Last updated on September 9, 2021
Although January is supposed to mark the transition from one year to the next, it’s never marked as many seismic shifts in my own life, nor, I suspect, the lives of many who have grown up in the American school system, like September. It was in September, not January, as the new school year began, that I made the resolutions I knew I had to keep: who I would be, what I wanted to do, and what my life would be like.
One of the biggest of these changes for me as I left my childhood home for college was the realization that I not only wanted to—but needed—to learn how to cook for myself. Not just that, but also how to cook for me in a way that didn’t waste food, money, or time, but could be tasty, satisfying, and healthy. Now, after years of learning—which is still by no means done—I wanted to share some of the budget-and-time-friendly tips I’ve picked up for those of you who are also finding yourself in a similar transitional period, whether entering college, or a new job, or any circumstance where you’re finding yourself now wanting to learn how to cook for yourself.
Mastering the Basics
Of course, everybody will start from a different place when they are learning how to cook. But, if you’re starting at the very beginning of your journey as a chef, I would advise you to pick out 3-4 recipes to focus on. Specifically: a soup, a sauce, a grain, and, if you’re feeling up to it, an entrée (such as meat or a casserole dish such as baked mac and cheese or enchiladas). Pick whichever variation of these you find most appealing—such as chicken noodle soup for your soup—and then look up recipes for that dish until you find one that looks like it feels doable, and uses familiar ingredients.
Once you’ve made your choice, start making that exact recipe on a weekly or monthly basis until it becomes routine. As you master the one recipe, you will find yourself mastering skills that you will be able to bring to other, new dishes you try. Chopping and sautéing onions and garlic, for example, form the backbone of hundreds if not thousands of dishes in an enormous array of cuisines. Soups and sauces will teach you how to chop, simmer, and season.
And once you master a basic grain, such as rice or couscous, you will be able to adapt that method to the next. Learning how to cook an entrée, as well, might give you more experience in searing meat, or using your oven to bake a casserole. And from there you can begin to build a week’s worth of meals before you begin to expand your repertoire.
Another benefit to starting with a set of specific dishes is that it will help you both in cutting down on your grocery shopping time as well as eliminating food waste. I find that not having a plan for how I’m going to use certain ingredients is what leads to them rotting in the fridge. To that end, it’s also important to consider what is a perishable item of food, versus one that will keep for a much longer period of time. Meat and fresh vegetables and fruit will have a shelf life that may vary—but generally tends to need to be cooked and/or eaten within a week of purchasing.
Use the “sell by” (which builds in a cushion of a few extra days for you to use it) and “use by” dates on the packaging to gauge whether or not it’s okay to eat—they will not always be exact, however, so always double-check your food to make sure it doesn’t have any mold or bad smells before cooking.
Onions, garlic, potatoes, uncooked rice and beans, uncooked pasta, and canned goods are much easier to stock up on and use as the base of a meal without worrying about it going bad. A can of diced tomatoes, for example, is usually preferable to a handful of fresh ones for this reason. But if you have a dish that requires a certain vegetable or meat, make sure that you are paying attention to the quantities, or that you have enough of the other ingredients in the dish to make more.
Another way to begin to expand your repertoire, though, is to begin to seek out new recipes that use specific, perishable ingredients that you may have leftover from your other dishes. Likewise, you can also begin to experiment with using those leftover ingredients in the dishes you have already mastered. Carrots, peas, spinach, kale, mushrooms, and broccoli can make a great addition to most soups and pasta sauces. They may even transform a dish into something better-tasting or healthier.
As you continue to expand your repertoire as a cook, I also encourage you to begin to pay attention to herbs and spices frequently grouped together. Most cuisines will have their own profile of a variety of spices combined depending on each dish. Cumin can pair with cayenne pepper and paprika in a Mexican dish, or with ginger and cardamom in an Indian. Basil can be found with lemongrass and tamarind in Thai cooking, or with oregano and garlic in Italian. Taste your food as you season it and learn what each seasoning adds to the flavor so that slowly you can begin to develop your own sense as to “what’s missing” when something you’re making is coming up short.
Incidentally, if you’re ever at a loss for “what’s wrong with this dish” it’s likely that you didn’t use enough salt. If it’s not the salt, then you didn’t use enough garlic. If it’s not either of those, then you are most likely missing an acid which can come in the form of wine, vinegar, or citrus, or perhaps a fat, which can be in the form of cream, butter, ghee, oil, or cheese. Try adding a little at a time of what you think is missing until it tastes exactly the way you want.
Finding Your Comfort Foods
My last tip is to pay attention to the spices that you find yourself reaching for the most of the dishes you begin to crave. Because in addition to learning how to cook, itself, it’s also important to learn how to balance cooking with the demands of the rest of your life. There will be days where you either don’t have time or energy to learn a new recipe or cook something more complex, so having a pantry stocked with the ingredients you need to make a reliable and simple favorite is going to be absolutely key to making sure you feed yourself. And, although as you first set out your food may not be up to the standards you wish, the more you practice, the more you will learn how to carve your own cooking, and even, hopefully, enjoy the process as much as any chef!