While I will be the first to admit, I love a good cookbook and the journey of trying a new recipe. Maybe you get to play with a new ingredient, or create something from another culture that you have only ever had out at a restaurant or bought in a bakery. There is a lot of value to cooking with recipes. However, when it comes to the day-to-day need of nourishing ourselves and our families, the time or energy just isn’t there to find a bunch of ingredients and follow the steps of something more involved.
That’s where developing the skills for what I like to call “no recipe cooking” can be quite the life saver. Being able to open your fridge, cupboard, and pantry and working with what you have to make something delicious and nourishing will save you time and energy.
To really dive into how to build a meal and cook without a recipe, it helps to set a foundation of what a balanced meal should really consist of. The basics. I recommend including all of the macronutrients – those would be protein, fats, and carbohydrates.
Protein is what I like to refer to as the building block of our entire body. Not only do we need it to build muscle, but nearly every mechanism and pathway that happens within our body requires proteins. Protein also helps us feel full, and without it you may find yourself over-doing it on other foods. Foods that contain protein include whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, eggs, poultry, meat, seafood, and dairy.
Fat has, at times, gained itself a bad reputation as it is the most calorie dense macronutrient. While it is true that we need smaller amounts of fat, it still carries big weight in terms of nutrition. Fat is necessary to help our body absorb fat-soluble nutrients. Fats can also be sources of anti-inflammatory fatty-acids, like omega-3s, which help reduce risks associated with chronic disease development, such as cardiovascular disease. Foods that are sources of fat include nuts, certain fruits (avocados, coconuts), seeds, meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, and oils.
Carbohydrates provide our bodies with energy. The human brain relies on glucose, a type of carbohydrate, to function properly. Carbohydrates also fuel us for exercise. Without carbohydrates, a person can feel low in energy, irritable, scatter-brained, and result in poorer performance in physical activity. Food sources of carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, and dairy.
Cook without a recipe
Now that you have a better understanding of the three macronutrient components to make a meal, the next step is figuring out what kinds of things are quick to prepare and taste good together, that combine each macronutrient to fuel you through your day. Basic kitchen skills such as mixing, chopping, sautéing, roasting, and boiling are all you need to know!
10 No Recipe Cooking Ideas that can work forBreakfast, Lunch, Dinner, or Snacks
1. Spinach Scrambled Eggs + Whole Grain Toast
Preheat a pan on the stovetop, drizzle in 1-2 Tbsp of olive oil. Add spinach and cook until wilted. Crack eggs in a bowl and whisk. Add to the pan with the spinach and cook, stirring intermittently until cooked through. While the eggs are cooking, pop some whole grain bread into your toaster. Toast to desired doneness.
Check out how to modify your scrambled eggs: Build a Better Scramble
2. Yogurt Parfait
Scoop your favorite yogurt until a bowl or cup. If you haven’t ever tried plain yogurt before, this is a great application for it since you will be adding your own flavorings. Top with cut fruit and nuts or granola of your choice.
Some favorite topping combinations to try:
- Sliced banana + Walnuts + Cinnamon
- Raspberries + Slivered almonds + Drizzle of honey
- Dates + Pecans
- Peanut butter granola + Sliced Apple
- Fresh pineapple chunks + Coconut Flakes + Slivered almonds
3. Dressed Up Oatmeal
Liquid to oat ratio may vary slightly depending on what type of oat you like. There’s lots of room for experimentation with oatmeal so I encourage you to try multiple versions to see what works best for you! Steel cut oats compared to quick oats will be a different textural experience. In general, the following guide will help you when cooking your oats:
- 1:4 for steel cut oats (1 part oats, 4 parts liquid)
- 1:2 for rolled oats (1 part oats, 2 parts liquid)
Try various combinations of water or milk for your liquid. Adding milk will increase protein and possibly fat content contributing to a more filling meal and creamier texture. I personally enjoy steel cut oats cooked with a mixture of whole milk and water.
Top your oatmeal with your favorite fruit and nut combinations! Here are some of my favorites:
- Raspberries + Dark chocolate pieces
- Sliced banana + Pecans + Cinnamon
- Sliced apple + Walnuts + Cinnamon
- Dates + Coconut flakes + Slivered almonds
4. Avocado Toast
Toast to desired doneness your favorite whole grain bread. Slice avocado in half, remove pit. Using a fork, scrape through avocado to slightly mash while still in its peel. Scoop and spread on to your toast.
There are many ways to change up avocado toast to make it different and interesting. Try some of these variations:
- Add cheese – goat cheese, cheddar cheese, mozzarella, or feta
- Add sliced tomato
- Season with everything bagel seasoning
- Top with a sliced hardboiled egg
- Add canned fish, such as smoked salmon or tuna
Choose your favorite greens and raw vegetables! Choose what looks the best while grocery shopping. Top your salads with flavorful toppers to add filling protein and nutrient-absorbing fats! Cheese, nuts, canned fish, hard boiled eggs are all perfect options. Dress with oil and vinegar or your favorite dressing of choice.
Want a little more guidance? Here are some great salad combinations:
- Spinach + shredded carrot + sliced bell pepper + cherry tomatoes + sliced almonds + canned smoked salmon + soy ginger vinaigrette
- Mixed greens + sliced cucumber + sliced radishes + slivered almonds + hardboiled egg + ranch dressing
- Chard or spinach + sliced strawberries + pecans + feta + balsamic vinegar + olive oil
- Romain + cherry tomatoes + sliced red onion + slivered almonds + parmesan + rotisserie chicken + Cesar dressing
6. Chicken/Egg/Tuna Salad
Grab your favorite protein, add your mayo and spices and voila! This is a fun one if you are in the mood to experiment with different flavor combinations as well. Keep in mind a good ratio is 2 cups protein (or 8 eggs) + ½ cup chopped add ins + ½ cup mayo + seasonings to taste.
Add ins could be fruits (grapes or apple chunks), vegetables (celery and onion), or nuts (slivered almonds or chopped walnuts)
Seasonings could be ANYTHING your heart desires, from mustard or sriracha to curry powder or fresh herbs
7. Sheet Pan Meal
The great thing about a sheet pan meal is that time and temperature in the oven will work for a variety of combinations of protein + vegetable, so you can interchange your choices based on what looks good when grocery shopping or to use up odds and ends you might have in your veggie drawer in your fridge. I particularly like this option when cooking poultry or fish.
Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees F. While the oven pre-heats, chop your vegetables of choice in to about 1-inch pieces. Arrange on a sheet pan and leave space for your protein of choice. Toss with olive oil and favorite seasonings. Do the same with your protein.
- Individual servings of poultry will work best in this application, such as individual chicken breasts or thighs. It is recommended poultry reach 165 degrees F internal temperature to be considered cooked.
- You can get away with a larger piece of protein if you are cooking fish, as fish tends to cook quicker and is finished cooking at a lower temperature (145 degrees F internal temperature).
- Smaller seafood options such as shrimp may need to be added halfway through baking time, due to their small size.
Once everything is arranged on the baking, pop in the oven and make for 20-25 minutes. Stir veggies halfway through. If cooking shrimp, these will take closer to 12 minutes for larger shrimp pieces and should be added when the vegetables have about 12 minutes left of cooking.
Additional serving tips: While your sheet pan meal is cooking in the oven, prepare a whole grain on the stove-top, such as farro, rice, barley, or quinoa. You can also consider add-ons once your meal is plated, such as cheese, your favorite sauce, or sprinkle with fresh herbs or lemon juice.
8. Stir-Fry One Pan Meal
For the stove top, small pieces of protein and quick cooking veggies is the way to go. This is a great option for any protein choice – steak, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, or tofu!
Quick cooking veggies that work great for a stir-fry meal include bell peppers, onions, garlic, bok choy, kale, cabbage, or any small cut or shredded tougher vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, broccoli, and/or cauliflower. Use what you have in your fridge or freezer!
I like to marinate the protein while I chop and start sautéing vegetables. Cut protein into bite size pieces or small strips and mix with the marinade and set aside while you prep other components to your meal. Easy marinades ideas:
- Italian dressing
- Lemon juice + seasonings of choice
- Salsa – red or green tomatillo
- BBQ sauce
- Low sodium soy sauce + Honey + Sriracha
- Lemon juice + Mustard + White Vinegar + Honey
Chop vegetables in to uniform pieces or strips. Pre-heat your pan and drizzle with olive oil. Sautee vegetables for about 5 minutes, then add your marinated protein and all the marinade. Sautee everything together until protein is cooked through. If a more saucy dish is desired, add additional liquid which could be more of the marinade, or a compatible stock or broth, such as chicken broth or vegetable broth.
Stir fry meals are great with rice or a baked potato or sweet potato. If you meal prep, having a batch of grains in the fridge to be pulled out for stir-fry night can be a time saver as well!
9. Fruit or Veggies + Peanut Butter Snack Pack
It’s surprising how much goes with peanut butter! And if the peanut butter isn’t your thing (or you are allergic), swap it out for another type of nut butter! There will be a similar amount of protein and healthy fats with any nut butter.
Try the following fruits and vegetables with your favorite nut butter:
- Dried pineapple rings
- Carrot sticks
Combine with a whole grain crunchy item, such as pretzels, crackers, or sesame sticks and you have a nice little snack that will travel well if you are on the go, or will satisfy for an easy grab while at home.
10. Cottage Cheese Snack Pack
Cottage cheese is a fantastic vehicle for add-ins. It works well with sweet or savory renditions, making this a versatile option to keep on hand in fridge.
Try the following additions to cottage cheese to create a snack that will tide you over:
- Whole sliced tomato (if you have a garden-fresh tomato, EVEN BETTER!!) + Black pepper
- Sliced cucumber + grape tomatoes
- Spoonful of salsa + Whole grain tortilla chips, use to scoop or crumble over top
- Peaches + Slivered toasted almonds
- Pineapple chunks + Shredded toasted coconut