Your early 20s is a time for learning and growing–both in and outside of a classroom. If you’re heading into college for the first time or just returning for another year, it won’t be long until you’ll be tossed into a world where making it to an 8 AM lab is no longer the priority–instead, you get to focus on navigating a career, filing for taxes, getting your own insurance, figuring out the whole relationship thing, setting up a long-term savings plan . . . stressed yet? Oh, and you should also figure out how to feed yourself nutritious-ish meals that you actually sorta made yourself.
Whether or not college is for you, feeding yourself is a must. And nailing down some basic guidepost recipes during this period of life will serve you well for many years to come. If you’re just heading into your twenties, you’re lucky—you’ve got a few years to get these dishes down. If you’re getting up there…well, you need to start having more dinner parties. These are the recipes that will provide a foundation for your food future.
Here are the most foundational, essential, important dishes any young person making their way in the world should learn how to make.
Why yes, this does mean you’re going to need to learn how to get comfortable with the grill, or at least a grill pan to start. A succulent piece of juicy, charred-to-perfection chicken is an essential piece of protein that you will rely on again and again throughout your life–so learn how to master it now. Being able to tactfully grill chicken will power your dinners, salads, wraps, and a plethora of other dishes. The first thing you’ll need before you even start cooking is a great marinade. This one’s my favorite. Watch the videos below to learn our best expert tips for grilling the perfect breast.
Got it? Now try out your new skills with these grilled chicken recipes.
#2. Eggs 2 Ways
By the time you hit the midway mark of your 20s, you should really aim to know how to cook eggs well–at least 2 different ways. I’d suggest a fried egg and an omelet. Now there’s a true art to cooking eggs, and while you don’t have to be a pro at every technique, you should at least master the basics. Here’s how.
Chili is a staple, beloved comfort food–especially during the cooler months. Learning to make a legit pot is not only a great basic recipe to master, but it’s also the perfect way to begin learning how to utilize your slow cooker–a helpful, hands-off way to make meals that are ready when you walk in the door after a busy day at work. Most meals you can make in your slow cooker are also prime for freezing–which is a time-saving technique you’ll appreciate mastering early. Chili is a hearty, throw-together meal for when you’re fridge isn’t super stocked–also, it’s cheap. Got it down already? Here are our best recipes for slow-cooker soups and stews to try next.
#4. Stir Fry
There’s no better (and faster) way to enjoy a heaping plate of crisp-tender veggies and protein. Learning how to whip up a vibrant stir fry using ingredients you have on hand is a basic, fundamental technique for feeding thyself. Becoming a master at stir-frying will teach you how to: 1. reduce food waste by cooking creatively with ingredients you have on hand, 2. identify what a perfectly-cooked, pan-fried veggie (or piece of meat) should look like, and 3. whip up a variety of versatile and delicious Asian-inspired sauces to go along with it. Here are 21 quick stir fry dinners to start with. You’re welcome.
Oh, and I can’t talk about stir fry without mentioning my current favorite recipe. My roommates absolutely LOVE when I make them this sweet-and-savory chicken stir fry. Trust me, it’s absolutely delicious, hearty, and so easy.
Learning how to roast a flavorful vegetable medley in 30 minutes or less is extremely easy to do and makes for a gorgeous quick side dish to pair with almost any meal–plus the leftovers can add character and nutrients to later meals (think layering onto sandwiches, onto pizza, in grain salads, etc.). Other than the veggies of your choice, you’ll just need olive oil + a little salt and pepper to make the most basic recipe–but a variety of herbs and spices can be added to change up the flavor profile.
No, store-bought dough does NOT count, and neither does that “just okay” recipe you’ve been making your whole life. I’m sorry. During your 20s, it’s critical that you find the perfect, and I mean the PERFECT, no-fail homemade chocolate chip cookie recipe for you. It’s going to take some research in order to discover the top contender. The good news? You’re going to have to try out a bunch of different recipes in order to find it. Sorry again (not really).
I go through stages with my chocolate chip cookies. Though I have many recipes I fully enjoy, I will admit that I haven’t yet discovered my all-time, I’ve-died-and-gone-to-heaven, print-it-out-for-my-unborn-children kind of recipe yet. The best chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever had comes from a local Birmingham coffee shop (imagine that!) called Church Street Coffee.
They’re called Breakup Cookies (of course), and they are literal perfection. They’re chewy with a little crunch on the outside, sweet but not overly, and are just a little gooey in the middle without being too soft. I speculate they use chopped dark chocolate and browned butter, and I also have a hunch that they must use a mix of 2 types of flour (maybe AP and whole-wheat?) because the taste is deeper and toastier than any other cookie I’ve ever had. Oh, and they sprinkle just a pinch of course sea salt overtop the whole shebang. The result is absolutely delightful. I’ve considered taking a part time job solely so I can discover the secret. That’s not a joke… Pardon my cookie tangent, but to make up for it, here’s the closest recipe I’ve found so far for my beloved Breakup Cookies.
Roasting a whole chicken isn’t as intimidating as it may sound, I promise. Second only to grilling chicken in my book, learning how to roast perfectly crispy, juicy, and tender chicken is an essential method of preparing this mainstay bird that you absolutely must learn in your young adult years. Here’s how.
Look, they may not be sexy, but casseroles are easy staple comfort-food dishes you need to know how to make when cooking for a crowd or making large portions to eat off of for a few days. The good thing is, they’re typically easy to throw together. The down side? They often call for tons of convenience and/or canned products that are loaded with sodium, preservatives, and other weird things you don’t want when trying to build your “healthy, new you.” Learning how to adapt your favorite hearty casseroles of your childhood into nutritious meals (like the above lightened-up Chicken and Broccoli Casserole) is an essential skill to develop in your 20s.
“Mexican” food (OK, so maybe it’s more like… Tex-Mex food) is probably the thing that Americans eat (and cook) more than any other cuisine. This is in no way a proven fact, but I have 23 years of personal experience to vouch for it, and I know most of my family, friends, and coworkers could too. And because we’re eating it so much, it’s necessary to learn to cook all the things you’d typically order off of your favorite menu–I’m talking fajitas, enchiladas, homemade guacamole, decent margaritas, pico de gallo, burrito bowls, fish tacos, corn salsa, taco salads, and more. Thankfully, a lot of these dishes rely on the same basic ingredients just dressed up a little differently, so once you get started, it’s easy to keep cooking and learning. P.S. I also dedicate a spot on the list to this category of food because it makes for tasty, exciting, self-serve, and relatively-inexpensive party food that everyone will love.
If you’re feeling behind, don’t worry. I only just discovered how to make good margaritas for a crowd recently. You can read about my experience and get the recipe here.
#10. Quick Breads
If you’re just getting going on the baking train, quick breads are the first thing you will, and should, master. No waiting for yeast to rise or kneading is required, so they’re ideal for turning out reliable, quick-cooking baked goods without the skilled labor that’s required for traditional yeasted breads and more intricate desserts.
If my list went on (which I think it should), I would include the following dishes for you to master during your yo pro years: a few lunch salads that don’t suck, fluffy pancakes, a perfectly seared rare steak, perfect fried chicken, whipped cream, baked salmon, chicken salad, tomato sauce from scratch, French toast, and homemade salad dressing. But for now, I’ll just stick to 10 so that you can start practicing.