One of the most often repeated advice on any frugal lifestyle blog/forum/book/magazine is: eat at home more often. I understand the reason, and believe me, I want to. But with a full time job, it isn’t always easy. Not to forget that even from childhood, I never liked cooking – while my sisters helped my mom in the kitchen, I would be my dad’s assistant in his Mr. Fix-it jobs But over time, I have realized that it is not difficult to be a good cook. Anyone can prepare a tasty healthy meal at home. Maybe we won’t be able to go challenge the Iron Chef, but with a little effort, it’s fairly easy to fix a supper that can wow the family. But doing it on a daily basis, now, that’s a whole different story! Here are a few tips I have picked up along the way that have helped me cure the “Hon, let’s eat out today” syndrome. We now eat at home at least five days of a week, and sometimes even six! For someone who doesn’t like cooking, that’s an achievement.
Add some pizzaz
If there was one thing that got me hooked to cooking, it was the “wow”s I would receive when I tried something new. Normally cooking is thought of as a “boring” chore. And if you go into the kitchen with that mentality, you will turn up boring dishes. And if you keep at it for long enough, you will want to never enter the kitchen again. So, pick up a good recipe book. I always go for ones with a lot of tantalizing pictures that beg to be cooked (and eaten). And remember, when you try out new dishes, sometimes there will be disasters. But soon, you will get the hang of it, and figure out the trick to turn a flop into a smash hit. And when you have a few hits, you are in a healthy positive feedback loop where you want to cook.
Spice it up
No matter how fancy a dish looks, if you use the same set of ingredients, eventually they all taste the same and end up boring. So be experimental. Spice it up. I have a lot of international friends. So when I am with them and try something new, I will try to learn what ingredients are being used. And try them at home. Instead of trying to create an authentic international dish though, I will try to adjust it to our taste inclinations. As a result, through the five days of the week I cook at least 2 or 3 different cuisines. But since they are adapted dishes to match our tastes, they still feel like comfort food. Oh, and another secret – you don’t have to learn any elaborate dishes. Pick up the simplest dishes from different cuisines using the simplest ingredients. Just the fact that these ingredients aren’t what your taste buds are used to having on a daily basis, will make it interesting.
Declare one day of the week as “kitchen closed”
This one is very very important. To me atleast. I am now at a stage where I fix something every day of the week, but Saturdays, the kitchen is closed and Sundays are open days where I sometimes cook, and sometimes not, depending on how the day goes. Some of my friends do the exact opposite – they cook a lot during the weekend and freeze some food for the early part of the week and as the supplies start to recede, they eat out for a couple of days until its weekend again. Figure out what works for you and stick to a routine. This works in two ways – (a) it prevents cooking fatigue where you get completely fed up with the kitchen and (b) it sets up routines and expectations, so it feels natural to cook on the days when the “kitchen is not closed” and you won’t be as tempted to say, “let’s eat out today”.
Invest in good tools
Here’s another great tip I picked along the way – try and invest in good tools. When you don’t have the right tools, the job just seems too frustrating. The more frustrating the job, the more likely it is that you want to quit. A blunt knife, a worthless peeler, a sticky pan – all these contribute to a whole lot of frustration. So invest in some good tools. I am not saying you should go out and buy a $430 Chef’s Knife, but do get something from a reputable company that makes the job a breeze. You don’t have to upgrade all your kitchen tools at one shot. As a matter of fact, I would recommend you do the exact opposite. Every now and then, if you slowly collect the tools you need, the continuing novelty in the kitchen will keep you motivated to keep going in and cooking up a storm.
Make extra and save for later
Suppose you are cooking something elaborate. Let’s consider for example the gumbo. First, it takes a long time to prepare the roux (in my case, I like rich dark roux, so it takes even longer). Second, some of the ingredients used, like sausage, are not very commonly used in our household – so I cannot use small quantities of it. When I get some, I need to use it all up for the dish that I am preparing. Finally, gumbo has a very strong smell which permeates into the house. Soon after cooking, for a while it feels “aromatic”. By the end of the day and going into the next day, it starts to feel like “stench”. Since I don’t like that I spend considerable effort to freshen up the house again. Considering all this, it makes a lot of sense for me to make gumbo in bulk. But, if we eat the same thing for several days in a row, we will be sick of it. So, what I do is, keep apart roughly what we can have in two days and put the rest (immediately after it cools down) in single-serve containers and freeze. Food lasts anywhere from 7 to 10 days ( I guess more, but I haven’t tried) when it is frozen immediately. Also, since it is not reheated over and over again, it tastes quite good too. You can use the same technique, if you are making soups, or any other elaborate dishes. Sometimes, the end product cannot be saved, but you can save at an intermediate stage. For instance, while cooking an elaborate curry, I save the curry paste in the freezer. On the day that I use it, I will boil fresh veggies and add to the thawed curry paste, and unless you caught me in the process, you wouldn’t be able to tell me it ain’t fresh. Having something frozen in the fridge helps tide through the days when you are too beat to cook.
Plan your menu ahead of time
As I start driving back from work I start to wonder what to cook. Unless, I have an idea of what I might be cooking that day, I will most likely fall for the temptation to just picking up some take-out food on the way. So lately, I have gotten into the habit of pre-planning my menu while I do the grocery. Nothing concrete, just a rough sketch. This helps in two ways – (a) I don’t shop more than what is necessary for the week and hence avoid wastage and (b) I don’t have to worry about what to cook, since there is already a rough plan in place. Here is an example – during the grocery shopping, I might pick up mushrooms + bell pepper + frozen chicken, and on the day that I decide to use these ingredients, I have the freedom to either stir-fry it, or prepare pasta or if I am too tired, pile it all in a dish and toss some sauce and bake it. Repeat 4-5 more times and you have the whole week covered!
Try to get the family involved
Quite frankly, this one has never really worked for me I think I would really enjoy it if the better half gave me a hand in the kitchen. Ah, what a pleasant dream it is – both of us in the kitchen complementing each other, discussing the kind of day we had and unwinding from the stress. Unfortunately, the better half hates getting into the kitchen and never really offers to help. On the days that I insist that he help, he stands around totally lost not knowing what to do until I give instructions for even the silliest thing that needs to be done. Not to mention creating a mess and piling up a ton of dishes for the simplest task, until I am ready to pull my hair out and scream “please, leave”. Hopefully, for some of you, this one will work out a little better
Swap cooking tips
This tip on the other hand has worked great for me. Anytime my sister or I find an easy time saving tip, we call each other and let the other person know of it. Between sisters, nothing is too silly to be discussed. I also have a good set of friends who like cooking at home and if we find “wow” recipes that take just 30 minutes to cook, but look like you spent an hour slaving over the stove, we happily swap it. Cultivate the kind of culture where it is OK to swap recipes. Share tips for being frugal (in and out of the kitchen). And you will be surprised how easy it is to learn new things.
There, those are my tricks to cure the “Hon, let’s eat out today” syndrome. Do you have any special tricks that you use? If so, I sure hope you will share with me! If you have written about it on your blog, please do share a link. If not I would really appreciate a quick comment. Thanks.