Perfectionist cooking paralysis.

I’m having a problem with perfectionism – namely, when it comes to writing. I can think of ideas for posts, but I can’t make them exhaustive enough, or perfectly researched enough, or even typo-free enough to bother writing at all. This partially explains why I’ll go over a month (two months?) without posting.

Part of it is due to black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking. Part of it is due to fear of criticism and wanting to cover all my bases. But all that aside, the bottom line here is perfectionism. I hold myself to an impossibly high standard, for various reasons internal and external, and ultimately it results in a mash-up of writing things I think are good, and writing absolutely nothing at all.


Good segue, huh?

Transparent as this attempt at breaking my writer’s block by writing about my writer’s block may be, it is absolutely true. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen perfectionist cooking paralysis in my people.

Often those who are the best, most skilled, and most passionate cooks are also those who cannot bear to set foot in the kitchen, except for sporadic episodes of party-induced panic-cooking, in which they exhaust themselves by making pasta from scratch in quantities large enough to feed a stable of pubescent Olympic swimmers. The rest of the time? It’s Rice-a-Roni-athons and Pizza Hut.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Rice-a-Roni and Pizza Hut – they make a lovely addition to an otherwise varied diet and will let you survive in a pinch – but when it turns into months or even years of the same no-cook delights because you are feeling paralyzed and resentful about the prospect of making actual food in your kitchen, it can get rather dreary. Demoralizing, even.

And this is where I become a cheerleader for mediocre cooking.

Don’t get me wrong – I adore fancy food, and will eat it every chance I get. But I do not adore spending hours in the kitchen (if you do, I will gladly come to your house and eat your food – leave address in comments), especially when I’m hungry, have worked all day, and my feet are tired.

I have flat feet, a tendency toward low blood sugar, and a mood disorder so trust.

If I have to face the prospect of 6pm with an hour or more of cooking ahead of me, there are two possible outcomes: either it’s not going to happen at all, or someone’s going to get hurt. And it won’t be me.

Out of desperation, I have developed a repertoire of what I think of as Level Two and Level Three meals. Let me explain.

Level One is as close to absolutely no effort as one can reasonably get and still eat. This may vary somewhat from person to person, but for me Level One is ordering pizza, eating a bowl of cereal, or having cheese and crackers – maybe, possibly, in the extreme outward edges of Level One, preparing a box of Kraft Dinner or a frozen boxed casserole with nothing on the side. (Level Zero is having someone else cook the food, bring it to you on the couch, and possibly spoon-feed you.)

At this point, it’s subsistence-level eating. It will get you through, and you should probably plan to do this a couple times a week on purpose, but it’s no way to live for months or years at a time.

Level Five would be making a reasonably complex meal, or trying a totally new and unfamiliar recipe. From there, you’d work your way up through levels that include cooking increasingly complex meals with multiple dishes, to basic holiday fare for a crowd, to high-pressure dinner party where you are cooking fancy things for several people.

Maybe Level 10 would be head chef in a gourmet restaurant, cooking incredibly fancy things for many, many people – I really don’t know because from where I stand it is basically terra incognita.

Here be dragons

Levels Two and Three, then, would encompass meals that are partially homemade and partially pre-prepared, or meals that are entirely homemade but easy enough that you can put them together in half an hour or so, or one-pot meals that take longer due to slow-cooking, but require little effort outside the assembly stage.

It would also include meals that require some basic pre-prep (taking out something to thaw or soaking beans the night before, or making a simple marinade in the morning), but are not difficult to cook.

The reason for this system (who am I kidding – it’s not really a system, it is totally something I made up on the spot while talking with a client) is to assess where the gaps in your cooking repertoire are. Because those of you who can’t bear to set foot in the kitchen may only have recipes at Levels One and Eight. Black-and-white. All-or-nothing.

See where I’m going with this?

On a weeknight, most human people will not be able to countenance more than an hour of cooking. (And if it’s an hour, part of that hour should probably be spent with something in the oven that you don’t have to baby along.)

This is okay, really. If you are one of the lucky few who love spending more than an hour in the kitchen on a weeknight, then you may safely ignore everything I say in this post. Go forth and be happy – but I beg of you, don’t be a snob about it. Just enjoy your gift.

Because I don’t put massive amounts of pressure on myself to cook elaborate meals on a nightly basis, I paradoxically end up cooking more than I otherwise would, and, I suspect, more than a lot of people. Except for periodic seasons in the abyss, when it’s sufficient to survive at levels zero and one, I’m a pretty reliable cook.

I also get huge enjoyment out of cooking corny American staples, so that is reflected in my repertoire.

In the next post I am actually going to share with you a few of the things I regularly cook. Some are recipes, and some are just concepts that don’t require a recipe. Fair warning though: no serious food criticism allowed. None of it is fancy, and this blog is a food-shame-free zone.

I want people to feel comfortable enough to share their own cooking, at any level. So don’t be snotty, but also: if someone cooks fancier things than you, don’t be bitter about it. I won’t be hosting Mommy Wars, The Sequel: My Cooking [Or Lack Of Cooking] Makes Me Better Than You.

We all start at different places, and some people like cooking more than others, or have more practice at it. Some people don’t like it, or don’t care about it, or just don’t know how. That is okay. There’s no reason for any competition or comparison judgments – you start where you are.

Where other people are has no bearing on your place, other than to encourage or inspire you – and in my case, maybe amuse you.

See you soon.

Mud wrestling in comments.







132 responses to “Perfectionist cooking paralysis.”

  1. Kaethe Avatar

    You are brilliant. When I got married my cooking was purely Level 1. Since then I’ve acted as kitchen assistant to my husband, and gradually I’m learning a bit. The meals I provide are mostly Level 2 (pasta and sauce), but I’m starting to learn how to make more than one dish and have them be ready at the same time. I don’t love to cook, I’m never going to be great at it, but having this conceptual framework to fit it into makes me both more proud of my accomplishments so far, and more accepting of the fact that I’m never going to go very far beyond Level 3.

    Thank you.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      When I got married, I think I was at a 0.5 or something! I was so proud of myself when I learned to make Hamburger Helper.

      1. Kaethe Avatar

        I’m not there yet. But it sounds like a good next step.

  2. Paula Avatar

    Thank you for this post. I had a Level 1 meal last night and was feeling bad about myself because of it — but not anymore! You really helped me put it into perspective. I look forward to your next post about things you regularly cook.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Level One means “Got the job done.” It even rhymes. So pat yourself on the back :)

  3. Sue Ellen Avatar

    Oh, I’m glad to see you back. I discovered your blog a little while ago, and found it so helpful that I went back and read every single entry. I’m struggling with disordered eating, and starting to dip my toe in the water of healing and intuitive eating. What you say makes so much sense and has been very helpful. Plus, you swear. I like that. :)

    I have a lot of anxiety around food, and dinner is by far the most anxiety-inducing meal for me, so I struggle to cook when I get home. Since I live alone there’s no one to bring me meals (or peel me some grapes) so if I don’t cook, I don’t eat. My solution to this has been to cook in bulk – mostly soups and casseroles – and freeze in meal-sized portions. I am writing meal plans every week at the moment, and it’s so helpful when I can fill it in with meals I’ve already made. It takes the pressure off and leaves me to concentrate on eating and managing the anxiety. It’s made a huge difference to me. Of course, the system still falls apart some weeks and I end up living on toast or something, but for the most part it’s been great.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Frozen leftovers are something I hold in very high regard. I am so glad you’re reading. When I lived on my own, I did the same thing: cook a big pot of something on the weekends and freeze it for weeknight meals. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked just fine because I was exhausted. If I didn’t have something easy enough to heat up, I would literally be too tired to eat. It sounds like you’re doing a good job, and thank you!

      1. Sue Ellen Avatar

        I also like the fact that I can easily chuck vegetables into the casseroles etc (fresh or frozen; I don’t care) and then I get to feel all smug when I get around to eating the meals. Look, vitamins! Colour! I’m such a grown up! ;)

        1. Gretchen Avatar

          I do that too. Frozen peas have become a staple because they can add fresh tasty GREEN to many dishes.

      2. Erica Avatar

        We totally swear by leftovers (and I never make less than a gallon of stew/etc. at a time, so that I can freeze it). There’s nothing better than opening the fridge to find that some thoughtful person (YOU!) already made you some dinner. My boyfriend likes to say, “Leftovers! They’re here from the past — to save the future!”

        1. Nebet Avatar

          “Leftovers! They’re here from the past — to save the future!”

          Bahahaha, that’s amazing! And yes, leftovers do save me regularly. I just wish I had more freezer space so I could freeze them and still have room for ingredients. ;_;

      3. Sarah Avatar

        “Cook a big pot on the weekend and eat it for the week” is the method at my house too.

        I actually do like cooking (ooh making stuff) and am currently blessed with the means to try new foods and cook fancy things for special occasions but generally I just don’t have time to cook something new every night. I was given a slow cooker for Christmas two years ago and it gets used more than anything else in my kitchen – er except the microwave.

        I kind of see it as letting me make level 5 meals while putting in the time and effort required for level 2-3 meals when averaged out over the week. I can try a new recipe or spend a lot of time chopping things but I only have to do it on one day and reap the benefits for the next five.

        Of course this solution doesn’t work for everyone. One of the reasons it works at my house is because there are only two of us eating there. If I had children, the plan would change – of course a lot of other things would too.

  4. Jacquilynne Avatar

    I still suck at this, and I’m actually regressing since our sessions ended, mainly because I got a dog and she sucks up all of my available time. Ironically, I regularly cook for *her*, since she’s got special dietary needs. I should start salting the chicken and rice I make her and eat some of it myself.

    One of my friend’s suggested this: as a source of inspiration.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Haha, hi there! You must know you were a large part of the inspiration for this post. Maybe the upcoming one will be useful for you – I will actually link to some recipes.

      That link looks handy, so thank you, and congrats on the dog! Though it is really hilariously ironic that you’re cooking for her and not for yourself. That totally sounds like something I would do.

    2. KellyK Avatar

      Dogs are awesome, congrats! But yes, they are really good at eating your life.

      I really like the idea of salting or saucing a portion of the chicken and rice you make for her, so that you can have some too.

    3. notemily Avatar

      Often when I have foster kittens, they make my life really hectic and I end up taking better care of them than I do myself! You’re not the only one.

  5. Kathy Avatar

    I needed this so badly right now. I am exactly that person. All or nothing. And I’m desperately trying to come to be at peace with cooking Level 2 and 3 foods. I just get into this terrible shame cycle where I feel those go-to foods are not good enough, that I must make novel or complex or health-halo-y foods for cooking to be “worth it.” And then I completely burn out and end up going out to eat every night.

    It has made a terrible dent in my wallet and although easy and sometimes satisfying at the time, I look at my choices with a lot of guilt. So getting to a point where level 2 and 3 meals are not just just good enough, but accomplishments is something I really want to achieve. I’m really looking forward to the future posts!

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Haha, health-halo foods! That is a great term.

      The way I think about it is that when I reach too high, what actually happens in reality is that I fall back into default mode. And default mode is always lower than a 2 or 3 – like you said, going out to eat. Even a 2 or 3 is preferable to that (unless you really just want to go out, not because it is a desperation move.) So I may as well start at 2 or 3 and work my way up, rather than starting too high and ending up on the floor.

      I’ve come to the point where my basic cooking actually makes me feel more nourished than, and is just as enjoyable as, going out to a restaurant. But it takes practice at learning to tolerate mistakes and imperfection. Screwing up is a part of cooking.

  6. yulaffin Avatar

    Here’s my deal: I’m a bit disabled (can only stand/walk for short periods) so any cooking I do tends to be of the quick, uncomplicated variety. On top of that, I started eating low carb last year so there are rarely any packaged or order out meals – most everything is made from whole foods. So I look for recipes with few ingredients and minimal prep work or cooking processes. I have a group of favorites in rotation and am always on the lookout for more to try and adapt to my circumstances.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Oh that reminds me – I haven’t read this blog extensively, but from what I have read it is very useful –

      Kathy sometimes comments here so maybe she’ll have something to add. Anyway, like you said, I also look at the list of ingredients in a recipe to help determine if it’s going to be a pain in the ass. If it has more than like ten ingredients, it’s probably not going to happen on a weeknight. I’ve also heard great things about crockpots from clients who have a hard time standing around in the kitchen. I don’t have one, but I often do slow-cooking in my Dutch oven, which is similar.

      1. Tracy Avatar

        If you can get past some of the “health-halo” recipes and commentary on the site, Stone Soup has some good recipes. Her main focus is on minimal ingredients (mostly 5 ingredients)

      2. Kathy Avatar

        Aww thanks for the shout out Michelle. I wondered why my web traffic suddenly jumped! I’ve neglected Chronic In the Kitchen a bit this spring because I’ve been working 20 hours a week and have been doing Dashing Dishes instead (a wonderful meal-prep company where all you do is order, attend & assemble it according to their instructions and throw it in the freezer. Cooking time is generally minimal unless it’s a crock pot recipe)

        1. Kathy Avatar

          There’s a few tips in this category of my blog:

  7. Stephanie Avatar

    I bounce between a 1 and a 5 depending on the day. Sundays, I may hammer out a whole roasted chicken meal or something like that. At least once a week, we’re eating leftovers/eggs/pancakes. And, at least once a week, someone else is cooking and cleaning up after us at a restaurant. Balance, balance is key (though yesterday, I’d have killed for a Level 0…stupid day!)

  8. Sarah TX Avatar
    Sarah TX

    LOL I am totally a Level 0 cooker right now – I am lucky that my spouse is an amazing cook who has Level 1/Level 2 and even Level 3 cooking DOWN.

    I’m pretty good at Level 1 (which I conceptualize as ‘cook some pasta and throw in some sauce’). I’m very interested in something slightly beyond that. I feel like I can follow a complex recipe when I have the time, but when I don’t I can’t look at ingredients in my pantry and ‘throw them together’ the way my husband can.

    1. Kaethe Avatar


      I can do Alfredo from a mix, Clam from a can, Pesto from a jar, Spaghetti from a jar, and I’ve just added frozen Scampi to the mix.

    2. Michelle Avatar

      I’m not much of an improviser myself, actually. I think I can do it, and I have done it, it’s just not my main process when I get in the kitchen. I use recipe cards that have my own modifications and notations added. If I walk in the kitchen and there’s a recipe card, the right pot, and the necessary cans and spices on the counter, then cooking is really easy for me.

  9. Natalie ._c- Avatar

    I LOVED this column. I am one of those who are afraid to set foot in the kitchen, except to make Level 1 (or 0.5) meals. They aren’t even really meals — I just take one food, usually a grab-it food, like a carton of cottage cheese, or a large bowl of shredded cabbage with some salad dressing. Sometimes boxed foods that I can just heat up. But the real issue is that I am afraid of recipes — if it has more than 3 ingredients, I am terrified. All those spices that I don’t want to buy because I might not like them, and all that measuring and mixing and oven temperatures, or all those words like blanching that I don’t even understand. I can’t even cook fish or chicken because I don’t know when they’re done. I don’t know whether there is a Cooking for Dummies book, but the whole idea really terrifies me.

    1. Arndis Avatar

      Natalie, can I suggest a copy of the Joy of Cooking? My copy is older than I am, but it is invaluable for the fact that it defines cooking terms and has 101 courses on many common ingredients and spices. This is a reference, not a tutorial, but you’ll come back to it again and again.

      Spices are worth it! They are great for making things from boxes and jars taste more like fresh and homemade. I suggest a beginner’s selection of basil, oregano, rosemary, sage, tarragon, and pepper — all of these are good in moderation on random western/continental food. Moderation is a shake or two per serving added while cooking. Garlic and ginger should be fresh if possible. Add a bottle each of sesame oil, soy sauce, and chili-garlic sauce (sriracha or rooster sauce) if you want some East Asian basics.

      You can also try out some premade spice mixes — they are fabulous for roasted potatoes. (Chop thin-skinned potatoes to bite-size pieces, dump in a baking pan, lightly coat with oil, sprinkle with spices and a little salt, stick in 400F oven for about 45min. Stir halfway through.) Another example: sometimes I make a pesto sauce for pasta out of italian spice mix, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. You want about equal parts spice, vinegar, and oil, then a few shakes salt and pepper, to make a good-size spoonful or two of goop for each serving in the pot. Mix it to a paste in a small bowl before you start making the pasta, then let it sit. After pasta is drained, stir it into the pasta until it’s all coated. Any extra goop can be stuck in a jar and used another day, or on roasted potatoes.

      1. Amianym Avatar

        I would also suggest trying to find a spice rack with the spices included, which can often be cheaper than buying all of the spices separately, and looks nicer besides.

      2. KellyK Avatar

        I definitely second the Joy of Cooking recommendation. It’s a fantastic all-purpose reference. It doesn’t assume that you know how to do things, so it’s really helpful.

        As far as knowing when things are done, a simple meat thermometer, especially one that has the appropriate temperatures for chicken, fish, and pork listed right on it, is really useful. (If the thermometer doesn’t list the temperatures, Joy of Cooking has them too.)

      3. April Avatar

        I think Mart Bittman is less intimidating than The Joy of Cooking.

    2. Evelyn Avatar

      I get that. I have gotten less picky as I get older, but I was often afraid to try new things (at a restaurant, you’ve wasted money, at home, what if you just screwed it up?).

      Think about what your favorite foods are when other people cook for you. What flavors do you like? That will help you get some idea of what basic spices/herbs you might want.

      For knowing when food is done, consider a meat thermometer, which is more precise than the “done when the juices run clear” method.

      A lot of cookbooks (many of which you can borrow from your local library) have basic instructions on what terms mean and how to do basic techniques. There’s the Joy of Cooking (mentioned above), How to Cook Everything, How to Boil Water (which is a TV show and a book). And yes, there is a Cooking for Dummies.

      What my friend (who is a very good cook) always says when she tries a new recipe: If it doesn’t work out, I still know how to order pizza. I totally understand a fear of failure (which it sounds like is the root of your problem), so having a back-up plan (pizza, PB&J, cereal) may help, and giving yourself permission. If you screw up, you haven’t failed, you’ve learned how not to do something.

    3. Twistie Avatar

      In addition to Arndis’ advice, have you ever considered watching one of the more basic cooking shows on the Food Network or the Cooking Channel? I’m talking someone like, say, Rachel Ray whose primary focus is simply, quick food to put on the table with a minimum of fuss. Most of these cooking show hosts have published cookbooks, so if you find one whose recipes and style appeal to you, you can get a couple more sources of recipes. Also, you can find cooking classes both in adult education programs and in cookware stores like Williams Sonoma.

      One key thing I find to help you learn is to remember that even the most celebrated chefs in the world weren’t born knowing what ‘blanch’ means (basically, that’s to put a vegetable very briefly in boiling water until it’s color brightens, but it doesn’t cook through). And there was a time when you didn’t know the alphabet, either. You had to be taught. But you were smart enough to learn to read and write and drive and hold down a job, so if you put your mind to it you should be able to learn cooking, too. At that point it’s a decision about how badly you want to learn and how far you want to take your education.

      Best of luck! Oh, and if you ever need more advice or a quick tip or two, well, you can always drop me a line and ask, if you like. I love to cook and have a lot of good resources at my fingertips.

    4. FatChickinLycra Avatar

      You might also look at Molly Katzen’s cookbook, “Vegetable Heaven.” One of my faves. Great vegetarian fare with very few ingredients in each recipe. My personal favorites are the giant mushroom popover (basically saute onions/mushrooms, pour batter over it and bake) and the three-part hominy (a grits, corn & hominy starchy comfort dish.)

      I second “The Joy of Cooking,” as long as you realize that it’s a great guide for learning all the basic, classic recipes, but that you don’t have to go for the more elaborate stuff. The best parts for me are the explanation of ingredients. It’s one of my two cooking bibles, the other being Deborah Madison’s “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.” Again, the big advantage is the explanation of the ingredients. (I’m not vegetarian, but love vegetarian foods.)

      Don’t be afraid to experiment. The worst that can happen is you’ll have the occasional flop and you can order a pizza that night if it’s completely inedible. ;-)

    5. Rosemary Riveter Avatar

      There are awesome cooking for dummies type books! Actually, I just looked on amazon and there’s literally “Basic Cooking For Dummies” and “30 min meals for dummies”, ooooh and “quick and healthy meals for dummies” I think I need to buy the last two.

      Cooking meat is totally intimidating to me, my Mum always made chicken dry, and my husband has this magical voodoo where he can just poke the meat (hur) and tell if it’s done. So now I delegate meaty cooking to him, which is a great option to have but doesn’t do anything to help me get over my fear of making dry chicken.

      If you want to learn the basics you could also ask a friend who cooks if you can watch them make a simple meal. I’m lucky that I learned some basics from my parents, but they only ever prepare vegetables in one way (and there was the aforementioned dry chicken) so there’s lots of tricks I picked up by asking friends “how did you do this?”.

    6. BakerGirl Avatar

      Invest in some basic cooking classes. Most major cities have public cooking schools that are usually reasonably priced. It’s worth knowing the basics of cooking. I started learning how to cook at the age of 12, when I became fascinated with the cooking shows on PBS. My Mom was very forgiving of me and my experiments in the kitchen! You’d be amazed at what you learn from watching cooking shows. The Food Network’s Saturday morning cooking shows are usually very educational, and they can help you become more comfortable with the lay out of a kitchen, help you to learn how to identify ingredients, and demystify culinary terms.

  10. mp Avatar

    I have a two-part trouble – I do really enjoy making special meals a couple of times a week. But after spending more than an hour making food, I am not interested in doing dishes. Next thing you know, I’ve had peanut butter sandwiches on paper towels for two days in a row because the kitchen is a mess. I think that, for me, thinking about meals in terms of the clean-up scale (1 is throw out the paper towel, 10 is two rounds in the dishwasher + a bunch of hand-dishes) might be a good way to interpret your concept.

    1. Nebet Avatar

      This is my struggle too. Right now my partner and I have decided to tackle the issue (we are both dealing with some health problems AND both going to school full-time) by just getting paper plates to use for smaller meals and for snacks.

      1. Kathy Avatar

        I totally considered paper plates when I was working part time this spring. Because of chronic pain & fatigue, working was taking almost all I had and the dishes were piling up. Hubby helped as much as possible but he works full time and sometimes full time plus. I did not use the paper plates but it was close!

    2. Julie Avatar

      AAAAK! That’s me too, hate doing dishes, especially after putting in the effort to do the cooking. No dishwasher here but me.

  11. Lori Lieberman, RD, Avatar

    Well your post coincides with my announcement of the first of its kind cookbook for eating disorders we are soon to publish! Check our site later today for the official announcement.

  12. Caprice Avatar

    Your blog is the only one I follow that has long gaps between posts. The reason I do this is because when you do post you have something thoughtful to offer and an interesting discussion follows. I know how rare this is and I appreciate it and you!

    Now, on to cooking. I have two level 2 recipes. One is Tamales with Chili and cheese. You take a can of tamales, peel the wrappers off, and put them in a baking pan. Spread a can of chili over the top and put on as much cheese as you want. Bake at 350 until the cheese melts and is bubbly. The other one is Tuna casserole. Heat a can of tuna, a can of cream of mushroom soup and 1/2 can of milk. Cook 4 – 8 ounces of pasta or 1/2 cup rice. When rice or pasta is done combine with heated sauce. Add peas if you want.

    My husband’s specialty is steak(or lamb chops) and rice. Cook the rice in the rice cooker. Broil, pan-fry or grill the steak or chops. He likes his rice with butter and his steak with A-1. Add some bagged salad if you want. This is a level 6 for him but probably only a level 2 0r 3 for the rest of us! When he cooks it’s a level 0 for me so it’s great.

  13. jen Avatar

    in general, i do love to cook. but several days a week, i look my husband in the eye and say, “I’m not cooking tonight. I don’t care what I eat. I’ll have a protein shake. Or you can go shopping and make dinner. I don’t care.” BUT, I have been pretty successful at doing a bunch of cooking and prep every Sunday so that i don’t have to cook AT ALL during the week (apparently your “college” strategies in an earlier comment are also for full-time employees!) This mainly spawned from attempting to budget, but now I’m seeing other benefits (cue: my butt on couch). This doesn’t happen every Sunday. And when it does happen, the dishes don’t get done until Tuesday or Wednesday. This week, I’m having homemade pizza (store bought crust) every night. Yep, I threw together 4 pizzas on Sunday. That was a lot of pizza!

  14. Carrie Avatar

    I love this! Level 1 is my go-to. Cheese and crackers! The beautiful thing is that it really does satisfy and nourish me many times. Also, I guess my level 2 is eggs. Eggs and toast. Eggs and tortillas. Eggs and pasta. I get overwhelmed if I think I have to be in there for long!

    Ground beef is easy level 2.5 . With frozen veggies!

  15. Arndis Avatar

    I’m not a strong cook myself compared to my partner, but there are a few things that help me a lot. (1) If I’m already hungry, allow myself a small snack before tackling real dinner preparations. (2) Check that I have all the ingredients, read through the recipe, and do all the slow prep work (e.g. chopping) before turning the heat on. (3) Things I really want to eat are easier to convince myself to prepare. (4) For any recipe where you stand over it and stir (mine is risotto), bring something to entertain yourself, like a book or tv show, to the stove.

    Finally, it gets easier once you’ve made that kind of food several times before!

  16. April Avatar

    Some days I make pizza dough and sauce from scratch. Or a many-vegetable stew with dumplings. Or baked mac and “cheese.”

    And some days it’s ramen with frozen “Asian vegetable mix” and hot sauce. Or pasta with canned beans and frozen broccoli and peanut sauce from a jar.

    My personal recommendation for turning level one meals into level two or three:

    *Buy something to turn water into stock or broth. My favorite is a paste in a jar called Better Than Bullion. They make many flavors of meat and vegetarian broths, but my go-to is their No-Chicken broth. Mix the proper amount into water and use that when making grains (like quinoa or rice) and vegetables. I’m always surprised at what a difference it makes.

    *When I buy fresh veggies, I write down what I bought on a whiteboard and cross them off as I use them up. It is so easy for me to forget what I have and let it rot if I don’t do that.

    *Garlic! Chopping it up works, but a garlic press is also helpful and a microplane grater is fantastic. It makes just about everything taste better for very little effort or money. I’ve also used dried garlic granules in a pinch.

    *I try to plan my dinners around the idea of having a grain, a bean (tofu counts), and a vegetable. (Obviously, others will have a different default: meat-eaters might do that instead of a bean, low-carb people will skip the grain, etc.) Having a template to start from really frees me up somehow. Pasta with jarred tomato sauce and a can of white beans: done. Baked tofu with a rice dish and kale: done. Wild and brown rice pilaf with garbanzo beans and roasted root veggies: done, although that’s closer to a level three or four…You get the idea. It’s an ideal and I don’t always do it, but it’s a great starting point.

    *Libraries have cookbooks. There are many recipes online. Make anything that sounds easy and appealing. Some of my favorite meals to make came from trying new recipes, finding I liked something, and putting the item into heavy rotation.

    *I’ve started keeping around a powdered meal replacement thing (that mixes with soymilk) for when I’m too anxious/in a hurry to eat real food. I resisted doing this for ages and now I can’t figure out why. It’s kinda pricey and I wish it were higher in calories, but sometimes it’s all I can manage, and it’s better than nothing. Saltine crackers are helpful too.

    *Give yourself time. I can remember when things that seem easy to me now were hard! I used to only cook out of boxes, and then it was boxes plus vegetables, and then it was learning how to make some of the stuff in boxes myself plus vegetables… there was a lot of barely-edible food in there as I screwed stuff up. I think I’m a reasonably okay cook now, though.

  17. julie Avatar

    I generally cook around level 3, I think. I don’t mind cutting and cooking veggies, but I will not be making my own pasta, noodles, bread, anything like that. I buy these frozen whole wheat pie crusts, throw in every veggie in the house, random cheese that’s lying around, and unidentified “crema”, (Salvadoran cream?) which was not what I was trying to buy, but due to language differences, is what I got. Meanwhile, bf tells me that his boss spend 4 hours making a quiche, and it came out SO good, and I’ve got to explain to him that his boss is a more patient man than I, (not a man at all, really), and my goal here is to be able to eat what I cook, and use my veggies and other ingredients, which means tolerable and tasty enough, but I don’t have to love it and think it’s the best stuff on earth. It’s a balancing act.

  18. Jen Avatar

    When I’m grocery shopping for the week, I try to find some healthier no-cook or low-cook options to have on hand for lazy nights: A KashFi frozen pizza and prewashed salad greens, hummus and pita and veggies, sliced cheese and good bread, eggs. That way I don’t just go out for Chinese food (stir-fry is another good quick option).

  19. Jenn Avatar

    For me the challenge is in planning ahead. I get paralyzed at the thought that the schedule could change. I also am just going through a bone idle phase where I don’t want to take the time to plan ahead. So we’re in an unintentional rut. I don’t mind an intentional rut, aka as a cycle menu, but this is where I look like a deer in the headlights around 5 when I realize people are going to want to eat dinner again tonight and try to find something to make out of what we have.

    I like the levels. I think most of what I make is at level 2 or 3. I’m not one for recipes with tons of ingredients. I can’t wait to see the responses for the next post. Our family has the added challenge of needing to avoid eggs, wheat and dairy products which rules out a lot of easy level 2 meals like scrambled eggs.

  20. flightless Avatar

    My friend gives her 8-year-old string cheese and then while she’s eating it, they decide what ELSE she’s going to eat. This strategy led me and my therapist to make a list of my “string cheese” items (level 0 to 1 foods). Carrots and hummos; apple with cashew butter; leftover macaroni. If I need an actual meal and can’t focus on it, it’s easier for me if I snack and THEN plan.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Yes! I call this “panic food.” It’s the food you pre-decide that you will eat when you are desperately hungry and can’t think. For me, it’s often a bowl of cereal, or crackers and cheese.

      1. flightless Avatar

        And now I feel even more like I need a Remedial Humans 101 class because I’m going, “Bowl of cereal? BRILLIANT!”

        (i.e., thank you so much for your blog!)

        1. Sue Ellen Avatar

          Haha – it took me a long time to realise that it’s okay to eat cereal when it’s (*gasp*) NOT breakfast time.

  21. MamaCheshire Avatar

    This is a lesson I learned last semester, when I had 30 hours of work + 16 hours of field (an hour away) + “blended” classes that met in person more often than I thought.

    We have five Level 1 dinners that everyone likes or at least doesn’t hate in this house: hot dogs, frozen pizza, the half-whole wheat Chef Boyardee ABCs, the half-whole wheat Velveeta mac and cheese, and canned clam chowder. When I’m thinking clearly enough or when the kids ask (which is more often than you’d think!) I make baby-cut carrots or raw broccoli pieces or some kind of fruit available on the side.

    Along the same lines I’ve also started taking a can of soup or pasta to work for lunch, and packets of oatmeal for breakfast, and that instant International Coffee stuff my grandpa called “goofy coffee” and I call “Mama’s silly coffee”. (I have ADHD. Caffeine is an incredibly useful adjunct to my Strattera and I really notice the difference if I don’t have any.) One of my co-workers was complimenting me on the consistency of doing this. :) (I also usually take a container of peanuts or mixed nuts for when I need something munchy that isn’t low-fat, but that’s not worked so well lately due to recent oral surgery.)

    So…we pretty much expect that at least one or two days a week will be Level 1 meals, and probably an additional day will be “go to McDonald’s so the grownups can talk while the kids play at the playplace.”

    We also have a repertoire of Level 2 and Level 3 meals. Level 2 looks like this:

    – Pasta + sauce + ground beef
    – Pasta + alfredo sauce + sauteed shrimp (ok, this is the very outer edge of Level 2, and might really be Level 3)
    – Grilled cheese and tomato soup
    – Steak and a baked potato or sweet potato (only if my spouse is making it – he’s way better at grilling steak than I am)
    – Cheeseburgers

    Level 3 includes:

    – A lot of different curry/stir-fry things that we like: chicken curry over rice, beef and potato curry, chicken (or salmon or shrimp or ham) and pineapple in peanut sauce, fried rice variants, etc.
    – Homemade mac and cheese, aka “tuna mac”, which is a multilayered casserole topped with white sauce. Favorite family recipe from my childhood.
    – The addition of oven fries to burgers or hot dogs, or fried tilapia and oven fries (another case of “if my spouse is making it”).
    – Meat or fish plus mashed potatoes plus a third fruit or vegetable side.

    We used to feel like we had to start at Level 3 (and yeah, it goes up from there, to some pretty elaborate productions – we even made everything but the cake for our own wedding). The only Level 1s we used were clam chowder and hot dogs, and that tended to be with a side of guilt. Level 2s were usually reserved for weekend lunches if we were home or for times we needed a fast meal because someone had to be somewhere. If we weren’t up to cooking at a minimum of Level 3, we’d order it out, and this resulted in us “eating our money” to the tune of anywhere between 30 and 50 dollars a meal. Not sensible or sustainable for our financial situation.

    Lowering our standards has definitely improved our quality of life. I highly recommend it. ;)

    I think lowering

  22. lanicooks Avatar

    This is completely wild. I just started a blog (like three days ago started, so the construction signs are still up) about teaching yourself to cook. I’m probably averaging out at a 5 on your scale; I cook for a varying number of my lady friends once a week, and love making a feast for special occasions. But I wasn’t always that way, and I do my fair share of just needing leftover pizza.

    I guess I’m kind of the polar opposite of the perfectionist cook but with the same outcome: for a long time I was like “it doesn’t matter how it turns out so why even try? LEVEL ONE 4EVA!” My biggest problem is that I’m impatient, but at least I enjoy improvising.

    Tonight is my ladies night and I’m going to make a pretty low-key dinner:
    Roast (oiled, salted, peppered) asparagus in 450F oven for 10-15 minutes
    Make rotini pasta
    Mix pasta and asparagus and lemon juice and a log of goat cheese (that’s why rotini; it holds onto more of the cheese!) and oil and a little of the pasta water in a big bowl
    Serve with side salad made while the roasting and pasta cooking was happening

    If you’re not a goat cheese person, cream cheese will have pretty much the same effect, though you might want to add some pepper to kick up the flavor. I altered the recipe slightly from the original. Could also add in sauteed greens like kale if you wanted. OO, or cherry tomatoes! Dude, what could you NOT add to this thing?

  23. Evelyn Avatar

    One of my favorite things to make at the level 2-3 range (which is what I need: I have a part-time job that feeds me two nights a week, and an hour-plus commute home by public transit on the nights I *do* go straight home, which means I get in after I really want to have eaten) is fried rice.
    In fact, that’s often the only reason I make white rice, so that I’ll have it in the house to make fried rice. It takes less than an hour, can be made vegetarian, can be made spicy or mild, is a great way to use up leftovers, and is delicious. When my doctor told me I had slightly high cholesterol, I realized it could be made with egg whites instead of whole eggs. And it’s definitely more a method than a recipe. The downside is that it’s not really a meal you can walk away from for a long time while it’s cooking, but it’s fast.
    I also like scrambled eggs and home fries for dinner.

  24. Mercy Avatar

    My husband and I SO have trouble with this! A lot of the stuff we would like to cook (in theory) is round about level 5, and we had a lot of fun with that back when I wasn’t chronically fatigued and in pain with sudden crashes and could do things like stand over a stove or a sink for extended periods. But now my husband gets sick of cooking through the days when I need level zero for dinner (having had a bad day where level 1 was about as far as I got during the day, or a less-bad day of level 2 leading to a crash shortly before he gets home), or what is especially frustrating to me, I have a good day or he has a day off, and we plan something level 5 on purpose, but then I completely crash right around the time we need to start cooking and have to go have a lie down if not an outright nap. >.< Or we get delayed by three hours and then it's 8pm when we start the hour-and-a-half in theory recipe that takes us three hours plus to make. We have a lot of eating-at-eleven happening. Sometimes with level 2-3 meals, too, since my husband doesn't always get home before 9pm.

    ok, babbling here, probably because it's after midnight. signing off before I really embarrass myself.

    1. KellyK Avatar

      Ouch. That has to be really horribly frustrating.

      Since what you’re up for tends to vary a lot, I wonder if it would help to plan all your higher-level meals with an eye toward how you can take them down a notch or three if you end up crashing. Like, say it’s a baked chicken recipe, rice and a veggie dish. If you end up not feeling like doing all that, maybe you do the baked chicken with frozen french fries and a microwaved veggie.

      1. Mercy Avatar

        That’s what we wind up doing, but meanwhile the fresh veggies go bad and sometimes the meats…. (rice is the easy part, btw, I would no more give up my rice cooker than I would my dishwasher)

        It’s not like we always plan stage 5, either, often we don’t realize (or forget) that they ARE stage 5…

  25. Twistie Avatar

    Anyone who knows me (or has read many of my posts and comments on the web) knows that I love to cook. I’m good at cooking. Scratch that, I’m a DAMN good cook. I read cookbooks like they were novels, I think nothing of whipping up a layer cake from scratch just because I feel like it, and I adore planning menus for parties with lots of new dishes.

    And then there are the days when the best idea I can think of for dinner is a call to the Chinese take out. That’s good, too.

    Not everyone has the time, the skill, the interest, or the resources to cook great food every night. I actually have all of these things, but you know what? There are still times when I just plain don’t want to. I punt on those days. What’s more, I don’t feel guilty. Not every meal needs to be worthy of a Michelin star restaurant. Not every meal needs to be created by hand. It’s okay to decide it’s time for jarred matzoh ball soup or the Casa Twistie favorite potato surprise (frozen potatoes fried with sausages, onion, garlic, and topped with melted cheddar cheese cooked by Mr. Twistie, whose kitchen skills *might* squeak up to a 1).

    In between the gratins and braises and potato surprise, there are a myriad of delicious things. Burgers or chops or pasta mixed with whatever happens to be on hand fill us up happily.

    Basically, if it’s something you have the time, skill, resources, and interest to get on the table, well, that’s ahead of what’s in second place. Getting fed regularly is the priority. Whatever you need to do to get that done is okay.

  26. Julie Avatar

    That’s where I’m at right now. I’m such a mess I don’t even want to think about food. I accepted my size for the last 20 years and my weight stayed within a 10lb. range, but over the last 2 years I suddenly gained 20 lbs (due to my new, highly stressful job which I am now quitting). I have a massive cookbook collection but I don’t feel like cooking at all (it doesn’t help that I hate shopping). I feel guilty eating meat, so I don’t. I’m starting to feel pressure to lose weight but don’t know how anymore. I’ve been eating very plain, boring food. I think it helps if you have someone to cook FOR, like when my kids were small I was very careful about making sure they got proper nutrition and meals at regular times. I was always trying new recipes–they said it was like eating at a different restaurant every night, you never got the same thing twice. Now I just eat whenever…no regular meal times, no meals, just yogurt here, spinach there, whatever happens to be around. I don’t know what to do about food anymore. I’m so confused, the cat’s food is starting to smell like it might make a good sandwich. :-/

    1. flightless Avatar

      If you’re not eating meat & the cat’s food is starting to smell good ;-) I recommend some “level 0” fake meats! I really like the vegetarian versions of pepperoni and Canadian bacon, which are super easy to eat plain, with crackers, etc. There are also fake hot dogs and sausages that can be very hearty and might give you more protein if you need that. A toasted English muffin with a (frozen, microwaved) slice of vegetarian breakfast sausage is one of my “panic” meals.

    2. Julie Avatar

      Update: I’ve been looking at the vegetarian cookbooks on Amazon and they are giving me new motivation for cooking. Yay!

      1. Michelle Avatar

        I love reading cookbooks. I get them from the library and steal recipes like they’re someone else’s french fries.

  27. Arwen Avatar

    Meal Planning is what saves me from All Level One, All the Time; I prepare two weeks meal plans at a time, but that’s because I have kids and time pressure – food’s got to be on the table by 5:30, usually. With two kids and a long day, I can often come up to panic at dinner. I find that the meal planning ahead of time and having all the ingredients on hand really makes a huge difference and releases me.
    Without panic I *do* enjoy cooking, but I have easier and harder meals. Sometimes I’ll switch days if I’ve had a bad day – I see a pretty easy curry tomorrow and a more complex dinner tonight, & just flip.

  28. Lindsay Avatar

    I’m a level 0-1 cook pretty much. The recipes my mom gave me are all level 6+ but I admit I’ve messed up things so simple it’s embarrassing. Also (and this is rather childish, I admit) I feel like I continue to eat level 1’s as almost an act of defiance against food snobs who tell me I shouldn’t and that it’s bad. Like if I start cooking more then it means they got to me and I’m doing what they want (which I also associate with how some food snobs cook everything as light/low fat/low calorie as possible which is triggery for me).

    However I would like to have a family at some point in the far off future though, and I would like to raise them on something more than Stouffers, so I have been trying to learn some simple things lately. Recipes at level 2-3 level of difficulty would be perfect for me, I look forward to it. :)

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I feel like I continue to eat level 1′s as almost an act of defiance against food snobs who tell me I shouldn’t and that it’s bad.

      I suspect you may be in good company here :)

      One thing I try to remember is that rebellion, in many cases, is no more freeing than submission because you are not stopping to consider what you actually want – you are just reacting to the pressure. Whether you go right because they said you should go right, or left because they said you should go right, you are still not really acting autonomously.

      The little voice that says “I would like to raise my kids on more than Stouffers” might actually be your real voice, and not a reaction to the pressure. I’d listen to it and see where it goes.

      1. KellyK Avatar

        I like this. One of the things I do to deal with the rebellious voice in my head is to try to turn it into “I will *NOT* let anyone poison this thing that I enjoy.” I can do what I authentically want to do, but still feel like I’m telling whatever know-it-all perfectionist where they can go, which makes my rebellious side happy.

  29. G Avatar

    It’s really sinking in for me how fortunate I was to have a mom who said “Okay, you make dinner 2 nights a week. I’m busy. Here’s a cookbook.” I like cooking one or two big Level 5-ish meals during the week and eating the leftovers for lunch and dinner.

    Some days, though, peanut butter is my best friend.

    1. s.h. Avatar

      I was just thinking something similar! My mom would go: “If you want dinner faster, you help make it. Here peel these potatoes.”

      There are so many cooking skills that I learned from her that I didn’t really realize weren’t universal until well into college and adult life. Knowing the basics really just makes everything that much easier to handle.

  30. eatingasapathtoyoga Avatar

    I’m a level 2 moving towards 3. Baby steps! Tackling one at a time…. Or as I like to say, “Don’t make radical promises: Tackle one small moment at a time.” (Me)

    1. eatingasapathtoyoga Avatar

      OMG, just read all the comments & now I’m totally overwhelmed. I was Level one just a month ago. Level one for me means there is no boiling water or cutting items involved.

      1. Michelle Avatar

        I think that sounds like a valid take on Level 1. Obviously there is no official definition, so you are where you are!

  31. Julia H.@Going Gulia Avatar

    I like your take on Levels of cooking! I never thought of it that way, but it definitely makes sense. When I’m home from college for breaks (like summer vacation right now), the cooking levels in my household are all over the place! Because I can’t just make whatever I want for myself since my parents are here, I sometimes like to try new recipes to treat them, while other times we all just order food, and other times I’ll whip up some random “Level 2” things for myself if my parents both happen to not be home.

  32. s.h. Avatar

    LOVE this post. I love to cook — I think I’ve commented here before that cooking is the main thing I do to relieve anxiety — but having a variety of levels of recipes is invaluable. On the “easy” (YMMV) end of things I have things like scrambled eggs and toast (which I totally eat for dinner!) or beans, rice, tomatoes, and avocados or leftovers! (I <3 leftovers.) And then on the more complex end of things I have … a variety of soups, pizzas, pastas, etc. You need those different levels because each day is different — some days time and energy is on your side and some days it isn't.

    It took me a while to get from liking to cook to being good at meal planning though. During the rough patches it really helped that I liked cooking to begin with … there was a lot of trial and error in getting the amount of food I buy and the amount of food I eat in proper balance and in figuring out what recipes were on which levels. (For example for me, cooking anything with meat is at least a 5 because I typically cook vegetarian so I don't have much practice cooking meat — when I do cook it I have to pay a lot more attention! Whereas something like homemade bread is a lot lower for me because I've been obsessed with baking bread since I was a kid so at this point it's second nature and I can just turn my brain off.) But I learned quite a bit through my mistakes and it definitely feels like I've leveled up … both cooking-wise and planning-wise.

    The two things I really love about being in the habit of meal planning now is that I am rarely stuck in my apartment with nothing to eat — I feel a lot more food secure now — and, second, that I've gotten so much better at it! It's such a relief to be able to know that I can throw together whatever I have in the fridge into a meal and I've gotten so so so so much better at improvising that going to the grocery store is easier — no more panic that they are out of that one thing I needed!

    There are a few places that I've found really useful when figuring out how to make meal planning easy and workable for me, but unfortunately they fall into the trap of talking about "healthy" food vs "junk" food or losing weight. But with that disclaimer, when it comes to the actual meal planning parts of the blogs I've found the following three places invaluable: & & Broke Foodie is probably the least triggery, but she definitely still talks down to processed food and she has the least content that is explicitly about meal planning. (Great if you want to get some ideas for how to get better at improvising in the kitchen though and if you want to get some ideas about cutting grocery costs but not grocery lists. And high five to having a well stocked pantry and doing pantry cooking! Seriously, having certain staples makes life so much easier.) I have such mixed feelings about Stone Soup & Just Bento though … on the one hand they are so useful! I get the Stone Soup daily e-mail and she has such great tips! On the other hand … gosh they have so much triggery food stuff. So, yeah, proceed with caution.

  33. Cath of Canberra Avatar

    So excited about this post, and I can’t wait to dive in further, but I have to because I’m at work.

    In your terms, I think I would have been about a level 5 cook most nights before I got sick, and seen level 3 as for an occasional easy night off. Maybe I used a jar of curry paste instead of preparing my own spice blend from scratch. Ooh err, such laziness! On a couple of occasions, I’ve successfully made a buffet dinner for 50, and I’ve often cooked entire holiday dinners of turkey & ham and all the trimmings & choices of festive appetisers & desserts for 12, with little or no help from anyone. And loved doing it, because that’s the kind of person I am.

    Since I’ve been sick, which has been about a year now and I’m still on my rehab, I’ve learned a huge amount about levels 1, 2 and 3. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that money can substitute for energy. For example, pre-cut veggies from the supermarket are more expensive than cleaning and slicing your own, but a great prep energy saver. And also, sadly, the higher quality ready-made meals cost more than the cheap and nasty :(

    Back later. Gotta work.

  34. Baffled Avatar

    I LOVE food. I like cooking. Back when I was healthy I could cook up to level 5 or 6 meals. Yes, I’ve made ravioli from scratch and pizza from absolute scratch and I was pretty darned good at it. But, I also wasn’t afraid to cut corners when time and life got in the way so in reality most weeknight meals were level 2-4 with the more than occasional level 0 when we went out to eat or got take out.

    However, two years ago I came down with a chronic illness. This forced me into a new style of cooking. I no longer had the energy to cook even if I wanted to. Many days I can’t even stand up for more than five minutes without risking fainting. I’ve had to totally revamp how I cook. I do prep work sitting down. I use as many short cuts as possible. I’ve bought many new kitchen gadgets and fallen in love with my slow cooker and immersion blender.

    Because I knew there were people like me trying to cook while battling chronic illness, I started a blog. It includes fast and easy recipes and also tips and shortcuts. I know this sounds like a shameless plug but really I just want to help others that want to cook but don’t have the energy to do so. And, I couldn’t find anything out there like this. Maybe when I get enough energy I’ll write a cookbook. Right now however that is a pipe dream. Anyway…

    This post is such an accurate description of what us chronic chicks in the kitchen face everyday. How much energy do we have? What shortcuts can we take? How do we feed ourselves when we are feeling absolutely lousy? So bring on multilevel cooking! I love this idea. It is such a great concept and much more true to life.

    1. Chronic in the Kitch Avatar

      I want to publish a cookbook some day as well.

  35. Baffled Avatar

    Oh yeah…
    A level 10 meal by a chef that has a PhD in molecular gastronomy is on my bucket list. Sous-vid grass fed beef with asparagus reduction and pea soup pearls here I come!

  36. deeleigh Avatar

    I’m a good level 3 cook. I make dinner from scratch (or almost from scratch) almost every night, and usually in half an hour or less. Here’s some food I made. Is there a need for a book on how to do that?

    1. Michelle Avatar

      This one looks pretty good:

      (Is that the German chocolate with the blue label with a picture of a mountain on it? Can’t remember the name, but will always remember the chocolate.)

      1. deeleigh Avatar

        Ha! Obviously not literally something I cooked. It looks nice on the plate, though.

        1. Michelle Avatar

          I just cannot for the life of me remember the name of that brand of chocolate, except that it’s very good, and the first time I had it I bought it at a random deli in Orangeville on the way home from Algonquin. They have one with a praline filling that is totally amazing.

          Doh just looked it up – it’s Golden Alps and it’s Swiss. Good stuff.

  37. trippmadam Avatar

    I just returned from a season in the abyss (“abyss” meaning canned spaghetti twice a week without even adding some basil or cheese, and our local equivalent of hotdogs on any other day), so thank you for your previous post, which has been helpful.

    When I was a teenager, my life was school- helping mom with cooking – helping mom with housework – homework – sleep. My mom was brought up much in the same way, hated it and thought it was a good idea to pass it on to her eldest daughter. No cooking/cleanng duties for the boys! So, I can cook, but I used to hate it.

    When I went to university and later got a job, I felt lucky I was able to eat lunch at the cafeteria 5 days a week. Universities and bigger companies in my country generally have cafeterias where you can get a decent meal at a reasonable prize. . I had several boyfriends, who never cooked on weekends, but always complained about my cooking. My family used to spend entire weekends and holidas complaining about my cooking, lifestyle, the choices I made… Over the years I developed kitchen phobia.

    One day, I got rid of my boyfriend and told my family to leave me alone. Some time later, I cooked my first risotto. It required few ingredients and turned out quite well. During a holiday in Spain I met a Gypsy, who taught me to cook a vegetable soup (olla gitana or olla de peras) which is easy to prepare, inexpensive, tastes great and seems to be the National Dish of Spanish Gypsies. Originally my family comes from the south of France, so I began to research French cooking. It turned out they have really simple and tasty recipes in the South of France, so that’s basically what I cook these days (on weekends). From Monday to Friday I still rely on the cafeteria at work for lunch. Dinner is mostly bread and cheese or some kind of salad, sometimes canned soup or Asian take-out food.

    I do like to bake, however, but I do not have much time to spend in the kitchen.

  38. Noel Lynne Figart Avatar

    Cooking is certainly my hobby, but I have a life and I don’t necessarily want to spend my life in the kitchen. I also love food and like to eat a variety of tasty dishes.

    I spend a lot of time at Level 2 or 3. It’s a decent level, I think, for daily food. I try to make a meal that takes less than half an hour of prep time. If it takes more than an hour of cooking time, chances are very good that it’s a dish I’ll make in advance and freeze ahead, or make it a crock pot meal. Or only make it rarely.

    I call ’em my lazy meals, though, and they include several of this type dish:

    Stir fries. Rice takes a total of 25 minutes to cook, and a stir fry is fast if you have good knife skills (I do). I also use the stir fry concept and not necessarily make an Asian meal. Skillet meals are quick and tasty, especially if you keep a little wine on hand to deglaze the pan.

    Salads. This didn’t used to be in my repertoire, as they were “diet food”. But, um… well, I like salads. So, I now eat them.

    Freezer meals. I often double or triple a recipe and freeze leftovers. Not that there’s a thing wrong with food from a box, but my version of it is to have a stock of food in the freezer. On the nights I’m too tired/busy to make dinner, this is it.

    Omelettes. I love omelettes. They’re tasty and fast. They do take a little practice to make, but Julia Child’s omelette instruction video is on YouTube and it’s something people might like.

    I am increasingly of the opinion that speed and ease of prep is driven by knife skills.

    1. KellyK Avatar

      Without going to culinary school or getting on Worst Cooks in America (which I’m totally not qualified for, never having given anyone food poisoning), how does one improve their knife skills? Mine suck, and prep takes longer than it needs to as a result. And that thing where all the pieces are supposed to be the same size? Yeah, not so much.

      1. FatChickinLycra Avatar

        Have you looked for knife-handling videos on YouTube?

        1. KellyK Avatar

          No, I haven’t. That’s an excellent idea, thank you!

        2. Noel Lynne Figart Avatar

          You beat me to it. The YouTube videos are often great.

      2. BakerGirl Avatar

        Look for local, public cooking classes in your area. Heck, my local butcher shop offers knife skills classes a couple times a month. Look in the Food Section of your cities paper for food event listings.

        1. KellyK Avatar

          Thank you! Come to think of it, the community college near me does offer some cooking classes.

      3. Michelle Avatar

        My knife skills are not legendary or anything, but lots of practice chopping onions with a decent knife on a large cutting board is how I learned. It takes a while, but the best way to practice is to just keep making dinner.

        I think technically we learned knife handling in school, but it was just a single lesson thing. It was somewhat helpful, and I guess I do use some of what I learned still (like slicing off the bottom of something rounded to make it stable on the board, using a rocking motion with the knife, etc.) Really really basic stuff.

  39. Karyn Avatar

    I cook almost every meal I eat, varying skill levels of 1-6 (when I’ve really got time to go crazy). In ’08 I was diagnosed with celiacs, and wouldn’t find a wide variety of trustworthy gluten free food. Noone else in my family was waiting gluten free at that point. Any I was generally <1 for cooing ability. Of the best things that happen to me in life, I consider being someone with celiacs one of them, because it forced me to improve my skill in the kitchen. I did my stint with homemade pasta, but the love affair didn't last too long when it was tasting worse and costing more than what's available premade at the store.

    One of my favorite things to do is have flatbread pizza crust in the freezer. It dethaws fairly quickly, and then I just chop up some veggies, throw some pesto-out-of-a-jar for sauce, throw the veggies on top, and shred some cheese. Whole thing takes ten minutes to prepare (or less if you're using prechopped or frozen veggies) and not long to cook in the oven. It's my go to "I'm to tired to deal with you, kitchen" eat.

  40. zingor Avatar

    Back in the day, I used to be at a 10 for other people, but a 0-1 for myself. When I wasn’t in the restaurant, I either ate cereal (I got panicky if I didn’t have at least 5 varieties in the kitchen at all times) or fast food. Working chefs usually have crappy diets.

    Now I work on the other end of food (WIC nutrition educator) and have about 1 8-day every 2 weeks, 2 5’s, and the rest are still 1-2s. My trick is planning the 1-2s on the 8 and 5 days. Last Sunday, while I felt the urge to have a big kitchen day, I also grilled a bunch of chicken and salmon, so that I had cooked protien to throw on chopped veggies for quick salads during the week. I also made a batch each of pimento cheese and butterbean pate (this involves nothing more than throwing things into the food processor and scraping it out).

    My 1-2 days this week included: cutting up a bunch of veg and piling crackers next to either a bowl of butterbean pate or pimento cheese and munching during movies, or chopping a peice of chicken and making a salad. Haven’t had to turn on the oven or stove yet in the heat, but tonight we’re having tomato soup and pimento cheese sandwiches, so I might infuse a little heat into the kitchen. And every Wednesday we go out, so that’s a complete 0.

    The fun part of my job these days is helping my clients see that 1-2 days are completely valid, and “nutrition” isn’t all or nothing. (I am a completely subversive WIC lady, sneaking HAES into discussions and refusing to call 1-5 year olds obese.)

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Awesome! I love subversive WIC ladies :)

    2. KellyK Avatar

      The fun part of my job these days is helping my clients see that 1-2 days are completely valid, and “nutrition” isn’t all or nothing. (I am a completely subversive WIC lady, sneaking HAES into discussions and refusing to call 1-5 year olds obese.)

      That is fantastic! Good for you.

  41. Alice Avatar

    Loving the meal level scale. I try to always have the ingredients for some level 2 meals that I like at home, which definitely makes my life easier.

    1. Alice Avatar

      I really like cooking, though, but I’m also pretty busy and don’t usually have the energy for it at week nights..

  42. Alice Avatar

    My go-to solution for level 2 meals is pasta + jarred tomato sauce and then just throwing in whatever seems tasty – for example vegetables, feta cubes, beans and/or chopped up hot dogs.

  43. Nia Avatar

    Depending on one’s upbringing, this is also a matter of permission. My family has worked all my life under some very strict rules set by my mother. This is a country where lunch is heavy and dinner is light.
    1. The same meal cannot be eaten two days in a row, or for lunch and dinner.
    2. Ditto for the same carb (no chicken and fries today and fish with boiled potatoes tomorrow).
    3. Leftovers are dinner, never lunch, unless they are beans.
    4. Levels 0-1-2 are left exclusively for dinner. Never lunch.
    5. Meal planning is preferably done around the animal protein. The fact that a family member fancies a particular carb or veg is irrelevant. It’s not a question of amount but of what is the “right” answer to “What would you like for lunch today?”.
    6. All meals must include all food groups.

    Plus some more specific rules about ingredient combinations.

    I am proud to say I have given myself permission to break all those rules when necessary. Today we have eaten leftovers and sausages for lunch. Yeah!

    1. Nebet Avatar

      I’m very curious what the reasoning was behind all of these rules. They seem rather draconian to me!

      Yay for you for breaking out of them, though!

      1. deeleigh Avatar

        They’re probably just an attempt to structure a balanced diet. I have random rules like that, too, but I don’t always stick to them.

    2. Michelle Avatar

      Rules like this are funny. I think they do develop, originally, for a reason, and maybe for some good reasons. But when they become less “how I prefer to eat” and more “THESE ARE THE UNIVERSAL RULES TO HOW I HAVE TO EAT” that’s a problem. I dislike rigidity in anything, and I think tossing the rules aside to get the food you really want is totally worthwhile and great.

  44. Flick Avatar


    This is my first time commenting (I think), although I read your blog often. I’ve been checking back regularly these last weeks, so was excited today to see that you’d posted. This post really resonated for me; I have a bit of the ol’ perfectionism thing going on also – with both the writing and the cooking.

    I’ve been wanting to start a blog for years, but haven’t, for fear of having to write regularly, and the resulting less-than-stable emotional state that that might get me into! And the cooking thing: I love to cook, and thrive on doing level 4 or 5 stuff. In fact, it can be a really great way for me to de-stress. On Friday night for example, after a particularly stressful day, I got out my cook book, chose two curries – one vegan and one vegetarian – and spent the entire evening making them from scratch. My husband has spent the next 48 hours devouring them at every opportunity and raving about their deliciousness, stuffing himself silly in the process.

    But I’m way too critical of my own cooking, and am the type to declare all their negative attributes as I serve them up; never a great start to a meal! The ridiculous thing is that I love having someone else cook for me, and couldn’t care less if it’s overcooked pasta with a jar of sauce and a tin of tuna (hubby’s staple meal to prepare) – I fully embrace it! And I know that most of my friends and family would be feeling exactly the same way about anything that I prepare for them – but still, I get all critical on myself! It’s something I’m working on, as well as accepting that sometimes I just want to buy a roast chook from the shops, chop up some raw vegie sticks and call it dinner. And everyone’s always content and satisfied, even me.

    Thanks for drawing me back to a place of less self-criticism and more self-love.

    I love your blog and what you do. You’re awesome.

  45. Jake Avatar

    This post is so timely and helpful to me. I’ve been having a lot more Level One meals lately, mostly because of the stress of finishing up my Master’s degree is overwhelming a lot of the time. It never occurred to me that perfectionism was one of my problems, but I think you’re right that it’s what’s stopping me from cooking when I don’t feel up to making a fully balanced and healthy meal.

    Last night I found myself in one of these spirals and was having a bit of a tantrum because the kitchen was too much of a mess to cook and it was late and I had very few non-cheesy Level One options, but I knew that cheese would give me a tummy ache and I was just about to give up and just have bread and butter for dinner, which I hate doing.

    Fortunately, my sweetie woke up and agreed to do some dishes so that I could cook, so I ended up making I think a Level Three meal (pasta and sauce, but I made the sauce from scratch).

    This post has given me a new way of thinking about this kind of situation though, so thanks. I’m looking forward to hearing your strategies for dealing with it.

    1. KellyK Avatar

      Yeah, finishing a master’s is tough. (If I hadn’t had my husband feeding me and taking care of the house while I did my master’s, I would probably have lived on cereal and Chinese take-out.)

  46. notemily Avatar

    Wow, thanks for this! I am definitely stuck at Level One and have been for YEARS, but now that I am feeling a bit less depressed (hopefully that’ll last) and things are finally going well in my life, I really want to start to learn how to cook beyond that level. But it is intimidating!

    Part of my problem is the cleanliness thing–I tend towards the slob end of the spectrum, for various reasons, so sometimes it’s not just fear-of-cooking that keeps me out of the kitchen, it’s the fact that I’d have to give everything a good scrub-down first and that seems like way too much work. Sometimes I’ll make a frozen dinner just so I don’t have to wash a bowl! It’s easier to just spend as little time in the kitchen as possible than to face down the dirt.

    I do have an allergic-to-everything friend coming to visit soon so I’m trying to do as thorough a cleaning as possible. Maybe I can use that as a jumping-off point for spending more time cooking, too.

  47. Sara A. Avatar
    Sara A.

    My husband and I tend to eat a lot of what I call mish-mash. It’s somewhere between a stew and meat-sauce: ground beef or turkey, a chopped onion, garlic, whatever veg is in the fridge, a can of crushed tomatoes, spices to taste and pasta. I guess I do a lot of level 3 cooking. I start from raw ingredients with a few pantry products like crushed tomatoes and I always have a jar of minced garlic in the fridge. One of my biggest time savers is to keep my pantry stocked, including spices. In my mind, cooking is somewhere in between an art project and a science project, and it helps my spontaneity to have all the spices I could need on hand. I don’t often buy things with a clear plan in mind. Often the process is, “Chicken thighs are on sale and we like those…” Those thighs could be chicken cacciatore, curry, arroz con pollo, or a casserole. I also keep frozen veg, frozen meatballs, and pasta on hand. It helps if I’m just not feeling up to it to put some water to boil and have meatballs and spaghetti in a half hour.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I love this! Mish-mash is a great concept.

    2. Jake Avatar

      My parents have a similar idea called beans and. Basically you start with beans, and add whatever you have kicking around, canned tomatoes, veggies, maybe some meat, leftover spaghetti sauce/stew/stirfry from previous nights. I like beans and.

  48. Linda Avatar

    I forgot a level one recipe that I LOVE and that gets me through when I can’t bear to cook but need something to sustain me: a can of tuna fish, mixed with bunch of mayo, and peas, and pepper. Surprisingly good.

    Also, knives were mentioned and that reminded me that one of my barriers to cooking used to be not having decent knives. I grew up with butter knives, seriously, and had no idea that was half of why cooking was so frustrating. My must-haves are a big heavy chef’s knife with a curve (so you can rock it) and two medium-sized serrated knives (one finely serrated) and a knife sharpener.

  49. Chris Avatar

    I read something recently that I liked – measure progress, not perfection. Works well when it comes to fitness training (especially of the sports-specific variety). But in honesty, I’m not really up for even measuring progress any more, because I think ones sense of self-worth should not be limited to ones achievements or measurable thingies.

    As a recovering perfectionist myself, who once never had the capacity to get a damn thing done, I still have the habit of proof reading comments more than an ordinary number of times, I imagine, just to be absolutely sure there are no mitsakes or errros.

    Also, I like puns. And I love segues. Speaking of which….

  50. closetpuritan Avatar

    Level 0.5: come up with a plan to get food that does not involve you making the food. For example, “Tomorrow it’s your turn to make dinner. Today I’m going to the store; do you need anything?” Or even, “Let’s order Chinese food. I’ll pick it up on my way home.” Not cooking can be a form of being responsible.

  51. […] Perfectionist Cooking Paralysis […]

  52. […] reminded me of this great post from a few months back from The Fat Nutritionist.  Do you do Thanksgiving, but can’t manage […]

  53. Amanda Avatar

    Just found your blog Michelle and this post is exactly why I love you! Good practical advice to take the stress and anxiety out of eating.

    My issue is Perfectionist Meal Planning Paralysis. When I do my weekly meal plan I get paralyzed in the planning stage of what to cook each night. To the extent that I’ll have 3 very similar recipes (say for salmon pizza) I’ve found on the web and I’ll go back and forth reading each one to try and work out which one is better, cause I have to make the right choice or else dinner will be ruined. Hows that for black or white perfectionist thinking! It got so bad I had to give my husband a list of possible meals and got him to choose.

  54. closetpuritan Avatar

    Here’s an article that’s sort of related to this:
    Warning: article contains “should” (but not a lot of it).

    It talks about how cooking isn’t as much fun when you have to do it every day for practical reasons instead of fancy meals for dinner parties. And also about how economic logic changes between the middle class and the poor.

  55. Amanda Avatar

    This is a timely discussion for me because we are starting a kitchen renovation and I will be without basic things like a SINK for at least five weeks. When my first was born and I was a single mom, dinner was often soup, microwaved and dumped into disposable bowls. I ate a lot of drive-thru food too. Now that I have a whole four people to feed, we can’t do takeout that often or we would be broke. But I don’t feel a speck of guilt over using disposable dishes and serving sandwiches or soup or microwave meals. Usually I cook level 2 or 3, easy meals that I plan ahead. I make a list of dinner ideas and pin it to the fridge. I use the “menu” to come up with the grocery list. I am going to miss my own home-cookin’ but it’s for a good cause, and it’s temporary.

  56. Eva Avatar

    This post has really helped me. I thought my situation was very weird, but this makes it much more clear.

    So, I recovered from anorexia. And I learned to cook, which I had never done before since I was so afraid of food. And cooking’s fun! I learned fancy knife skills and read Cook’s Illustrated! But in practice it falls apart. That is, I know how to make very complex dishes and enjoy making them, but only if someone cooks with me, or I’m cooking for someone else. When I’m feeding myself, I’m flustered and discouraged. I’m not afraid of the food, I just can’t figure out how to assemble it and I get overwhelmed. For example:

    For other people: handmade pasta with bechamel sauce, or better yet, a puff pastry with a mushroom-leek filling, cream sauce drizzed on top
    For myself: box mac n’cheese. Or an apple and a few crackers. Which then makes me feel bad about myself because I think these are not the choices that lead to solid recovery.

    I’ve been trying to attack the problem by giving myself more time to cook and picking out recipes “I think I’ll like.” Which is not working. Because now that I’ve read this post and the comments, I think maybe the problem is cooking perfectionism (duh!) and what I probably need to do is to go back to meal planning and focus on level one and two type meals instead. Yeah, that should have been obvious. But now I will try that instead:)

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Very interesting! Good luck, and let us know how it goes.

      I know it is hard, psychologically, to sort of turn one’s back on the fancy-sounding stuff, but in practice I cook way more often when my meal plan has things like “pork chop, rice, and green beans” on it, rather than fancy things I would cook for company. I end up happier and better-fed, and it gives me good cooking practice that I then put toward fancier things when I am feeling up to it.

      1. Eva Avatar

        The fancy-sounding stuff is more fun to eat, and more fun to make, but yeah, too difficult for regular life I guess. Though it’s hard to not see “pork chop, rice, and green beans” as a kind of failure (or at least like I’ve barely graduated from exchanges…) that’s probably the sensible route to go down.

        Oh perfectionism, you are never a good friend.

        1. Linda Strout Avatar
          Linda Strout

          I actually enjoy fairly simple stuff if the ingredients are good and I do a good job cooking it.

          Fancy stuff is also good, but I usually save that for going out so someone else can do the cleanup.

          1. Michelle Avatar

            I save fancier stuff for weekends, though with practice I am able to make stuff on weeknights that in the past would have seemed too complicated. But I only got that valuable practice by allowing myself to lower that bar in the first place.

        2. KellyK Avatar

          Would it help to describe foods in ways that sound fancier and more fun? Because “pork chop, rice, and green beans” could also be “spice-rubbed pork chops, sage and rosemary rice, and haricot vert.”

          That, or maybe viewing simple cooking as a way of saving your time and energy for other things, and making it a point to have friends over so you can do the fancy cooking that you have fun with, but not feeling like you have to do it all the time.

          1. Eva Avatar

            Because “pork chop, rice, and green beans” could also be “spice-rubbed pork chops, sage and rosemary rice, and haricot vert.”

            I like this! Maybe if I write out my recipes with fancy titles it will make the food seem fancier too.

          2. Kirsten Avatar

            Yes, this!

            I hated lima beans as a kid, but butter beans are really quite good, you know. And how could you not like courgette? (As zucchini is called in England).

        3. Michelle Avatar

          Though it’s hard to not see “pork chop, rice, and green beans” as a kind of failure

          It’s interesting that you say this, and I think a lot of people feel this way. The question to ask, though, is whether or not this perspective is helpful. Does it result in you eating better? Someone told me a week or two ago (when I described eating that exact pork chop dinner to them) that even though they held themselves and their food to much higher standards than this, it struck them that they hadn’t eaten a real, solid meal cooked at home — fancy or not — probably in months.

          I do think it’s important to investigate why we see certain kinds of food as “failure,” and whether or not holding ourselves to a really high standard actually results in us eating better quality food more of the time.

          One’s motivation to cook more involved things shouldn’t come from shame. It should come from curiosity, maybe even boredom, and a real desire to do it, but not from shame.

          1. Eva Avatar

            I do think it’s important to investigate why we see certain kinds of food as “failure,”

            I feel like I shouldn’t write this. But I think–okay, I know food is necessary for survival and I want to live–but I still resent that I have to eat, that I have to take the time and energy to prepare food and consume it. And simple meals seem more “functional,” I guess, so it feels like more of a chore. Whereas fancy meals are more like…a hobby? So I can make them because it’s fun and interesting and intellectual rather than because, you know, I have biological needs. But of course all food is necessary, so this dichotomy really doesn’t make sense.

            One’s motivation to cook more involved things shouldn’t come from shame. It should come from curiosity, maybe even boredom, and a real desire to do it, but not from shame.

            Thank you.

          2. Michelle Avatar

            I’m glad you did write that – I think it’s an important admission, and what’s more, I agree with you. This is purely philosophical, but I suspect that what drives some people’s issues with eating is resentment of the biological reality of being human. Which I believe is part of a huge psychological defense mechanism meant to keep us in denial of our mortality, and the inevitability of death.

            I think humans are, by and large, resentful of the fact that we are animals, and not beings of pure spirit and light. And I can totally understand that resentment – I feel it myself. But I think it’s also an important part of the process of learning to care for oneself to accept this very unglamorous and possibly even scary fact: we are animals. We need to eat to live, and eventually we will die. We don’t, and can’t, just live in our minds, even though it seems that we try more and more to do just that. Our minds are irrevocably attached to a warm, breathing, constantly self-renewing body that requires care if we want the mind to persist at all.

            Sounds kind of heavy, but it’s a theme I’ve picked up on in lots of conversations with people about eating, so you’re definitely not alone. But there’s nothing wrong with being an animal. We are sentient, alive, conscious animals in a huge, largely uncharted universe. It’s kind of amazing to be alive at all, even though life also involves a lot of mundane and painful crap. Like eating and dying.

        4. Rowan Avatar

          Well, here is an entire book based on meals with precisely that degree of simplicity.

          1. Michelle Avatar

            Haha, what a great title!