Cooking isn’t everyone’s forte and can feel like more effort than it’s worth when you’re only making meals for yourself. It requires planning, patience, a minimal amount of talent and a whole lot of motivation. Personally, I love to cook. I also think everyone owes it to themselves to at least try to learn how to feed themselves responsibly instead of racking up their credit card bills with charges from Seamless and GrubHub. You’re an adult now and that means you don’t need to subsist on take-out and deserve better than to be eating out of styrofoam containers and pizza boxes on the regular. Besides, home cooking is beneficial for your health and overall state of mind. Did you know that cooking at home even helps alleviate anxiety and depression? And it’s cheaper than therapy!
Being thrifty and also knowing exactly what’s going into your body when you eat is a win-win situation, but often beginner home-cooks get a little too eager to jump into their new lifestyle. As John Oliver mentioned on his show mentioned on his show last month, Americans are depressingly quick to waste the food they buy—about 40% of the food produced in the United States, or $165 billion per year, is being tossed into the garbage annually. Often consumers buy too much food and store it the wrong way (which leads to rot), or don’t know how to make the most of what groceries they have on hand. What was originally intended to be a delicious, affordable meal can end up being a waste of both food and money. Kind of puts the contents of fridge into perspective, doesn’t it?
In an effort to combat waste while maximizing on your new cooking lifestyle, we’ve compiled some suggestions that should help you become more efficient when it comes to feeding yourself at home.
We’ve got the bare minimum here. Nothing will get you as far as plain, old iodized salt; one pound only costs a little over $2 and lasts forever. Keep both black and crushed red pepper on hand, it’s the easiest way to add spice to a dish. You’ll also want to keep a bottle of olive oil on hand for every time you pull out a frying pan. There’s no need to use the more expensive, extra-virgin olive oil for cooking. A lot of its flavor and antioxidants are lost to the heat. Use cheaper, plain olive oil on hand for sautéing and baking. Buy a jar of coconut oil too. You can use this as a stand-in for olive oil when you want a little change-up in your skillet.
Other stock items to have around include: Mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar, butter, dried rice and beans, and a box of pasta or two. All in all, it shouldn’t cost you more than $50 to build the foundation of basics your kitchen. Keep in mind that all of these items will be used in many meals each week. (If you break each ingredient down to cost-per-meal, it ends up being mere pennies.)
Now, to add a little flavor...
I know, I know. Spices can be expensive, but we’re talking basics, and there’s no need to buy saffron just yet. That said, all worthwhile ventures require an initial investment and spices are where you’ll want to ante up. Cooking is all about the flavor profiles, and combining spices in different ways will help expand the range of your kitchen staples. For instance, you can add dried basil and oregano to chicken or fish, but dried basil, lemongrass, and chili powder will produce an entirely different dish. A mix of basil, oregano, rosemary, and thyme create a great base for many Italian dishes. Cilantro and cumin will help you perfect your tacos. And roast chicken can’t go wrong with Herbs de Provence – a blend of spices that contain some combination of rosemary, fennel seed, thyme, basil, marjoram, lavender, parsley, oregano, tarragon, and bay powder. (It’s a one-stop spice shop in a bottle.)
The combinations are endless and you’ll learn to season to your taste (one of the many benefits of cooking at home) instead of defaulting to strict guidelines. If you’re interested in reading more about flavor profiles and basic cooking and seasoning skills, I suggest picking up The Kitchen Counter Cooking School for more tips. It’s really worth it to get a range of spices you know you enjoy and can work with, and they are the key to making your ingredients go a long way without any redundancy. No one wants to eat the same thing night after night. You want cooking to be an enjoyable experience and to be able to flex your burgeoning skills a bit. Spices are the way to do that.
I know the term “meal-planning” can make being an adult sound more like resigning to being a boring-ass grandma, but you will soon learn to love it. Were you on a sports team in high school? You wouldn’t face an opponent without a plan of attack, would you? Think of the grocery store as your new playing field: You’re going to learn its layout. You are going to avoid the obvious trap and skip the snack aisle. You’re also going to walk into the door with a strategy and a couple of easy, go-to recipes in mind. (Try something from our archives if you need inspiration.) Most importantly, you shouldn’t shop hungry, lest you start filling your shopping cart with a load of random items, only to get home and realize that none of the ingredients will make any sense when you try and put them together.
Instead, buy exactly what you need in the portions that you need them. Think about the way you’ll be able to repurpose those items into multiple, different, tasty dishes. So, let’s say you knew you definitely wanted to make a veggie-pasta dish this week. Buy tomatoes, some zucchini, and a head of leafy greens like swiss chard. (Your cabinets are already stocked with spices and dried pasta, remember?) Later, you can mix any surplus of vegetables with some eggs for an omelet, frittata, or salad. The same goes for meat: If you wanted to add meatballs to your pasta, think about buying a pound of ground beef. Season half of the meat and add meatballs to the dish, then freeze the other half for a future meal.
If you’re diligent about keeping a mental list of what you have at home already, the framework for your cooking lifestyle will all starts to come together. Your weekly or bi-weekly fresh ingredients are used in multiple meals and your pantry consistently provides the staples. Don’t over purchase and make manageable portions and you’ll find that you actually eat all the food. There’s not a huge amount of one recipe sitting in your fridge going bad while you side-eye it because you already ate it four nights in a row. Voila, you’re managing your waste!
We’ve got a whole guide to help you with bulk buying already, so consider this a reminder that buying plate-fillers in a bulk is a good practice. I’m not talking about the 90 lb. jar of olives you saw in the aisle at Costco. It is, however, a good idea to keep a cabinet stocked with a variety of starches; the staples of dried pastas, rice, and beans are inexpensive and often on sale. When you want more bang for your buck, look to the starch. It adds heft to your plate. Also watch the sale prices for other items with a long shelf-life such as: cans of tuna fish, coconut milk and curry paste, bags of nuts and/or dried fruits, and jars of peanut or almond butter. All of these will help you put together quick meals and easy snacks.
The first commandment of food shopping—that which is seasonal, is that which is on sale. Start educating yourself about what’s growing in your neck of the woods during specific times of year. Get acquainted with their shelf life. Tender greens like lettuce and swiss chard will last about 2-3 days, but hardier greens like kale will last 5-6 before the leaves start to wilt. Save citrus for the winter months when fresh fruit is scarce. Berry season starts in late May, so please don’t buy disgusting, mealy, tasteless blueberries in January. STOP THAT RIGHT NOW.
Look into getting a CSA share. This will provide you with fresh, seasonal produce for a one-time fee. Instead of giving your money to big box chains, you’re contributing to smaller, local farms and buying food in the appropriate season (i.e. your spinach isn’t being shipped all the way across the country). Not to mention that a CSA is great for your community! And saving the environment! If you’re concerned about the amount of produce, split it with a friend or get a bi-weekly share. Seek out vegetable-heavy recipes that aren’t your run-of-the-mill salads. For instance, lots of produce can be thrown into a quick curry.
I preach the church of CSA because it will also remind you that vegetables come from the ground. Sometimes they have dirt on their skins. Sometimes they have bruises. But dirt washes off and you won’t be able to tell that tomato ever had a bruise once it’s in a pot. Don’t be duped by the supermarket’s antiseptic aesthetic. It’s the matrix of food politics. Take the red pill and go the CSA route.
It’s all about vision. A roast chicken can be served straight up with a side of veggies, and shredded for burritos the next night. You can cube it into little pieces for chicken or Waldorf salad, then toss the bones in a pot and boil them for stock. You can roast a pan of vegetables on a Sunday evening and use them in frittatas, cold salads, or hot soups and pastas throughout the entire week. You can rub some spices on a pork shoulder, cook it overnight in the crock pot, and feast on tacos, or breakfast hash, or sloppy joes. I’m emphasizing this because it’s imperative to think beyond one meal or recipe to keep at it. (If you want to go all out, read Tamar Alder’s An Everlasting Meal—it’s the bible of economical cooking.) And while we’re on the subject…
Hate to break it to you, but buying bottles of salad dressing is throwing money down the drain. The cheapest bottle of Wishbone costs $2 for 12 oz. and that shit tastes terrible. Plus, it’s filled with loads of sugar and Marc Bittman has been telling us sugar is the devil for years.
Together, one 17 oz. bottle of organic extra-virgin olive oil and one 16 oz. bottle of organic apple cider vinegar shouldn’t cost you more than $12 total. Even if you’re a regular salad eater, it will last 5-6 weeks. You can add salt and pepper for an easy dressing. You can toss some honey and mustard in there. Squeeze a lemon or a grapefruit into the bowl. Mash some strawberries while you’re at it. Look at you, you’re a culinary genius with your 900 kinds of salad dressing.
Pre-made ice tea cost about $3.50 per gallon. YOU COULD BUY MORE THAN 20 TEA BAGS FOR THE SAME PRICE. Brew it yourself! All this requires is boiled water, so I know you can handle it. Sugar, honey, mint etc. are all bonus additions. (Do not even talk to me about powdered ice tea because I swear to God, I will smack you.)
Put the jars of pre-made pasta sauce down! While a 26 oz. jar will likely run you $4 a pop, sauce is simple to make, canned/crushed/puréed tomatoes cost around $.88 cents a can, and a big, bubbling pot will usually yield around 3.5 quarts. That’s 112 oz. for those of you keeping track at home, more than five times what the store is trying to charge you for what amounts to excess sodium.
How much do you pay for brunch on average… $15? You can buy a dozen beautiful, organic, farm-fresh eggs (the kind with the lovely, deep orange yolks) at the farmers market for $5 and have breakfast for a week. Yeah, yeah, brunch is all about the experience, but it’s a fool’s errand when your budget enters the picture.
Welcome to the place where you store your excess sauce and all that chicken broth that you’ve been making. This is also where you put the extra meat that was on sale. Go ahead and freeze all these things in handy portion sizes and pull them out as needed. Divide a pound of ground beef into quarter pound portions and place them in separate containers or bags. Place individual chicken breasts in their own individual saran wraps so that you can defrost each one separately as your appetite dictates. If you’ve made the big pot of pasta sauce I suggested, ladle it out into separate jars to make it last for the next 2-3 months. It will help you when you’re feeling lazy and you won’t need to run back to the store every time you need to make a meal.
Once you’re a pro, you can start to explore the logistics of canning, but for now stick to the freezer. It’s great for storing things other than your bottles of vodka.
Don’t be threatened by your grocery bill or any newbie recipe fails. I know that home cooking can seem like a daunting task at first, especially if you’re just starting out, and especially if you find that you’ve dropped $100 at once to feed yourself that week. Know that it all levels out, though. Do me a favor: Add up what take-out lunches, dinner, and breakfast cost you last month and compare it to what you could be spending on groceries instead. I guarantee the difference will be shocking. I guarantee if you at least attempt some kind of meal planning, it’ll cost you less and taste better. Do you remember any of those take-out meals? Probably not. Comparatively, I promise that you’ll remember the meals you cook. And, in time, they will become part of a delicious routine, too.
Lindsay Hood is a writer living in Seattle. She tweets at @LindsH.
Image by Sam Woolley.
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