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How to Cook More, Eat Out Less

Posted By Jim On 12/09/2009 @ 7:32 am In Family | 28 Comments

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 [3]. The New York Times [4] 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 [5], 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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[3] The Joy of Cooking: http://www.bargaineering.com/articles/r/amazon.php?asin=0743246268

[4] New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/01/dining/01joy.html

[5] Outliers: http://www.bargaineering.com/articles/r/amazon.php?asin=0316017922

Thank you for reading!