Cooking without Recipes
I don't plan meals very far ahead, although I know that's efficient. It's just not my style. Do you find mealtime approaching and limited supplies available for preparing dinner? Don't panic. Be creative! Make a mental list of the main food supplies you have available and then think creatively. You'll be amazed at the results.
Suppose you have potatoes, carrots, onions, various frozen vegetables, rice, pasta, canned tomatoes, spaghetti sauce, milk, eggs, cheese, butter or margarine and some left over meat. No need to list your spices and herbs - we'll use them later. We could fill a cookbook using those main ingredients - but you don't need a cookbook. Mix and match the ingredients to see how many different dishes you can imagine:
Get the idea? Now that you have one or two ideas for what you can make with the ingredients you have on hand, there are two ways to proceed.
If you haven't done this before, I suggest starting with a recipe and adapting it. Look in your cookbooks or on the internet. Use my Substitution section for help replacing the ingredients you don't have.
Creating New Recipes
If you're comfortable replacing ingredients in recipes, it's time to create your own recipes. Even if you haven't done much substituting, it's ok to try this - be brave, just don't serve it to company yet.
This is my thought process when I concoct a new dish. "If I were a ..., what would I be?" For example, "If I were a stew, what ingredients would I have in me?" Answer: "Meat, potatoes, carrots, onions, celery, herbs and something liquid". None of these is required, although you'll need salt and pepper if you don't have the herbs. The amounts don't matter either. Just put in what you have, optionally add some other ingredients, a little seasoning and adjust the seasoning when it's done. I make my stews in a pressure cooker, because it's so quick. You can use a crock pot, the oven or the microwave, just adjust the cooking time accordingly.
Example: Beef Stew
To make your stew, start with 1 to 1 1/2 pounds beef cubes, in the bottom of the pot, sprinkle with herbs and add the vegetables. Include canned tomatoes (with juice) or 1/2 cup tomoato juice or wine for more tender meat. If liquid is not included, add water. For longer cooking times, add more liquid. Sprinkle the top with more herbs. For herbs use an herb mixture (e.g. Mrs. Dash) and/or a combination of herbs (basil, oregano, sage, thyme, garlic, parsley, pepper, etc). You probably will not need salt. Add salt after cooking if you wish. Consult a recipe or your appliance instructions for cooking time for the method of cooking you've chosen. When done, adjust the seasoning by tasting and adding more - a little at a time. When the stew is done, taste the broth and add more or different seasonings if it needs more flavor. You can thicken the broth with flour or cornstarch if you wish, but I don't usually do this. I vary my stew (and most recipes) each time I cook it. It keeps meals interesting. See my Beef Stew if you want a formal recipe.
Creating your own recipes for main dishes, vegetables and salads is easier than creating new bakery dishes. Baking is more precise and depends more on chemistry. Use my Substitution section and pay more attention to the quantity of ingredients in a recipe when baking than with other types of cooking.
I've talked a lot about using ingredients you have on hand. But even with all this variation, food can get dull if you always use the same ingredients. When grocery shopping, try something different that's on sale and buy the freshest looking fruit and vegetables.
Cookbooks are great for inspiration - especially ones with pictures or with cuisine from other parts of the world. Use them to spark your creativity, strictly following recipes sometimes and using them to jump start your creativity when your interest in cooking wanes.
Some of your variations and new concoctions will be flops and others will be fantastic. The more often you do this the better odds are for the fantastic ones. Then you'll want to be able to recreate your successes. That's the hard part, because you didn't follow a recipe. Write down immediately the ingredients with approximate quantities and the method you used. If you don't do this immediately, it'll be lost forever! Make it again soon to test what you've written down and make any corrections. Keep it on file for using again - or for creating your own cooking web page.