Cheap Eats: Learn to cook

So you would like to spend less on food. This is one of the easiest places to trim the budget, but it will require a little effort on your part.

The single best way to save money on food is to learn to cook!

It is usually much cheaper to purchase ingredients rather than prepared meals. The results are more nutritious and frequently lower in sodium, fat, and calories.[1] With a little bit of practice, your meals will taste a lot better than the packaged, frozen “convenience foods” available at the market. Cooking doesn’t have to use a lot of time or expensive ingredients. Plus, it just feels satisfying to serve a meal you made yourself.

Learning to cook isn’t hard. A recent Amazon search turned up 93,928 cookbooks, while a Google search turned up 98,400,000 hits for “recipe.”  Most functional adults are able to follow at least  simple directions for preparing a dish.

I never learned to cook when I was growing up, so I had to figure things out on my own. Since I was a college student at the time, it seemed totally logical to pick up a textbook and start reading. At the time, the most popular comprehensive cookbook was The Joy of Cooking, so that is what I read. It provided a solid foundation that still serves me today. The fun started when I got to the point where I could wing it, inventing my own recipes as I went along.

Most meals include more than one dish, so cooking a meal requires some planning. I’ll assume you want to eat a healthy, balanced diet. We have a friend who, in his early 20s and newly graduated from college, subsisted for an entire year on spaghetti. He boiled some noodles, poured in the bottled sauce, stirred, and ate straight out of the pot. I hope you aspire to something more interesting and varied than a steady diet of spaghetti!

We seem to have no problem getting enough starches (bread, rice, potatoes, pasta) and protein, but we have to be intentional if we want to eat the recommended 5+ servings of vegetables. That’s why I usually plan a meal by picking the vegetable I want to serve, then building a meal around it.

For example, it’s currently winter, and kale is in season. I have a soup recipe that calls for kale, along with tomatoes, low-fat sausage, and tortellini. So this week, when I bought some kale, I also picked up sausage. (I already had the rest of the ingredients on hand.) While I was buying the kale, I noticed that asparagus were only $2/lb, so I bought a bundle of those as well. Hmmm… what goes with asparagus? That sounded sort of fancy and French to me, so I made herbed chicken breasts marinated in white wine, served over brown rice. The asparagus were the perfect complement.

One of the trickier aspects of meal preparation is timing. To start, try picking a one-dish meal that can be served with a salad you make ahead of time. Or, prepare a side dish or two while the main course is in the oven. When creating a meal plan, consider which recipes can stand a while without losing quality. Rice, most potato dishes, salads (in the refrigerator), and casseroles can usually wait while you quickly steam some veggies or sauté chicken breasts. And obviously, it helps to start with the recipes that take the longest to make. As you gain experience, you will get a feel for how much chaos you can handle. Trying to stir-fry several dishes all at the last moment is a task best left for professionals.

I’ve spent a lot of years sifting through recipes, and I’ll be posting a lot of my favorites as we go along. Meanwhile, don’t be intimidated by mere ingredients. You can turn them into food.

[1] Here  is one example:

  • Kraft Triple Cheese Microwave Cup: $1.59/serving.
  • Kraft macaroni and cheese box: $.50/serving.
  • Homemade macaroni and cheese: about $.60/serving, made with ½ oz. low-fat cheddar cheese, whole grain pasta, soy milk, 1 tsp. cornstarch, and no unwanted additives.

One thought on “Cheap Eats: Learn to cook

  1. Sounds like a nice idea! I*ll try and peak in now and then 🙂

    A vinagrette sauce is not in my recipe book. Thanks for the tip!


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