My Mom Taught Me This Cooking Tip, and It's the Most Helpful Thing I've Learned

POPSUGAR Photography | Sheila Gim
POPSUGAR Photography | Sheila Gim

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house where my mom cooked for our family of six just about every night. My mom is Italian and grew up with seven sisters and two brothers in New York, so her knack for cooking and love of food likely stemmed from sitting down to home-cooked meals with a family of 12 on a regular basis. You could say she knows a thing or two (thousand) about cooking.

Now that I'm an adult and love cooking just as much as she does, I'm always trying to master the art of cooking as a 20-something on a budget. I rely on my mom's passed-down knowledge more than I could have imagined, and while she taught me plenty of recipes (everything I know about pasta, I owe it to her) and has answered an embarrassing number of my mid-cooking-panic questions over the phone, there's one solid piece of cooking advice that has stuck with me the most:

You Can Make Something Out of Nothing

As in, you don't need a recipe to cook something, and you don't have to have a full pantry and fridge to get dinner on the table. My mom is the queen of pulling scraps from the fridge and freezer and seemingly magically turning them into a cohesive, family-approved meal. If she had a dollar for every time one of her kids asked her, "What's for dinner?" she'd definitely be a millionaire, and what I didn't know growing up was that a lot of times she didn't even know what was for dinner as she began making dinner. But lo and behold, she'd make it happen. She'd usually aim to combine some type of protein with a starch and a vegetable, even if that meant throwing everything in a dish and baking it in the oven. My dad has lovingly and hilariously named these creations "bakes." "Oooh, what do we have here, a cheesy chicken bake?" he'll say if he peers into the oven and sees a casserole dish filled with various unidentifiable ingredients. And you know what? They were always delicious.

Thanks to my mom's ability to improvise, my family rarely resorted to takeout and instead had much healthier and more budget-friendly dinners, and I think this is a mantra that everyone can benefit from. While sometimes you might quite literally have nothing to work with, there are staples you should always have on hand that make this "no recipe" cooking method a lot easier: eggs (you can put anything in an omelet), chicken (keep it in the freezer and defrost the day you plan to use it), pasta (the ultimate blank-canvas ingredient), and frozen vegetables (no need to always buy fresh at the risk of letting them go bad). Also, save everything (that quarter of an onion will come in handy the next time you sauté garlic or want to add caramelized onions to something).

So now whenever I open my fridge and see a few random jars, some partially wilted spinach, and leftover chicken, I don't think, "time to go out." I think, "what would my mom make?"

Additional reporting by Lauren Harano