to help with chores such as taking the rubbish out. We might put off doing it for hours or days, waiting until a parent gets fed up and does it themselves.
By doing this we’re being passive-aggressive by deliberately not doing a task, or doing it badly, so that we won’t be asked to do it again in future.
When Being Nice is Passive-Aggressive
Sometimes passive-aggressive behaviour isn’t obvious — even to the people who are perpetrating it.
People sometimes believe that they’re being “nice” by not voicing their unhappiness and deferring to the wishes of others. But if that niceness comes with the cost of them being snarky and sulky, and if they are only pretending to be nice in order to manipulate you into doing what they want, then that behaviour isn’t nice at all — it’s selfish.
Think of a guy who has a crush on his female friend. Instead of voicing his feelings and asking her out on a date, he keeps showing up to “support” her when she’s down or when she’s having problems with her current partner, talking about how her current boyfriend is no good, and so on.
All this time he’s actually resentful of her and is trying to win points so that she might eventually reciprocate his romantic attention. Rather than expressing his true wishes, he hopes to manipulate her into being interested in him.
A lot of people would say he’s just being nice, even if he has ulterior motives. In reality, he’s not being nice at all; nor is he being a good friend. He’s being passive-aggressive.
You can tell them directly that you’ve noticed they seem angry, and ask them why. Give them the opportunity to spell out what’s bothering them, and try to listen with an open mind. Sometimes people behave like this, not because they have bad intentions, but because they don’t know how to deal with their emotions or they feel like they can’t.
This won’t be easy and it won’t always work — some people won’t listen to anything that sounds like a criticism. They may become defensive, or deny their behaviour.
But still, it’s worth trying to talk to them and to be emotionally mature. People may not realise how badly their behaviour is affecting you, or they may think you don’t care about them, so taking the time to talk with them can demonstrate otherwise.
If you’re not sure how to start this conversation, sometimes it can help to acknowledge how uncomfortable you are about bringing it up. The handy phrase “I need to talk to you about something awkward” lets the person you’re talking to know that you’re not taking pleasure in telling them off or trying to make them feel bad. You acknowledge that it’s uncomfortable for both of you, but that it’s important to discuss disagreements and issues in a mature and responsible way.
Take a Step Back
Often, people won’t react well to being called out like this. They will probably feel embarrassed or defensive, maybe even angry. It can take some time and self-reflection to realise when you’ve been behaving poorly, after all.
Once you’ve called out passive-aggressive behaviour, it’s best to back off for a bit. If you want to salvage a friendship, sometimes you need to give that friend some space to reflect on their behaviour. Don’t text them often or go right back to hanging out all the time.
Once both you and your friend have some time to reflect, you may find that you’re not actually angry at each other and that your disagreement is something you can move past.
When you meet or text with someone for the first time after a disagreement, don’t dredge it up or apologise. Instead, start afresh and allow yourselves to remember why you were friends in the first place. It’s not about dwelling on what happened, but moving forward to something healthy.
It’s true that this won’t always work. Sometimes people will be so angry that you disagreed with them that they’ll never forgive you — but these people were never going to be good friends anyway.
Remember that it’s ok to walk away from these situations. You are under no obligation to put up with passive-aggressive behaviour, especially if you’ve made every effort to work it out in a mature manner.
Most of the time, though, you’ll find that with a bit of space you can rebuild a friendship after a disagreement and have healthier boundaries with each other.
Most of us don’t like fighting or arguing with people. We’d rather everyone got along and that no one ever felt bad. Even as an adult, I find it hard to disagree with people whom I like. It’s a lot easier to talk about boundaries in principle than it is to put them into practice.
But the truth is that you can’t avoid conflict in your relationships. You can either do what most people do, which is to avoid conflict to such a degree that you end up being passive-aggressive, or you can confront conflict head-on by acknowledging it directly and getting issues out into the open.
This isn’t comfortable, and it requires you to stick to your principles and weather other people’s awkwardness. But it is the best and most adult way to deal with conflict, and it will lead to stronger relationships.
Try to be aware of when people are displaying these passive-aggressive behaviours against you, and try to honestly acknowledge when you’re using them yourself. That’s the first step in moving past this stumbling block and onto more honest and effective communication.
Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.
She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.
Imagine you wake up one morning with a sharp pain in your side. It doesn’t go away after breakfast, and the pills you take at lunch aren’t helping. Guess it’s time to see a doctor!
If you could pick medical professionals from a catalog, which would you rather have: a doctor who scored poorly on med school exams but has helped hundreds of people, or a doctor who aced their exams but hasn’t seen a single patient?
In the real world, nobody cares about exams, grades, or any of that nonsense. We want people who have practiced and improved their craft, and the only way to measure that is through action.
Exams are supposed to be an indicator of a student’s mastery over a body of knowledge. If you know the topic, you get a good score. If you don’t, well, you’re a failure, or you didn’t apply yourself or work hard enough.
This idea is complete rubbish.
To pass an exam, you simply memorize information and repeat it back on command. Different types of exams do this with varying degrees of interaction, from written essays to multiple choice tests. Some exams do inspire a bit of thought, yet the way they’re structured as a class capstone still encourages students to focus on test scores instead of learning, promoting an unhealthy fear of failure.
The only thing an exam score is an indicator of is your ability to regurgitate data. It says nothing about your ability to put that information into practice in the real world.
If you flunk your foreign language tests but can carry on a conversation with native speakers, what purpose did the tests serve? According to the school you failed, but according to the tourists you gave directions to in their native tongue, you’re quite competent.
Exams and grades have no connection to our real-world abilities. Focusing on getting high marks just takes attention away from what really matters: building and improving on skills we need to succeed.
Worrying about Nothing
Back when I was a student, a ceramics professor neatly demonstrated to me why worrying about grades and test scores is nothing but a distraction.
His emphasis was always on the practical application of ceramics. The class was about making bowls, plates, cups, and mugs; things that want to be used in day-to-day life. Yes, it was great when they’re pretty, but we tried not to get lost in abstraction. We stood there and made something you can drink out of.
And how do you get better at making cups? The same way you get better at anything: by doing it, failing at it, learning from your experiences, and doing it again.
This professor said he would be thrilled if each of us built 100 mugs a day. Maybe only one of them would be worth keeping, but that wasn’t the point. Focusing on the goal would mean adopting a harmful achievement-oriented mindset. Instead, we put our attention on the process. We tried to enjoy making each of those 100 mugs, and learn from each flopped attempt, too.
We didn’t have exams in that class. Sure, the professor could have tested us on technique, clay mixing recipes, glaze temperatures, and the like, but to what end? He just wanted us to make things. If we had studied for a test and worried over the outcome, it would have taken both time and attention away from what mattered.
Outside of school, nobody has ever asked me what score I got on an exam. A lot of people do ask about the rust and cobalt glazed bowl I have sitting on my desk, though. I made it in that class almost 20 years ago.
Testing without Exams
As soon as you bring up the idea that exams are pointless, people fire back counter-arguments. The most common one is that without exams, we’d have no way of testing knowledge.
I have a pretty simple response to that: how on Earth do you think that’s true?!
Graded exams do not occur in the natural world. A whale does not need to pass a test to learn how to surface for air, and a lion doesn’t need a B+ before it’s allowed to join a hunt.
How do these animals pick up skills? By learning from experienced members of their community. They aren’t concerned about missteps in their learning process, nor do they get distracted by a hunting exam at the end of the season. They simply practice, fail, and improve.
The knowledge we pass to other people is more complex than gazelle capturing methods. The principles behind teaching and learning are exactly the same, however, and they have been throughout our own history.
How can you prove you’ve learned something unless you take an exam? A philosophy professor I know solved this problem in the most straightforward way: he replaced exams with one-on-one conversations.
Many students saw this as an oral exam in disguise. I took the opportunity to relax and focus on understanding the material, which was all I wanted in the first place. Put those same students in a room together today and most will talk about how stressful that class was. I remember good lectures, good readings, and a whole lot of useful philosophy.
I asked this professor once why he chose to have discussions when grading tests would have been less time-consuming. He had a simple response:
“I want to know how well students actually understand the knowledge. I can’t think of a better way to do that than by talking to them.”
Shifting Focus onto Practical Skills
Really, exams and grades only exist to make it easier for schools to codify their efforts. They don’t benefit students, and they don’t benefit anyone in the real world. It’s just another way for schools to enforce subconscious lessons like obedience and a fear of failure.
Your life isn’t over if you fail an exam. On the contrary, it might be a wake-up call to show you how pointless exams are, so you can get to work actually learning something useful, something you enjoy, something you can benefit from in your daily life.
If you want to learn how to code, pick up the basics and build a program, then scale upwards and outwards from there. Why would anyone care what grade you got in coding classes if you can make something useful in the real world?
Think back on any tests you’ve taken in the past. How much do you remember from those pages? Probably very little. Now think back to any skill you’ve picked up, even something as small as being able to throw a baseball. You remember a lot more about that process, don’t you?
If you’re nervous about an exam, even an exam you think you need in order to get into a certain career, try not to worry about it. Seriously, don’t. Your goal is to get better at some skill or some body of knowledge, and tests are a poor indicator of ability.
Forget about test scores, and forget about grades. It’s time to focus on what’s real and useful in your life: practical skills. Follow what interests you and don’t let something as pointless as an exam get you down.
John Bardinelli writes philosophy content at Universal Owl and edits both psychology and finance articles. He has worked as a professional writer and author for nearly two decades.
His main areas of interest include philosophy, technology, science fiction, and history. When John isn’t writing, he’s either exploring quiet corners of the natural world or sitting behind a cup of coffee in a cafe.