Just Cook: How To Integrate Cooking Into Your Daily Life | Civil Eats

Just Cook: How To Integrate Cooking Into Your Daily Life

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.

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

Optional: 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


1 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


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2 types of dried beans – one white and one black or brown


1 white long-grain rice

1 brown rice

1 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

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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, 1 for vegetables and aromatics like garlic, and 1 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.

Photos by: Valentin.Ottoneernestch (flikr)

Originally published on EcoSalon

Vanessa is a food writer and chef based in Oakland, California. She is the author of the forthcoming book, DIY Delicious: Recipes and Ideas for Simple Food From Scratch (Chronicle, Fall 2010) and coauthor of Heirloom Beans (Chronicle 2008). She works as a consultant with HavenBMedia on food, agriculture, and environmental issues. She blogs about food policy and healthy cooking for EcoSalon and her own blog, Vanessa Barrington, and she thinks the world would be a better place if more people cooked real food more often. Read more >

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  1. Good list. Covers all of the essentials and provides for a lot of flexibility. I have to second roasted veggies ... even keep well in the freezer for the long term.
  2. This article gives great advice to prospective home-based eaters. However, I disagree with the suggestion to use safflower and sunflower oils. These oils are seed-derived, heavily polyunsaturated, and thus not heat-stable enough for cooking. Also, many studies have shown that polyunsaturated oils (such as corn, soybean, sunflower, and safflower) suppress the immune system and cause cancer. These oils contain far too many omega-6 fatty-acids, which if consumed regularly can lead to inflammation and a host of other disorders. Because they are nontraditional cooking fats, I recommend avoiding their use.

    Peanut oil is okay for high-heat cooking, though palm or palm kernel oil are potentially better because they have much higher smoking points. Palm oil is better for frying / high-heat cooking for another reason: it is very high in beta carotene, which helps preserve the oil's nutrients during the cooking process.
  3. Thank you so much for this list - it really helps someone like me who is not that great in the kitchen out with the basics. I was looking for a list like this and had never found one!
  4. Great post...it made me hungry - as I was reading O was thinking of all the things you can make with these basics
  5. After finally learning how to feed myself after 45 years of living.....this is a great post. Thanks

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