By Kailee Meskimen
It took me until I was 23 to start cooking dinner. Not that I couldn’t pick up a whisk, spatula or ladle if needed, I just didn’t have the experience or know-how to regularly cook wholesome meals that also tasted good. A few years (and a few burnt pans) later, I’ve finally converted cooking from burden to pleasure. Whether you’re cooking for one or cooking for a crowd, it doesn’t have to be a chore. By stocking up on wholesome, organic foods and pantry staples, you can make homemade meals a part of your routine.
Cooking for one: Stock your pantry
Building your pantry with quality, organic ingredients can be expensive and time-consuming, but this is the foundation of cooking well. As a newly-wed and recent college graduate, I certainly empathize with those just starting out. A well-stocked pantry doesn’t need to be filled with fancy ingredients — or even a lot of ingredients, especially if you’re cooking for one or two people most of the time. You simply need the staples that will form the basis of a variety of meals.
Although staple foods differ among households due to preferences, ethnic backgrounds and dietary restrictions, nearly every pantry starts with flour, sugar, olive oil and a cooking oil with a high smoke point, such as cold-pressed grapeseed oil. Next, stock up on basic seasonings like garlic powder, onion powder, cinnamon, basil, crushed red pepper flakes, cayenne, cumin, coriander, sea salt and black peppercorns. Nuts, beans, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, as well as locally-farmed eggs, meat, milk, butter and cheese are also great to have on hand.
Once your pantry is fully loaded, your culinary creations can commence. Turn mediocre meals into memorable ones with these helpful tips:
- Season and spice your pantry staples! Check out our tips for using spices.
- Substitute staples in basic dishes to keep your taste buds guessing. Alternate vegetables or try different whole grains like millet, farro, orzo or barley.
- Explore different kinds of vinegars. Foods will become more flavorful with the addition of vinegars like balsamic, herb, rice, cider and wine vinegars.
- Grill foods to enhance the flavor. Grilling spices like thyme, tarragon and oregano add a zesty zing to meats, vegetables and even fruit.
- Use a spritz of citrus, like lemon, on foods to liven up the flavor. This works especially well with soups, salads and fish.
Prepping for convenience: Save time and money
Fast-forward a few years. You’ve most likely accrued your staples and have a good grasp on how to put a twist on your favorites. But because of busy schedules, you may be looking for convenient, pre-prepared foods instead of whipping up a home-cooked meal each evening. Although it’s easy to grab processed or packaged foods, you’ll feel healthier, save money and enjoy mealtime more if you commit to preparing wholesome meals ahead of time.
Here are ideas to help save space, money and time when cooking your own “convenience” food:
- Prepare meals ahead of time and freeze them. Non-creamy soups, lasagna, casseroles, meatloaf, pulled meat and enchiladas are good options.
- Buy in bulk when available. This often saves money and is more sustainable than buying packaging goods.
- Create “cook once, prepare many ways’” recipes. Meats like organic chicken, pork or grass-fed beef work wonderfully in leftovers like tacos, salads, quesadillas and other quick, weeknight meals.
- Cook more “one pot” meals. They are easy, use fewer dishes, and freeze and reheat well.
- Look recipes with simple prep and lots of flavor. Try Simply Organic’s new Steam Gourmet and Crazy Awesome Veggies for healthy, easy dinner options.
Cooking for a crowd: Plan ahead
At this stage, you’ve probably familiarized yourself with the kitchen. Perhaps you’ve attempted complicated fare such as filet mignon, roasted duck or even braised pork loin. Whether it’s a holiday get-together or family birthday party, preparing and serving a meal to a crowded dining room can be one of a cook’s greatest challenges. Generations of family and friends of all ages (and taste preferences) come together to share a good-tasting meal. Cooking for a large audience can be overwhelming, but if you organize and prepare ahead of time, and just take a deep breath, you’ll be well on your way to success.
Try these crowd-approved tips when you cook for company:
- Make a list of all the dishes you plan on serving. Buy organic ingredients wherever possible, and consider buying foods like spices, herbs and mixes in bulk to reduce overall cost.
- Ensure dishes created can be made gluten-free, dairy-free or vegetarian (or other dietary restriction) friendly if need be.
- Use slow cookers to keep food warm to serve gravies, sauces and appetizers. Try: Spinach Dip.
- Opt for foods that can be served warm or cold such as dessert, pasta salads, sauerkraut, finger sandwiches or soup.
- Serve food on a skewer. It decreases clean-up and provides a fun twist for traditionally plated courses. Try: Blackened Shrimp Skewers (pictured above).
When you have the right ingredients, cooking can be a fun and rewarding experience. No matter what your culinary expertise level, you can always learn something in the kitchen.
What helped you hone your cooking skills?
About the author: Kailee Meskimen is a content management specialist for Frontier, Simply Organic and Aura Cacia — allowing her to immerse herself in the world of organic living every day. In her free time, she enjoys experimenting in the kitchen, going for long walks with her dog and traveling the world.