Regular readers know that I am always talking about the importance of cooking. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it for as long as I have to—a healthy diet begins in your own kitchen. When I moved to the U.S. from Peru about 25 years ago, I had an experience that I know many immigrants will recognize: I gained about 30 pounds.

This happens to so many people who move here that I call this the 30-pound migration rate. It wasn’t that I was eating fast food—I was never brought up with that—but I was eating out a lot. I knew I had to get back into my old shape, and I knew there was only one way to do it—the way we did it in Peru. I needed to learn to cook. Since then, I have had control of what I eat and never again had a weight problem. I want to help you take control, too.

So, you have to cook. But cooking is about more than just nutrition: it’s about our relationship to a culture, to each other, and even to ourselves. I always think of that movie, Like Water for Chocolate, where the main character, Tita, literally cooks her emotions into her food. I use the kitchen as a stress-reliever – the more stressed I am the more delicious my food is, just like in the movie.

But I try to set a relaxed and happy mood in the kitchen to turn cooking into a pleasure. I love to listen to Latin music while I cook. Think about it—you use music to inspire your workouts, why not your cooking? If you enjoy what you’re doing it encourages you to do it, and improves the results. Create the sounds—and colors and flavors and smells—that you enjoy. Your food will taste better for it.

Often people start out with good intentions to cook, but they get discouraged by early mistakes. So the next element you need, in addition to a good atmosphere, is a good attitude. Cooking takes practice and respect and patience, and you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. But that’s ok! You need to make mistakes in order to learn.

When I first started cooking for myself I used to burn everything, but through practice I learned. I had a client who tried to make a simple pasta and sauce and made a total mess of it; the sauce was bland, and anyway, he couldn’t get it and the noodles done at the same time. But he didn’t let that stop him—he laughed and decided to start the pasta later, and to add herbs and seasonings. You, like he and also I, will make mistakes—and that’s ok.  

You have to know that each mistake brings you closer to mastery. And if you do get frustrated, try to remember that at least you know what’s in the food, whereas with processed food or at a restaurant you never, ever really do.

People also get daunted by all the fancy equipment out there. So often I see so many rich, beautiful kitchens with amazing pots and pans and appliances—and it’s all still brand-new. Who cares if you have the latest kitchen technology if you never actually cook anything? In order to be a successful cook you need just four things. That’s right, four. And here they are: 1) a cutting board; 2) a good, sharp knife; 3) a saucepan; 4) a roasting pan.

That’s it. Why just those four? Because to cook well, all you need to do is use these four implements to prepare a few basic staples once—once—per week, perhaps on Sunday afternoon, and spread out eating them through the rest of the week. I am going to give you three recipes that I have perfected through many years of making mistakes, three recipes that are reliably delicious, that you can make using just these four implements, and that will last you through the entire week. Combine them to make sauces, soups, salads, burritos—whatever meals get your juices (or your water or chocolate) flowing.

Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian in private practice, MV Nutrition, award winning nutrition and weight loss center in San Francisco. He is the founder and creator of Eating Free, an international weight management and wellness program and author of three books, Eating Free: The Carb Friendly Way to Lose Inches, Peruvian Power Foods: 18 Superfoods, 101 Recipes, and Anti-Aging Secrets from the Amazon to the Andes and his newest book, Whole Body Reboot: The Peruvian Superfoods Diet to Detoxify, Energize, and Supercharge Fat Loss.

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