Summer Meal Series: Six Lessons for Efficient Cooking at Home

Recipes and Lessons Learned in Efficient Cooking

The Recipe Collection: Summer Meal Series

  1. Honey Mustard Chicken Strips
  2. Ratatouille

Other Meal Posts

    1. Homemade Pizza
    2. Homemade Bread

So what did I learn from all this (beyond the eight powerful lessons I learned from last summer’s “How Low Can You Go” series)? Here are six new lessons I picked up from this summer’s food experimentation.

Ratatouille ingredients

1. Capitalize what’s in season

Whenever you’re preparing a meal at home, you can almost always save a lot of money by simply banking on whatever vegetables and fruits are in season at the moment.

Often, these items are on sale at the grocery store, but you can often find even better deals by hitting roadside stands and farmers’ markets during peak seasonal conditions. Getting pounds of vegetables for $1 a pound or less creates the foundation of many of our summer and fall meals.

Right now, for example, apples are starting to be heavily discounted – it’s late summer/early fall and picking has begun. Sarah and I bought 8 1/2 pounds of apples for $8 over this past weekend. Can we possibly use eight pounds of apples? We’ll certainly try – and this will be the foundation of a lot of meals (and other things) over the next few weeks.

Pie nearly finished

2. Focus on nutrition – but not all at one meal

It’s really easy to get caught up in the idea that you have to have some of everything at every meal – some protein, some vegetables, some calcium, and so on.

The problem with that philosophy is that it really restricts what you can prepare for meals. If every meal has to have A, B, C, and D in it, you’ve suddenly locked yourself into a pretty tight set of meals.

Our philosophy is different. We usually look at a whole day – or sometimes two or three days – for our nutritional balance. If we have a protein heavy meal that’s light on vegetables, we’ll follow it with something like ratatouille. If we eat a lot of cheese at one meal, we cut down on the dairy for other meals in the day.

The end result is that our meals are much more flexible without denying ourselves our nutritional needs. If you look at the list above, some of the meals are vegan and others are loaded with protein. Some have tons of dairy and others have none.

Mix and match them and you’ll find a great balance.

3. Manage your appetite cycle, too

One thing that several people noticed is that my portion sizes are sometimes small and sometimes purely vegetable-and-fruit for our evening meals. As one person commented, “If that were my dinner, I would be hungry an hour later.”

I agree – if I ate that for lunch, I’d be really hungry by two or three in the afternoon. However, this is my evening meal. In three hours (ideally), I’ll be in bed.

My largest meal of the day is usually breakfast (which is usually made inexpensive by eating a healthy dose of whatever fruit is in season), followed by two or three small meals throughout the day before dinner. If I come to the dinner table really, really hungry and devour a lot, I usually feel miserable in the evening and don’t sleep well.

Plus, since I’m (in theory) active all day, I’m burning the food from breakfast for energy during the day instead of digesting and storing a bunch of energy when I sleep.

It also makes dinner costs much lower – and since dinner is usually the most “prepared” meal (meaning most expensive), doing this reduces the food cost of the day as a whole.

Give it a shot sometime. Instead of eating a huge dinner, eat a bigger breakfast and a small dinner instead. Don’t go to bed stuffed and wake up with a healthy appetite.

Finished plate

4. Make meal creation social

One big element of making this series has been the teamwork between Sarah and myself.

On many of these meals, one of us is taking care of chopping while the other one is sauteeing (or taking pictures – or chasing children). It gives us an opportunity to talk about our day and just reaffirm our bond with each other, plus it gets dinner on the table much quicker.

Yes, this isn’t always possible. There are many days when I’m writing until right before dinner time. There are other days when Sarah is working and I prepare meals by myself.

Still, we both get much more value out of meals we prepare together than out of meals we prepare apart.

5. Use a tasting spoon

What kind of advice is that?

Over the last year, I’ve started the habit of tasting the food I’m making over and over again as I’m cooking and trying to figure out if it tastes good or if it needs something else. A bit of salt. A bit of pepper. A bit of oregano.

Consider that the recipe you read in a book doesn’t necessarily match your palate, one that has been developed over the experiences you’ve had in your own life. You’re going to be intrigued by different flavors than the chef, or you may need stronger (or softer) flavors.

Learning how to adjust a meal a bit with additional seasonings constantly helps me turn a bland meal into something tasty and a tasty meal into something sublime. It lifts the enjoyment of preparing food at home greatly.

However, there are sanitary reasons to be careful with it. Use a new spoon with each tasting (unless you’re preparing for yourself). We’ll sometimes go through five or six spoons for a meal.

Stuffed manicotti in 9" by 13" pan

6. Hit yard sales

Most of the really interesting and useful food ideas I’ve found in the last few years have come from old cookbooks.

Most of the interesting old cookbooks I’ve found in the last few years have been found at yard sales with a sticker on the cover – $0.25 or so.

Food is simply prepared differently today than it was fifty years ago. The ideas contained in older cookbooks come from a different time with different levels of home convenience. Add into that the changing palate of America and an older cookbook is a peek into another world.

A tasty world.

Explore that world. Pick up a few old cookbooks and dig through them. You don’t even have to duplicate a thing – just try some of the ideas out.

Good luck in the kitchen!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.