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Learning to Cook
Mouseover text: And yet I never stop thinking, 'sure, these ingredients cost more than a restaurant meal, but think how many meals I'll get out of them! Especially since each one will have leftovers!'


Randall Munroe really hit the nail on the head with this comic and especially the mouseover text. There's this sort of cycle that I seem to follow when I try cooking, and I need to get my way out of it. It goes like this:

  1. Decide I should cook something.
  2. Thumb through my recipe books, find one or two recipes I like.
  3. Write down the ingredients for the recipes in a list.
  4. Go to the grocery store, stumble around for a while and eventually find exactly those ingredients.
  5. Go back home; at some point in time soon after, cook each recipe.
  6. Whew, that was a lot of work! Spend the next week or two eating junk again, until I decide I should cook something. (repeat)

Very similar to the comic; sometimes I too let the leftovers go bad (usually not). And every time I rack up a huge bill at the supermarket and think to myself it's justified because of the leftovers or the amount of food. Not to mention, that's a lot of work for just a couple of meals, and a long list of ingredients.

I love cooking fresh meals but that's just so much overhead and so time consuming! So I always resort back to Easy Mac, Ramen, frozen dinners and frozen pizza. Yuck.

How can I escape this cycle and cut down on the overhead? How can I focus on more than 2 recipes at a time without buying giant lists of ingredients and spending tons of money? Is it really worth the trouble or should I just chock it up to being a college student and wonder about the years ahead of me where I'll have much more time to spend cooking one meal at a time?

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@Ricket on a side note, I think we go to the same school (NCSU) so prices for things I list (chicken, potatoes, etc.) are probably the same! –  Kryptic Feb 16 '11 at 3:21
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Also mostly related : cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/11075/… ; (note, the titles for these will show up on the sidebar under 'Linked') –  Joe Feb 16 '11 at 3:49
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Not related to cooking, but to nutrition for college students.. nutritiondiva.quickanddirtytips.com/… ; nutritiondiva.quickanddirtytips.com/… –  notthetup Feb 16 '11 at 14:00
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If we wanted to go for the snarky comment on how to break the cycle -- I'd add a 'yes' branch off of the 'does it taste good?'. –  Joe Feb 17 '11 at 0:22
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12 Answers 12

I'm in the same situation as you are, I'm a college student on a budget. What you need to do is convince yourself that it's better to cook your own food. I accomplish this by tracking how much I spend on food at the grocery store each week, and comparing it to buying fast food. I've been doing this since Summer of 2010 and trust me, cooking yourself is a lot cheaper. Per day, I spend about the same that I would on one meal (pizza, whatever), only that includes breakfast, dinner, snacks, etc. If you track it yourself, you will quickly find it's more expensive to eat out, although it is convenient.

I also make a list of meals I would like for the week (I shop a week at a time), and use this list when purchasing and stick to it. You'll find that when you follow recipes, you can make a lot of substitutions for what you have on hand instead of having to buy another ingredient.

To avoid losing ingredients, just stick them in the freezer! Meat, vegetables, whatever you're buying, most of it can be frozen. And frozen stuff lasts for weeks (minimum). Leftovers can be frozen too. When whole chickens are on sale for example, I buy them up (2-3 at a time) and freeze them until needed.

The worst thing I find is (as you've probably seen) the time commitment. It takes time, but you if you cook more you get better at it.

I also find that the less "processed" food is, the cheaper it is. For example, buy whole chicken or split chicken breasts instead of boneless/skinless/etc. and cut it up yourself. Look for the "reduced price" meats when their sell-by date is close to expiring, and freeze them. They are fine. Buy potatoes, canned vegetables, and avoid meals that come in a box! They seem cheap but they are more expensive than what you can do yourself.

... and finally, the real motivation (for me at least) is that I got sick of the options available around campus. If you make your own food, you're not limited by a menu and eventually it will taste better!

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I'm a huge fan of freezing. Diced peppers, strips of onions, grated ginger - just about anything can be frozen on a cookie sheet and then dumped into a bag for easy portioning. You can then grab a handful and throw them into your hot skillet and they will defrost almost immediately as you sautee them. Plus if you make any meal, you can freeze the leftovers, as mentioned. For example, when I make stir fry, I make 3-4x the size that I need, and freeze myself a few portions for lunches or lazy dinners. –  stephennmcdonald Feb 16 '11 at 15:14
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I like Kryptic's suggestions, and would add: learn to make some very simple dishes that take say 5 ingredients, make good use of inexpensive grains and beans, and learn how to make simple stir-fries and other dishes that can easily be made for just 1 person. Example menus:

  1. White rice cooked with salsa, reheat a can of black or pinto beans, shredded cheese, good corn tortillas
  2. Pan-fried tofu or tempeh with broccoli, brown rice, gomashio.
  3. Scrambled eggs, homefries, whole wheat toast.
  4. Any kind of Indian dal over rice makes a hearty one-bowl meal
  5. Simple pastas - you can easily boil a single serving and combine with a butter and parm, or jarred spaghetti sauce, or a simple pan condiment of a sauteed vegetable in olive oil, garlic, and chili flakes

This stuff is all good college eating, easy to make in small amounts for one or two meals, and a good way to build your confidence in the kitchen in preparation for the day when you have a larger audience!

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Agreed on the 5 ingredient meals -- don't do the overly complex meals when you're starting out (or ever, if I had my way) ... if you have to spend 2 hrs cooking & cleaning up afterwards, it's not time effective. –  Joe Feb 16 '11 at 4:07
    
stonesoup is great for five ingredient recipes and Jules has some that focus on inexpensive and healthy eating. –  justkt Feb 16 '11 at 13:08
    
Try bumping home fries over to fresh grated hash-browns (I soak and brush the dirt off the potatoes to keep the nutrition in the skins) through a standard cheese grater. A frying pan with good oils like Canola or Olive cooks them up faster than most potato recipes. Amazing flavor fresh, but also a versatile, healthier carb to bulk up other sauces and meals. –  SpecKK Feb 17 '11 at 8:19
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Fundamentally, I see this as a problem with procrastination, not planning or personal finance. It's really not that hard to thumb through a recipe book and find a few recipes with common ingredients, or simply choose recipes where you know you can use all or almost all of the fresh ingredients at once.

None of that is going to help you if you are waiting until the last minute (or until you feel sufficiently lousy about your habits) to decide to cook. Unless you have a gigantic kitchen that's always fully stocked, cooking requires planning.

I see several answers telling you how to plan. But the actual act of planning is easy. What's harder, for many people, is actually mustering up the energy to plan as well as follow through with those plans. You need to solve your metacognition problem, and along the way you may have to solve a few more tangible problems.

Know Yourself

First, figure out what kind of procrastination you're actually engaging in. It may be more than one:

  • Optimistic procrastination (AKA "relaxed" or just "lazy") assumes that the task will be trivially easy to complete in the future and can thus be put off for something more fun/interesting.

    In cooking, this means thinking to oneself, "OK, I'll cook a proper meal again on Thursday" while failing to account for any of the necessary preparation: Choosing a dish, making sure the ingredients are in stock, cleaning the pots and pans still sitting in the sink, defrosting the meat, or actually allocating the necessary time to cook around or between other commitments. Thursday comes around and forget this, I'm hungry now, maybe I'll cook on some other night.

    A lot of cooking procrastinators I've known have tended to end up running around in the kitchen at midnight because they dramatically underestimated the time it would take.

  • Pessimistic procrastination (or "tense-afraid") is task aversion due to a pervasive focus on the negatives. How much time it's going to waste, how much it ends up costing them, how they might screw up and end up with something barely edible, and of course let's not forget all of the cleanup work after the fact.

    Usually, people who think like this drastically overestimate the effort required, although it becomes kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy because of all the effort they already wasted avoiding it.

    This tends to have the worst effects in people who aren't actually very good cooks. When they actually end up with mediocre meals and moldy leftovers, it just reinforces their perception that it's all a waste of time.

  • Decisional procrastination is one that I personally have struggled with on and off, and refers to putting off the decisions around the task rather than the task itself. In other words, you have a crystal clear idea of what's involved in preparing a meal, and know exactly what to expect in terms of results, but just can't make up your mind regarding what to make or where to start.

    Should I make steak and mashed potatoes, or chicken wings and carrot sticks? The wings take over 2 hours but most of it is just waiting. I can get the steak and potatoes done in half an hour but I have to stand over them the whole time, and the mashing is a pain and the cleanup is worse. What am I in the mood for? I don't know, too many variables, too many decisions, I'll just focus on something else for a few minutes until I have a clearer head/stomach (which never happens).

The next steps will depend largely on which of the above quirks you have. You need to know what your problem is before you can solve it.

Change Yourself

Each form of procrastination is a separate problem, but there is always a solution:

Optimistic Procrastinators

  • Keep a detailed log of your cooking activities from when you do manage to cook. This will prevent your unreliable memory from whitewashing history by having hard evidence of how long certain tasks actually took. This kind of information will also come in very handy if you ever need to do fine-grained planning (i.e. cooking for many guests).

  • Force yourself to mentally go through the specific tasks associated with preparing an entire meal, and imagine yourself actually doing them. Perpetual optimists tend to think too abstractly about a problem; their agenda always says Phase 1: Collect Underpants. Phase 2: ??? Phase 3: Profit. So actually visualize the steps of pulling all the ingredients out of the refrigerator and cabinets, peeling and chopping the carrots, splitting and seasoning the chicken wings, melting the butter, etc. For a lot of people, this is actually a highly motivational exercise, but even if it isn't for you, it will still help you to stay realistic about what actually needs to be done.

Pessimistic Procrastinators

  • You'll want to do the exact opposite of what the optimists do. Don't think about all the chores involved; instead, relax by focusing on all the big-picture positives, especially short-term ones:

    • Delicious food that will make you never want to eat Easy Mac ever again;
    • The wonderful aroma of that meat (or whatever else) roasting in the oven;
    • A pile of tasty leftovers that will keep you going for at least 2 or 3 more days;
    • The sweet satisfaction you get from finishing something important;
    • The additional satisfaction you get from emptying your fridge (into some place other than the trash).

    I've noticed that in cooking as well as almost every other area, longer-term objectives (such as nutrition, cost savings, etc.) really are very poor motivators, because procrastination is, ipso facto, the inability to defer gratification in order to achieve longer-term objectives. So don't bother thinking about those; think about how cooking a proper meal is going to make you happier today.

  • Some pessimists also find it helpful to do the visualization exercise above, because it lowers their stress level in the same way that actually beginning the task does; it's "breaking the ice", so to speak. This is personal; if you are a pessimist type, you'll have to figure out for yourself if this makes it easier or harder to get started.

  • Note that pretty much all of the above only applies if you're able to prepare good meals. If you're a lousy cook, then you have every reason to be pessimistic, and no amount of psychological gymnastics can help you. If you can't motivate yourself to learn independently then consider taking a class, or schedule some sessions with a friend to teach you.

Decisional Procrastinators

This one's actually considerably harder to deal with, but there are methods:

  • Write your options on a piece of paper and then flip a coin or roll a die. Decisional procrastinators often tend to be afraid of the consequences of making a decision, so pushing that responsibility onto a random force is an easy coping method.

  • Allocate a specific period of time per day (or week, whatever) to plan a menu that will last until the next time. Make the decision-making process an actual task. As Kate says, you don't necessarily have to rigidly follow the plan you come up with, but having a plan already written down is a form of anchoring. It's more difficult to succumb to decision paralysis because you've effectively created a bias toward a particular choice, which your mind has to work harder to break.

Fool Yourself

Once you've addressed the psychological issues, you can deal with some more practical ones. Getting things done isn't about practicing the latest time-management fad, any more so than losing weight is about following the latest diet fad. It's about tricking yourself out of your own bad habits with careful planning. Think of this as a sort of tactical battle between two different versions of yourself:

  • Present you is thinking about the future, and the future is a world of possibilities where you can accomplish anything if you just put your mind to it. This instance of you is totally motivated to cook more, eat healthier, save money, whatever. You're going to do it if it's the last thing you do.

  • Future you is late, tired, stressed out, burned out, and just wants to park his butt on the couch or in front of a computer game. Unless he really loves to cook (which, by the way, many of us do - but anyone who asks this question probably doesn't consider it a hobby), then cooking is going to be the last thing on his mind. He has a powerful impulse to do nothing. He is the one that's going to be doing the procrastinating described above.

So here is your dilemma: Unless you are currently standing in a well-stocked kitchen, it's not present you that's going to be doing the cooking, it's future you. Somehow, present you has to trick that person into doing the right thing.

The way to do this is to create a situation where future you will have to go through extra effort to deviate from the plan, or face immediate negative consequences if that deviation occurs.

There are a few obvious things you can do for cooking:

  • Don't keep "convenience foods" around the house. It's easy to put off cooking when you know you've got the Ramen or Easy Mac sitting in the pantry. Future You will be in the kitchen a lot faster if he knows he's going to starve otherwise. (He can still order pizza, but eventually he will get sick of pizza.)

  • Use an internet blocker. This goes for cooking and pretty much any other household chore as well. Probably 9 times out of 10 when people slack off or get distracted today, they're surfing/chatting/playing multiplayer games. Especially if you live in a college dorm - there's really not much else to do. There are apps like Freedom that will force you to reboot if you want to go online. Remember, Future You has no discipline whatsoever, so Present You has to enforce the rules somehow.

  • If you tend to get distracted by TV, then reduce your cable services. Just get basic cable, and get rid of the Tivo. I can honestly say that the single biggest universal boost to my productivity was when I made the decision about 10 years ago to stop watching TV, and stuck to it. The addiction goes away after a while; now I've got a 46" that gets turned on maybe once every 2-3 months (no, that doesn't mean you can have it).

Other, more subtle methods that work for a lot of people are:

  • Commit to cooking for someone else. Family, friends, dates, roommates - it really doesn't matter. If you promise somebody a home-cooked meal, and you show up with Lean Cuisine, you're going to look like a total ass, and personal dignity is probably one of the few things that Future You isn't willing to trade for convenience.

  • If you're an incorrigible last-minute cook and cannot force yourself to plan more than a few hours in advance, then keep a menu of all the things you know how to make and reasonably enjoy. When Future You looks at the long list of potential great meals, the pack of Ramen is going to look seriously pathetic next to it.

  • Start preparing something - anything - in advance, but not to the point where it can actually be eaten. Future You will see this as a sunk cost and be forced to rationally weigh the effort that's already been expended against the potential time saved by abandoning the entire project (meal). Try chopping up an onion and putting the pieces in a loose plastic baggie; I guarantee that you'll be back in the kitchen very quickly to deal with the smell - and since throwing them in a garbage won't actually make it go away, the only practical choice is to cook them.

Eventually you will get good at this came of cat and mouse. Everybody is born a procrastinator, but nobody has to stay that way.

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This is a great thorough answer that hit very close to home. I was, for the longest time, an optimistic procrastinator. I now make a weekly menu on Sunday, make sure I have all the ingredients on hand, and hit the store Sunday if I don't. That alone made a huge difference, but the turning point for me was starting my mise en place the night before. Just taking out the ingredients and spices I need and placing them on the counter makes it much easier to start cooking as soon as I get home. I find it's easier to do this kind of thing before bed than right away after a long day's work. –  stephennmcdonald Feb 17 '11 at 3:50
    
Also, this answer reminded me of a blog post that I recently read about procrastination and thought was interesting and touches a lot on the idea of "future you": youarenotsosmart.com/2010/10/27/procrastination –  stephennmcdonald Feb 17 '11 at 3:53
    
@stephen: I read his posts on occasion too, so it's entirely possible that some of this was unconsciously borrowed from that essay. Then again, it's hardly a new or groundbreaking concept; when I had to break my habit of sleeping in, I strew 5 alarm clocks across the house set to go off at 3-minute intervals, in order to make the constant snoozing an even more painful ordeal than getting up. Same idea, just arranging for physical or psychological obstacles to be laid out for the future when you can't trust yourself. –  Aaronut Feb 17 '11 at 17:12
    
you're too much, I'm actually right in the middle of the sleeping-in habit-breaking, and I have my cell and 3 other alarm clocks strategically placed around my bedroom. I hope I didn't accidentally imply that I thought you stole your idea from that site, I was posting it more as "continued reading". Your answer was much more thorough and useful anyway :) –  stephennmcdonald Feb 17 '11 at 18:41
    
No offense taken, @stephen, I was simply remarking on my own about some of the similarities after having re-read that procrastination page, and there's definitely some inspiration if not even a little co-opting. Good luck on your sleep; if your current strategy fails, try placing one or more outside the bedroom. –  Aaronut Feb 17 '11 at 18:45
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What you really need is to learn to cook with things that don't go bad. Get a supply of spices, some pastas, canned goods (tomato sauce!), rice, etc... This kind of stuff can stay in the cupboard (not the fridge) for years before going bad.

Get some long lasting condiments. Soy sauce, mayo, catsup, stuff like that.

Get some small amounts of semi-long lasting goods like cheese and such (you can carve off the outside if it molds). Get some eggs and butter.

Potatoes last a good bit too if you treat them right. You can fry them, bake them, mash them, boil them....

Learn to throw stuff together out of that. For example, boiled mac noodles+shredded cheddar == much better mac&cheese than any box crap and it's not even any harder.

Grab a pound of ground beef, fry it and chunkify it...throw in some tomato sauce, garlic, onion powder, pepper, oregano, basil...whatever...you've got spaghetti sauce. Throw in canned corn and mac noodles and you've got goulash. Next day, put some water in the pan (just throw the whole pan in the fridge overnight) and cook it again...little secret: I sometimes even like it better the next day. Nuke works too.

Mix olive oil with some spices and throw it on some noodles...some cheese of some sort if you want...pesto!

Pick up some cream at the store, cook with butter and thicken with cheese - alfredo.

Mix flour, egg, milk (or water), sugar, and baking powder in bowl...poor into frying pan = pancake. Add more egg and put in waffle iron.

Flour + butter + water rolled out and fried = tortilla. Scramble some eggs, with some chopped and fried potato...add peppers and crap that you may have bought at some point...breakfast burrito.

1c flour + .25c oil + .25c water mixed up = quiche crust. Eggs, milk, + whatever = inside.

Flour + water + yeast rolled out and baked = pita Without yeast = flatbread.

flour + eggs + oil + water rolled out and cut = noodles.

Black bananna + sugar, flour, egg, milk, various other bits, baking powder = bananna bread.

Powdered sugar + butter + milk = frosting base...add cocoa to make chocolate. Put on graham cracker and dip in milk.

Chopped chicken breast + garlic, salt, pepper, + whatever vegies/onions you might have + oil + wok = stir fry. Chicken = cheap. Put in freezer. Pork chop work nice too.

Lots of really great stuff you can make without quickly perishing foods. The only thing that's really trouble is fresh fruits and veggies. Just buy one thing and eat it for a week before getting the next. Throw the rest together. Pick up your meats fresh and/or couple frozen bits.

So that's it. Stick with non-perishables. Rice, sugars, flour, spices, canned foods. Learn how to throw it together in novel ways. Don't target some recipe, buy a bunch of stuff and watch it rot. Get the necessities and mix them up. You seriously don't need to go overboard to beat out fast food. I can, by my own taste, compete with the pros with just the crap listed so far

Every so often pick up a fast perishable or two and just keep using it until its gone.

Learn how to make pizza from scratch...

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ground beef + tomato sauce + oregano + basil + canned corn + mac noodles = a possibly-good meal that has absolutely NOTHING in common with goulash. Just sayin'. –  Marti Feb 16 '11 at 19:55
    
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Cook for others. I never manage to cook for myself, it is no fun. But cooking for my wife, friends or family is very fulfilling.

So if you have a roomate, cook for both. If not, invite people over, or visit friends and cook for them (or make them cook!)

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I'm a university student like you, but I manage to cook nearly every night (and most nights I don't cook I reheat something I made previously). If you want to get in the habit of cooking you need to plan ahead. Not just one meal ahead, but plan the whole week. I cook basically the same meals on the same day each week, so I make sure I have the ingredients I need for the next few nights whenever I go to the shops. It's a good idea to make things that can be refrigerated or frozen so that you can cook twice, three or four times as much as you need and then eat the rest over the next few weeks.

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These days, with the advent of smart phones, you might be better off with a methodology more like:

  1. Go to the store.
  2. Find what's on sale that you'd be willing to eat. (ie, not bacon, if you're muslim or kosher)
  3. Look up a recipe that uses the ingredients
  4. Make sure it doesn't require tools or skills that you don't have, or take longer than you want to spend
  5. Buy the stuff & take it home
  6. Cook

The problem with finding the recipe first, then going to the store is that you won't know what's on sale ... so you end up spending more than you really should've, and feel guilty when it doesn't come out perfectly, or annoyed that you could've just gone with the frozen pizza instead.

In some cases, you either can't find a critical ingredient, or what you do find is produce that's on the verge of rotting in the bins because most chain grocery stores in the US don't have the autonomy to mark stuff down before it's gone off ... so you're either stuck with going through with the recipe with less than ideal ingredients (always a bad mistake), improvising, or giving up and going for the microwave burrito.

See the different questions that I linked to in the comments -- there have been lots of suggestions for people just starting out; it'd be pointless to repeat it all here.

... and if you don't have a smart phone ... see some of the suggestions for starter books (it's in one of the ones I liked to). Stuff like 'How to Cook Without a Book' can get you better prepared to improvise based on what you can find rather than tied to recipes.

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+1 - Find out what's on sale first. –  s_hewitt Feb 16 '11 at 16:32
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This is pretty much the methodology I've come to use... Once upon a time, I'd buy what was on sale and then pick recipes once I got home, but that often left me wishing for that one key ingredient I didn't think to grab (though I did tend to become a good deal more creative with what I did have). At this point, the smartphone has very nearly replaced all other forms of recipes for me, not to mention my shopping lists. –  Shog9 Feb 16 '11 at 18:20
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If you are cooking for one and have space in your apartment or whatever other arrangement you are using, begin to view your freezer as your best friend. With it, you can do the following:

  1. Buy a whole chicken, poach it (boil it until cooked through in salted water, chicken brother, or another interesting liquid), shred the meat, and freeze shredded frozen chicken for use in tacos, quesadillas, chicken pot pie, chicken noodle soup, chicken salad, as part of a pasta cream sauce, etc. As a bonus, save the bones and simmer them on the stove for about 5 hours on the weekend when you're doing homework for stock and freeze the stock. You can do similar things with a pork shoulder or big cut of inexpensive beef stew meat and use the meat for stews, pulled pork sandwiches, etc.

  2. Cook the full amount of a four serving meal from a cookbook, eat it two nights in a row, and save the other two servings for a week when you are busy.

  3. Buy bargain packs of chicken breasts and ground beef as well as all those managers specials on meat, portion them out, wrap in foil, and freeze. Pull out as many servings as you need for a given meal to thaw in the fridge a day before and you have meat on hand that will last a long time. Also buy bags of frozen veggies when they go on sale.

You can even go whole hog and get into freezer cooking.

Also know what items you want to have on hand for your particular tastes in your pantry. Do you routinely make chilis? Keep the beans on hand. Do you love sauces with tomatoes? Make sure you have canned diced tomatoes, tomato sauce (the canned kind, not the prepared pasta sauce, although you can have that too), tomato paste, etc. on hand. Rice is an extremely college-student friendly food, make sure to keep it available and learn a fool proof way of cooking it.

For your fridge you'll need some condiments and any fresh items you want on hand (salad ingredients, fruit for snacking, etc.)

Using shelf stable pantry items and your freezer you should be able to cut down the things that might spoil. Using make-ahead plans you should be able to cook when you are so inspired and reap the reward of that cooking for anywhere from days months.

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Hi to all "college" and/or "in a hurry" cooks! When I started teaching, with a small, two room apartment and only myself to cook for during the week, I found an easy survival solution to the need for quick, easy and NOT boring meals. First, a few staples: wine or sherry, ginger, garlic, butter or margarine, olive oil, curry, Italian seasonings (comes in one bottle), any vinagrette salad dressing you can buy, cans of beef & chicken broth and soy sauce. I assume you also have a bit of sugar, flour, cornstarch and salt & pepper. Then each week, buy veggies and even fruit you want to explore, plus a pound each of two meats which you immediately cut into 4 sections and freeze. Cheese is optional. The actual cooking: Steam or micro-wave your veggies. For the meat, poach with a bit of wine and butter or oil, any fish or chicken-eg microwave for ~2 min. or until "just cooked". Or, Stir-fry any meat on the stove top using oil and ginger, any spices and possibly garlic or onion. The salad dressing works wonders as an "instant marinade" if you like. Then make a sauce if needed using any spices (onion, garlic and leeks work well to be added at this point if not beforehand) plus either flour mixed first in wine or water, or 1-2 teaspoons of cornstarch with any liquid, such as the veggie water, broth or wine. Cheese can be introduced into the sauce at the end. Fold everything together and serve with any rice, pasta, bread, potato, yams you like! Bon Appetit!!

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i will second everything everyone's said, and also add this: you can't cram for cooking like you'd cram for an exam, and then be done. you won't get it on your first go, or maybe even your tenth. it's a learning process, and it can be one that you can continue to enjoy your whole life. don't be intimidated. start slow, with pastas and easy (like Michael mentioned above) 5-ingredient dishes, and work your way up. being able to say, "i made this!" is SO satisfying, especially when you surprise yourself (or your family, friends, and loved ones) with how good it tastes. and yes, it certainly IS cheaper and healthier in the long run -- and aren't you worth it?

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plan your meals, including planning your leftover use, and you'll be a lot happier. I have a printed sheet - it's just seven boxes each the width of the page - and I write down what each night's dinner will be. I also record disruptions like if someone will be out - it's pointless to plan a pot roast that takes 4 hours on the night you will be out until 6:30.

I like to shop once a week, so the first 3 or so meals after "shop day" (which is a different day each week) feature fresh meat I bought when I shopped. Often I fill those days in when I am at the store because it depends what's on sale. (This week for $6 I got two pork tenderloins, each of which will feed 3.) The rest of the week is "pantry meals" meaning things I can make from the cupboard or freezer (I always have ground beef in the freezer, and often chicken parts.)

I also write "order pizza" or "bring home Chinese food" on certain days if I know that's the kind of day it's going to be. And of course, I don't feel obliged to follow the plan if things change as the week goes on. But it sure does help to know that someone has already decided what dinner will be tonight, and arranged for the ingredients to be in the fridge. Even when that someone is just yesterday-me, I feel as helped and looked after as if it was the butler who did it for me.

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This problem can mostly be solved by simply being organized about how you do things.

By no means am I an expert on this, and I do occasionally fall back into the trap (especially when I'm just cooking for myself)

We have a simple workflow that does us well though, so here it is.

Once a week (usually a Sunday) we sit down with our tried and tested cook book (it's a simple cook book with a lot of recipes in it, most of which call for relatively few ingredients)

We then pick four (we've found this just about hits the mark for a weeks, and allows for 'off-days' when we can't be bothered to cook) recipes from this cookbook and order all the required ingredients online (we also take stock of what we already have, paying attention to anything that needs used soon to avoid waste)

The ingredients will usually arrive on a Monday evening at about 5pm. From this we take note of the expiry dates of key ingredients to the dishes and we can base a rough cooking priority from this.

Most meals we choose tend to take around 30 minutes to cook including prep-time, though from time to time we are more adventurous. We have some favorite recipes which we order ingredients for more regularly too. (One favorite; toad in the hole, takes over an hour to make, but only about ten minutes prep-time - the rest of the time is spent waiting for it to cook in the oven)

The 30 minute mark is kind of key, as this is roughly how long it takes to pre-heat an oven, take a frozen pizza out of the freezer, wait for it to cook and commence eating. So this is my bench mark.

We do of course buy the occasional frozen meal or things that can be cooked with zero prep-time (frozen pizza!) for when we are super tired/lazy.

We still have some waste doing all this, but like I said, I'm no expert - it does still work out a lot cheaper however.

Some other top tips/notes:

  1. Every utensil we own is dishwasher safe, once we are done cooking/eating, we load up the dish washer and put it on, this way everything is clean and ready to be used the following day (nothing is worse than having to do the dishes BEFORE you start cooking, and this has always been my downfall in the past. Being as strict as possible with the washing-up REALLY helps.)

  2. Freeze any excess you make, if you buy portion-sized microwave safe containers, you'll eventually accumulate a freezer full of tasty food that can be nuked for a couple of minutes and on your plate faster than you can imagine.

  3. Make sure you have a good stock of canned chopped tomatoes. Seriously. If all else fails, you can put pasta on, boil the tomatoes with onions/spices/anything else you have that's about to go off then combine the two into a really quick and easy meal (replace the pasta with minced beef and you have some vague form of chilli/bolognese sauce)

The other main advantage to this is, we are rarely in the shops/super-markets, so we are rarely tempted to buy food we don't need. Ocassionally we'll need to pick up some eggs, or milk or bread, but if you go in with such a limited and specific shopping list (rather than "something for dinner") you'll save a fortune.

The cook book we use 90% of the time isn't a celebrity chef endorsed one - we have several of those, but they tend to be a lot more complicated and require more (and fussier) ingredients. (Of course, sometimes the extra effort is worth it!)

After a while of doing this, you'll find your cooking skills improve and the amount of time required to cook goes down, especially when you have a favorite dish or two that you cook regularly.

So basically I guess the solution is to be organized and also keep your kitchen clean.

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