Learning to cook will bring more to your adult and family life than just about any other skill you can name. There are so many benefits to being good in the kitchen; it’s flabbergasting that people (men, mostly) argue that it’s not worth the time and effort. And hey, look, I used to be one of them. It’s easy to run out and pick something up from the drive-through, or a prepared meal at the store. The truth is, though, I was preventing myself from reaping the almost limitless benefits of learning to cook. Now that I know how to make delicious food, I’m downright evangelical about cooking when I talk to my friends who don’t know their way around the kitchen.
All men should learn to cook. Whether you’re a husband, father, single guy, whatever, you should start learning to cook tonight. It will improve your health, your enjoyment of food, your financial situation, and your social situation. Oh, and you will also be able to feed yourself.
Cooking is a Skill
Cooking is still a relatively new endeavor for me, but I do it just about every day, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. That’s because cooking is a skill, and you get better with practice, so don’t expect to be an Iron Chef two days after learning how to sauté onions. Some of the food you make will be overcooked, undercooked, over-seasoned, or under-seasoned. That’s fine; that’s how you learn. But you need the reps and the only way you’ll improve is by doing it. You’ll be surprised how quickly your skills improve in just a few weeks. If you someone who envy people who know their way around a kitchen, remember the knowledge wasn’t factory-installed. Even Emeril Lagasse had to learn how to scramble an egg at one point in his life.
You can certainly cook using a recipe (I use them all the time), but you can’t rely on them for everything you need. A recipe doesn’t tell you the proper way to dice an onion or how to cut up a whole chicken. But you know what does? YouTube! Afraid of sounding stupid by asking how to do a simple technique? Just look it up, there are hundreds of videos for just about every technique you can think of. (Side note: don’t be afraid to seek out information at its most fundamental; any activity requires foundational skills. Learning to use a knife to dice an onion properly sounds easy, but it’s still something you need to learn and practice. Next time you’re at a someone’s house, and they’re making dinner, instead of asking the polite, but meaningless question, “Can I help?” you should ask, “Hey, can you teach me how to do that?”)
You will need recipes and guides when you start, but when the components come together, you’ll be able to combine the basic techniques without referring to a recipe. Concepts and techniques mean you’ll never have to look up how to make a proper vinaigrette for a salad because you know off the top of your head that the ratio of oil-to-vinegar is 3:1.
My favorite cookbook the is The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. It is accessible, fun to read, and contains details on specific techniques that you can hone into your own style. I love it because it breaks down cooking into the individual technical steps, and teaches you the why of cooking, not just the how. With this book, the endless supply of YouTube videos, and the seventy-zillion recipes online, there’s almost no limit to what you can make for you and your family.
The Health Benefits
Do you have any idea what’s in the food you’re eating? Not if you don’t cook it yourself, you don’t. You may think you have a grasp of what that burrito or salad or sandwich, but the only way you can be sure of what you or your family is eating is if you make it yourself. This is especially true if you have food allergies.
I was recently talking to an old friend with a severe case of Celiac disease. He bemoaned his lack of food choices, admitting to me that 40% of his diet is Tostitos because he doesn’t know how to cook, and can’t trust most packages that say “gluten-free.” His life will be improved exponentially if he learns how to cook because he can create delicious food that he can eat.
However, you don’t need to have a medical condition to reap the health benefits of eating food that comes from fresh ingredients in your kitchen. When you make fresh meals at home, you know exactly what ingredients are going in your food. Pulling back the curtain on what you are putting in your body is the single most useful health benefit you can gain from cooking.
There’s not exactly a central database where you can break down every single component ingredient in restaurant offerings, and packaged food items are often inscrutable. There’s also a regulatory environment to deal with. Health codes impact the way foods can be prepared, handled, preserved, and distributed. Look at an available ingredient list on any restaurant website or packaged food, and you’ll see a host of unpronounceable preservatives. Some of them are harmless, but many of them just barely clear the bar for human consumption.
Furthermore, restaurants (particularly the large ones) have to scale their operation in such a way that they can serve a lot of people a variety of different dishes relatively quickly. Operational efficiency in this realm often means time-saving, corner-cutting techniques. Some of them, like chopping vegetables before the dinner rush, probably don’t have a significant impact on the healthfulness of the food. Others, like sourcing a key sauce from a vendor who packages it in ready-to-go vats rather than making it fresh on site every day, probably do.
The Culinary Benefits
Cooking your own meals also means you’re going to make different choices about what you eat. While grilling burgers happens occasionally, it’s unlikely you’re going to regularly make your family pizza, or do a ton of deep frying at home. You probably think you have a lot of variety when you eat out, but start paying attention to what you eat when you go out. You’re probably gravitating toward the same five or six places (and dishes!) over and over again.
Variety at home is almost unlimited. There are recipes and techniques readily available for just about every style of food you could possibly want to make. Craving Thai food? Check out this authentic Tom Kha Gai recipe at She Simmers, or better yet, this gem for a Southeast Asian chicken stew. This dish was such a big hit with Kathleen that she insisted I make it the next time we had company over. Without hesitation, she told them, “This is the best thing ever to come out of my kitchen.”
Variety in prepared foods is either more difficult or a more expensive. Anything that’s not a health-slaying fast food option is going to run you nearly twice as much, and before you know it, you’ve racked up an eye-popping food bill.
The Financial Benefits
Speaking of our spending habits, the average American spends $10.00 when they go out to lunch. Most people surveyed tend to go out twice a week. But I happen to know people who eat out for every meal. This is an incredible drain on the wallet.
When I didn’t cook, my regular rotation was the fast food and fast casual stuff that typically ran around $10 or less. But I would frequently sprinkle in a trip to the Indian Restaurant for some $12.95 chicken tikka masala or maybe some sushi, which if I’m being honest here, cost upwards of $20.
But even without the fancier options, $10 for lunch, $10 for dinner (wait, what about breakfast?) comes to $20 a day, $140 a week, $7280 a year to feed one person. You can easily feed a family of four for under half that. Even if you do manage to eat out on a consistently slim budget, you’re paying in other ways. Restaurants are expensive to run, and they are trying to turn a profit so that food is cheap for a reason.
A common refrain: fresh ingredients are sooooooooo expensive, and eating out is cheaper than eating in. From a purely financial perspective, this is patently false. If you factor in things like “convenience” and “time,” then, from an economic context I guess, you could make a somewhat cogent argument that the opportunity costs of taking the time to cooking and clean-up need to be factored in and blah blah blah… But that’s just a lazy person’s excuse.
Of all the activities that should be prioritized in life, creating a healthy attitude between you and food should be right at the top of the list. So, stop your complaining about how much time it takes, and get used to the idea that cooking for yourself saves you money.
The Social Benefits
Kathleen and I are building a home, and one of our focuses with Creature will be sitting around the table and eating as a family. We are going to make this behavior a priority. Aside from the focus of the dinner table as a family gathering spot, exposing your family to a healthier relationship with food from the start gives everyone a better chance to maintain good habits in the long term.
Kathleen and I are also going to bring Creature into the kitchen to help out at an early age. As soon as our child is old enough to hold a (plastic) knife, we’ll be working on prepping meals together. I know this means that meal prep will be a messy, time-consuming affair early on, but I think this strategy will pay major dividends. The hope is to introduce Creature to the process of food preparation, so it’s not a mystery how things end up on the plate. We also want to teach a crucial life skill that our children will be able to use for the rest of their lives.
It’s also just nice to have more than one person who knows how to roast a plate of vegetables so you can take a break now and then.
For those without families, hosting a home-cooked meal for your friends is at least as fun as going out to a decent restaurant. You can easily cook a delicious meal for a few friends for less than the cost of your share of a food and beverage tab at a decent restaurant.
The Most Important Skill
It’s hard to oversell how much of a life-changer learning to cook is. Regardless of whether you’re a stay-at-home parent, a working parent, or a bachelor, there is no skill you can learn that can use literally every single day to improve your eating, your health, your finances, and how you relate to friends and family.
All men should learn to cook. Start tonight. Change your life.