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Mother Knows Best: What Cooking Lessons Did Your Mom Pass Along?

By , Melissa Rudy, Health & Fitness Journalist
From bandaging skinned knees to doling out punishments for missed curfews, Mom always knew best. With Mother's Day approaching, there’s no better time to show our appreciation for all those pearls of wisdom she's passed along over the years--particularly the fundamentals of cooking, from scrambling an egg to marinating a steak to frosting a cake.
We asked some nutritionists, trainers, friends, our office staff and some SparkPeople members to share the most valuable morsels of knowledge they received from Mom (or Grandma, or a mother figure). Some are to be expected, and others might surprise you. Leave your own favorite lessons in the comments!
"Being Italian, my mother insisted on homemade sauce. She taught me that to thicken spaghetti sauce, you need to add tomato paste."
- Lisa Andrews, Owner Sound Bites Nutrition
"From pickles to pies to persimmon pudding, my mom taught me how to cook almost everything from scratch. However, the best thing she taught me about cooking is how to make yeast bread. She said if you have the skills to follow a recipe and make a great loaf of bread, then you can make anything."
- Becky Hand, Registered Dietitian
"My mother taught me how to use all fresh ingredients. She grew her own vegetables and used them when she cooked. She cooked everything from scratch, even made her own bread–although in today’s world of no carbs and gluten, that may be frowned upon. She even had a meat grinder that attached to the edge of the kitchen table so that she could grind her own meat to make sure she knew what was in it."
- Cheryl Russo, Fitness Trainer
"My mom is the 'queen of casseroles.' She taught me that you can make one dish with lots of ingredients that saves time and still tastes good. She also taught me not to be afraid to try new things. Even today, my mom is always trying new recipes and likes to have variety in the meals she cooks."
Jen Mueller, SparkPeople Community Director and Fitness Coach
"Cook to last. Meaning, cook enough food to last for a few days that can be used for more than one meal."
- Maurice D. Williams,  Owner, Move Well Fitness
"The best thing I learned from my mom about cooking is to not do what she does (the all fried meat, simple carb and convenience food diet)."
- SparkPeople member MACKENZIESAGE
"The best thing my mother taught me about cooking was the importance of food safety. As a mother of four, she ensured that the food she prepared for us was not only nutritious, but also safe to eat. She made it a point to cook foods to their minimum internal temperature; I specifically remember a handout she had from the USDA with minimum safe internal cooking temperatures. With a background in medical technology, she was highly aware of the dangers of foodborne illness. She had separate cutting boards for meats and vegetables, always had a food thermometer on hand and made sure to properly store food at the correct temperature."
- Lisa Mikus, RDN with Laura Cipullo Whole Nutrition Services
"The best cooking/meal planning advice my mom gave me was to eat clean, whole foods in moderation. This habit has lasted my whole life. It's nice, because when it came time to lose weight, I didn't have a problem with the nutritional aspect of losing. It was the exercise part that I wish I would have continued past my teen years."
- SparkPeople member MIAMIRN
"She taught me how to make whipped cream in a Cuisinart, a blender and with a stand mixer, and why each whipped cream comes out a little differently. Also, the importance of good, sharp chef knives."
- Joe Robb, SparkPeople Marketing Guru
"My mom was an awesome cook. She could throw anything together for a quick and healthy meal. She made so much from scratch and really stressed whole foods, which made good, balanced, wholesome meals. I mainly learned to bake, so with [losing] weight, I struggle with every meal. Keeping them simple and yummy is my motto."
- SparkPeople member SEATTLE58ANEW
"My mom taught me how to make just about every meal from scratch. As I got older and began cooking for myself, it was less scary to make a complete meal from scratch versus opening jars, boxes and bottles to compensate. As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I like being able to have control over the contents of my food, and teaching my clients that making their own meals doesn’t have to be as overwhelming as they may think."
- Mandy Unanski Enright, Creator of Nutrition Nuptials
"The best thing my mother taught me about cooking was to cook from the heart. We make a lot of traditional German dishes, and the main ingredient is love. If you don’t love what you are doing or cooking, then it will show."
- Meghan Wilkinson, Clinical Dietitian
"She always showed me how to double recipes (having a big family means always doubling—sometimes tripling—recipes!). Also, she taught me that you have to follow recipes when you're first learning to cook, but eventually you'll get the hang of it and will learn to make things on your own after a lot of trial and error."
- Elizabeth Lowry, SparkPeople Editor
"You might have heard the message from [the] USDA or a nutrition leader to tell you to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. I learned this over 30 years ago from my mother. Half of our dinner plate was filled with vegetables. There was a salad every night, and then she cooked a different vegetable for us every night—carrots, broccoli, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, etc. She taught me by example that vegetables were an important part of our diet and exposed me to the vast variety of produce that is available."
- Tricia Silverman, Nutrition and Wellness Consultant
"The first and best thing my mother taught me about cooking is how to make a basic tomato sauce to pour over pasta—thinly sliced onion and garlic cooked in olive oil with a can of tomatoes and just a dash of sugar to take the acidic taste out of the tomatoes. The beauty of this sauce is that almost any meat or vegetable can be added, and the combinations are endless."
- Shane McLean, ACE Certified Personal Trainer
"When I moved out with little to no experience in cooking or preparing meals that didn’t require the microwave or a can opener, my mom said, 'If you can read, you can cook. Following a recipe is just following directions, but with food—you’ve got this!' She was right, and her simplified approach helped me to stop putting so much pressure on myself with the end result."
- Kelly Crockett, SparkPeople Office Manager
"Life is too short—lick the beaters!"
- Kristin Carr, Cincinnati, OH
"If you want something thicker to cook more evenly turn the heat down in the oven and cook it longer."
- Megan Clarke Walsh, Cincinnati, OH
"My mum taught me how to cook from scratch at a very young age. She wasn't a particularly good cook herself, but she encouraged me to practice the basics until I was capable across a wide range of dishes. By the age of eight, I was cooking meals from scratch for my entire family—eight of us. These skills have been invaluable as I've gotten older; I never buy pre-packaged food and love cooking everything I can using fresh produce. There is nothing quite as satisfying as looking at the ingredients you have on hand and being able to make all sorts of meals without a recipe."
- SparkPeople member KILOLOSER
"Every meal starts with onion and garlic sautéed in olive oil."
- Rachel von Nida, SparkPeople Accounting Director
"The best things Grandma ever taught me were the family holiday recipes: Red velvet cake and homemade mashed potatoes."
- Amanda Young, Cincinnati, OH
"Experiment! Try different flavors, textures and spices. Make each recipe your own. Cook with love and taste EVERYTHING. You never know when you might accidentally put in a cup of salt instead of sugar. Use cold butter and water in pie crusts. Always cook extra chicken once a week, so you can make quicker meals later in the week when you’re more tired. Meal plan when you're working. It takes the stress out of late afternoons."
- Rebecca Sheerer, Cincinnati, OH
"Extra virgin olive oil! My mother told me when I started college that spending a few extra bucks on a nice olive oil is the ticket to rich dishes. Plus, you can easily toss in some herbs, slice up a baguette and have a great appetizer ready for when unexpected guests pop by."
- Alicia Capetillo, SparkPeople Editor

"Save butter wrappers in the freezer to grease pans when baking."
- Lori Christian, Cincinnati, OH
"My mom taught me that good, simple ingredients are all you need to make great food. It doesn't have to be fancy to be tasty. She also taught me to put a metal bowl and beater into the freezer before making whipped cream, as it helps keep everything cold."
- Merle King, SparkPeople Customer Support Specialist
"The lessons my mother passed on to me were all about starting with the freshest, best quality of food. She had vegetable and herb gardens, as well as apple, apricot and plum trees. We went to our grandmother’s house to pick cherries from her orchards. We loved going to the wild asparagus field to pick fresh spears."
- SparkPeople member REBCCA
"The advice I took from both parents was more about making family and togetherness the best recipe ingredient, taking your time and putting passion in all you do."
- SparkPeople member LEEANTHONY40
"I come from a family of five children where my mom cooked a lot of food all the time. Some of the top things she taught me were:
  • Always keep your refrigerator and pantry fully stocked, especially with canned goods like beans, rice and tuna. You can always use these to make quick dishes.
  • How to make a steak omelet for breakfast and to always serve vegetables on the side, even at breakfast.
  • How to use real chicken bones to make a chicken soup--why buy bone broth or stock when you can make it at home on your own?
  • How to make Romanian and Israeli dishes. Some of these include a beef salad (a Romanian potato salad made with pickles and beef or salami), meatballs using beets in the sauce and babaganoush (eggplant salad) from scratch."
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, Author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen
 "She taught me how to make pie crust from scratch and how to roll it out well. It's now like riding a bike, you never forget! I can whip up a homemade pie crust every time now. She cooked simple meals -- tacos, spaghetti, chicken and mashed potatoes, etc. -- but I’m glad I learned how to cook simpl[y] from her."
- SparkPeople member CMRKSU12

"My mother always said you should have something of every color on your plate."
- SparkPeople member GRAMCRACKER46
"My mother taught me to use what you had--you don't need to go to cutesy farmers’ markets or follow the latest food fad. Buy what you can afford. Buy on sale and divide meats into dinner sizes before freezing. Plan ahead and have everything ready before beginning."
- SparkPeople member ETHELMERZ
"I learned how to make tender pork chops in a Dutch oven, and how to roast a turkey. Also I learned to make gravy by browning flour in the fat from the meat and adding the juices of the meat. She taught me to time all the food and get it all done at the same time. For many this is a difficult skill, but watching her feed eight kids helped me master that skill."
- SparkPeople member MAGMOM23
What culinary tidbits did your mother, grandmother or mother figure pass along to you? Leave your favorite lessons in the comments.

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KOALA_BEAR 10/14/2020
My mom was a good baker but my dad taught her how to cook. He had an ulcer so couldn't eat many spices or garlic so we ate plain, simple food. Steak or burgers were broiled, roasts or chicken once a week. Some fresh water fish & lots of tuna or salmon from cans. Supper was protein, starch, vegetable, usually a tossed salad, & canned fruit for dessert. Baked goods were for special occasions. Lots of fresh fruit for after-school snacks. She did leave me great recipe books too. Report
A great read, thanks! Report
WILDKAT781 6/29/2020
very interesting Report
GGRSPARK 5/4/2020
This compilation of Mother wisdom is priceless- my mom was not a grest cook though Everything she did make was wonderful. Her repertoire was very limited and her tendency to overcook was infamous ! She baked beautifully, and family came for tea every Sunday for her ‘ baked stuff Usually a pie or two and a kind of roly poly that had Turkish Delight in it...and We all helped.. peeling apples, mixing batter, and it was the best day of the week., ‘ Report
CALVERTM 5/4/2020
Mom made great casseroles and lasagna. Her
lasagna was the best using béchamel sauce instead
of ricotta or cottage cheese. She loved cooking and
I think that’s why she was so good at it, baking too.
CALVERTM 5/4/2020
My mother was an excellent cook and loved it. She loved being a mother and homemaker but when my Dad suffered some heart attacks, she had to go to work full-time. They switched roles Report
CECELW 3/15/2020
I love it...life's to short...lick the beaters!! Report
My favorite from the article: "Life is too short—lick the beaters!" LOL. I had to cook for our family, starting with basics (meat, potatoes, 2 veggies or 1 plus a salad; rice or pasta allowed only once every few weeks) at age 9, and loathed cooking, because it seemed every single day, something was criticized. I cooked basic meals for my children and taught them basics. I used to make a heck of a brisket, with carrots, potatoes, and tomato sauce. My daughter started experimenting very young and went on to work as a cook at age 18 for 6 years before changing careers. She STILL cooks nearly every night for her kids. Her skinless, boneless chicken breasts with onions and green peppers are to die for. I live alone now, and cook minimally for myself. Fast food is a treat a few times a year; I get a small burger with small fries. My favorite recipe since joining Spark is cauliflower "fried rice" with lots of diced carrots, diced chicken breast, scrambled eggs and just a touch of soy sauce. I love broccoli, Brussel sprouts, and lots and lots of carrots. I should start turning orange any day now. Report
Thanks. Report
I enjoy cooking. My mom fed the 9 kids and dad a home cooked meal everynight with a frest salad and italian bread w/butter. None of us were over weight. We always enjoyed whatever it was my mom cooked.

My husband always tells me everynight after dinner, that that was a good meal. My 3 boys all know how to cook and are all good cooks.

I don't enjoy eating out. I feel that I can cook something better and more tasty than eating out. Report
My mom taught me that whenever possible, prep. She chopped onions and peppers ahead of time and froze them. She had recipes ready to make enchiladas with leftover turkey from Thanksgiving or gumbo. She would have all the ingredients ready to go in ziploc bags in the freezer. She also taught me to clean up as I go. Put ingredients away after I finished with them and rinse bowls and utensils to make for an easier cleanup. She helped my brother and his friends learn fractions by helping them make chocolate chip cookies. Report
Thanks for sharing. Report
When in doubt, add garlic. Report
thanks Report
thanks Report
Nutrition! Report
My mother taught me to cook using very little fat. So vegs for soup or marinara were steamed, not sauteed. I still cook this way. Report
My mom told me, "When in doubt, add garlic." Report
Thanks for a great article! :) Report
I grew up before microwaves and blenders. I also grew up on a farm with veggies,fruits, and meats. If Mom forgot to take the hamburger out of the freezer in time to thaw, she would saw it into "patties" with her serrated bread knife. Pork was especially important to cook thoroughly so she would fry it until burned and than pour every thing into a casserole dish, use a jar of canned tomatoes, and bake it some more. She never remembered what leftovers and how long they had been in the refrigerator.....BUT those are her only BAD lessons...The rest was great...She loved to try new recipes, bake pies,cakes, and breads....Can and freeze food. Have loads and loads of company and entertain the church's missionaries. She knew what every visitor liked and would treat them to it when they came back. She taught us to cook and always shared her recipes with everyone who asked and she was always getting new recipes mailed to her to try...She also always baked(to warm the kitchen up) when it stormed...:0) Report
My mom was the gravy queen- never a lump! When I got married she said if I had trouble with lumpy gravy to just blend it in my blender. She never needed to do that herself. Also, stir your boiling spaghetti noodles with the spoon you are stirring the sauce with. The oil prevents boilovers. Report
Great article. Thanks Report
My grandmother was a good cook, my mom is a good cook, but I'm not fond of it. Report
My mother was a wonderful cook and I still call her to get my favorite recipes from my childhood. Report
My Mom worked full-time at a job outside the home and came home very tired most nights. I didn't realize it at the time but a lot of our meals reflected that. She did a little weekend cooking and could cook well - like batches of spaghetti sauce or meatloaf that could be rewarmed later. We learned how to do Toll house cookies (her favorite), jello, boxed puddings - stuff like that. But for the most part we had a lot of TV dinners, boxed meals to prepare, instant iced tea, really good premade snacks, instant potatoes, Bisquick, canned biscuits, etc. One of her best cooking pieces of advice - don't try to keep improving something that is already at its best. Report
Good article. Thanks for sharing. Report
My Mom was a fifties cook. So we canned a lot and had a fruit cellar full. She always made sure we had a salad and a vegetable. So we ate a balanced meal and there was always dessert! So she taught me all these things. As a result cooking is fun and easy for me! Report
Mediterranean Mom: Olive oil, garlic, and some herbs make anything delicious. She was right!
I don't remember cooking much growing up until I took home ec in high school, but I was often at mom's elbow watching. Food was usually made from scratch and we always seemed to have a well-stocked pantry and delicious veggies from Dad's garden. Mom's gravy was always the best and never lumpy. She made a big variety of dishes so we learned to enjoy all kinds of food. Report
Lol, i learned to cook at age 9 because my mother HATED cooking. Report
My mom taught us to cook at a very young age. I remember preparing salads, chopping vegetables, baking, and cleaning up. We all had to help. Report
Genetically speaking, cooking is not in our genes. Even grandma hated cooking and had her own cook.

My mother worked a big hospital, and as a director, was constantly called in for whatever crisis. She did not have a lot of time to spend in the kitchen, however, we usually has a meal with salad, rice, cornmeal or something that she would throw together real quick. Grandma lived with us and she made the best black beans, but my sister would also cook and she showed me how to make pasta and other ethnic foods. Grandma also showed me how to dry flowers from outside to make tea (Jasmin) for the nerves.

My dad taught me how some of the chemistry worked... how they used to take carbon from burnt bread to neutralize poisons, how acids were present in food and how bacteria was present in other foods . How they would put a drop of citric acid in eyes to keep then healthy.

Most importantly, I learned how to read a cookbook and follow directions. I also remember how to make grandma's black beans, picadillo, rice and Palomilla steak.

I think I got something from everyone in my family, not just my mother. Report
My mom was a great cook when she wanted to be, but I learned more about cooking from PBS (no cooking channel or HGTV in the 1970's) and my dad. That's where I got such an adventurous palate. Report
My mom taught me the importance of planning ahead - menu planning and shopping only from the list; how to time the different components of a meal - start the longer-cooking items and anything that can be held first, don't make the broccoli before you boil the pasta; the importance of thanking the chef whether you like the meal or not; how to pull weeknight meals together regularly; to not be afraid to ask for help; how to make a killer pumpkin pie; and pecan pie; and buttermilk pie (did I mention she grew up in Kentucky?)

My DAD taught me: how to make bread with only a bowl and wooden spoon; how to roll a pizza dough round; how to make pasta from scratch; the importance of a sharp knife; the importance of bringing your whole self and whole attention to the kitchen; to try new recipe just for the heck of it, but to allow extra time for those new ones;

Most importantly, both of my parents taught me that I COULD COOK. Not exactly how to do everything, but that I could learn. Report
My Mom taught me, "When in doubt, add garlic." Report
My mother taught us so much about cooking and nutrition that I wouldn't know where to start! She loved vegetables and we ate many meatless meals. When my dad was home (he often worked out-of-town) we ate meat as he liked his meat. But I never saw my dad refuse to eat any food as he liked unusual foods. Report
With five daughters, there was always a chance of extra friends or boyfriends showing up at dinnertime. My Mom taught me how to stretch a meal with extra sides, or biscuits, or adding dessert to the menu, since they were the easiest and least expensive to put together at the last minute. Report
Mama was NOT a healthy cook - we had fried meat, potatoes and gravy, and a canned vegetable with butter and salt and pepper or a wonderful creamy casserole with a jello salad for supper every night. But she did teach us 2 healthy habits: You must eat breakfast and the family must sit down to dinner together! Report
I was taught... to be 'thankful' for all the food in front of me and to never complain about it!!! Report
My mom made almost everything from scratch and taught me to bake a cook at an early age. The thing I carry with me every day at dinner is: "Meat, Potatoes, Gravy, Salad, and Vegetable". We always had some form of that which obviously gets 2 servings of fruits and vegetables in every dinner. The "potatoes and gravy" could be any starch from rice, to pasta, to actual potatoes and a limited amount of fat to season them. This helped keep her healthy till 80 and I'm not doing too bad at 60. (I could use better portion control to lose these last 10 pounds). Report
My mother taught us all to cook early in life, both my brothers can cook dinners and most anything but for some reason I was the only one she taught to make pastry and pie crusts. Report
My Mom was an amazing cook. She could do no wrong. Whatever she made was great. She made the most delicious lemon meringue pie, coconut crème pie. Living in a small multi-cultural town, she learned to make Italian food, Slavic food (the best Povatica), New Mexican food. Sadly, as the only child, I didn’t inherit her cooking skills. About all I can do really well is make gravy, any kind of gravy. Never lumpy!!! I have all her hand-written recipes. Most giving credit to the women she got the recipes from. Report
Mom taught me to cook healthy, use everything possible, and never waste. Her refuse removal(garbage man) complained she only had coffee grounds and assorted seeds pealings, and he felt like he wasted time stopping at our house.
True ecology from 80 years ago, before the word was invented. (I am 80 yrs old and still cooking that way) Report
Always cook enough food so you have leftovers to warm up quickly for the next evening's supper! Report
My Mom taught me how to make really crispy fried chicken, which was a big hit in my own family. I don't eat fried food anymore, so I haven't made it in many years. But it beat anything you can get from the fast food places! Report
Preparing a healthy and delicious meal is very satisfying, even more so when you serve it to family and friends. Mealtimes are something to look forward to and enjoyed. The effort and money spent is like health insurance and well worth it. Report
Do your cookies get hard in the cookie jar? Just place a slice of bread on top of the cookies in the cookie jar, put the lid back on, and voila, tomorrow you will have soft cookies. Works every time. Report
When the dog licks the coconut-almond icing off the German chocolate cake, don't tell your guests you just wiped it off and re-iced it. Also, when the smoke alarm goes off, dinner is overdone. I've learned a lot on my own, following recipes from the time I was 9. Report
To have a good stock of pantry foods and use what you have. Not to run to the store for every ingredient of a recipe but improvise and also use leftovers. We didn't shop at convenience stores and there wasn't a grocery store every few blocks, shopping was a couple times a month so you cooked with what you had bought. Report
My Mom taught the 9 of us kids the importance of taking only what we needed on our plates. If you were still hungry you could easily go back for seconds. Sometimes the boys,,,5 of them would even have 3rds. With the exception of one cousin we were all small. I have gone back to this.

THANKS Mom!!! Report
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