How to start cooking for yourself

I’ve often mentioned that being able to prepare your own food is a key financial skill. I’m finally going to put my money where my mouth is– or my mouth where my money is?– and offer some super easy, basic recipe ideas to inspire those who almost never cook to start making a few more meals at home.

I’ll break these down by meal times, but there’s nothing wrong with breakfast food for dinner or vice versa!

selective focus photography of pasta with tomato and basil
Mmmm… a home-cooked meal!

Dinner

Dinner is probably the meal that most people go out for or get takeout. You’re tired, you don’t want to think, and you’re hangry after a long day of work. Pasta is a great answer here.

Spaghetti

The sauce

Get a jarred pasta sauce, or plain tomato sauce (29 oz can per 1 lb dried pasta), 1 lb of dried pasta, 1 lb ground meat, and any fresh veggies or spices that you feel like adding. Fry the sliced veggies (diced onion, say) in oil on medium/med-high, then add the ground meat. Cook the meat until no longer pink, then add 1-2 minced/pressed garlic cloves and your spices (dried basil, oregano, or garlic powder if you didn’t add any fresh garlic), fry another couple minutes, add a splash of red wine if you have it open, then dump in the pasta sauce. Simmer for at least 10 minutes on low.

The noodles

While you’re frying the sauce, boil a few quarts of water in a large pot and dump in the dry pasta when it comes to a boil, boiling it per the package instructions. Taste a noodle to make sure it’s the doneness you like, then drain it in a colander or strainer.

Serving the pasta

Either plate the noodles individually and ladle the sauce on top, or if your frying pan/Dutch oven is big enough, toss the cooked pasta in the sauce and service it on a hot pad on the table and let guests grab their own with tongs or a large fork and spoon. If you wanna get fancy, serve with grated Parmesan or pecorino romano cheese. I get these in whole wedges from Costco and then grate them finely with a food processor, cheese grater, or microplane zester. You can use the pre-grated stuff found in the grocery store, but it’s pretty tasteless.

That’s it! Package the leftovers into individual serving size tupperware for lunches at work or home the next day. The sauce will taste even better the next day, so feel free to make it in advance. It also freezes very well, so make a bunch and save yourself some future effort!

Tacos

Tacos are a staple at our house. You can combine virtually any meat or veggies you have on hand with a starch like rice or tortillas, and make tons of different Mexican-inspired combos to suit everyone’s tastes. I recommend soft corn tortillas like these, but use flour if you prefer.

Pre-cooked grocery store/Costo chickens are really convenient for tacos. Just slice or tear off the meat and serve. You can spice it up with some garlic, powder, chili powder and ground cumin. Diced a white onion, then rinse it, and dice some cilantro for the traditional topping. Top with shredded cheddar cheese and sour cream as well for that extra gringo flavor :). Diced tomato or thinly sliced cabbage or lettuce also makes a great topping.

Lunch

Easiest, no-cook options – Sandwiches and salads

Bread, sliced up meat or lunchmeat, mayo, mustard, lettuce/tomato/cucumber, BOOM = Sandwich! Just omit the bread and add more lettuce and some dressing to make it a salad :). Costco chicken is again a great choice for salads or sandwiches.

Suzanne’s Thyme Salad Dressing

Store-bought salad dressings are universally awful, so make your own in 5 minutes:

  • Blend together either 3 large OR 5-6 small/medium garlic cloves with
  • 1/4 cup bottled mustard (country dijon is my favorite),
  • 3/4 cup vinegar of any kind (I use plain white vinegar; the original recipe called for white wine vinegar)
  • 2 cups vegetable/Canola oil (don’t use all olive oil because it will be bitter)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon (tsp) salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon (Tbsp) dried thyme (or rosemary, or the herb of your choice– triple the amount for fresh herbs)

Leftovers make a great lunch

Leftovers packed into individual tupperware are my go-to when taking lunch to the office. Tacos work too, especially if you just microwave some cubed up meat from a prior dinner and serve with any of the fixings described above. Or, sub rice for the tortilla to make an easy-to-eat-at-work taco bowl.

Breakfast

Easiest, no-cook options – Cereal and smoothies

Some milk and a bowl of cold cereal is easiest. Looks for store brands and sales of your favorite boxes. Quick-cooking hot cereals like quick cooking oats or cream of wheat are also easy to do in the microwave or on the stovetop. Add cinnamon and brown/white sugar as you like. Dried fruit like raisins or apples are nice additions, or sliced or chopped nuts.

Plain yogurt with fruit or made into a blended smoothie with banana and other fresh or frozen fruits of your choice (plus a couple ice cubes if using fresh fruit and you want it colder) is a good grab-and-go option.

Breakfast cookin’ – Eggs, bacon, and more!

For the weekends, buy some eggs and fry them over-easy, adding a little oil to a non-stick pan, gently cracking the egg into the pan so as not to break the yoke, frying for a minute or two on medium-high heat until you can flip it over and fry the other side. Serve with fried bacon, sausages, or vegan ‘sausage’ patties like from Morningstar (available at Costco.) I like to slice a tomato or two in half and fry it in the bacon fat, or fry some thinly-sliced cabbage in it as a veggie side.

Fried eggs go great with rice too if you want a Filipino-style breakfast like we often make. (Bonus points if you use longganisa sausage as your meat of choice, available at many Asian supermarkets. Spam is also great.)

There you have it, a couple menu ideas for every meal of the day. Get cooking and save big!

Author: Ward Williams

Personal finance blogger with an interest in saving, investing, and learning new skills and doing things for myself & others!

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