Several years ago, I wrote a brief article on the first steps someone should take if they're new to cooking at home. For some reason, I spent half the article outlining reasons why someone might be new to cooking at home, citing statistics about fast food and takeout use. Suffice it to say, many Americans use restaurants and prepackaged foods as the backbone of their diet.
What's wrong with that? For one, it's expensive. You can make many full meals at home for just one or two dollars per meal; try doing that at a restaurant or even doing that with prepackaged foods of any quality. For another, it's unhealthy. Most restaurant foods are utterly packed with calories, even including supposedly healthy options like salads. Many restaurant foods and prepackaged foods are also laden with preservatives and salts and other things that aren't exactly health boosters, which adds to long term health costs, too.
This is why one of the key strategies for being frugal in modern America is to simply prepare most of your meals at home from basic ingredients.
That change is intimidating to a lot of people who are used to a routine of eating prepackaged foods and takeout and restaurant meals. Often, cooking at home is viewed as time consuming and difficult, even as they overlook the time spent waiting around at restaurants. There's also a fear of messing up a meal, that you've invested a lot of time into something that's inedible.
The reality is that making your own meals at home saves a ton of money each month, but it's intimidating and hard at first. There are a lot of little skills involved and when you're new to cooking, executing those skills is often slow and clumsy, which makes preparing food at home really awkward. The thing is, with each and every meal you prepare, those skills improve until cooking at home becomes very efficient, at which point you usually prefer to eat at home because it's so much cheaper and you an prepare such a huge variety of things so well.
It's a journey, though. Here are six steps on getting started.
Step #1 - Make Something Super Simple
The first thing that I encourage people to do in the kitchen is to make something incredibly simple that they'll actually like. Things like homemade mac and cheese (it's literally three ingredients plus salt), spaghetti (two ingredients), or scrambled eggs (two or three ingredients) are really easy to prepare in about 10 minutes, require only one pot or saucepan to make, and are incredibly easy to achieve.
Let's start with homemade mac and cheese. Everyone likes it and it's incredibly simple. All you need to do is follow this super simple recipe from Serious Eats. Just put two cups of elbow macaroni in a saucepan and add enough water to cover the macaroni. Add just a tiny bit of salt, then put it on a burner at medium-high heat (meaning the dial is between medium and high) and boil it for six minutes - set a timer as soon as the water starts boiling. Then just add a six ounce can of evaporated milk (note: this is corrected from the original post, which referred to condensed milk; you want evaporated milk which does not contain added sugars) and then add two cups of shredded cheese that melts easily - mild cheddar is good, as is Monterey Jack. Stir this all together and you have killer mac and cheese. It's not from a box, it tastes way better than the cheap stuff, and it costs about the same as the cheap stuff (considering this will make some leftovers for just one person).
Here's the fun part with this super simple recipe - you can start varying it immediately. Try different cheeses. Try adding some seasonings, like red pepper flakes or ground black pepper. You can add things like cooked ground beef - just brown some hamburger in a skillet and add it to the mac and cheese when done, which will teach you the simple skill of how to brown hamburger.
Step #2 - Keep Dishes at a Minimum
One of the big things that keeps people from wanting to cook at home is the idea that they're going to end up with tons of dirty dishes and end up spending a ton of additional time cleaning up and washing dishes. Yes, this will happen with some complex things that you attempt to make, but there are tons and tons of recipes that require only one bowl and one pot or pan or skillet.
Stick with those recipes and dishes at first. If something involves a lot of ingredients and bowls and stuff, just skip it for now. Stick to simpler ones unless you have a lot of time to commit and are okay with lots of cleanup.
The reason here is simple: If you're new to the kitchen, you're going to be using a ton of new skills simultaneously in the process of making even simple things. No one is a master of a new skill immediately, and no one is a master of a bunch of new simultaneous skills.
Take even something as simple as scrambled eggs. Making scrambled eggs involves cracking eggs, beating eggs with a whisk, actually cooking the eggs over reasonable heat, and cleaning up the dishes. If you're new to cooking for yourself in the kitchen, all of those things are new skills, so if you overload yourself on them, you're going to end up going painfully slow and it will take forever.
In other words, stick to recipes that use few skills at first, and the easiest way to identify those meals is to consider how many tools you're going to use. Thus, recipes that use fewer tools are a good choice, and recipes that use fewer tools generate fewer dishes. Plus, if cooking a meal is already utilizing a bunch of new skills, looking at a sink full of dishes afterwards is not going to engender positive feelings. Keep it simple and keep yourself from being overwhelmed by new skills and by cleanup.
Step #3 - Focus on Mastering Basic Food Preparation Skills
The thing to always remember is this: Each meal you prepare at home is giving you a lesson in a bunch of different skills, and as you become better at those skills, the whole process is going to become easier and easier.
What does that mean in terms of practical kitchen behavior? It means that focusing on the seemingly simple thing you're doing will pay a lot of dividends going forward. Focusing on a task helps you master that task much faster, and when you are skilled with a kitchen task, it seems completely non-intimidating and you can usually execute it quickly and with high quality results and minimal mess.
Take chopping onions, for example. The first time you do this, it takes a long time, you have a decent chance of cutting yourself, your pieces are uneven, and tears are streaming down your face. Not enjoyable at all. However, if you invest the time to really learn how to do it well - that means watching videos to learn how to do it well, trying to replicate those videos in the kitchen, and doing it a lot of times - it becomes very quick, you won't cut yourself, you'll have very even pieces, and you won't have any tears - and no mess, either.
This is true for virtually every kitchen skill. If you learn how to do that individual thing well, you'll be able to do it quickly and with little mess and with great results. When you have a skill like that, cooking often comes down to just combining those skills together to make amazing things.
So, how do you start? Again, stick with simple recipes that require a relatively small number of skills, but look for skills you're using within those recipes. Like I mentioned above, skills used when you make scrambled eggs include cracking eggs, beating eggs, cooking actual scrambled eggs in a skillet, and cleaning up and doing dishes.
So, focus on mastering those skills. For starters, here's a great YouTube video on how to crack an egg. Watch the video carefully and listen to what he's saying, then do it yourself when you're making an egg dish. Do it as he shows, then do it again, and again, and again. (Here's another great egg-cracking tutorial video.) Focus on what you're doing in that moment - even though it's simple With practice, those simple steps become faster and mistakes become almost nonexistent.
Do this same thing with any skill you find yourself frequently using in the kitchen. Find videos on whisking eggs or on actually cooking scrambled eggs or, later, on things like chopping onions, or even videos on how to clean a pan with some cooked-on eggs. Practice those skills in the kitchen by making scrambled eggs often, until it becomes second nature and the skills involved become second nature.
Of course, you don't have to make scrambled eggs repeatedly, but it's a great idea to find a few very simple recipes that you like that involve just a few skills and then make those over and over again so that the skills become second nature to you. That way, when you do move on to more complex stuff, the basic skills you have will make that more complex dish so much easier.
Step #4 - Acquire a Tiny Number of Tools You Trust
There really is a kitchen gadget for everything, but the truth is that almost everything you do in the kitchen can be achieved with just a handful of items. You do not need a special device for making breakfast sandwiches, for example.
Focus instead on the dishes you make frequently and make sure you have the minimum number of tools needed for those dishes. Start off with secondhand versions of many of those items, then slowly upgrade them to the well-regarded "bang for the buck" versions.
For example, let's say you're chopping vegetables for many recipes. You really only need two knives for almost anything you might do with vegetables - a chef's knife and a paring knife - and a cutting board. Nothing else is necessary. You can probably find a super-cheap cutting board for your vegetables. For knives, it's hard to find used ones of any quality and the cheapest knives aren't much cheaper than good bang-for-the-buck knives, so I'd just buy a Victorinox paring knife and chef's knife, which are incredibly good for the cost.
Don't bother upgrading until you know why you're upgrading. Instead, focus on mastering the tools you have and taking care of them. You'll want to do things like hone your knives regularly - another skill well worth practicing - and occasionally sharpening them.
A simple stainless steel or glass mixing bowl is perfect - you don't need a bunch of bowls unless you've got recipes that utilize a lot of bowls. Having one good cast iron skillet is great - you don't need several skillets unless you have recipes that require several simultaneous skillets (and even then, you can find substitutes). You'll probably need one cooking pot and one saucepan - again, decent basic versions made out of quality materials.
Buy tools as you find that you actually need them, but look for solutions you might already have first, and when you do buy a tool, either buy it used to start with or do some research to find the lowest-cost "good" version, which is usually the best bang for the buck. You don't need the highest-reviewed high-end super expensive kitchen tool, at least not until you have the skills to know why you would want that over the good bang-for-the-buck version.
Step #5 - Start Branching Out With Variations of Trusted Meals
Eventually, you'll get tired of making scrambled eggs and mac and cheese and spaghetti and the handful of other basic meals that you've chosen to learn. I mean, I still make scrambled eggs for myself a few times a week, but I would get sick of it, too, if it were repeated more often than that.
Scrambled eggs three times a week? Isn't that dull, you might ask? The truth is that I vary those scrambled eggs a lot. Sometimes I make very basic and simple scrambled eggs with just a bit of salt and pepper when I need to blow through it quickly. If I have a little more time, I'll saute some diced onions and peppers in the skillet first and then add the eggs to mix with them. I might cook some mushrooms with them as well, sautéing them in the skillet and then removing them while the eggs cook and adding them again near the end. I'll try different cheeses in the eggs, or different seasonings - tarragon, red pepper flakes, and so on.
With all of those variations, scrambled eggs rarely taste the same twice unless I want them to. Sometimes they're really spicy. Sometimes they're savory. Sometimes they've got a nice cheese flavor over the top. At other times, they're enhanced with the slight bittersweetness of tarragon, or the sharp tang of fresh chives. Sometimes I'll scoop them into a tortilla and put a bit of salsa on top.
You can vary almost every meal in the same way. You might make mac and cheese with a variety of different cheeses and with a variety of different seasonings. You can bake it, too, to give it a crunchy layer on top. You might make spaghetti with a good canned sauce, or you might just add some olive oil and some sauteed mushrooms or some slices of grilled chicken, and maybe a little garlic. Or you might just add a can of diced tomatoes and onions with just a tiny bit of olive oil. Or you might add some cheeses and make a "spaghetti bake."
The key is to just try things. Try adding ingredients that taste good to you to dishes that also taste good to you and see what clicks for you.
I have some scrambled egg variations that I would never find in a restaurant that I absolutely love when I'm indulging at breakfast. I love to make scrambled eggs with black pepper, gruyere cheese, and sauteed mushrooms and onions, with the eggs well on the under-done side. It's like a giant savory explosion in my mouth, with a smooth texture that I absolutely love. I like making mac and cheese with gruyere and sauteed mushrooms, too, but I also like fontina and jack cheese in there as well.
Half of the fun - I'd say more than half - is branching out from familiar simple recipes to find the variations that you absolutely love (or that your family absolutely loves). My wife, for example, prefers scrambled eggs much differently than I do - she likes them almost overdone with a bit of very sharp flavored cheese mixed in and often with some browned shredded potatoes mixed in, too. That's okay, but it doesn't match up to my silky gruyere and mushroom eggs.
Step #6 - Treat Cookbooks and Food Magazines as Idea Machines, Not As Gospel
I love reading cookbooks, but I rarely make the exact recipes I find in them unless they're describing something I'm completely unfamiliar with. Instead, what I tend to do is look for the new things I might learn from that recipe.
For example, I might be reading a recipe about how to make homemade mac and cheese and the one thing I notice that doesn't seem familiar is the use of, say, breadcrumbs as a top layer before baking. I might try that, but I'll probably do it as just an addition or a variation on a tried-and-true way of making mac and cheese.
In other words, I don't view recipes as step-by-step instructions for making things (although they do serve in that way). I view them as a collection of strategies for making something yummy and I can pull from those strategies as I wish.
As I'm writing this, I can't help but think of my wife. One of her favorite cookbooks of all time is 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer. I don't think she's actually followed a single recipe in the book. Instead, she reads them for ideas. "Asparagus with paneer? I never thought of that!" she might think to herself, so she'll prepare asparagus in a way that she knows and then vary it with some crumbled paneer and tomatoes to make something new and interesting.
The advantage here is that you're relying on skills you already know for the most part, which makes cooking new dishes mostly seem familiar but, with that new twist you learned, you can produce something you've never had before. This makes trying new foods quite easy once you have a backbone of skills and familiar dishes.
When I watch a cooking show on television, especially a competitive one, this is exactly what they're doing. They're taking the "surprise ingredient" and using it in accordance with things they already know how to make. The same thing is true when a new ingredient comes into our kitchen, maybe from a friend who gave it to us or from a spur-of-the-moment purchase at a farmer's market. What exactly do we do with this Swiss chard? We'll look for recipes, but we often end up relying on techniques we already know mixed with the ideas in those recipes.
So, once you've begun to master several recipes and you feel that you can cook several things at home quickly and efficiently, start looking at recipes not as step-by-step instructions, but as sources of ideas that you can pull into the skills you already know. Once you start doing that, the kitchen becomes not a place to just follow instructions, but a place to be creative, use whatever's on sale, and still make things that you love to eat, all without making a big mess or devouring a lot of time. And when you reach that point, you'll wonder why you ever ate out all the time.
Cooking at home is really a progression of things. You start off by making a few very simple recipes - and they're going to be awkward at first. Choose them based on simplicity, because even the simplest recipes teach lots of things, and based on things you actually like. Over time, you'll learn the skills involved with them and you'll gradually build up a handful of tools that make those skills easy to practice. Then, start branching out by making variations on those recipes you love and occasionally trying completely new ones, knowing that you'll still be using some of the same skills you've relied on. Eventually, you'll start reading cookbooks and food magazines not as recipes, but for ideas to make your own things, which makes it easy to make wonderful meals out of whatever's on sale at the store at a minimal cost with little effort.
It's a journey, like everything else worth doing in life, but with this journey, you end in a place where you can make delicious meals easily and quickly out of almost anything. Start with the basics, build some skills, and grow from there.