For Beginners

by Nita Holstine


If you have questions or requests, send me an email and we will see what we can do to find an answer.



  I remember being new to the world of doing my own shopping and cooking. Having to purchase everything needed for a meal and keep up with what was on hand for the next time the ingredients were needed. Otherwise, you end up with 8 boxes of cornstarch in the cupboard and you have no idea which is the fresh one. You know that cornstarch goes old and is of no use after just several months. So, you buy a fresh box but do you throw the old one away? Not until you need the shelf space.

  Lists are great when you have specific menu items to gather. You still need to plan for regular meals and to be prepared for the occasions when company shows up with little notice. The idea is to buy more meals than you will actually need. No one can say, Buy X number of this product. You and your family members all have certain tastes, dishes that are tolerated on rare occasions and those favorites that are welcome every week. You need variety or your table becomes quite boring. Some families will enjoy chicken three times a week, some only once every two weeks. You buy accordingly. Watch for bargains on the packaged fully cooked chickens. Read the directions but most can be defrosted in the microwave, heated thoroughly in less than 20 minutes; about the time it takes to fix the veggie and pasta side dishes. If you like pork, you buy a meal or two of pork.

  As you are more confident with raw meat preparation and being able to correctly handle and prepare the meat, you can look for the bulk sizes, have an assortment of freezer bags on hand and repackage it into meal portions before freezing. You line up all the bags you are going to use, with the openings pulled apart and ready to fill. You have the water running low so that when you have everything in the bags, you wash your hands with the antibacterial soap you have handy. You don't every want to touch your faucet with germs on your fingers. Lay a wash cloth over the faucet if necessary but use common sense and avoid making everyone sick. Germs are not visible to the human eye but they are present. Follow the cooking guide on the meat package. Purchase a meat thermometer (NOT a candy or oven thermometer) and you will know when your meat is safe and "done."

  Take the time to look over what supplies you have on hand and make a list of what you need to purchase. Stand in the section of the grocery store and scan over the choices. You already know what your family will eat, pasta dishes, rice dishes, fresh and frozen potatoes. You pay for the convenience of preparation. The more the item is processed, the more it costs. You can buy a 2 pound bag of rice and you do all the extra cooking and allow the longer time to prepare. When you can afford the extra and perhaps know that you will need some really fast meals, you also buy some of the cook in the pouch type of rice mixes that are little more than boiling water. Many pasta dishes take about 10 minutes total. Read the directions since some of the old rice-a-roni-types take browning and about 25 minutes total. Just start them early. You will learn to time your cooking to where everything is ready at the same time. If you are cooking a chicken that takes an hour to cook, you won't start anything else for quite awhile. If you prepare the side dishes too soon, you'll either have cold food when the meat is done or you will have to reheat the veggies. 

  We keep a variety of canned beans on hand. Cut canned green beans are horrible! Try the whole canned beans, they are much better. Make a green bean casserole occasionally, not just for special holidays. Wal-Mart carries their own generic type brand that is much better than Del Monte and always cheaper. Ranch Style Beans makes an excellent line. There are great tasting pinto and black eyed types available. Baked beans are usually very sweet but many people enjoy exactly that. If only one person has a taste for canned sweet potatoes, go ahead and fix it just for them. Same as with cranberry sauce. There is always someone who would take a helping, just ask. In any group of children, there will be one or two that will prefer to have honey on their oatmeal instead of sugar or brown sugar. Just ask.  Have a selection on hand and it will simply be a matter of giving the group a choice. Keep that list ongoing so you can add as  you have good ideas for meals to put together. 

  Imagine if you will that one morning you find that you must serve a crowd of hungry folks in your dining room that evening. What to do? Try a buffet where everyone gets in line and takes only what they want from a larger assortment than you could possibly fit on even a really big table where everyone is seated. That way the table can be arranged for easy conversations with low floral arrangements or centerpieces where all guests are able to see and talk to others.

  Impressed by fancy new recipes? Yes? Read over the entire list and instructions. If it requires spices or ingredients you never use or serve, see if you can make changes that do not alter the outcome, like leaving out the onions; not the flour or baking power that would change the final product. I signed up for the Turkey Institute's Newsletter with a weekly recipe. I have yet to find a recipe I would come near trying. I could send them some hints.  

  Okay, the first cake I ever made, I forgot the baking powder. Thrown in the trash can. Wasted all those good ingredients for lack of the one thing that could make it rise and be light, fluffy and so delicious. Otherwise, it is nothing more than sweet cardboard. You learn from everything you try. Always there are easier ways to do a chore. (Like finding a young one who is especially good at grating cheese for a homemade pizza.) Spices that no one really liked, you won't use next time you give the dish a try. You learn to include a big plate of biscuits or rolls when you are trying to fill up hungry teenagers with hollow legs. There is a reason it is customary to provide a glass of water with the meal, to help fill up the tummies. 

  Visit all the recipe & cooking sites and absorb all the hints, tips & advice from the experts. Buy a book when you want a more handy reference and the secrets of the best.  Learn to read with the intent of remembering. The library has a bunch of books for your free browsing. Make notes and lists as necessary but be sure to put them to use not letting them go as scraps of paper into the trash can. Check out what I have already written about cooking in the crockpot. A good and hearty meal that is ready at supper time. Serve breadsticks, cornbread, tortillas or even Texas toast and you have a big meal. Plenty for a month of leftovers or enough to feed an army.


    You might be young or just wishing you had more skills in the cooking area but you need only to practice. Most of the cooking schools you find for adults are aimed at learning to do the fancy stuff. I had the advantage of taking home economics back in what was then junior high school. It amounted to having a teacher that made sure we could read recipes, make lists of groceries to buy at the store and follow the recipes and have the food come out as it was intended! There was always someone in our group that would find a way to mess up something but we were encouraged and shown how to correct our mistakes and still get a meal on the table. It takes lots of planning and practice to prepare all the dishes to be ready at one time.

   I was surprised to find so many people didn't know that you cannot substitute waxed paper for foil should you run out; that if you want to make pudding and the mix calls for milk, you cannot use water instead or it will just stay watery. 

   Gravy and sauce recipes call for either cornstarch or flour. If you will be reheating the gravy, go with the flour but only a minimal amount or you will have a "floury" taste and will no longer be able to taste your spices. The cornstarch is okay for puddings and such but when it is reheated, it looses its thickening ability and your sauce is thin and watery.

   When you are planning a big gathering and want to impress others with all the good stuff you know, practice first. Invite friends who you can ask for help to allow you to perform your culinary magic and observe how well you do. Be open to creative criticism so that by the actual event, you can follow through with confidence and grace.