Cooking at home has obvious advantages for your budget. But not only is it less expensive than eating out, but it’s better for your health and if you get good at it, tastier. That doesn’t mean you have to become a 5-star caliber chef, it’s a simple reminder that you can cook to your own personal taste. You’re in control.
But that’s easier said than done for some people. Cooking isn’t always easy for the beginner. So that’s why we put together this guide for those who are trying to save a few pennies by cooking for themselves, but need a place to start.
Start with the basics
For most beginners, learning proper techniques for cooking is the first step. Start with basic techniques like boiling pasta, frying an egg, or pan frying chicken etc. Keep to simple recipes that don’t involve more advanced techniques or challenging ingredients. The hardest part will usually be knowing when the food is fully cooked/not overcooking. Also consider specialty techniques that fit your lifestyle. One of the best things I ever did was buy a WOK and a stir-fry cook book.
There are a number of great resources that can help you develop your culinary skills along the way. If you’re hard-core, you could take a cooking class to learn some basic techniques. The book “the joy of cooking” is a staple for anyone who is keen on learning to cook from home. Also, Youtube or any major cooking website can be tremendously helpful that have step-by-step videos of more challenging techniques. What you’ll find, however, is that the best way to learn to cook is through trial and error, so get started!
Shopping for the essentials
Once you’re comfortable with some basic cooking techniques it’s time to start thinking about stocking your home with basic ingredients based on your common eating (or cooking) habits. From a purely frugal point of view, the best thing to start with are inexpensive non-perishable items, and those those with a longer shelf life. Ingredients like: canned foods, pasta, rice, and a couple weeks worth of frozen vegetables meats (that can be frozen) to start with. Also, stock up on your favorite condiments, sauces and spices as well as cooking basics like flour and cooking oil. Many of these items you can (and should) keep a good supply of in your home at all time. So take advantage of bulk deals, and get a good idea of the everyday items you can keep stocked in your home.
Don’t just base ingredients on price, however. Personal taste, variety, and (also) cooking ability should be factors in the creating your basic shopping list even if it means buying some pricier products. Eating on the super cheap will eventually get bland and since you’re saving by cooking at home anyways, your budget should have plenty of room for moderate “food luxuries”.
Now that you have a basic idea of the ingredients you regularly stock in your kitchen, it’s time to get creative with some recipes. Many of the sites below allow you to filter recipes by ingredients or category. Use these sites to create some ideas for yourself using just the basic ingredients you developed as outlined above. Don’t worry if you don’t have all the necessary ingredients for every recipe, you can shop for these specialty items as needed. Do, however, try and to stick to recipes that call for ingredients you generally keep in your home. This will help you develop a repertoire of dishes you can enjoy (or try) with as few trips to the store as possible. Below are my ten favorite recipe sites:
- Recipe.com – This isn’t my favorite recipe site, but this is the best one that focuses on meals on a budget, so it’s the perfect place to start for the purposes of this article.
- Epicurious.com – This site isn’t for beginners, but it must be towards the top of the list because it’s one of the largest and most respected online cooking communities out there. If you get addicted to cooking at home (like me) or you consider yourself a foodie, this place should be towards the top of your bookmarks.
- Foodnetwork.com – My personal favorite, but probably because my wife is addicted to cooking shows and it’s fun trying to cook meals inspired by something you’ve watched on TV. Don’t let that deter you, this site has some KILLER recipes.
- Allrecipes.com – Another amazing site that’s practically an encyclopedia for recipes. The site has other cool features too like a virtual menu planner….something that might come in handy later.
- Food.com – Almost a half a million recipes in a simple laid out form and a great, helpful community. Also, tons of great features like the (almost vital) “filter by ingredient” search feature.
- Cookeatshare.com – This is a site that adds a social media concept to cooking. Share your own recipe or simply try others, this user generated site has some of the best (and frugal) recipes. Like the site favorite: Sex in a pan. Now tell me you aren’t at least intrigued…
- Recipeland.com – This site focuses on international cuisine. So if you’re in the mood for something a bit different, it’s a great place for some ideas.
- Myrecipes.com – This is another great site with over 50,000 recipes by professional and amateur chefs alike. It has tools for shopping, budgeting, and a number of user-based features. Also, it’s affiliated with Food and Wine, so… Yum.
- Cooking.com Another fantastic site with loads of recipes for the home chef. I only wish the site didn’t have so many ads (though it’s not the only one). Still, it doesn’t make the recipes any less delicious.
- Simplyrecipes.com – Technically this is a blog, but it’s so dedicated to recipes that I don’t think that putting it in that category does it justice. Each recipe is simple and easy to follow. Honestly, for beginners, this may be the best place to start. Big ups for teaching me how to cook Chicken Picata.
Budget & Planning
It may seem backwards to start the planning portion at the end, but for our purposes, it helps to first have a basic idea of your own personal eating habits are as well as a list of things that you have the desire to eat and ability to cook. Once you have that, you’re ready to start planning your meals in order to stretch your budget to the max.
Now, you don’t necessarily need to have a set calendar with a list of each of your three meals set out, but you should at least think ahead about meals for the next couple of days. Here are some basic tips for planning your meals on a budget:
- Count on and take full advantage of leftovers. Cooking too much today means you’ll already have lunch or dinner for tomorrow.
- Make and pack (to go) lunches a day ahead and make sure you have enough lunch food for the week or you’ll be tempted to go out for lunch.
- When you buy fresh and/or perishable ingredients, put meals that call for these items in the front of the line so you aren’t throwing away food.
- Spend Saturday or Sunday cooking a large meal like a whole chicken, roast beef, stews or lasagne that can provide leftovers or components of other meals for the rest of the week.
- Plan out meals and look for new recipes to try BEFORE you go shopping.
- Make good use of and rotate inexpensive sides like pasta, rice, and salads – consider making certain sides (like salads) in larger quantities in advance
Cooking for yourself can save a lot of money and improve your eating habits with healthy fresh foods. And as I’ve suggested before, you may even find cooking for yourself tastes better as you learn to manipulate food to your own personal preferences. Beyond that, cooking should be fun! Sure it can be frustrating at times, and it’s much more laborious than eating out, but transforming ingredients into a delicious meal is extremely rewarding (not to mention a great skill to have…for romantic reasons). Get creative and try new foods and techniques.
And don’t forget to treat yourself every once in a while. Just because you’re trying to be frugal doesn’t mean you can’t eat steak or lobster every once in a while. Especially considering it will now only cost around $10 (as compared to around $40) for the meal, you can certainly afford it on occasion.