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How to Cook More, Eat Out Less

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Cooking Is Fun!For health and financial reasons, my wife and I have been cooking more of our meals at home. We started because we thought it would be fun, and it certainly has been a wonderful adventure, and with the economy recovering, we see this as something we’ll stick with even after things get back to “normal.” While we still go out to eat every once and a while, we’ve learned that cooking is a skill everyone should develop and nurture.

Reasons You Should Cook More

Before we get into the how, let’s talk a little about the why. You don’t need scientific studies to tell you that it’s much healthier to eat a home cooked meal and it’s far cheaper too. Restaurant food is designed to taste great, not make your body feel great. It’s chock full of fat, sodium, and other ingredients that taste wonderful but can wreak havoc on your body over long periods of time. Portion control is also non-existent as plate sizes are huge and portions of generous to make you feel like you’re getting the most out of your dining dollar.

As for the dining dollar, you certainly get decent value out of it but it’s far more than what you’d pay if you made it yourself. We used to eat out at least half a dozen times a week at a cost of several hundred dollars a month. Since cutting back and shifting some of our spending to groceries, the amount we spend on food has dropped significantly. You automatically save 15-20% from the tip alone, so it’s not all that stunning to learn that eating at home will save you money.

We’ve also saved in terms of entertainment since cooking can, if you make it an event, take longer than eating at a restaurant. Make date night something fun like making a fancy dish, pop open a bottle of wine, and enjoy the process as much as the product. You can skip the movies, where you sit like a zombie for a couple hours, and actually spend quality time together.

Finally, it’s great to develop cooking as a skill. There’s something very cultured about being able to prepare food without needing to bury your face into a cookbook. Food is the universal language and being able to cook, to understand the concepts as well as the recipes, helps make you into a more rounded individual.

If You Don’t Cook…

Start. There is no cooking gene, there’s no cooking talent (at this level), and there’s no reason why anyone “can’t” cook. Recipes remove all ambiguity in the cooking process and if you can follow instructions from a GPS, you can follow a recipe. You do step 1, then step 2, then step 3, etc.

Usually when I hear that line, I think it’s an excuse for something else, which is totally fine. I’m not here to convince people who don’t want to cook that they should be cooking, you should do whatever makes you happy. Maybe you don’t want the hassle of preparation or of cleanup or you don’t want the risk of spending all that time and eating something horrible. I get it.

However, I’d just like to say that if we all subscribed to that logic, no one would be riding bicycles… or doing much of anything else.

Don’t Buy Cookbooks

We have about a dozen cookbooks and I don’t believe we bought any of them. Here’s why you shouldn’t buy any cookbooks:

  • The internet has tons of free recipes: You can get the recipe to almost anything by searching the web and it’s free. In addition to recipes, many sites offer visitors the chance to give feedback on a recipe so you can learn if perhaps it contains too much of any one ingredient (too salty? too oily?). You can’t get feedback in a cookbook.
  • You’ll receive them as gifts: Eventually someone will give you a cookbook as a gift, especially if you start cooking and talking about cooking.
  • Borrow them from the library: If you really want a cookbook, borrow it from the library first. See often often you use it before you go out and spend money on something that might just collect dust on the shelf. Be careful not to get it dirty though, it’s a library book after all.
  • Joy of Cooking: The only exception to this rule is if you want to buy a copy of The Joy of Cooking. The New York Times called it the Swiss Army knife of cookbooks and I think it’s a valuable tome to keep as a reference in the kitchen.

Learn Techniques & Theory

When I was younger, I played the piano for a dozen years. Each week I would pick another song, play and play and play. Then another… then another. It was boring. It was boring because I never learned music theory, I just played a song and moved on. In fact, I never knew there was music theory.

Don’t be like me and the piano, learn the various techniques and cooking theory so that you can build recipes yourself using basic ideas. For example, there are four basic “mother” French sauces from which all other sauces are built from. Antonin Carême, in the 19th century, classified them into four mother sauces – Béchamel, Espagnole, Velouté, and Allemande. Mornay sauce is Bechamel with Gruyère or some other type of cheese.

Learning theory makes the process a lot more fun!

Make It Fun

Cook with your significant other or with close friends. Skip dinner and a movie and just do dinner, at home. You can try to replicate your favorite dishes at your favorite restaurants, just search for imitation or copycat recipes, and make a night of it and some board games. If things turn out well, fantastic! If they don’t, figure out what you did wrong and try it again. Cooking is like anything else in life, you won’t get everything perfect on the first try but you only fail if you quit. By cooking, you kill two birds with one stone – dining out and entertainment – at a fraction of the cost (plus you’re learning something!).

Build Up Your Recipe Repertoire

As you cook more and repeat recipes over and over again, they become familiar and you memorize the preparation and its ingredients. You want to build up a set of recipes that you can make competently without much preparation and much angst at the eventual product, since you’ve made it so many times. The only way to do that is practice, practice, practice. We have about a dozen different dishes we can make without any prior preparation and whose ingredients we, for the most part, have completely memorized. It makes for an easy trip to the grocery store when we see things on sale.

Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, repeats the claim that you need 10,000 hours of practice in something to become an expert. If you spend an hour of cooking each night, that’s still over 27 years of cooking… you better get started!

(Photo: frykfors)

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28 Responses to “How to Cook More, Eat Out Less”

  1. BrianC says:

    I’m a horrible cook, and I hate the clean-up, but I do like saving some money. I’ve found that the simpler the preparation, the more likely I am to eat at home. Usually one meal a day for me is simply a large bowl of sliced fruit.

  2. Shirley says:

    Our circle of friends gets together once a month for a potluck and evening of fun. The host for that month provides the main dish and guests provide the rest. Each family brings an envelope bearing their name and a printout of their recipe for each family attending. Take your envelope home with a handful of new recipes and keep what you liked! It is a fun and inexpensive evening out and a great recipe tasting and exchange too!

  3. Chris says:

    My family has started cooking at home more and including everyone in the weeks menu planning and cooking. It has saved us money but more importantly it has brought us all closer.

  4. annk says:

    “How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman is excellent, too. (He also has a vegetarian version.)

    He explains concepts in a way that is very interesting and not condescending. He also lists substitutes and additions for ingredients so a single dish can be prepared in several ways.

    • Jamie E says:

      yes. the mark bittman “everything” book is the best cookbook EVER. i got it for christmas last year; and it is easily the best cookbook i have ever seen. it is complete and has tons of little tips. i learn a lot from him every time i make something new.
      http://www.howtocookeverything.tv/

  5. Sorry to do a shameless self-promotion here, but it seemed fitting in this case…

    I write a food blog, and post fun (and often simple) recipes. Please check it out:
    http://www.boymeetsfood.com

    I have lots of ideas for cooking things that save money and are extremely simple for the new cook. If you would like to know more, just send me a message through my contact page.

  6. jsbrendog says:

    love to cook. I have a couple signature dishes in my repertoire that i bust out on occasion but I usually stick with the casseroles because not only are they easy but thhey can be absolutely delicious.

    one of them with chicken, stuffing, cheese, and some canned tomaotes I have tried amny different things and tweaked and finally found the deliciousness within lol. I tried onion soup powder, cream of mushroom soup, diff cheeses, spices, flavors, etc but what put it over the edge was using marinated chicken to give it mroe flavopr because the bland chicken was bringing it down.

    it is just hardto find the motivation after a long day of work to cook something from scratch at 745 at night and still have to shower.

  7. zapeta says:

    We cook all the time and probably only eat out once or twice a month. It saves us a ton of money. We plan out our menu and shopping ahead of time and usually make a double batch of everything we make and freeze half for later.

  8. Anthony says:

    My wife and I are eating at home more now. It’s a great feeling, not having to pay ridiculous amounts of money to dine out.

    Admittedly though, we eat Hamburger Helpers with a side of canned green beans (and similar meals). This is certainly saving us tons of money, but we need to make a jump to actually cooking someday. :)

  9. DJ says:

    This is definitely something I’m continually guilty of. If you do use a cookbook, figure out what is essential to the recipe. A lot of the times they will include extravagant spices you can skip or substitute for.

  10. Daniel says:

    For online recipes, I am a big fan of Recipe Zaar (http://www.recipezaar.com/). If I want a good recipe, I simply decide what type of dish I want then sort by rating. You can find some very good dishes and get useful user feedback. Many recipes are copied or modified from cook books; while others are created by the submitting user. Approximate nutrition information is also provided.

  11. Christine says:

    I love to cook and have been doing so for years, even if I’m the only one home I set the table with an attractive place setting, pour a glass of wine and enjoy. During my busiest times at work I will spend an entire Sunday preparing meals for the freezer so that we always have something.

    This is a great money saver but more important to me is healthier eating. When we do eat out, 2-3 times a month we now share a dinner, ordering an extra salad and sharing a dessert. This really keeps me from overeating and saves money!

  12. If most people knew how high the food and beverage prices are marked up at restaurants, I think it would deter a lot of them from eating out.
    My husband is a chef at a “gourmet” restaurant and the typical food cost per dish is between 27% – 33%. So if you’re meal costs $15, chances are, the food to make it costs less than $5.
    He enjoys cooking, but tells friends and family NOT to eat at his restaurant, because he knows what a rip off it is. You can make better food at home.

    • CK says:

      So restaurants make money? Who knew! I think you’re also discounting the costs of the cook, the servers, the building, and all of the other overhead involved in running a restaurant.

  13. Unfortunately, I pale in comparison to the chefs at my favorite restaurants, hence, I gotta succumb to my onoe big love: food!

  14. Izalot says:

    This topic fits in well with budgeting and allocating your money very well. I spend easily $60 per outing with my family and 1-2 weeks adds up to $240-480/month. I rather spend the money on housekeeping then eating out any day!

  15. aua868s says:

    if I decide to eat out, i try to make it as a lunch rather than dinner…lunch cheaper than dinner!

    • lostAnnfound says:

      This is very true. You can get the exact dish for lunch that will be served for dinner for a much lower cost (and possibly a more realistic and appropriate serving size).

  16. eric says:

    Yup I used to think there was no way I could cook for myself. But you just jump in and cooking isn’t as hard as it looks. You learn as you go :)

  17. saladdin says:

    Second only to not having a car payment, cooking more (and carry leftovers for lunch) is the largest money saver for me ever.

    Being happily unmarried, I can cook whatever I want, whenever I want.

    saladdin

  18. ziglet19 says:

    My husband and I have imrpoved at eating at home for dinner. We’re not the best cooks, but we’re learning. We are still struggling with lunch though. He goes out with coworkers 2 or 3 times a week. And I work out of a home office – all alone all day – so I also go out 2 or 3 times a week to eat with friends and get out of the house. Luckily, lunch out is at least a little cheaper than dinner out.

  19. Paige says:

    We started eating at home more when I started staying home with our daughter. That was 3 years ago and I have to say that my cooking skills have greatly improved and I actually enjoy cooking now. I totally agree with what you said about not buying cook books. A couple of great sites to get recipes are recipezaar.com and allrecipes.com. You can find just about any recipe on either of those and you can read peoples feedback on the recipe. Plus there are usually pictures, which I like. We still eat out every once in a while, usually for lunch. But we have come to hate paying the prices that restaurants charge, even eating at McDonald’s for our family of 3 is close to $20. Yikes!

  20. I heard a nutritionalist on the radio a few years back who said the fundamental problem with eating home is that most of us get caught in a rut where we rely on preparing the same 7-8 meals all the time. We do this largely out of habit, but it becomes boring and the craving for something different typically leads us to a restaurant, where the food is anything but healthy.

    My wife and I have taken to trying a new recipe once a week. Well, that’s our spoken plan, and it’s closer to once a month, but over time, even that makes a difference and enables us to refresh the meal plan.

    It might help to shift from going out on weekends to cooking in since that’s when most people have the most time. It DOES take time to prepare meals you never have before, but on the weekends you’ll have that time, and you can make it fun. Once you learn to prepare some new meals, you’ll get new habits that you can move to the weekdays.

  21. Paige says:

    Kevin is spot on about getting caught in a rut with what we prepare. I hope it is ok, but I would like to recommend an article I read on another blog that can help with that. It is called the 30 Meal Plan, check it out here: http://littlenannygoat.blogspot.com/2009/05/what-heck-it-30-meal-plan.html

    That might actually be a good spin off post for this blog. Hope that someone finds it useful, I did!

  22. Brandon says:

    I would suggest Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” as well. It is a great reference tome. I have rarely ever done a recipe “as is” from the book, but it has a lot of good information on the basics of preparing a lot of dishes.

  23. Anna says:

    My other advice to people who don’t cook much is to buy a good knife (just one good chef’s knife). You can muddle by with not great quality in other cookware, but without a good knife, preparation is slow and tedious. It doesn’t have to be too expensive – lots of people recommend the Victrinox Chef Knife (with black fibrox handle).

    Sometimes I try and cook in other people’s kitchens and get quite frustrated (although I cook a lot at home).

    • Jim says:

      Agreed, a good knife is crucial. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to cut a tomato with a dull knife. :)

  24. Yes preparing home cooked meals is better. A wonderful article.


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