Just Cook: How to Integrate Cooking into Your Daily Life

meal in saucepan

I have a theory that the more often one cooks, the easier it is for one to cook more often. I know from experience that this is true for me. Back when I worked at night in the restaurant business, I loved to cook at home on my nights off. Being a busy student and worker, my refrigerator was always bare so I’d pore over cookbooks, decide what to make, then head to the store (or stores) for the ingredients. Every time I cooked, I’d have to start from scratch with just the right spices, herbs, grains, cheeses, etc. Then I’d spend the entire afternoon cooking”¦and about 20 minutes eating. I enjoyed it, but this was no way to actually feed myself on a regular basis.

Now I have a different approach to cooking. I cook more seasonally, inspired by the market, rather than a cookbook, and I cook regularly. This means I always have food to eat or the remnants of a meal on which I can build a new meal. It’s so much more pleasurable to be able to feed myself (and sometimes unexpected guests) with healthy whole foods without any fuss.

Many of us end up in front of the prepared foods counter at the grocery store more often than we’d like, but we also know that if we only cooked more we’d save money, we’d know exactly what’s in our food, and we’d probably consume fewer unhealthy calories and more healthier ones. The challenge is fitting cooking into our busy modern lives, but it’s a worthy challenge. When I can feed myself, even on the busiest of days, I feel a sense of triumph in the midst of the chaos that sometimes overtakes my life.

A few weeks ago, we talked about how to actually shop the farmers’ market. Since we can’t live on fresh vegetables alone, today we’re going to talk Pantry, Paraphernalia, and Planning. You’ll see how a wide variety of foods on hand, the proper kitchen tools, and a little advance thought can turn your kitchen into the most important room in your home.

Pantry Basics


Your personal pantry will depend on taste, dietary needs and cooking habits, but here’s a good start for developing a pantry full of real food.

Basic Oils:

1 refined oil for high heat cooking like stir-frying: peanut, avocado, or safflower are good choices
1 good quality extra virgin olive oil
1 unrefined oil for general use in dressings and low heat cooking: safflower or sunflower are good choices

1 nut oil for special salads: walnut or hazelnut oils are good options (must be refrigerated after opening as they go rancid quickly)
Toasted sesame oil for cooking with Asian flavors

Basic Vinegars:
Good red wine vinegar
Cider vinegar
Rice wine vinegar

Dijon mustard
Soy sauce
Fish sauce
Chili paste

One gourmet salt
Everyday salt for cooking, like kosher or iodized sea salt
Whole and ground cumin
Whole black pepper
Pepper flakes
Bay leaves

Canned Goods:
Canned wild salmon, sardines, herring, and anchovies
Canned beans and chickpeas
Canned whole and diced tomatoes
Coconut milk
Chicken or vegetable broth

Dry Goods:

3 types of pasta: one regular, one buckwheat or whole wheat, one rice noodle
All-purpose unbleached flour
Whole-wheat flour
2 types of dried beans – one white and one black or brown
One white long-grain rice
One brown rice
One interesting rice, like red or black
1 to 2 types of quick cooking grains like quinoa
1 to 2 types of longer cooking grains like wheat berries, faro, kamut
Dried mushrooms
Dried chilies
Sea vegetables
Nut butters
Maple syrup
Agave and/or sugar

Refrigerator Pantry:
Basic cheeses: one feta, one hard grating, and one everyday like cheddar or Jack
Plain yogurt

Freezer Pantry:
Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds
Frozen berries and stone fruit for smoothies and healthy desserts
Sliced bread




The right tools can mean the difference between fun and frustration. Here are a few basic things that every cook needs. Feel free to embellish.

Good quality chef knife that is kept sharpened
Paring knife
Sharp serrated knife for use on bread and tomatoes
Tongs: restaurant quality, locking tongs; 1 long; 1 medium
Sturdy whisk: 1 small; 1 medium
Metal spatula
Rubber spatulas: 2 or 3 different sizes
Vegetable peeler
Wooden spoons: several in different sizes
Large metal spoon
Slotted spoon
Ladles: 1 large; 1 small
Potato Masher
Microplane for grating hard cheeses and lemon zest


Small hand juicer
Mortar and pestle for spices and garlic paste
Measuring spoons and cups
Box grater
Salad spinner
Nesting mixing bowls: metal or glass
Cutting boards: 1 for meat and seafood, one for vegetables and aromatics like garlic, and one for fruit
Blender or food processor
Hand-held mixer

1 small saucepan
1 medium saucepan
Large pot for boiling pasta and making soup
1 10-inch cast-iron skillet – great for non-stick uses as well!
Steamer or vegetable steamer basket
Baking sheets (at least 2)
A selection of glass or ceramic baking dishes: casseroles of different sizes and pie plates

A Crockpot or slow cooker will make cooking ahead easier.



Spend a few hours cooking on the weekend, add simply cooked fresh vegetables you’ve purchased at the farmers’ market, or received in your CSA, and feed yourself all week.

Depending on the size of your household, make:
One big pot of stew, soup, or pot of beans – use a crockpot if you want
One batch of grains – rice cookers are great for this task
A batch of roasted vegetables
A quick, basic vinaigrette
Meat eaters can roast or simmer a whole chicken or pop a meat roast in the oven.
Time allowing: another project like jam, pickles, salsa, or a pesto, red pepper puree, or other condiment.

All of the foods above lend themselves well to repurposing and quick meals. This is a good way to cook ahead for families who don’t enjoy eating leftovers. One pot of beans can become tacos, enchiladas, salads, soups, pasta dishes, dips, sandwich spreads, and more. A batch of cooked grains like brown rice or wheat berries can be used throughout the week in one-dish grain bowl meals with seasonal cooked greens, roasted squash or sweet potatoes. Cooked grains can also be added to salads or soups or used in stir-fries.

If you’ve cooked meat, use the meat in tacos, salads, sandwiches, pasta and grain dishes throughout the week. It really is all about cooking main meal components ahead of time.

Casserole type foods like lasagna take a bit longer to prepare but can also be frozen in portions or eaten all week with an array of quickly prepared, seasonal, vegetable accompaniments.

So there you have it: Want to cook more and eat out less? Just cook. These are just some ways to get started. You will surely develop your own repertoire over time.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Images: Valentin.Ottone, ernestch, Jeppestown, ernestch

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.