Editor’s note: This story was originally published Oct. 6, 2023.

After a long day at work, sometimes the last thing I want to do is cook dinner. Still, there are a number of compelling reasons to cook.

Cooking can help improve mental health, home cooking is much healthier than takeout and it really does help you save money (yes, even in this economy).

So, while there are compelling reasons to cook, there are also difficulties that may get in the way of cooking: time, access to quality ingredients, tiredness, cravings, having to clean up afterward (more time), no ingredients at home and dealing with different food preferences among family members.

And like any habit, when you stop cooking, it can be hard to want to start again.

It’s necessary for most people to cook, since ordering takeout or having a private chef is unrealistic, but there are ways to turn it into an enjoyable task. It can be one area of your life where you exercise creativity and can help you relax and unwind after a long day at work.

Here’s how some rules and tips I implemented so that I can learn to love cooking dinner.

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1. It starts in the pantry and grocery store.

I come into the grocery store with a list, usually on my phone, of what I’ll need to cook. I think both in terms of meals and ideas for meals. Basically, I’ll have two meals that I’ll plan on making from a recipe (like spinach risotto and veggie pesto pasta), and then, I’ll make sure my staples are up to date (frozen spinach, lentils, oatmeal, dark chocolate, frozen bell peppers, different kinds of frozen mixed veggies, hummus, white beans, sun-dried tomatoes, salsa, frozen fruit, black beans, soy sauce, olive oil, a couple pasta sauces, sesame oil, red beans, shredded cheese, potatoes, brown rice, tortilla chips, herbs, spices and pasta).

I also keep six frozen meals in my freezer (Trader Joe’s gyozas, Amy’s broccoli cheddar bake, Trader Joe’s burrito bowl, Trader Joe’s cauliflower gnocchi, Trader Joe’s chana masala and Whole Foods’ spinach manicotti). If I really don’t want to cook, I have something and then immediately replace it upon next shopping trip.

From my staples, I can make different meals, but I also like to buy what I call change-ups. My change-ups are fresh ingredients I know I’ll eat that week. They typically include ingredients for some type of sauce (tomatoes, basil, fresh garlic and a shallot), some cheese to snack on (Brie and extra sharp white cheddar — not purchased weekly), two fruits (strawberries and apples), five fresh vegetables (carrots, celery, broccoli, squash and cucumber), eggs for breakfast, two salad kits and occasionally bread or crackers.

I can change the change-ups, but they generally fit that formula.

This method of grocery shopping helped me save money because I end up relying more on frozen vegetables, rice and beans, but it also helped me to eat dinner at home more regularly, because I always had ingredients I could make into something.

Say, I have already made the two meals I planned (which usually last a few lunches and dinners), I know that I can make a stir-fry or I can eat lentils over rice or I can make a pasta sauce with sun-dried tomatoes.

This method is the right balance of flexibility and planning for me.

2. Have backup options at home.

I’m perfectly content with slicing up some cheese, an apple, some fresh vegetables with some crackers or a slice of bread alongside a glass of seltzer (I am, in fact, a LaCroix fan). That works for me when I don’t want to turn a burner on.

For others, they might like to microwave a baked potato or throw some beans on top of toast or open up a salad kit or build a quick sandwich. In any case, have what you need for a meal that is low-effort that you like.

If there is a day where even turning on a burner to boil pasta feels like too much, there’s nothing wrong with heating up a frozen meal or having something quick that you can eat that you like. You can some herbs to a frozen meal or if you heat up a can of soup, you can serve it alongside a piece of toast. Not every home cooked meal needs to be a meat, starch and vegetable.

3. Aim for progress not perfection.

Some people can go all in and never look back. I’m happy for those people. But for me, I find it valuable to aim for progress not perfection when it comes to cooking at home.

Dining out is a social activity that I enjoy doing with my friends. Sometimes it’s spur of the moment and a friend texts me right as I’m about to start cooking dinner or other times, it’s planned out. I roll with the punches and see what happens. Some nights, as I’m about to drive home from work or from a day out, I order takeout. Moderation is important and there can be balance in all things.

There’s another spot where progress not perfection comes into play with home cooking and that’s healthy eating.

So, say you love the Olive Garden Alfredo sauce and you want to eat at home. There are plenty of copycat recipes on the internet you can try, and eating it at home will help save you money. You’ll likely make and eat a smaller portion than you would out, but you can also tweak it to be a little healthier by adding some broccoli to the dish.

Learning how to make your favorite restaurant meals can help you stay on track with eating at home — this might be important. But you can also learn to make modifications that are healthier choices.

For instance, I love chocolate chip cookies with a glass of milk. It’s not the healthiest dessert and I’d be better off eating fruit, but on the days where I want the warm chocolate flavor, I sometimes make a little portion of oatmeal, throw in some chopped dark chocolate and mix in a little bit of stevia. It’s definitely not a chocolate chip cookie, but it helps satisfy the craving I have.

4. Multitask or do something like you like while cooking.

Time is a reason why people don’t cook, including myself. When I have a lot on my plate, metaphorically speaking, the last thing I want to do is spend time cooking and so, I have learned to maximize my cooking time.

For instance, I might need to desperately do some laundry, so I’ll time my cooking in a way that makes sense with my laundry. Or if I need to finalize travel plans or file taxes or straighten out appointments, I’ll make a meal that is conducive to me doing something like this while it’s cooking (think casserole: my favorite is chopped sweet potatoes, black beans, peppers, onions, brown rice, a jar of salsa and some cheese).

On the flip side, you may get home and want to watch a television show. Just do so while cooking. Or if you like listening to podcasts but can never find the time to do it, then make your listening to podcast time the same as your cooking time.

5. Turn cooking into an energetic activity.

By this, I mean dance while cooking. Put on some music and don’t be afraid to sing and dance while you cook.

When you’re tired, your energy levels might be low, but what can help you feel more energized sometimes is movement. So, make cooking into a little something more than standing at the counter chopping up vegetables.

Even if you don’t fall in love with cooking and you still would rather be doing something else, at least you’re getting some steps in for the day.

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6. Not every meal needs to be a hit.

When I scroll through Instagram or Facebook reels, I see a lot of cooking content (the algorithm gets me). And what I see are these perfectly curated dishes, seasoned to perfection, plated beautifully, full of fresh ingredients and not at all what I have the time or inclination for on my busiest of days.

Some of the meals I see that are even advertised as an after work meal take over an hour, which is a nonstarter for me on a work night, unless it’s a baked potato or casserole that doesn’t involve a lot of active cooking time.

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Other times on Instagram, I see beautiful meals from restaurants or I see ads on Instagram of great food nearby me.

Since we live in a world with a lot of social media, we can develop perceptions around food (or anything really) that do not need to be reality. Speaking for myself, I have a tendency to see these photographs and think that unless I’m cooking a perfectly moist chicken breast with brown butter sage sauce and roasted broccolini, I’m not making something worth making. But that’s part of the beauty of home cooking.

Not every dish I make is a hit. Just a couple weeks ago, I experimented with a pasta dish and frankly, it tasted terrible, but I ate it, learned my lesson and know what not to do now.

Who knows? Imperfections in the kitchen may teach you a thing or two about how to handle imperfections in life.

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