10 Cooking Skills Every Lifter Should Learn
Sooner than later, every dedicated lifter realizes that training is the “easy” part of getting big and lean. We all got into bodybuilding because we love to train and it doesn’t take much to convince us to hit it hard in the gym. The real struggle is at the dinner table!
Of course, that struggle becomes a lot harder than it has to be when you’re shoveling down dry chicken breast, plain broccoli and other unappetizing foods. There’s certainly a time and a place for a rigid diet, but your food should taste pretty good most of the time.
Unfortunately, far too many meatheads have zero clue what to do in the kitchen! I’m still dumbfounded by how many big guys – who’ve lifted a decade or more – still can’t make anything other than same three or four, tasteless, dry meals.
Now, I’m not saying every meal is going to be a gourmet affair, either. When you’re eating for performance, calories and macros take priority, and we’re all on a budget, to boot. That said, a few basic cooking skills, some planning and some prep work will allow you to prepare a wide variety of quality meals that will keep you on track. Here are my top 10 cooking skills I think every lifter should learn.
1. Knife Skills
Buying pre-cut meat and veggies is a huge waste of money, and the best deals and discounts will be on things like whole chicken breasts, bags of potatoes and farmer’s market produce. One of the best ways to save money and time is to learn some simple knife skills – the foundation of every meal prep!
All you really need to be able to do is slice and chop, and there are plenty of YouTube tutorials for that. It’s also imperative that you buy a couple of good knives and keep them razor sharp. If you’re going to cut yourself in the kitchen, it’ll be with a dull knife that slips on the surface of a tomato or onion. This is one of your most important bodybuilding investments – don’t skimp!
If the weather is nice and your diet is simple, grilling may be the only other skills you need. I like the basic, cheap charcoal grill, but a decent gas grill also works. Learn where your grill’s hot spots and cold spots are, get your fire screaming hot, and don’t poke and prod at your food once you’ve laid it on the grates.
Also, avoid overcooking, particularly if you’re going to reheat your meat later on. A meat thermometer is a great way to make sure you’re not undercooking or overcooking. Chicken needs to be 165 degrees, and medium rare red meat is going to be 130-135. If your steaks and burgers are destined for the microwave later on, I’d recommend cooking them at least one level below your preference.
Most meatheads stick to the frying pan, but a hot oven is a more efficient way to cook in bulk. Potatoes, chicken breasts and all sorts of green veggies will cook up in about a half hour, and all you’ve got to do is lay them out on a sheet pan with some foil or parchment paper. A small amount of oil also goes a long way in creating ideal flavors and textures, so roasting is also a great way to cook if you’re cutting calories.
Roasting and grilling are great for bulk prep, but pan-frying produces a different texture that many people prefer. Plus, you’re not going to turn on the oven or fire up the grill if you only need one or two meals. The trick to a good pan fry is to use high heat, which will give your food that golden brown crust. If you’re cooking thick pieces of meat that take longer to cook, you can always throw some water in the pan and put the lid on to finish them off.
5. Sautee and Stir Fry
Sauteeing and stir frying are basically the same thing; stir fry is just done in a wok. Either way, use a big pan, high heat and just enough oil or cooking spray to coat the pan. Once the oil starts to smoke, toss in your chopped meat and veggies – pre-cut of course – and keep things moving every so often. Finish with your favorite herbs, spices and sauces. Even when I bulk prep a week’s worth of meals, I like to stir fry my evening meal that I eat after a long day of work and training.
Steaming isn’t going to add amazing flavor to your food, but it will cook it up nice and crisp without adding any fat. If you’re cutting calories, this will be one of your go-to cooking methods! The steam basket on a rice cooker works great, but all you really need is a big pot and a steaming basket. Put an inch of water in the bottom along with the basket, get the water boiling, toss in your food, and put the lid on. Err on the side of underdone, too – nobody likes soggy steamed veggies!
Stew is a bodybuilder’s best friend, especially when bulking up. Meat, potatoes and veggies in a single pot, all made tender and delicious by cooking in the same broth. If you want to get fancy, you can use a Dutch oven to brown your meat and cook your stew on the stovetop or in the oven. Let’s be honest, though – we all just use a crockpot for this. Your foodie friends will tell you you’re missing out on a ton of flavor, but if you all you do is combine raw meat, raw potatoes, frozen veggies and broth in a crockpot, you’ll still have a delicious stew after 6-8 hours on low. Throw in tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce and some thyme or rosemary to get even more great flavor.
Measuring isn’t exactly a “cooking” skill, but it’s going to be an integral part of your meal prep if you’re controlling calories and shopping on a budget. Whether you’re bulking or cutting, you need to stay consistent with your portion sizes so you can make adjustments in either direction.
My recommendations? Figure out how roughly much of everything you need according to raw weight, so you can shop accordingly. Then, divvy up everything into Tupperware by its cooked weight. You’ll end up with consistent portion sizes, and you won’t have to waste time portioning raw meat. Also, measure by weight, not volume. A food scale is far more consistent and easier to use than measuring cups.
9. Clean as You Go
Once again, not a cooking skill per se – but an important part of effective meal prep. Lots of people hate to cook just because they hate to clean, but cleaning doesn’t have to be a massive chore you do at the end of a meal prep. If you’ve ever worked in food service, you’re probably already good at this. Set aside just a couple of hours to cook, and continually wipe the counter and throw away trash in between other tasks. A minute of effort here and there will save you an hour later on.
10. Cooking (and Shopping) in Bulk
Last but not least, start shopping in bulk! Plan what meals you’re going to cook for the week, and include all of the odds and ends like sauces, herbs and vegetables. Make one or two weekly trips (I usually go to Costco and a regular grocery store on the same day), and bring it all home and cook your meals ASAP. It’s far easier to avoid spending extra money on food when everything is either already packed or prepped and ready to cook.