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 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.


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 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.


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.


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!

The best value in kitchen knives

One big way to save money, and build useful and attractive-to-others skills is to cook for yourself. To do that, you need some good kitchen knives. Most people have a drawer full of ten or twelve low-quality, dull knives that they bought as a set, instead of just two or three knives of good quality. 

90-100% of your knife needs can be handled by two implements: A Chef’s knife and a paring knife. As a bonus, you can throw in an excellent bread knife too.

I recommend and use these high-quality knives from Victorinox, which makes them at very reasonable prices for the quality:

3.25″ Paring knife:

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8 Inch Chef’s knife:

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10.25″ bread knife (use with caution: very sharp!)

Make sure you get a sharpening steel as well such as this one from Henckels.  This is so you can sharpen the knives yourself when they inevitably lose some of their edge.

The World’s Easiest Hard Apple Cider recipe

If you’ve ever wanted to brew your own booze, this hard cider method is by far the easiest way to get started. Enjoy!

Two simple ingredients: yeast + juice

The only special ingredient you’ll need is brewing yeast. I recommend an English Ale yeast called Nottingham that I’ve been using for years with great results. You could also use a cider-specific yeast, or even a wine yeast (white or champagne), or get a couple of varieties and compare the results. Buy them off Amazon using the links above, or find a homebrew shop near you.

Next, head to your local grocery chain and buy four to ten 64 oz (half gallon) plastic jugs of juice. You could do a minimum of two half gallons if you wish, or use two-to-five 1 gallon (128 oz) jugs, but I like the 64 oz ones because they yield about five 12 oz bottles worth of cider, which is just perfect for sharing with a few friends. Definitely go for plastic: glass jugs could be used, but I don’t recommend it because you could carbonate for too long and risk shattering them.

What type of juice to use?

tree-top-juice-honeycrisp-pure-pressed-64oz tree-top-juice-sweet-and-tart-apple-cider-pure-pressed-64oz

Safeway’s ‘regular’ brand of apple juice works well, as does Tree Top’s. I found that both brands’ unfiltered Honey Crisp apple juice (pictured left) was particularly well-flavored, especially if you’re going to ferment yours on the drier side. Safeway’s basic apple juice is pretty flavorless if you ferment it all the way, so only use that one if 1) you don’t care & you’re cheap or 2) you’re going to drink it with some sweetness still in it.

Tree Top’s Sweet & Tart Apple Cider was good too (might be my favorite when sweet/unfermented), but after fermentation I preferred the Honeycrisp. Grab one jug of each type and brand and see what you like best. Feel free to experiment with other fruit juices, especially pear, which is second in cider popularity, and post in the comments about your results. The one brand that did not make tasty cider for me was Mott’s, so you might want to avoid it.

Apple juice often goes on sale for as little as $2 per 64 oz jug, sometimes even $1.50 (especially in late fall, presumably after harvest season), and can usually be found for $3 – $4, so don’t pay too much unless you really want to try some premium juice, and stock up when it’s cheap! At $2.50 per 64 oz, your cider will only cost you 50 cents per 12 oz glass!


First-timer steps

The first time you do this you will be using your yeast packet and will need to do a couple of extra steps. The #1 thing to be concerned about when you brew alcohol is sanitation. You don’t want any stray bacteria or wild yeasts to reproduce in your cider and give it weird flavors (it won’t hurt you though, so not a big deal if it happens: just dump it out and start over if you don’t like the taste.)

Take something heat-resistant with a pour spout like an 8 oz glass Pyrex measuring cup and sanitize it by either pouring boiling water into it until it’s overflowing (do this in your sink), or fill it to the brim and microwave it until it boils. (Be very careful not to superheat the water in the microwave and have it boil over on you when you touch it! Wait for it to boil while you’re microwaving, and then turn off the microwave and leave it for a couple of minutes to cool.)

Add a metal spoon to the Pyrex cup of boiled water to sanitize it, and let cup and spoon sit for 5 minutes in the boiled water. Carefully dump the water out, leaving the spoon in the cup. Fill the cup up with about 6 ounces of 110 F (43 C) water straight from your tap (water from the tap is sanitized.

You can either leave a thermometer in your boiling water along with the spoon to sanitize it also, and then measure the temp precisely, or just put your finger under the tap and use the water once it feels very warm/a bit hot on your finger, but not at all painful. (It’s better to err on the side of too cool than too hot, because water significantly above 110 F can harm or kill your yeast.)

Next, rinse off your yeast packet under the tap, just to be safe, and then open it with your clean hands and pour the powdered granules into the warm water in your measuring cup. Let them sit on the surface without stirring for 5 or 10 minutes, and then stir them in gently with your sanitized spoon until they’ve dissolved. Jump down to aerating and adding the yeast.

After you’ve already done this once and want to re-use the yeast in a jug

The best part about this method is that you can reuse your old yeast as many times as you want in future batches. All you need to do is be ready with more unfermented, unopened juice by the time you finish drinking your hard cider, so I always keep a few half gallons on hand. As soon as you’ve poured off the last of the good stuff from a jug of your cider, you should have a hard-packed layer of yeast stuck on the bottom. Open a new jug of your fresh juice and pour off about 4 – 6 oz into the old jug and slosh it around to get all that yeast off the bottom and into the liquid, then continue following the instructions below in the next section.

Your cider yeast is like a reusable sourdough starter. I’ve been using my initial Nottingham yeast for over a year now, having made several gallons of cider with it, and it’s still going strong. I’ve even given empty containers to friends and family so that they could start their own without having to buy yeast.

Troubleshooting: If you ever get a batch of cider that tastes bad (usually sour), then it might’ve gotten contaminated with wild yeasts or lactobacillus bacteria (the same kind that makes yogurt tangy.) In this case, just don’t reuse that yeast (and dump the cider, or drink it if you don’t mind it!), and hopefully you have another jug that has uncontaminated yeast. If not, just start over with a fresh packet of yeast.

Aerating and adding the yeast

Set your yeast slurry to one side. Open each of your jugs of fresh juice with clean hands and pour off about 4 – 6 oz of juice from each into a mason jar to do with it as you wish. This is to create enough air space in each jug for the yeast to foam up during fermentation without overflowing.

Next, aerate your fresh juice by recapping the jugs and shaking them vigorously for about 10 seconds. This will oxygenate your juice so that your yeast will have an easier time replicating in it. Then, unscrew the caps again and carefully pour out your yeast slurry (shake it once more to mix evenly) in equal parts into each jug. Take your inoculated jugs to a dark/dim part of your house that’s as close to 64 – 68 F as possible. I’ve made cider anywhere from 62 – 78 F, and it always came out fine, so don’t worry too much about the temperature. Put a towel under your jugs, or set them in a plastic or cardboard container in case any juice spills over during fermentation. Then, leave the caps unsealed just barely, like 1/4 – 1/2 turn from being sealed, so that the CO2 gas that builds up during fermentation can escape.

Fermentation and when to drink your cider

As long as your fermentation gets off to a good start, by which I mean you should see bubbling activity within 12 – 24 hours, the CO2 pressure should keep any bacteria from getting in. I’ve done this many times and haven’t yet had a single batch get contaminated. Godspeed!

Let the cider ferment for 2 weeks, and then seal the caps, and let it go another day or two with the cap sealed until the jugs are bulged out somewhat with carbonation. Release the pressure by unscrewing the cap and getting the jug back down to normal size, then chill in the refrigerator with the cap sealed, and then taste it once it’s cold!

If it’s too sweet for your taste, you can crack the cap and let it go a few more days or another week at room temperature again. If it’s too dry for your liking, try your next batch after only 1 week instead, and add some fresh juice to sweeten up this batch. The warmer your house is the faster it will ferment. Play around until you find the time + temperature combo that produces the flavor you like best.

If the cider isn’t carbonated enough, just leave it in the fridge with the cap on and check once a day or two. Your cider will vary in alcohol percentage from about 4 – 6% depending on how long you let it ferment. The sweeter it is the lower the alcohol because not all the sugar has been converted into booze; the driest cider will be the most alcoholic.

Plastic is very forgiving even if you over-carbonate a bit, but do crack the cap if you notice your jug bulging a lot to let out the pressure if you intend to keep it sealed in the fridge long-term. I have had a plastic jug crack under pressure on me while transporting it in a hot car over a 14 hour drive…

If you won’t be ready to drink the cider in 2 weeks, you can ferment it for a few days or 1 week and then seal it up and keep it in the fridge to slow down the fermentation. I do this if I’m going to be out of town for a week and want to have some ready for when I get back. Keep an eye on the jug bulging and crack as needed in the fridge, since your yeast will still work, just more slowly, when cold.

Drinking your cider, and what to do with the yeast at the bottom

You’ll notice when your cider has finished fermenting the yeast has, hopefully, settled down at the bottom into a hard packed layer. When serving your chilled, sparkling cider, pour it off gently to avoid disturbing the yeast, and never shake the jug. You could also transfer it into a pitcher or clean jug before serving. Reuse the yeast in your empty jug immediately (to avoid the chance of contamination) as described above to make more cider (and more, and more, and more…!)

This cider comes out fairly clean and simple in flavor, with a nice apple flavor, especially if you use Honeycrisp juice. It won’t have that funky complexity of the great French ciders, but this lazy man’s cider can hold its own with many of the micro- or macrobrewed US and English ciders that you can find in stores, and which I often find too sweet and cloying.

I like my cider pretty cold, just slightly off-dry, and with a lot of bubbles. If you or some of your guests like it sweet, leave one batch at room temp for 2 weeks, but refrigerate another couple of jugs after only 1 week to have both a drier and sweeter version. You can even mix the two versions to taste, or add back fresh juice to a dry cider for more sweetness and apple flavor (although it will mean less bubbles if you do the mixing the day of. I try to add the sweet juice a day or two before an event to let it re-carbonate.) The cider is best drunk right after opening the jug. Over time a half-empty jug will lose carbonation and flavor, but it’ll stay fresh and tasty refrigerated for at least a few days.

You can even top it off with fresh juice and let it go again, but keep in mind that you’re opening the door for possible contamination of your yeast, so consider not using that jug to propagate future batches. That said, I have never once had a single batch go wild on me in the past 2 years of making this stuff, but your mileage may vary. The acidity of the juice and healthy fermentation presumably does a good job of keeping undesirable bacteria and wild yeasts away.

Serving your cider

If you want to get fancy and do things up Breton-style, serve your cider in earthenware mugs/bowls with buckwheat crepes (known as galettes) like they do in the north of France. Cider is a great, refreshing drink in spring, summer, or fall. (Mix it with bourbon in winter), and goes very well with food, especially lunch or brunch fare.

Let me know how yours turns out, or if you have any alternative suggestions!