How Can I Improve My Cooking Skills?

How Can I Improve My Cooking Skills?

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.

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.


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Exercise for Enjoyment, Not Achievement

Exercise for Enjoyment, Not Achievement

Remember recess? Bet you couldn’t wait to meet your mates in the school yard to mess around with a ball. And don’t get me started on the joys of playing in the sand in kindergarten!

Physical activity in our early school years tends to be pretty casual. You look forward to it because, well, it’s fun to run around the playground. Later on, exercise turns into just another class. It’s “physical education,” not recess, and if you don’t do it right you’ll get a bad grade.

This isn’t what exercise is supposed to be. We should enjoy physical activity in and of itself, not be forced into PE classes where we do things we have no interest in.

Exercise and Achievement

Most schools have pre-set physical education programs that funnel in students and force them to participate in sport. They’re then expected to embrace exercise and love it for the rest of their lives.

There is a subtle achievement mindset young adults are compelled to embrace when it comes to institutionalized exercise. Too often, it’s about faster times, heavier weights, and being better than peers. It doesn’t matter if you hate every moment of it; you’re only after the results awaiting you at the end of your session. Students who don’t excel often feel shame compared to their sportier (and normally more popular) classmates.

How often do you actually enjoy something you feel pressure to achieve results in? Almost never, right? It’s no wonder so few adults enjoy exercise. They were taught from a young age that it’s a chore to slog through, not an activity to enjoy.

Exercise should not be a means to an end: to lose weight, to get in shape, to impress that boy or girl you like. Exercise should be play. You should look forward to hitting the field, the pool, or the courts, not look forward to it being over with.

Let me tell you a couple of stories that explain how I learned the value of sport as play.

Choice Makes a Difference

When I was in middle school, PE was mandatory. We changed into uniforms and were split into groups: girls played their sports and boys played theirs. It was so dry and regimented that I’m not sure “fun” was ever part of the equation.

Being forced to play a game I didn’t want to really rubbed me the wrong way. If I skipped any class more than others, it was PE.

In high school, I could choose what I wanted to do during my hour of PE. Here, I finally found something I loved: tennis. Suddenly I didn’t want to skip PE. I actually looked forward to it! I wanted to learn how to power serve and perfect my back swing.

Choice made all the difference in the world for me. When I wasn’t forced to “enjoy” some arbitrary activity, I could actually relax and have a good time. And you know what? You never had to remind me to get out to the courts on a sunny day.

Running for the Goal

A couple of decades later, my 12 year old daughter announced she was joining the track team. I was thrilled, as I had been a runner for a long time. Every day after school she ran with her teammates, and every day she came home feeling inadequate and disappointed that she couldn’t keep up with them.

I supported my daughter’s efforts throughout this. I reminded her that it wasn’t about keeping pace with or outperforming anyone. It was about improving her own abilities day by day and having fun doing it.

After another week or two, she came home in tears telling me how much she hated track. Running around in circles was boring, and if she couldn’t even keep up with her friends, what was the point?

I could see my daughter was no longer doing this for herself. Somewhere along the way her curiosity and enthusiasm had been replaced with a fear of failure that caused her a great deal of anxiety. Moreover, she felt like she was not meeting my perceived expectations as her mother, an experienced runner.

This was a lesson for both of us. Modern education doesn’t allow for individuals to explore any of their interests. It’s about conforming to pre-set schedules and standards, even in PE. This instills the expectation in young people that they should learn to enjoy what options are available to them.

Don’t like basketball? Too bad, that’s what we’re doing in PE. Push through the pain and get better at it.

I didn’t want my daughter to internalize this lesson. I told her she was free to explore any physical exercise she wanted to. She doesn’t have to enjoy what her friends do, what her mother does, or even what the school says she should enjoy. She took that to heart and later discovered a love of volleyball.

Exercise to Feel Good

It’s hard to have a conversation about exercise without talking about the benefits. Yes, it helps you lose weight, feel better, be more creative, etc. But if you’re forcing yourself to be active just for those benefits, you’re making things a lot harder than they need to be. And you’re missing out on all of the fun, too.

You can build an effective exercise routine that lasts for a long time simply by focusing on what you enjoy. Ditch the achievement mindset, and forget about pushing through the pain. Find your own personal motivation for wanting to get out there, and follow that every single day.

If you don’t like what you’re doing, try something new. Try a few things. Try a million things. There is no failure, just a failure to try.

Exercise isn’t about hiking the tallest mountain or spending half your day at the gym. Give yourself the freedom to have fun and do what you enjoy.

Shannon Llewellyn is the health writer for Universal Owl. A Cordon Bleu chef who always enjoyed writing on the side, she recently made the transition into writing full-time.

Her spare time is mostly taken up with running, meditating, yoga, and being grandma to Sammy.


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How to Fail Your Way to Success at Exercise

How to Fail Your Way to Success at Exercise

I bet you don’t remember when you took your first steps, but I can guarantee you fell down. A lot. You failed at walking. And talking. And using a spoon.

You didn’t know what failure meant then, so you kept on trying until you succeeded. So why as adults do we resist continuing to try after a few failed attempts at something? Our culture has taught us at a young age that failure has to be avoided at all costs. But there is another way to look at failure: as something we can use to our advantage in our journey toward growth and success.

Failing your way to a successful exercise routine

Let’s consider exercise as an example. Everyone knows exercise is a fundamental part of a healthy lifestyle, not just for physiological fitness but for mental and emotional fitness as well. When you feel good about your body, everything in life tends to fall into place. You look better so you eat better. You eat better so you feel better so you perform better. It’s all very synergistic.

But finding the perfect exercise routine takes a lot of trial and error. Or, put another way, it takes a lot of failure.

My relationship with failure in school

I used to be ashamed of failure as much as anyone else. At school, Field Day filled me with dread. Having a distinct lack of athletic ability, I knew I’d be overlooked by the team captain for every event. I believed I had no skill and no talent in any sport and plotted to be conveniently ill so I could hide out in the nurse’s office all day. I felt weak and unpopular.

Looking back, I can pinpoint the exact moment someone told me I was no good at sports. I internalized that belief and from that point forward believed I was simply no good at anything athletic. Trying to develop and stick to an exercise routine was a chore instead of the healthy choice it should’ve been.

Obesity as a growing global problem

I’m not the only one who felt this way as a kid. According to the World Health Organization, obesity rates have nearly tripled since 1975 across the board for all age groups. Most notably, over 340 million children and adolescents aged 5-19 were overweight or obese in 2016.

It’s also no surprise that exercise has been slashed from school curriculums worldwide. This short-sighted decision has bred a generation of students that are unaware of the importance of exercise and unaware of how to incorporate the habit of exercise into their daily routine.

Obesity rates continue to climb as people become more and more sedentary every generation. So how can we reverse this dangerous trend? I can’t speak for the whole of society, but I can share how I was able to start leading an active lifestyle in my own life.

How I changed my relationship with failure

As I grew up and chose my occupation, I discovered I loved food. I loved to learn about it, make it, and most of all, eat it. I became fascinated with the concept that food was fuel for my body, so I learned about the best fuel for my body and how it could nourish and heal me.

I knew I needed to incorporate exercise into my daily life, but I didn’t want to feel miserable doing it or ashamed for not doing it. I needed to adjust my perception from an expectation of perfect athletic performance to one of just showing up and seeing what happened.

I tried everything: group aerobics, softball, basketball, spin classes, you name it. But still, I resented having to ‘show up’ for something that I wasn’t genuinely looking forward to. I wanted to have fun at getting fit, but first I had to figure out how to reframe my own concept of failure.

Seeing failure as part of the process and accepting it as an inevitable instead of something shameful let me try new things without so much pressure on myself. Eventually, I found the type of exercise that is exactly my jam: running. I’m proud to say I have competed in multiple 5K runs over the last 25 years.

Find Your Jam

Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you find your jam:

  • What did I love to play as a kid? Kickball? Softball? Or did I like dancing in my room all by myself, or riding my bike?
  • What time of day am I most active? What does my schedule look like? Am I an early bird or a night owl?
  • Am I a competitive person or do I just want to have fun? Sometimes the best exercise is when you don’t even know you are doing it. Team sports like soccer, baseball, volleyball, hiking, and even dancing fall into this category.
  • How much time do I want to devote to exercise? Do I want to work out daily or a few times a week? What can I genuinely commit to for optimum results?
  • Do I want to exercise alone or in a group? Am I happier in a group or do I prefer ‘lone warrior’ pursuits like the bike or the track or the treadmill?
  • What does my budget look like? Can I afford things like gym or team fees, uniforms and equipment?

The key here is to focus on the process, not the end goal.

Try something. Fail at it. Fail at it repeatedly until you find the program that works for you.

Failure is not a bad thing, it simply means you haven’t found the solution or process that works for you yet. This theory can (and should) be applied to every aspect of your life. If you never try, you will always fail. Yet with every failure, you are closer to a victory. It’s the process that counts.

As NBA All-Star Michael Jordan so famously says, “The key to success is failure.” So keep trying, and keep failing. And keep on keeping on!

Shannon Llewellyn is the health writer for Universal Owl. A Cordon Bleu chef who always enjoyed writing on the side, she recently made the transition into writing full-time.

Her spare time is mostly taken up with running, meditating, yoga, and being grandma to Sammy.


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How To Meal Prep If You’re a Young Person Who Can’t Cook

How To Meal Prep If You’re a Young Person Who Can’t Cook

When it comes to starting your day, you probably set your alarm, get up, brush your teeth, dress and grab a bite (hopefully!), and hustle out the door to tackle your day. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re developing lifestyle habits. These habits set the tone for how you manage your time and energy for the rest of the day.

How Do You Prepare for Your Day?

You may not realize it, but the way you do anything is the way you do everything.

If you start your day by sleeping in as long as possible, spending 2 minutes in the shower and wolfing down a sandwich, you’re probably going to carry around that feeling of being rushed with you for most of the day. Fortunately, there’s a more relaxed way of doing things.

Ever heard of meal prepping?

What is Meal Prepping?

Meal prepping simply refers to preparing food before you need it. Usually, you’ll prepare food in bulk to make your life easier. Getting into the habit of meal prepping eliminates the impulse to grab unhealthy junk food when you are feeling hungry or exhausted.

Meal prep standardizes portion sizes, saves you time, money, and all the precious energy it would normally take you to find something to eat. It’s already there in the fridge or the pantry ready for you to prepare and chow down.

My story

As a chef and single parent, I can’t stress enough the importance of meal prepping. Knowing what’s already prepped and waiting in the fridge made my evenings less stressful when I got home from work when the kids were hungry but there was still homework and baths and getting ready for the next day to be done. So many tasks before bedtime!

Better yet, as my kids grew up, they developed the meal prepping habit too. These days, as full-fledged adults, each one of them meal preps in order to ace their own days. Again, meal prepping saves time, money, and the precious energy you need for slaying your day.

Rev-Up Your Engine

Imagine your body is a luxury vehicle. Would you put low-quality petrol in your high-end Maserati? No? Then why would you put cheap, processed junk food in your body and expect it to perform at its best? It’s a matter of basic self-respect.

Meal-prepping takes the guesswork out of what’s on the menu at the end of the day. Simply grab and go from your own fridge or pantry. Eat better, feel better, perform better.

How to Meal Prep

Figure out what part of your day needs streamlining. Is it your morning routine or the evening hours that stress you out? Is it both? No problem. Meal prep doesn’t have to be a chore. In fact, you can learn to enjoy taking that one-or-two hour period each week to do your prepping.

If you live with roommates, enlist the help of a ‘meal prep buddy’ to split costs and labor and share ingredients. Maybe you’ll buy the zucchini and they’ll buy the tomatoes, and share portions of the meat and the beans. Listen to some music or a podcast, or watch a movie while you wash, chop, dice, and package food for the upcoming week.

What Meal Prepping Style Fits Your Lifestyle?

Are you someone who often arrives home late from school or work feeling ‘hangry’ (hungry and angry)? Then you’ll like to prepare complete meals ready to cook from the refrigerator or freezer. Just reheat your meal in the microwave or on the stovetop, and dinner is served.

Do you smack the snooze button on your alarm every morning to get those last few precious minutes of sleep? Then batch cooking is for you. Separate a large batch of food into individual portions for early morning breakfasts. Oatmeal is a favorite ingredient for this type of prepping, and it works for rice, pasta, beans, and veggie sides too.

If you fancy yourself a bit of a gourmet, you can still meal prep individual ingredients and then pull them together when you are ready to cook. Splash some balsamic vinaigrette or use some seasoning or spices, and you’ll have a different meal every day with the same basic ingredients.

What Do I Need for Meal Prepping?

If you’re thinking you’re going to need to be a rich kid to pull this off, don’t worry. We’ve got you covered. You’ll be able to get started with meal prep even if you’re living on a tight budget. In fact, it will probably end up saving you money. So check out our shortlist of the things you’ll need:

  • Firstly, food, obviously! Meat, veggies, beans, oatmeal, anything that you know you’ll eat.
  • Zippered freezer bags in gallon or quart sizes or airtight containers to put your prep in.
  • A thick-tipped black marker is necessary for labelling the bags and containers with the item and date you prepped. Most prepped food keeps about a week in the refrigerator and up to two months in the freezer.

Here are some easy, economical ingredients for meal prep menus:

  • Animal products like chicken, beef, pork, fish or seafood.
  • Vegetables like potatoes, squash, spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms, or peas. Anything that you like and is versatile enough to go into a variety of dishes.
  • Starches like rice and pasta. Both are excellent foundations for future meals or a meal on their own.

Sample Prep Recipes

Seasoned Chicken Bites:

  • Purchase some skinless chicken thighs.
  • Cut each thigh into smaller pieces and season with salt and pepper.
  • Place seasoned, raw chicken in individual portion zippered bags and place in the fridge.
  • To cook, simply saute the chicken pieces in a frying pan with a little olive oil, butter, or bacon grease — whatever you have on hand.
  • Or, to save even more time, cook the chicken pieces in advance and once they are cooled, portion them into bags. Simply reheat when you’re ready to eat!

Breakfast Smoothies:

  • Cut up a variety of fruits in zippered bags and freeze.
  • When you’re pushed for time, throw a few frozen pieces of fruit into a counter-top blender along with some milk and whiz away.
  • You’ll end up with a quick and healthy snack for breakfast on-the-go or a last-minute study session.

Final Words

Adulting means being in charge of your time, energy, and resources. Meal prepping is the kind of habit that, once in place, will benefit you not only during these hectic years of ‘figuring it out’ but for the rest of your life. Just ask my kids.

Shannon Llewellyn is the health writer for Universal Owl. A Cordon Bleu chef who always enjoyed writing on the side, she recently made the transition into writing full-time.

Her spare time is mostly taken up with running, meditating, yoga, and being grandma to Sammy.


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