Don't be intimidated: It's all about baby steps. We talked to expert cooks-slash-schedule-jugglers to outline them.

By Samantha Zabell
Updated October 08, 2014
woman chopping veggies
Credit: Imagewerks/Getty Images

If those muffins you sent in for the bake sale were from the grocery store, don’t worry—your secret is safe with us. Everyone has taken that shortcut. But when it comes to a home-cooked meal, it’s hard to replicate it with take-out—even science has shown that parents who cook at home tend to have children who make healthier choices.

“You cannot get a healthy meal unless you cook it for yourself. It’s fresh; you’ve chosen the ingredients,” says Elana Horwich, cooking instructor and founder of Meal and a Spiel. “If you want to eat what you like, you have to make it.”

It’s easier said than done, and when you’ve had a long day, or your family members are on opposite schedules, cooking can seem even more daunting. But it turns out that becoming a pro in the kitchen isn’t as hard as you think. Here, we debunk the myths and offer some key tips and shortcuts that will help you embrace all your kitchen has to offer.

1. Not everything has to be from scratch.
So, you don’t have fresh garlic? That’s okay! Garlic powder works, too. “You have to start somewhere,” says Tiffany King, food blogger and creator of Eat at Home. “The goal is a home-cooked meal—it doesn’t mean everything is done by hand.” Invest in pre-made ingredients, like salad mixes, sauces, and frozen meats, to take off some of the preparation pressure.

2. Make the most of your Sundays.
Well, it doesn’t have to be Sunday, but you need a night to plan out your week. Make thoughtful grocery lists and outline what you want to cook for dinner. Becoming a home cook starts in the grocery aisle, and a little extra preparation will help you make the most of your trip.

3. Find recipes that you trust.
Don’t overwhelm yourself with fancy cookbooks and thousands of food bloggers. Find a few standard recipes to start, and build your repertoire from there.

“The easiest way for people to get started is to use recipes that you know are going to work and use common pantry ingredients,” King says. “If you’re just starting, it can be daunting to figure out what an unfamiliar ingredient is or how to use that.” Save the foie gras for a day in the (distant) future.

4. Play around in the kitchen.
Because cooking—like all other skills—takes practice, don’t try to whip up an elaborate meal for four on a busy Tuesday night. Instead, Horwich suggests finding time over the weekend, or whenever you have an hour to yourself, to experiment in the kitchen. You lose the pressure, and you get to practice.

“The key is learning to enjoy the process,” says Adam Roberts, creator of The Amateur Gourmet and author of Secrets of the Best Chefs. “Embrace the process and you’ll be cooking for life.”

5. Put your slow-cooker to work.
If you need to get good, healthy meals on the table in a time crunch, a slow-cooker is your best friend. Both Horwich and King agree that slow-cooker meals can tame a busy week. Cook meat ahead of time and freeze it, or set your slow-cooker in the morning, and come home to a meal that’s basically ready to serve.

6. If it works—repeat it.
“The feeling that you have to make something completely, uniquely different five nights a week is a lot of pressure,” Horwich says. “When people like foods, they’re happy to eat it almost every day.” If you’ve mastered a chicken dish, or you buy tons of vegetables that you know you can roast in no time, go for it. You officially have permission to repeat dinners night after night.

7. Turn time into your friend, not your enemy.
No one is expecting you to turn your kitchen into a Michelin-star restaurant. If the meat is ready before the salad, serve it anyway! Don’t get caught up in the timing of dinner, says Horwich.

8. Don’t be afraid of mistakes.
“Most food is salvageable, it’s just a question of knowing how to salvage it,” Roberts says. “Cook and cook and cook some more. You’ll start to figure out which mistakes are minor ones, and which are more severe.” There are better solutions to an over-salted dish than simply throwing it out. At the end of the day, it’s still food—unless your mistake is colossal, you can probably still eat it.

9. Accommodate busy schedules.
“Look for recipes that do well if you have to eat in shifts,” says King. These are usually recipes, like tacos, that can easily be reheated by older children when they rush home from practice. Bonus tip: Add tortillas to your weekly grocery list—they can turn leftovers into a meal.

10. Get used to simplicity.
If your kitchen has become a control center for take-out and delivery meals, the first home-cooked meal might fall a little flat. “If your family is used to eating out a lot, it’s a process to retrain your taste buds,” King says.

Horwich agrees, that as a result of American restaurants efforts to “wow” our palates, the kitchen turns into a place to be overly ambitious and over-spice dinners. Especially as a beginner, remember that simple is best when it comes to cooking. No fancy spices required, and soon, your family will taste (and love!) the difference.

You might not be able to churn out a home-cooked meal every night—and that’s okay!—but getting into a pattern will eventually pay off.

“When you do it night after night, you have those memories, and they build on each other,” King says. “You might not be able to look at one particular meal and remember that, but you’ll have a pattern of meals that becomes part of the culture of your family.”