How to Cook Healthy Meals Without a Recipe

Despite our love for food porn, many Americans don't make their own meals. Plenty of people say they just don't have the time to cook, let alone also grocery shop and clean up after the meal. Others say they don't have the equipment to make a meal or that cooking at home is expensive. Another common excuse is that people don't know how to cook.

You don't need a culinary degree to cook delicious, healthy meals. (Image: Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision/GettyImages)

All of those can be legitimate reasons for not cooking, but making food at home doesn't have to take hours, require fancy gadgets you'll only use once or cost a ton of cash. Plus, it can be fairly easy to learn, too.

And the best part? You don't need to follow a specific, complicated recipe. Yes, recipes can give you new ideas and inspiration, but for beginner cooks, staring down a list of 15 ingredients and multiple, lengthy steps can be enough to make you vow to never use more than the microwave and toaster.

Nothing against avocado toast, but why limit yourself? Follow this expert advice on how to cook healthy meals without a recipe, and you'll be cooking and eating great at home for life.

1. Cook What You Love

The first step in learning how to cook is to figure out what you like to eat. "Make what you want, rather than what's easy to make. That will entice you to cook," says Jackie Newgent, RDN, culinary nutritionist and author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook.

Also, think of the things you DO know how to make. Chances are there's at least one thing. Maybe you can boil pasta in water, scramble eggs, make grilled cheese or microwave oatmeal. All of that is cooking, and from those skills, you can expand and experiment and learn how to make new dishes.

Next, choose a few of those dishes for each meal of the day. Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, author of The Superfood Swap, recommends picking two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners and enjoying a different "delicious monotony" each week. "Most people who eat healthy have meals they eat on repetition," she says.

Newgent suggests a similar idea but with a little more variety: two breakfasts, three lunches and four dinners. "That's a good base, and once you are in that rhythm, you can play around a little bit," she says.

If you're still uncertain what to cook, here are some easy, healthy meal ideas for beginner cooks:

  • Pasta with no-sugar-added store-bought sauce (bonus points for adding chopped veggies or lean protein)
  • Protein bowls: a cooked grain (rice, quinoa, barley) with a protein (grilled chicken, tofu, canned tuna), vegetables and dressing
  • Omelets or scrambles (start with eggs, and then add your favorite toppings)
  • Tacos
  • Stir-fries
  • Entree salads
  • One-sheet meals (where you roast or bake a protein and vegetables at the same time)
Chopped vegetables make an excellent, healthy addition to any meal. (Image: Capelle.r/Moment/GettyImages)

2. Learn Some Beginner Cooking Techniques

Everyone has their own comfort level in the kitchen. But you don't need to know how to sous-vide lamb or julienne carrots to start cooking. Try some of these easy, beginner-friendly cooking techniques and see what you like best:

  • Boiling: Fill a pot with water and cover with a lid, and then set it over high heat on the stove. Once the water bubbles, add the food you're cooking (like pasta, vegetables or edamame).
  • Roasting: Place the meat, vegetables or potatoes on a baking sheet or dish and place it in the oven at about 350 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Grilling: You can either fire up your backyard BBQ (that's a whole other lesson!) or try grill pans. These let you enjoy that tasty seared flavor after you've put your outdoor grill away for winter. And it's almost foolproof. Plus, double-sided grill pans save cooking time. Place on the stovetop, preheat for five minutes, and then brush the grill with oil. Place your food on the grill and cook until done.
  • Broiling: "Broiling is upside-down grilling," Jackson Blatner says. Put your meal on a baking sheet, set the oven to "broil," and you'll have a tasty, fairly quick meal with some of the same blackened taste you get from grilling.
  • Sauteing: This calls for cooking food in a small amount of fat (like butter or oil) in a pan over medium-high heat. It's a great way to cook vegetables for a side dish.
  • Stir-Frying: Although it's similar to sauteing, stir-frying uses higher heat and requires more stirring so your ingredients cook evenly and they don't stick to the pan.

3. Master the Art of Grocery Shopping

As popular as meal prep seems to be on Instagram, you don't have to do it. "I'm not a meal prep queen," Jackson Blatner says, "and I never use a recipe, but I have a plan." And that's key for grocery shopping — unless you want to waste a lot of food and money or make multiple trips to the supermarket every week.

Set aside 10 minutes each week and figure out the meals you'll have for the next seven days. You probably don't need to make every single meal at home, but what will you need to cook and what will those meals be?

Then, check your pantry, fridge and freezer to see what you already have and if you're running low on any staples. With all of that in mind, make your list and stick to it. Or here are a few recommendations from Jackson Blatner and Newgent to get your grocery list started.

Always Have These Staples on Hand

  • Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa and whole-grain pasta (or frozen cooked brown rice and quinoa)
  • Whole-grain bread, tortillas, etc.
  • Plain oatmeal
  • Cereal (we're not talking Lucky Charms here)
  • Canned, low-sodium beans
  • Canned or pouch, packed-in-water tuna and salmon
  • Low-sodium broth
  • Nut butters
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Vinegar
  • Salad dressing
  • Soy sauce
  • Salsa
  • Hot sauce (if you enjoy it)
  • No-sugar-added tomato sauce
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Dried herbs and spices
  • Dried fruit
  • Honey
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • Frozen veggie burgers
  • Coffee
  • Tea

Buy These Fresh Items Weekly

  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Avocado
  • Yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Milk or nondairy alternatives
  • Protein: chicken, beef, fish, tofu, tempeh, etc (you can also freeze some to keep on hand)
  • Lunch meat
  • Cheese
Tacos can be a healthy, easy meal the whole family will love. (Image: bhofack2/iStock/GettyImages)

Get Creative With These Healthy Meal Suggestions

  • Kale Caesar Salad: Kale with salmon, Caesar dressing and DIY croutons made by toasting bread and cubing it
  • Vegetarian Tacos: Tortillas filled with canned black beans or vegetarian refried beans, shredded cabbage, salsa and guacamole
  • Pasta: Whole-grain or bean pasta with roasted vegetables and chicken, sprinkled with fresh Parmesan
  • Burrito Bowl: Brown rice, black beans, sauteed peppers and onions, fresh cilantro and avocado
  • Ranch Bowl: Brown rice with chicken, broccoli and ranch dressing
  • Veggie Omelet: Add any leftover cooked protein and vegetables, plus some shredded cheese
  • Soup: Cook diced vegetables in low-sodium broth and add leftover chicken, turkey or tofu
  • Sheet Pan Fish: Sprinkle tilapia, sweet potatoes and vegetables with seasonings, and then bake in the oven

Make Your Meals Your Own

Eating the same thing every single day is a surefire way to get bored and stop cooking. So once you feel confident with the basic versions of your recipes, it's time to change it up to keep things exciting.

One easy way to do this is to change the seasonings. Using garlic and ginger powders gives chicken a Chinese flavor, while chili powder and fresh cilantro Mexican-izes your dish. You can also swap out different ingredients by changing the protein, grain and/or vegetable.

If you're still stuck, search the internet, Jackson Blatner suggests (or Pinterest or Instagram). Type in "tacos" or "stir-fries" and let the photo results inspire you. Or think of your favorite restaurant meals and do your best to copy them. "It likely won't be a perfect match, but you're getting into the vibe of it," Jackson Blatner says.

Above all, have fun and eat what you enjoy! "Always keep going back to the foods you like," Newgent says. "If you incorporate those, you will be more apt to want to cook and eat those foods."

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