A guide to creating an approachable rotation of recipes to make you a more comfortable, casual cook.

By Maddy Sweitzer-Lammé
September 19, 2019

Becoming a great home cook can feel like an overwhelming task. The ability to whip meals up out of nothing, creating a beautiful dish of whatever’s around on a moment’s notice can feel overwhelming–and keep you ordering takeout for years. But this type of casual cooking is more within reach than you might think–the key lies in finding a few recipes that you go back to over and over, tweaking and adjusting to fit what’s available to you in the moment. Follow this guide to build your repertoire, and you’ll be whipping up meals out of nothing in no time at all.

Photo: Jennifer Causey; Food Styling: Chelsea Zimmer; Prop Styling: Heather Chadduck Hillegas

Something to eat for breakfast.

This list starts like any good day should–with breakfast. My go-to breakfast is a couple of scrambled eggs cooked low and slow so they come out a little runny and a lot tender. You might be more partial to oatmeal or even a piece of toast with peanut butter. Whatever it is, make it tasty, make it often and make it exactly how you like it. This is your first opportunity to explore your own specific tastes.

Recipes to try:

Photo: Jennifer Causey; Styling: Claire Spollen

 A vegetable dish you love.

My go-to vegetable dish is a simple sautéed kale with garlic and chile. It’s easy, quick and, most importantly, makes me want to eat an entire head of kale in one sitting. I like to make extra to stir into pastas, put on top of salads, or even eat with a fried egg for breakfast. Your pick might be roasted broccoli or carrots, or perhaps seared green beans. The possibilities are endless, just make sure it’s simple, accessible, and delicious. 

 Recipes to try: 

Photo: Jennifer Causey; Styling: Lindsey Lower

An adaptable salad.

A tasty salad dressing combined with a reliable base will take you through many meals–quick at-home dinners, desk lunches, picnics, flights, and more. I love spinach salad with a handful of farro or quinoa tossed in, topped with whatever I have around–tomatoes, beans, roasted sweet potatoes, soft-boiled eggs or grilled chicken are regular favorites.

Recipes to try:

Photo: Jen Causey; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Gordon Sawyer; Prop Styling: Audrey Davis

A weeknight meal that you can make out of whatever is in the fridge.

People are always impressed by my ability to put together dinner out of whatever I have on hand. But this is a trick–I’m not pulling together just anything, I’m pulling together some variation of the same two meals: fried rice or pasta. I almost always have leftover rice or dried pasta around, which can quickly be transformed into a relatively satisfying meal. Think of these recipes as a technique, and then sub in whatever you have around as you become a more confident cook. Both fried rice and pasta are delicious with my sautéed kale mentioned above (see what I did there?), but are also satisfying with nothing but frozen peas.

Recipes to Try:

Greg DuPree

A way to use up odds and ends (A.K.A. stock).

Making your own chicken or vegetable stock improves your cooking on two counts–homemade stock adds significantly more flavor than the boxed variety, and it reduces your waste. Keep stock around by freezing it and use it for last-minute soups or to make braises even more delicious.

Recipes to Try:

Photo: Brian Woodcock; Styling: Claire Spollen    

Something portable.

Now that you’ve learned to feed yourself, it’s time to think about feeding others. Life sometimes calls for portable food–potlucks, picnics, or a time of need for a friend or family member. Think of this dish as your next step up from arriving at a potluck with chips and salsa. I like an epic tray of macaroni and cheese. Other options include enchiladas, lasagna or eggplant parmesan. This should be something that can cook up in a 9x13 baking dish and reheats easily–bonus points if you can freeze it.

Recipes to try:

Photo: Aaron Kirk; Prop Styling: Heather Chadduck; Food Styling: Pam Lolley

A crowd-pleasing dessert.

A homemade dessert at the end of a dinner party is no-fail way to impress your guests. I love to whip out a homemade brownie–even after a decadent meal, very few people can resist just a sliver. Let your taste buds guide you here, this should be something that you love to eat. A fruit galette is a great option, since you can change it according to the season, as is a lemon loaf cake, which can also be adapted to utilize different types of citrus to accommodate the seasons, or your mood.

 Recipes to try:

Greg DuPree, Food Styling: Rishon Hanners, Prop Styling: Thom Driver

An easy dinner party main.

You’ve learned to bring sides and desserts to someone else’s function, now it’s time to learn to make a main dish so you can host your own dinner party. The focus here should be on finding something satisfying that you can 1.) make in large quantities, and which 2.) allows you to do a lot of the cooking ahead of time. A roasted chicken is a classic option, since it’s pretty easy to make an extra chicken to feed more people. Even simpler is a big pot of chili, which can be cooked ahead of time, reheated, and then served on a buffet with lots of fun toppings. (Maybe grab that frozen chicken stock out of the freezer for your chili?)

 Recipes to try:

Victor Protasio

A breakfast thing you can make for other people.

Hosting dinner for a group is one thing – hosting breakfast is a whole other level. Confidently whipping up pancakes, waffles or French toast in the morning is a luxurious gift that you should give to your loved ones as often as possible. For a more hands-off approach, try a quiche or an egg casserole you can put together the night before.

Sara Tane

A project.

Finally, a great cook is always learning. Find yourself a recipe that teaches you something, through a new technique and new ingredient, and make that recipe your project. I love tinkering with making homemade pasta–trying new recipes and incorporating different flours has taught me so much about gluten, moisture levels, and also what I like to eat. Love bread? Try sourdough. Cookie fiend? Find your perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe. Once you’ve got it down, go on to the next recipe that catches your interest. Congratulations! You’ve just grown your repertoire.

Recipes to try:

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