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!
After about 5 years of trial and error, I realised that meal prepping was the solution I was looking for.
Meal Prep to the Rescue
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.
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