Beyond Mac and Cheese: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Cooking

Now that you're all grown up it's time to stop eating out of boxes and microwave trays. Scared? Don't be - here's how to get started.

There are few things sexier than a man who cooks. It demonstrates maturity, competency and the ability to provide — not just financially but literally. It says, “I can take care of you.” As a living, breathing, dating woman, I can tell you that the gesture alone of cooking for a woman is a nearly certain route to her heart. If you can go even further and actually cook something delicious and beautifully presented, you can pretty much consider it a done deal.

But beyond just impressing dates, the ability to cook is high up on the list of grown-up skills that everyone should have, regardless of gender. Having a clean, well-stocked kitchen and essential kitchen tools on hand are the building blocks of producing tasty, healthy meals that don't drain your checking account.

Read on for a step-by-step guide to readying your kitchen (no matter how tiny) and honing your culinary skills–no frilly apron required.

Step 1: Clean.

Having a clean kitchen makes cooking significantly more enjoyable. Food keeps longer in a kitchen that is free of mold, bugs and mice (gross, I know, but more common than you'd think), and such parasites stay away from clean spaces. It's also much easier to clean up little messes when your kitchen itself isn't a big mess. A clean kitchen is easier to acquire and requires less than you might think. You'll need:

  • 2-3 sponges (1 for dishes, 1 for counter, 1 for scrubbing)
  • Multi-purpose cleaner
  • A broom
  • A mop
  • Paper towels
  • Dish soap

Take everything out of your pantry/cupboards. Go through each item and determine if it's (a) still good and (b) something you'll ever eat. If it's neither, toss it, if it's both, keep it. If it's still good but you'll never eat it (and it's unopened), donate it to your local food bank. If it's been opened but you'll never eat it, attempt to pawn it off on your friends/roommates, but if you're unsuccessful, toss it.

Before you put all the dry goods you're keeping back on their shelves, use the abrasive back of a wet sponge to scrub all the grit from the shelves. Once the grit is removed, spray them down with multi-purpose cleaner and wipe away and put back the dry goods you're keeping.

Do the same thing with your refrigerator and freezer (see here for help cleaning your freezer).

Also, to really succeed in the kitchen, you'll need some well-made basic kitchen tools. Nothing too fancy, but make sure you have the following: a rubber spatula, a whisk, a wooden spoon, a good cutting board, a large chef's knife, a set of mixing bowls, a rolling pin (hint: a wine bottle can stand in in a pinch), measuring spoons and cups, a large frying pan, a soup pot, a smaller pot for sauces and a couple of baking sheets. Bonus items include an immersion blender, a food processor, a cast-iron pan and a grill pan.

OK, are you with me? Cool. Now it's time to go shopping.

Close up of a receipt

Step 2: Shop.

Head to Trader Joe's or your local grocery store and fill your cart with the items below. For around $50 you can fill your shelves with dry goods that will make cooking easier and less-expensive because you'll already have many of the ingredients on hand:

  • unbleached all-purpose flour (I prefer King Arthur ) $4 for a 5 lb bag
  • extra virgin olive oil $6 for a 12 oz
  • vegetable/canola oil $4 for 16 oz
  • kosher salt $3 for 24 oz
  • pepper (ideally in a grinder) $3
  • baking soda $3 for a 6 oz can
  • baking powder $3 for a 6 oz can
  • white granulated sugar $3 for a 16 oz box/bag
  • brown sugar $3 for a 16 oz box/bag
  • honey $4 for 8 oz
  • balsamic vinegar $4 for 12 oz
  • peanut butter $4 for 12 oz
  • mayonnaise (store it in the fridge after opening!) $3 for 16 oz
  • garlic $0.50 for a head

As for fresh ingredients, resist the urge to buy out the entire grocery store. Pick up a few basic perishables (eggs, milk, butter) that you use regularly, but otherwise, wait until you have decided what to cook before you spend much on meat or produce. If you plan your meals and shop for meal-specific fresh items, you will save money since you'll actually be buying less and because you won't do things like buy a beautiful steak you fully intend to cook, but then forget about until it's gone bad.

Step 3: Cook.

Now that you've cleaned and stocked your kitchen, it's time to decide what to make. First, consider the occasion. Is it a quiet post-work weeknight and you're cooking only for yourself? Perhaps a hearty chili or pasta dish. Is it the all-important dinner-and-a-DVD-at-your-place third date? Try to remember what she ordered on dates one and two and use that for inspiration.

The key to impressive-yet-effortless cooking is simple ingredients and big, clean flavors. Check out the following websites/blogs for some great recipes that are simple and straightforward will allow you to stay within budget:

Also, whenever I am in doubt, I turn to my favorite man who cooks, Dave Lieberman. He is perhaps among the lesser-known Food Network celebrity chefs, but his recipes are fresh, simple and best of all, inexpensive. You can find his recipes online here or pick up his books Young and Hungry and Dave's Dinners.

To get you started, try this delicious, easy noodle dish. Switch up the protein sources (try tofu, chicken or beef) for variety.

Peanut noodles close up

Peanut Noodles with Salmon and Vegetables

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes


  • 1 lb spaghetti
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter, chunky or creamy
  • 4 tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp Sriracha or other Asian chili sauce
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • one lime, juiced
  • 1/2 red cabbage, cored and sliced
  • 2 carrots, grated
  • 1 small bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1 small bunch fresh mint, chopped
  • 2 6-oz fillets of salmon
  • 2 tsp vegetable oil


Cook spaghetti according to package directions. While pasta cooks, whisk together the peanut butter, chili sauce, lime juice, honey, and soy sauce. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a small frying pan over high heat. Cook the salmon fillets for 2-3 minutes on each side until thoroughly cooked. Flake with a fork into 1″ pieces.

Once the noodles are cooked, drain and rinse them. Toss the noodles together with the vegetables, mint, cilantro, and peanut sauce. Top with the salmon.

Serves 4

Gabi Moskowitz

Gabi Moskowitz is a San Francisco-based food writer, caterer and cooking teacher. A Santa Rosa, CA native, she has been cooking since childhood and can be found taking in the delicious offerings of Northern California’s restaurant scene—from hidden hole-in-the-wall gems to fancier fare. Read more from Gabi at