Cheap Eats: Hot Tips for Beginners

by Katie Peoples

Everyone is always saying, “Learn to cook!” (I have said, “Learn to cook!”) But how to start? Here are a few hot tips that helped me:

1. Start drilling it into your head that every time you see a cafe or restaurant or fast food joint, that those places are forbidden. Mantra: “You will not go there and give them your money for things you can do yourself.”

2.Think about what you ate as a kid. Your parents are great resources, either for what to do or what not to do. Google the type of dish you’ve got a craving for and the word “easy”. (This sounds stupidly simple, but I think a lot of people just don’t know where to start.) Soon enough, you’ll find a few go-to sites. Mine are Inn at the Crossroads, Broke Ass Gourmet, All Recipes, and Mark Bittman.

3. Make sure what you’re planning on making is within your scope of experience. Do not try to make something complicated or with multiple steps if you’re just starting out (“cornish game hens with pancetta, juniper berries, and beets”). Keep it short and easy and you’ll be less frustrated and more likely to keep trying new things. Mexican and Italian dishes are good to start. It doesn’t take a master chef to brown some beef in a pan or boil some water.

4. If you’re scared you don’t have the time, chill. You probably have the time. (Shut your laptop, maybe.) Even if you can’t spare a whole lot, any kind of sandwich, tacos, fajitas, spaghetti, or salad take under 30 minutes from start to finish. Take short cuts when you need to, like buying pre-cut or frozen vegetables, pre made sauces, sliced or shredded cheeses, or seasoning packets.

5. Keep a realistic shopping list. If that bag of spinach keeps going bad, you’re not a spinach eater. Stop buying it.

6. Include treats on your shopping list — special fruit, crackers, chips and salsa, fancy yogurt, stinky cheeses, cookies. Whatever it is, buying it in bulk at a grocery store is a lot cheaper than buying it impulsively at a cafe.

7. Clean up while you cook. A sink full of dishes is daunting. Avoid it.

8. Start small: Make your coffee at home. There are so many simple ways to do this. You can buy a cheap coffee maker, use a pour over filter, get a French press — you can even just use instant coffee if you’re not picky on flavor. Acup of coffee is about $2. You do that five days a week that’s $520 a year which is about the same as the cost of one cross country plane ticket. Just sayin’.

Katie Peoples lives in San Francisco.