My Favorite Mom Hack: Recipe-Free Cooking

I am not a chef. I wouldn’t even consider myself a cook. This is why the daily plight of feeding a family of five dinner gives me heart palpitations.

Though I am admittedly obsessed with reading cookbooks and watch Food Network religiously, I hate following recipes. Trying to keep three children entertained while following along and executing a recipe is just too much to ask. So, here’s my secret to getting dinner on the table every night: I just cook the things.

Once you have some basic kitchen skills and a rudimentary understanding of ingredients that work well together, JUST. COOK. THE. FOOD. Quit overthinking this cooking and meal planning thing. You don’t need to spend the only free time you have making a freezer full of casseroles and slow cooker “dump meals” (which, by the way, can we please as a caring society collectively rename?!). You don’t have to spend hours meal planning. You don’t even need a recipe or a plan of any sort. Here’s what you do need:

-Spices
-Herbs
-Olive Oil and butter
-Lemons, limes
-Garlic, onions
-The ability to sauté, use an oven, boil pasta, and slice, dice and chop!

Now, take all of that knowledge and walk into the grocery store without a list … Exhilarating, isn’t it? You’ll want to know how many dinners — and, therefore, proteins/veggies/grains —you need. For instance, if I’m making 4 dinners I know I need 4 proteins, probably 6-8 veggies and 2-4 starches/grains, depending whether I’m making a pasta or not.

Now, buy what is on sale. I learned to do this the hard way. I would come to the grocery store armed with a list of ingredients based on fun, new recipes, and meanwhile I would completely miss out on the fact that salmon or steak was hugely on sale that week. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice …

Next, make your combos. So, let’s say salmon is, indeed, on sale. Now, I know that salmon goes well with asparagus and brown rice because I like to dine out. If brown rice is too expensive but pasta is cheap, I will put together some sort of salmon, asparagus, lemon pasta. Meal one is done!

Let’s try another one. Let’s say sausage is on sale. Sausage works well with peppers, so I’ll make that combo from brown rice, onion, peppers, and broccoli. Once I get in the kitchen, I’ll figure out what I want to do with it. I might throw the sausage in slow cooker than morning with the peppers and onions. Or, if it’s a crazy morning, I’ll just sauté or roast everything together and toss it over the rice. I’ll add my spices based on my mood. There are no rules! Just cook the food.

Once you cook like this for awhile, you learn to love it. The heavy weight of meal planning, shopping for ingredients and following instructions just lifts from your shoulders, and you’ll actually enjoy cooking again. At first you have to learn to trust yourself in the kitchen, but you’ll get more confident the more you do it.

You’ll save money, time, and — most importantly — headspace. Food should be fun, not just another thing “to do.” Now go cook some food and enjoy your life!