When I was 22, I made the exact same quinoa salad recipe for lunch every single day for months…until one fateful lunch break when I simply could not force myself to eat another bite. And yet, I had to bring it again the next day, because I didn’t really know how to cook anything else. I’d never been interested in cooking when I was growing up, and whatever knowledge I’d picked up through osmosis about roasting chicken or making lasagna became irrelevant when I went vegan. My quinoa salad was part of a microscopic rotation of go-to dinner recipes I’d been forced to learn through pure necessity when I graduated from college and moved to Chicago, and I was sick of all my newfound staples after only a few months. I had to make a choice: I could keep resentfully forcing down quinoa until I developed pseudograin Stockholm Syndrome, or I could teach myself how to cook.
Now, nearly six years later, I can cook. I tackle new recipes without fear and scrounge together pantry meals with confidence. Cooking a beautiful meal for my boyfriend or guests is among my favorite pastimes, and I’m almost always working toward some sort of culinary goal. My kitchen pomposity has reached such insufferable levels that I now believe I am entitled to have Strong Opinions on the matter of home cooking.
I believe that every adult should be able to create a few very specific meals. I won’t prescribe exact recipes, but I do feel strongly about the benefits and importance of mastering five different categories of meals and making them your own.
Here are 5 go-to dinner recipes for when you’re feeling uncreative:
1. A really good salad.
Your favorite go-to salad recipe can serve a lot of functions. It can complement a meal that feels like it’s missing something. It can make you feel virtuous and redeemed after a period of eating things that don’t make you feel very good. And, of course, vegetables are good for you. Plus, a good salad will make it much easier to eat more of them, and won’t your mother be proud?
My go-to is a massaged kale salad. And I mean that literally: I rip up all my kale, throw it in a bowl with some good olive oil, get in there with my bare hands, and work the hell out of it. My kale and I have to reach second base for the salad to reach its true potential. Then it’s a process of adjusting the garlic, lemon juice, salt, and olive oil until the balance is perfect. Sometimes I’ll add chickpeas, nutritional yeast, or even blueberries to keep things interesting or complement whatever meal I’m serving it with. One of the most vegan things about me is my determination to show people that kale can be delicious, and this salad is how I live that mission.
You deserve better than a wan pile of flaccid iceberg lettuce, dried-out carrot shreds, and a few sad tomatoes. Do yourself a favor and find (or create) a salad recipe you really, truly like.
2. Something you can make with pantry staples.
Picture this: You’ve just stumbled through your front door with all your luggage from a long trip. It’s late, you’re exhausted, you smell, the grocery store is closed, and the idea of spending more money on takeout makes you want to weep. And yet, you’re starving.
These are the moments when your pantry meal will save your ass (and your wallet). If I have rice and a can of beans in my cupboard, I can feed myself. I’ll start some rice and check my fridge and onion basket for leftover vegetables. Whatever onions and garlic I can find get chopped and sauteed in olive oil. If neither are available, the powdered versions will do. The beans get dumped in next, followed by the cooked rice. Give it a few stirs, add salt, and the end result is a perfectly serviceable meal. If I have hummus, I’ll add a spoonful. If not, no sweat. It’s still good.
Pasta is another easy one: ramen, boxed mac and cheese, or whatever’s lying around with some jarred marinara. It doesn’t have to be fancy to be serviceable, and you definitely don’t have to eat it for every meal. Just keep it in your back pocket for those moments when your fridge is as empty as your stomach and you need something easy.
3. Something nostalgic.
I’ve been using the same apple pie recipe since eighth grade home economics. The paper is nearly translucent from years of use, and there’s an old Chiquita banana sticker on there from my lunch that day. Seeing that sticker and the hasty scribbles of 13-year-old Maggie still makes me smile and brings back the sound of my teacher’s voice. In a similar vein, risotto and pizza dough make me think of my mother and father, respectively, and any kind of thin, chewy pancake calls to mind my little brother’s voracious appetite for the ones I used to make in high school.
Your recipe collection should include something that brings back warm fuzzy feelings for you. Family recipes are a staple, of course, but maybe it’s the first recipe you ripped out of a magazine. Maybe it’s a remake of your favorite diner order when you were little, or a delicious meal you had when you were traveling. Food is a powerful memory trigger, always available to let you relive a memory, a moment, or even just a feeling from your past. Embrace it.
4. Something you can proudly serve to guests.
A long time ago, my best friend, who is an amazing and adventurous cook, made something pretty ritzy for her new boyfriend and was very disappointed when it flopped. I don’t remember if the recipe itself was not good or if her fella just didn’t love it, but her pride took a big hit. But as she got to know him better, she realized that she didn’t need to pull out all the stops for a gourmet spread to make him happy. He didn’t care for the fancy factor. He just cared that it was good — and recognizable. So she mastered a few of his homespun favorites, and now their kitchen is a place of happiness and satisfaction. Plus she still gets to trot out her more daring dishes for her friends at potlucks and parties, so she’s a master across the board.
You don’t have to serve your guests anything fancy to make an impression. You just need to serve something good. If all you really know how to make is spaghetti, but it’s really, really good spaghetti, then you’re all set. I really do love to dazzle people with complex new recipes, but I also know I can please any crowd with the world’s easiest chickpea salad sandwich and some chocolate chip cookies. It’s more important for your guests to be satisfied than impressed. If you can do both, great! If not, just stick with a crowd pleaser.
5. Something dirt cheap.
All of us will go through periods when we have to mercilessly cut costs across the board, including our grocery budget. It can happen for many reasons: sudden unemployment, an unexpected emergency expense, some heavy-handed spending on vacation, aggressive savings toward a time-sensitive purchase, or just the brutal reality of being underpaid or facing poverty. You just never know when you’ll find yourself wanting to pinch pennies, so it’s good to know you can feed yourself with as few dollars as possible.
My pantry meal and my cheap meal — beans and rice — are virtually the same, but there are a lot of ways to eat inexpensively. Pasta, peanut butter, and dried beans are also cheap. Many Asian, Indian, or Mediterranean grocery stores have dried beans and legumes for half the price that larger grocery stores charge. My boyfriend buys five-pound bags of lentils for $4 and has happily subsisted on the same slow cooker lentil taco recipe for years (I’m not exaggerating). Food pantries can be found in virtually every city in times of need. There’s no reason not to experiment with some crazy cheap ingredients and figure out a few meals you can turn to when times are lean.
Learn to focus on “simple.”
Mastering these five meals was a meaningful threshold of adulthood for me. These standbys offer stability when life gets hectic, and a foundation for more variety. I’m turning thirty in less than a year, and I haven’t eaten that old quinoa salad recipe since I was twenty-two. I eat like a grownup now. If I can deliver myself from quinoa purgatory, then you can master these five categories. Get to work. I believe in you.
Maggie Olson is a marketing professional living in northeast Ohio. She is a voracious reader, a doting house plant parent, and a hiker/biker/runner/kayaker. She’s currently on a mission to cook 30 new things before her 30th birthday. You can follow her cooking and baking adventures on Instagram at @maggieolson or find her on Twitter at @maggiebolson.
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