This article is written in reverse than I normally want, you'll find the concise recipes at the end (they should normally be at the top). The idea/concept of the article is first this time since the important idea is developing your own five recipes, you don't need to use mine.
Everyone should have five recipes they should be able to make from memory -- and ideally, from scratch. If you don't have much experience with cooking, this might sound daunting but the trick is starting with one then branching out from that recipe.
For me, I learned how to make a breakfast skillet in college. It's a pretty simple ratio of food -- 4 strips of bacon, 3 eggs, 2 potatoes, and some onion, green/red pepper if you're feeling up to it. I used two pans: (1) frying the potatoes using canola oil with some seasoning salt in one large pan (they take the longest), and (2) a smaller pan to cook the bacon and eggs separately, setting both aside until they could be added to the large pan (once the potatoes were soft-ish from frying). Before serving, I'd melt shredded cheese on the top of everything before tossing on a plate.
At the time, I didn't know the difference between russet potatoes and any other potato, I just knew I could buy them in 10 pound bags and they seemed to fry pretty well. After some trial and error, I figured out that medium to medium-high heat seemed to work best. And since then, I've replaced the canola oil with roughly half the cooked off bacon grease.
I stopped cooking after college because there was a period in time I didn't have roommates and it was easier to just eat out all the time. Maybe not the healthiest thing to do but it as a programmer, it helped my social life and got me out of the house. Ironically, I was at my heaviest when I was eating Subway every day and got in better shape when I ate at sit-down restaurants but that experience is best left for another day.
Between my dad passing away and adopting his two dogs and the pandemic, I started eating two Toppers pizzas every 3-4 days (the 2-for-$20 deal was amazing) but I got sick of pizza after a while. I picked up cooking again but focused on a different base -- burrito bowls.
Having a Base Recipe
Having a recipe that is easy to branch out from is really important. I wouldn't recommend picking five random meals (or your five favorite) when figuring out what your five recipes will be. Pick one broad food and branch out from there. For me, it was the burrito bowl -- chicken, white rice, black beans, salsa, guacamole, sour cream, and shredded cheese. I seasoned the chicken with seasoning salt, onion powder, and garlic powder (the same combination my dad used for burgers growing up). I'd occasionally replace chicken with ground beef or black beans with pinto beans but the concept was the same.
Now that I had a burrito bowl figured out, I took a look at those ingredients and thought about what I else I could make. One of the obvious things was buying tortillas to make actual burritos -- and that gave me a reason to start making chili colorado in my Instant Pot (basically extremely simple enchiladas). Fajitas are basically burritos with extra veggies (green and red peppers, onions) instead of rice and beans (but often served on the side anyways). Wraps, specifically chicken-bacon, aren't too far off from a fajita, skip the beans (and oil), maybe add some bacon, lettuce, tomato, etc. The seasoned chicken worked great with red sauce and shredded cheese for spaghetti.
I eventually looked up another naturally branch from burrito bowls -- fried rice. The particular recipe I linked also gave me a great base that works great for stir-fry (butter, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and some water). So in addition to the fried rice recipe, I have a stir fry recipe by replacing the rice with brocoli, mushroom, and green beans.
Along with fried rice, one of my favorite meals is jambalaya. Added diced tomatoes to white rice created a good enough dirty rice base for the jambalaya (instead of salsa to flavored instant rice) and all I needed to pick up was an occasional andouille sausage and/or shrimp (don't forget chicken here, too).
I took a look at the ingredients I was constantly buying from the grocery store (and this is why it's so important for me to make everything from scratch), I noticed some familiar foods -- bacon, eggs, green/red pepper, onions, and shredded cheese. That's the breakfast skillet I made in college if I grab some potatoes. An omelette is pretty much a skillet with less (or no) potato, so that's pretty much on the list now. Andouille sausage can replace bacon in the skillet and shrimp can go in an omelette reasonably well. At this point, I picked up an air fryer so I could cook potatoes easier, basically making french fries... and messing around with smash burgers since I already had ground beef. Loaded mashed potatoes -- with bacon, sour cream, and shredded cheese -- is another option.
Another natural branching point from the burrito bowl / jambalaya combination is chili -- I have the ground beef, sour cream, and shredded cheese from the burrito and diced tomato from the jambalaya. That's what I'm working on at the time of this article but the point is that from making burrito bowls, I was able to add fried rice and jambalaya as other staple meals with a few other simpler meals -- like fajitas, chili colorado, and my old breakfast skillet -- from there. Most of the ingredients overlap enough that I have a pretty simple shopping list that never changes: chicken, ground beef, white rice, shredded cheese, fresh/frozen vegetables, beans, canned tomatoes.
So branching off from the burrito bowl, I learned how to make fried rice, jambalaya, fajitas, breakfast skillets, and omelettes.
Sauces, Seasonings, and Bases
These are the combination of ingredients I use to start most of what I cook.
If I'm making a burrito bowl, spaghetti, or making some burgers, this is the seasoning mixture I use (if I don't use Taco seasoning):
- 1/2 tsp Seasoning Salt (estimated)
- 1/2 tsp Garlic Powder (estimated)
- 1/2 tsp Onion Powder (estimated)
- 1 tbsp Olive Oil or Coconut Oil (optional, used on stove)
None of this is actually measured in practice, I just add some seasonings to the pan. When I'm cooking chicken or beef on the stove, I'll add some olive or coconut oil but if I'm grilling, I skip it.
Rice/Stir Fry Sauce
I'll eyeball this recipe when I'm making fried rice (roughly 1 cup of cooked rice or stir fry (1 package of frozen veggies) then add the protein (typically 1-2 chicken breasts):
- 1 tbsp Unsalted Butter
- 1 tsp low sodium Soy Sauce
- 1 tsp Oyster Sauce
- 1 tbsp Water (optional)
The teaspoons (tsp) are estimated, I don't bother measuring -- just shake the bottle a couple times in the frying pan. I add enough water to not "cook off" the sauce and I have a bad habit of defrosting frozen chicken on the stove on low heat (2-3).
This is basically a Spanish rice variation. I mainly use this for jambalaya but it would absolutely work for the burrito bowl (I just prefer plain white rice instead).
This is a pressure cooker recipe and really just an extension of the usual 1:1 ratio of uncooked rice to water recipe. You may need to adjust the amount of water if you use a stove:
- 2 cups uncooked white rice
- 2 cups Chicken Broth (or 2 cups of water with 2 bouillon cubes, beef broth/cubes work too)
- 1 can (~15 oz) diced tomato
- 1 tbsp cajun seasoning (optional)
Cook the rice using the rice setting, add the diced tomato and cajun seasoning afterwards -- mix. You can replace the the water and bouillon cubes with equal parts of chicken broth (in this case, 2 cups of chicken broth).
The Core Meals
For the most part, I have sliced onions and peppers available for these recipes already prepared (and refrigerated). Since most of these recipes are for one person, I'm mostly guessing that I'd use ~1/8-1/4 of a pepper (or onion) each time I make something for myself. Most of these recipes are 1-2 meals unless otherwise noted. Don't over think the measurements for oil/spices, you'll be able to eyeball it over time -- you'll probably need more than you initially expect for the potatoes but you can be very conservative otherwise.
All of the recipes below are from memory but the original recipes are linked to when they apply. You should try the original recipe if you haven't made it before, I'm using what works for me.
Eyeball this instead of measure it, it's not too difficult. 6oz should be roughly one chicken breast, 1 lb of Ground Beef should be roughly 3 servings of "meals", a cup or so of rice is good for 2 "meals"
- Taco seasoning (or meat/potato seasoning from above) to taste
- 6oz Chicken Breast (or Ground Beef, 90/10 pref)
- 1/2 cup cooked white rice (or use the dirty rice from above)
- 1/4 can black/pinto beans
- Salsa, Guacamole, Sour Cream to taste
- Shredded cheese to taste (half a handful per serving, I suppose)
I generally have the rice precooked (refridgerated), so I'll cook the meat on medium heat until it's mostly done then add the rice and beans to heat them up. Put the combination of meat, rice, and beans in a bowl, adding the cheese and other toppings.
Fried Rice or Stir Fry
The fried rice recipe was simplified from here:
- (the Rice/Stir Fry Sauce from above)
- 1-2 chicken breasts
- 1/2 cup cooked white rice (refrigerated)
- yellow or white onion to taste (generally speaking, 1/4 onion)
- 1-2 eggs (with yolk)
- 1/4 frozen peas/carrots (optional)
- Sesame Oil to taste (optional)
- 1 tsp Coconut oil (for frying the eggs)
Add the base sauce to a pan, heat on low/medium heat with the chicken breasts. In a different pan (or before starting the chicken), fry the eggs and set aside. Cut the chicken into bite sized pieces once it's cooked, add the frozen veggies until mostly warm, then add the white rice and onion and heat until warm, finally add the eggs and heat until warm. Add sesame oil to taste after removing from pan.
Quadruple the recipe for 4-6 servings, most of these recipes are written for 1 serving but 4x is easiest here. If you're preparing stir fry, replace the cooked white rice, frozen peas/carrots, onion, and eggs with stir fry veggies (fresh or frozen.. typically 1/3-1/2 bag per serving -- I like using 2 chicken breasts and 1 bag of frozen stir fry veggies for 2 meals).
Jambalaya (4ish meals)
The original sheet pan jambalaya recipe can be found here, this is simplified below:
- (the dirty rice recipe from above)
- 1 package (10 oz) andouille sausage
- 1 package (12 oz) shrimp
- 1 small-medium yellow onion
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp cajun seasoning
Heat the oven to 400-425 on Bake. Put 1 tbsp olive oil in 9x13" sheet pan, add sausage cut into ~1/2" circles. Heat in oven for 5-8 minutes (until you hear the sausage sizzling). Dice/cut the yellow onion, add it to the sheet pan along with the shrimp and cajun seasoning, put back in the oven for another ~5-8 minutes (until the shrimp is hot). Add the dirty rice recipe, put back in the oven for 8-12 minutes to dry out the rice a little bit.
Easiest way to remember this is to think "4-3-2 skillet": 4 strips of bacon, 3 eggs, 2 potatoes.
- 4 strips of bacon (1/3 pack)
- 3-4 eggs
- 1-2 Russet potatoes, cubed
- Onion, green/bell pepper to taste (normally 1/3 green/bell pepper, 1/8-1/4 onion)
- Shredded cheese to taste (half of a handful, probably)
- 2 tbsp Coconut oil (or replace with bacon fat)
I use two pans for this, start by cooking the bacon (saving about half the grease for the potatoes). In a large pan, add the oil (or bacon fat) with cubed potatoes.. cook on medium heat until potatoes are soft and starting to brown. While the potatoes are cooking, use the same pan you used for the bacon to cook the eggs (after draining the rest of the grease away but you shouldn't need additional oil since the pan will still be coated) and cut/break the bacon into smaller pieces. Once the potatoes look mostly ready to go, turn up to medium-high heat (7ish), add the bacon, eggs, and vegetables until everything is warm. You can add the cheese before serving if you want to guarantee it's melted (but don't mix it because it will burn) or add the cheese after it's served.
Chili Colorado (4-6 meals)
This is mostly stolen from the Instant Pot recipe booklet and the original/detailed recipe can be found on the Instant Pot website.
- 3 lbs of beef roast, cubed
- 1 can (16 oz) enchilada sauce
- 2 bouillon cube, beef
- 1/2 cup water
- 8-12 tortilla
- 3/4 lb shredded cheese (any kind, Mexican or Colby Jack works well)
In a pressure cooker, add the meat, water, bouillon cube and 1/2 can of enchilada sauce -- cook until "done", generally turn the pressure cooker on and once it's "warm" the meat will be done. Drain meat as best you can, add to tortillas with cheese, top with remaining cheese and enchilada sauce. Broil in oven (500 degrees) for 5+ minutes until cheese is melted and tortillas are kind of crispy.
Feel free to replace any amount of beef with chicken. The grocery store normally has round steak in 1.75-2.25 lb cuts and I'll use 1 lb of chicken to get to 3-3.25 lb of total meat.
It also looks like you can replace the tortillas with white rice, I haven't tried it yet but it could work.
Bonus Recipes: Snacks and Desserts
These are simple recipes I picked up over time but they aren't really connected to anything else that I typically make.
Berry Protein Smoothie
I used to live off of Nature's Touch ice cream from Kwik Trip (a Minnesota/Wisconsin-based gas station) but wanted to wean myself off of it while still having a sweet-ish satiating (read: thick/heavy) snack. This protein shake works great for a late evening snack (a couple hours after dinner) or breakfast:
- 1 scoop of protein powder (vanilla preferred)
- 1 scoop creatine monohydrate micronized powder
- 2-4 oz of Greek Yogurt (unsweetened)
- 4-8 oz of Milk (unsweetened almond preferred)
- 4-8 oz of frozen fruit (blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, strawberry, etc.)
- Ice cubes to taste/texture (3-5 work well)
- 1/2 banana (optional, frozen works best but don't let it thaw)
- 1-2 oz Steel-cut Oats (optional, "handful")
There's a lot of flexibility to this but the main goal for me is to get 30-50g of protein and to satisfy sweet cravings. I don't really measure anything, just toss the stuff into a blender until it's full (I use a Ninja Nutri-Blender).
This was one of my favorite holiday dishes as a kid, so when I realized as an adult that I should bring a dish for parties this became one of my go-to's. It's incredibly simple:
- 3 cups (24 oz) of unsweetened applesauce
- 2 packs (3 oz?) of Jell-o -- 1 raspberry, 1 lime
- 1 can (12 oz) of Ginger Ale
In a sauce pan, bring the applesauce to a boil. Remove from heat, add the two packs of Jell-o and stir. Transfer it to a tempered glass (Pyrex) container, add the Ginger Ale and stir lightly (you want to maintain as much carbonation as you can) and let it set in the fridge (probably overnight).
You might want to increase the Ginger Ale to 1.5 or 2 cans depending on your preference but I keep the recipe as 3-2-1 so it's easy to remember.