The Benefits of a Frugal Kitchen (& What’s Cooking in Mine)
A few years ago, you wouldn't have believed how bad I was at cooking. I didn't even know how to sauté onions! Not only that, I wasn't really interested in learning how to either. It's not that I don't like eating (I do!), but the process of cooking didn't appeal to me. I could just go to the store or a restaurant to buy whatever food I wanted when I wanted it, right?
When I started setting up my own home a few years ago, I decided I’d better learn how to cook more than just pasta and eggs. One of my resolutions in 2017 was to cook one new dish a month. I met that goal pretty easily and was surprised at how much I liked my creations. This year, I made the same resolution to cook at least one new dish a month in addition to cooking at home more often. The plan has been going well so far.
What have I been cooking?
My weekly meal plan usually includes at least one seafood dinner. I tried this Cajun shrimp and sausage vegetable sheet pan (first two pictures) that I modified to fit the vegetables and seasoning I had on hand. My favorite of the shrimp dishes I tried was this delicious lemon garlic parmesan shrimp pasta that I made with Trader Joe's garlic herb linguine for a bit of extra flavor.
A few of the other dishes I tried: kung pao chicken with eggplant and cucumber (left), pizza-stuffed eggplant that I coincidentally made on National Pizza Day (middle), and tofu with chicken and mushrooms in a clay pot (right).
I can’t take credit for making all of these meals by myself. My partner and I often cook together. Sometimes I’m the head chef and sometimes I’m the sous chef.
1) Save money
Saving money is one of the best parts of cooking at home. Do you ever pause and think, “Ooph, that was a pricey meal” when signing the check at a restaurant? I do, and it’s even worse when the food was mediocre.
A few months ago, I spent about $30 making a delicious cioppino full of shrimp, scallop, white fish, and other seafood. My partner and I loved it! We stuffed ourselves that dinner and still had leftovers, which I devoured the next day. I looked up cioppino at a well-known Italian restaurant in SF. It’s $27 for an individual entrée. So we had about three portions at home for the price of one at a restaurant. I think my dish had a lot more seafood in it too than you’d find in a restaurant meal. Time and time again, I’m impressed by how much you can save by cooking at home versus eating out.
2) Save time
You can save time by eating at home too. How long does it take to throw together a quick meal? It takes me about 15-20 minutes. In that amount of time, I baked soy sauce salmon and cut and sautéd brussel sprouts the other night. That’s less time than it might take to decide on a restaurant, travel there, order your food, and wait for it to cook. Even if you order a meal delivered to your door, it still takes time for it to arrive.
One way to ensure that you save time on cooking is to have quick-fix meals on hand at home. When I meal prep for the week, I usually pick a fish, chicken, or tofu dish that I know will come together quickly by baking in the oven or putting over some pasta or rice. If you cook more than enough for one meal, you can reheat the leftovers for the following days.
One thing to point out is that cooking a new recipe will often take more time than you think. I’ve found that the estimated times on recipes are always too conservative. Either that or I’m just a really slow cook. I double the time stated on recipes and block out enough time to cook it.
3) Eat healthier
If my co-workers are any indication of the average American, then a lot of people have the goal of eating healthier. Just this past week, I heard my co-workers say they’re starting a plant-based diet, going Keto, and cutting out carbs. Eating at home allows you to do all those things because you know exactly what’s in your meals and can control how much you eat too.
Making it happen
You don't have to be a fancy five-star chef to cook. None of the dishes I made above took much skill. I let go of the need to have things perfect in the kitchen. My vegetables are diced unevenly and sometimes I overcook the fish. I like to joke that even if the dish doesn’t turn out well, if it’s still edible, then we have still have dinner.
You might be thinking that the above dishes aren’t representative of frugal cooking, and you’d be right to an extent. Making cioppino isn’t cheap. My focus on cooking over the past few months hasn’t been on making as inexpensive meals as possible. I’ve saved by doing some smart grocery shopping and using what I've had sitting in my pantry and fridge, then cooking at home.
That said, it’s easy to overspend at the supermarket. If you find a recipe you like, but the ingredients are too expensive or aren’t in season, hold onto it for another time or pass on it altogether. Likewise, if you see an item on sale at the store, try finding a recipe to meal plan around it. My favorite seasonal item is asparagus. I can't wait for it to come around in the spring so I can cook with it.
I’m going to keep on cooking over the next few months. I’ve gotten the courage to cook for my co-workers at work potlucks. Maybe it’s time I cook some meals for family and friends. Below are a few dishes I have in mind to try next. They look tasty and several of their ingredients are easy to find and relatively inexpensive.
Moroccan Lentil-Stuffed Eggplant
Smoked Salmon & Gouda Stuffed Mushrooms
One Pan Chili Lime Chicken & Rice
Now, if only I could get to liking washing the dishes...
How do you feel about cooking? What kind of food do you like to make? What dishes would you recommend to someone who has beginner to intermediate cooking skills? What effect has cooking had on your life?