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How to save thousands by being your own master chef

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I knew how to cook literally no things until I was 26. I thought not knowing how to cook was part of my resistance to the expectations of my gender. Women were expected to cook, and I wasn’t about to to shirk into expectations.

Then I found myself in Paraguay, relying on host families that cooked food that was not my own. I missed my food, and the only way to get it was to make it myself. Slowly, one Google search at a time, I learned. It took me about two years of cooking to finally feel like I had my groove on in the kitchen.

Cut to today. I’m a freelance writer who has to be careful with money if I want to hang on to my emergency fund. I love the restaurants of Seattle, but I also cook mostly at home, and I actually enjoy it, which I never expected I would.

If you’re not cooking and would like to get started to save money, here are some rules to follow to make this change in your life. And here are my all-time favorite recipes!

1. Educate Yourself in the Value and Methods of Cooking

Americans live in the most dysfunctional, profit-driven food culture in the world. The value of cooking is not just financial, though one blogger found that by eating at home instead of at a restaurant just two days a weeks would save $8,600 every 10 years.

Health-wise, when you cook at home, you know and can control precisely what you’re eating. Studies have shown that when you eat at restaurants, you eat an average of 200 more calories, 10 grams more fat, and 58 additional milligrams of cholesterol.

Cooking is also part of a long tradition of human culture. There’s something beautiful about an array of veggies, the quiet moments of focus in the kitchen.

When you cook your own food, you’re taking care of yourself, financially, physically and soul-wise.

2. Start Simple

Learn how to roast a chicken. If you don’t have a roasting rack, just roll up some aluminum foil underneath. Learn to cook a steak at home. All you need is a cast iron pan. Go for one protein, one hot vegetable, one cold vegetable. I buy cut up, pre-washed salad, because it encourages me to eat salad. Almost any veggie is delicious sliced up and sautéed with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Salads are great with just lemon, oil, and salt.

3. Get Your Groove On

You definitely want to shake a little booty on that cooking. I either go for fun dancy music, or sad person with a guitar and story to tell that I can sing along with. Either way, make your cooking mix. Whatever you want to de-compress with at the end of the day. Cooking can seem stressful, but if you set yourself up correctly, it can really be a time for relaxation.

4. Get a Cooking Buddy

I cook with a friend. We pick a captain of the meal, aka who’s in charge, and the other person is the sous chef. We share big meals on Fridays, we cook for each other, and we bicker lovingly about whether or not the chicken is ready. If you hate cooking but want to learn, having a buddy that also wants to learn will help immensely. I have a stool in my kitchen where my boyfriend or anyone else visiting can keep me company while I cook, so cooking isn’t so lonely. They can also clean while you cook!

5. Cook Once, Eat Twice (or More)

You can double almost any recipe and freeze the rest to make your own microwavable meals so that you benefit from economies of scale. Learn how to freeze. I used to think “flash freezing” was throwing something right in the freezer while it was still hot, which is actually the worst thing to do. Invest in some good storage containers and set yourself up for the week.

6. No Mysteries in the Kitchen

This is a matter of discipline I didn’t learn until I worked in a restaurant. Anything in your kitchen should be labeled with at least what it is and when it’s good until. If you open a jar, write with a permanent marker what date you opened it on. In the freezer, this is even more important. When I freeze meat, I write if it’s raw or cooked, and what ingredients I need to add. Every time, I have to fight that urge to think, “I’ll remember this one.” You won’t.

7. Make a Weekly Routine

Planning is essential for not just getting takeout. I try for Sunday evenings, face in the fridge. The first question is: What do we need to use up?

 I try to put open and soon-expiring stuff in this section of my fridge, labeled with my amazing labelmaker.

I look at what we have, let’s say an opened can of crushed tomatoes. Then I go to AllRecipes.com, and I do an ingredient search for recipes that include that ingredient. Then I search by rating, which is one of life’s greatest joys. For example, with the tomatoes I found cioppino, which I made last night.

I use this list:

On the back I write the meals we’re going to have. I have smoothies for breakfast, usually, and leftovers for lunches. Then I add salad stuff, snack veggies, and side veggies to the list. I don’t worry about recipes for this stuff usually.

Then I go to the store, and I buy my stuff plus a treat that I get to eat right when I get home for being a good girl and stocking up the house.

Guess what, it’s not that easy; it’s work. But it’s worthy work, and it’s work that’s just a part of life, and a lot easier than farming. Dave Ramsey says that going to restaurants is basically paying someone to do your chores for you, and I can’t afford to not do my own chores all the time.

8. Stock Your Tools

Make your kitchen a nice place to be. Keep your kitchen as clean and uncluttered as possible. Buy some silly tools you just enjoy using.

Here are my favorites:

This short, wide, Le Creuset dutch oven. It’s a pot, it’s a pan. It’s my favorite thing to stand over and make a huge-ass curry. I got it on sale for $90. Look out for Le Creuset sales, or just get a cheapy.
Pretty wooden tools. I love a forked spatula for sautéing things around a pan.
These tiny tongs and other small tongs for managing food in a hot pan. My friend also taught me that chop sticks work too!
This meat thermometer. I live by my meat thermometer.
Sexy cowboy potholders, or whatever makes you laugh

Other needs:

9. Consider Cooking a Valuable Skill

The thing I love about being able to cook is that you can bring value almost anywhere you go. When I was couch surfing in Colombia, it was great to be able to balance out the equation by cooking a dinner for our hosts in their kitchen. I like cooking on family trips, it gives me some role. Cooking for people I love feels like loving them, with this very specific thing I have to give. And if the apocalypse comes, I can roast the bodies.

I learned so slowly: one Google search at a time, one allrecipes.com attempt at a time, and through online videos and a few months of the America’s Test Kitchen courses (which are $20/month, but I recommend.)

Preparing food is the most basic human skill, and it makes me feel more powerful and connected to my life to know it. I’m so glad I learned, not for anybody else, but for myself.

Hot pot my cooking buddy and I made last week. Our latest culinary adventure.

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Paulette Perhach

Paulette Perhach has been published at The New York Times, ELLE, Marie Claire, and Cosmo. And is the Editor of the personal finance blog called the Fuck Off Fund Monthly

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