Think it's too hard to cook?
I used to.
I know that, for some folks, cooking is no big deal. (Some people even find it... fun.) If cooking comes relatively easily to you, you probably have no idea what all the fuss is about.
Chances are, though, that you know exactly what I'm talking about. It seems like, starting with Generation X, people just don't cook as much as they used to. It's not as much of a norm, these days.
Some of that probably has to do with the sheer number of takeout now available. You have hosts of fast food places, various kinds of cuisine you can get to go, and some restaurants will bring the food to you. What's not to love?
Well, the dent it leaves in your wallet, for a start. And it's rarely good for you.
But if, like me, food is a huge source of stress, what's the alternative? Well, to borrow a phrase from personal finance: Set it and forget it.
That phrase usually refers to automating your finances. By creating systems to automatically pay bills, you avoid late fees and finances charges. You can also save yourself some money by automating your cooking.
Don't get too excited. Robot chefs don't exist yet. I checked.
But you can get pretty close by using that ever-lauded kitchen device: the slow cooker. It's perfect for busy people or people who don't like to cook. Or busy people who don't like to cook.
You throw in the ingredients and walk away. Depending on the recipe, you have a meal 3-7 hours later. You don't have to wait for anything boil. No worries about something burning. You don't even have to keep a strict eye on the time. Heck, you don't even have to be home!
The first steps
For years, I have dreaded even the subject of cooking. I knew I should do more, in order to cut down our food budget. But I rarely had the energy. Tim took over for awhile, but he would try to get me to choose a dish for him to cook. And I never knew what I wanted. After awhile, he'd give up in frustration. It wasn't good.
Now that we're down in Arizona, though, I felt a stronger urge to get a coordinated cooking effort started. So I got out the slow cooker and started looking up recipes.
I ended up finding a few, very useful sites. Readers steered me toward A Year of Slow Cooking. I also did some searches and found good caches at All Recipes, Slow and Simple and Betty Crocker.
That still left me with a lot of options, though. I didn't want to get too overwhelmed, and I definitely didn't want to get too grandiose in my efforts. So I went through the sites with some very basic rules:
- Nothing that required "real" cooking. By that, I mean anything that required you to pan fry/sear/etc any of the ingredients. I was looking to make my life easier, not more complex.
- Nothing with too many ingredients. I preferred to keep it under 10. Closer to 5 was better. I wanted to be able to prep the the meals in under 15 minutes -- preferably under 10.
- Nothing with specialty items. I tried to stick to items that we already had, or those we could get relatively cheaply. The point here was to save money, not to increase our grocery bill.
Stick to the plan
In the end, I had a long list of promising recipes bookmarked in our browser. But it was still hard to cook. I would get up that day and feel indecisive about what to make. Even when I started trying to plan the night before, it was just no good.
I resisted meal planning for a long time. I was worried that, when the time came, I wouldn't want to eat that recipe. Finally, I had a "duh" moment and realized that I could always switch things around. The plan doesn't have to be exact.
Instead, I sat down with my copy of Make It Fast, Cook It Slow and wrote down five meals. Each time I needed to cook, I chose something off that list. It was easy, and I wasn't locked into a schedule. What's more, that list lasted almost two weeks, thanks to leftovers and "fend for yourself days."
So far, this system is working well. By not scheduling specific days, I give myself some leeway. Some days, I just can't face cooking. So I put it off for a day and have leftovers, while Tim makes himself a burger.
The looser schedule also means I'm not stressed about getting the dishes done every night I cook. I have a day or two in between, in case I'm busy. Or just tired. Again, taking the stress out of the situation has really helped me manage better.
I've mentioned some good sites on here, but I'd love to hear about any of your favorite slow cooker recipes or websites.
The point is to know where you can go when you need inspiration. Make It Fast, Cook It Slow has tons of tasty-looking meals, some of which are available for free at her blog A Year of Slow Cooking. I'm definitely interested in some of her fondue recipes. I've already made her applesauce, which I then put on her applesauce chicken. I highly recommend both.
All Recipes and Slow and Simple both have user feedback, which is nice. But All Recipes seems to have more feedback. Slow and Simple had a lot of unrated dishes. Both sites allow you to save items to a recipe box, if you sign up. Betty Crocker also has this function, plus it will print you out a grocery list, based on the recipes you choose.
Be flexible about ingredients
This step can save you a lot of hassle and a lot of money. If you choose to follow the ingredient list faithfully, that's terrific. But many of us are going for ease and economy. In that case, we need to be willing to make substitutions.
Plenty of recipes call for diced onion or minced garlic. It's not all that expensive to obtain either one. But I can guarantee that the unused half of the onion will end up rotting in my vegetable drawer. And peeling, then dicing, garlic can be very annoying.
Instead, I reach over to my spice cupboard and get out the onion flakes and garlic powder. Each spice was $1, and neither will go bad waiting for further use.
Similarly, I was amused by a recipe calling for the juice of one lemon. There was no way I was going to squeeze a lemon myself. My hands get tired easily, and we don't have a juicer. We did, however, have a container of lemon juice around. A quick search on the Internet found me the tablespoon equivalent. (Two to three, in case anyone cares.) No fuss, no muss.
These little substitutions and alternatives make life a lot easier. They mean fewer trips to the grocery store, and fewer items going unused in the fridge. It's win-win.
Like most areas of frugality, cooking will save you money. But you'll see the best results when you concentrate on making use of what you have.
How do you deal with meal preparation? What are your favorite, easy meals? Anyone want to come and cook for me? Please?