This is a guest post by Forest from Frugal Zeitgeist. Forest writes about frugality, finance, minimalism and lifestyle. In this article, Forest shares his experiences in the kitchen. Cooking great meals is a great way to save money and stay healthy, but it’s a skill that I haven’t developed for myself. Passion can boost motivation, though, and this article might help me find that passion about preparing meals.
When Flexo wrote about alternative financial resolutions he mentioned the idea of cooking more often at home. Cooking at home is often described as a way to save money. It will do that if you replace your dining-out habit, but it does much more than just improve your finances. Cooking can quickly become an enjoyable hobby, and when you get into the groove you can even use it to impress your friends. The health aspects cannot be overlooked, either. Replacing processed foods and restaurant foods with home-cooked versions, where you know the ingredients, will affect you and your family’s diet in a positive way.
But you can’t just expect to fire up the stove and produce an award-winning dish. Learning to cook takes time and patience. You will fail, and you will find that at times cooking isn’t as economical as you originally thought it would be. Investing in a stock of spices and speciality ingredients can quickly blow a shopping budget!
In this post I want to share my journey into the wonderful world of cooking at home and then hopefully convince you to make it a regular activity and a beloved hobby.
How I found my passion in cooking
I never learned to cook anything as a kid. My kitchen wizardry stopped at being able to “cook” a perfect slice of toast and heat an egg in hot oil. Sometimes I would experiment, but I’ll skip the tales of my candy-bar sandwich and curry hot chocolate. When I moved out of my parents’ home at the age of seventeen, I sucked at cooking.
Luckily I had a corner store within twenty seconds of my house. I became a wiz at putting plastic-wrapped steak bakes and hamburgers into the microwave, and later I even progressed to turning on the oven to warm up a frozen pizza. Breakfast cereal was a favorite dinner of mine too. Cheerios for dinner! Yum!
This went on for quite some time. When I turned eighteen and started to throw regular pints of beer into the mix, my belly decided to grow big and round. Through the age of twenty, not much changed apart from my pants size.
Weight is easy to put on and reasonably easy to fix, but the bad habits had been affecting another aspect of my life, something not immediately apparent to most around me. As my belly grew, so did my overdraft. My money situation wasn’t going too well.
In addressing the cash flow problem, I knew I had to make all sorts of cut-backs. It wasn’t exactly a secret to me that my processed food habit was costing me a lot of money and I decided to tackle it by learning how to cook at home. This was also around the same time that I became vegetarian, which seriously reduced the selection of ready-made foods I could purchase at the corner store.
One of my first trips to the supermarket after the decision involved me stocking up on spaghetti, cans of tomatoes, dried basil, salt, pepper and lots of fruit.
I remember throwing myself head first into cooking, just like the way I refused to read instructions when I got a Transformer for Christmas. I didn’t read any cookery books.
For one of my first home cooked meals, I threw a few cans of tomatoes into a large wok with a little oil. I tossed in a load of basil, a little salt and let it simmer for quite a few hours. The result was better than you may think for a first attempt, and although the work was minimal, I enjoyed throwing some stuff in a pot and coming out with an edible meal. I was intrigued enough to learn more.
I continued to develop my “tomatoes and stuff in wok” speciality and would try adding different veggies and herbs. One important thing I did do was learn the basics. This included cooking eggs in their various forms, the basics about herbs, simple stir fry, fried rice, stews and chilis. Occasionally I would follow a recipe.
The big change for me came when I quit my job and moved from England to Canada. I found food to be even more expensive in Canada, and my budget was very thin. I had left behind a high-paying job in London and was now washing dishes in a pub kitchen. Of course being around cooking all day was part of my inspiration, but working out how the hell to feed myself on minimum wage was the real kick in the butt.
I started to buy a lot of raw ingredients and had moved in with my girlfriend. A student and a kitchen boy needed some entertainment and that was where Manjula came in! We enjoyed making dinner together, even though it was stir fry most nights. Cooking with your family and friends can be a lot of fun and a motivation to push yourself forward. We both enjoyed curry so we learned how to cook it properly. I started to search for recipes online, and I discovered Manjula’s Kitchen on Youtube. Manjula cooks a lot of great Indian dishes and her lackluster commentary creates a homey, “I can do this” vibe that I found quite warming. After my first Manjula curry I was hooked.
I was being reeled into this cooking thing.
When you make that great meal, something you never thought you could make, it’s like you finally get it. Cooking can be drudgery, especially when you have to cook for many and you just don’t enjoy it. I look at it like painting. Painting a house is boring as hell, and the outcome is nice, but nothing special. Paint a picture and you enjoy the whole process and the outcome immensely. If you approach cooking like painting a picture you’ll enjoy it very much.
Next up for me was my other favorite food, bread. I had a drunken conversation with a Mexican lady who convinced me tortillas were just flour and water cooked in a flat pan. I had flour and water at home so a day or so later I mashed them together into a dough, rolled them into tortilla-shaped discs using a Snapple bottle, and fried them in a hot pan. Like my very first tomato experiment, it worked again — not perfect, but within reach of being able to be called bread!
This put me on a bread kick and I turned to the internet for a real loaf. The first recipe I ever used is one I still use today, and variations on the dough are easy to experiment with. There is something calming about kneading dough and something very satisfying about eating it hot out of the oven.
Where I am today?
I cook almost every day. Cooking is a hobby and something I do almost without thinking. I’ll happily tackle any kind of cusine and challenge myself to new recipes on a regular basis. I’m not afraid to pick up something I have never seen before and experiment with it. I still make a lot of mistakes but that is half of the fun.
Along with my confidence, my knowledge of food sourcing and nutrition has increased. I try to buy in-season foods and balance my diet with meals that contain the right amount of carbs, proteins, good fats and all of that stuff.
I absolutely adore cooking. Food is something we all need, but good food is something we all love. The smugness and satisfaction from being able to match meals at your favorite restaurants is unbelievable. Cooking isn’t an art or skill that only a few people have, it can be learned. If you keep at it, you will learn. You’ll want to share your new-found love with friends, and they’ll get the bug too.
Tips to start cooking
Starting off any new endeavor that you hope to grow into a hobby can be tough work. If things don’t work out the first time, it is easy to give up. Often, fear of failure, poor early results and lack of time push people back to TV dinners and prepared meals. Like any feat you want to achieve, you need to go in knowing that you will fail, you will make terrible food, and your journey from a person who reads recipes to a full-fledged cook will not be linear.
Making failure part of the learning process will guard your self-esteem enough to help you get through the rough patches. Set goals and make time for cooking. Instead of going to the pub, stay home and follow a recipe, bake a cake for the family, or go shopping for a cook book.
I would suggest you set goals centered around being able to cook your favorite meal or a favorite meal for your family, learning to cook a few dishes of a certain cuisine, or replacing a regular store-bought item with a homemade alternative. The goal should be something that matters to you and keeps you focused. A solid option is baking bread that is better than the store variety. It’s not easy but a skill that is a lot fun — and messy — to learn.
As your cooking progresses something will happen. Your lack of confidence will subside and you’ll fall into the groove I mentioned earlier. For me, indicators of this were being able to add ingredients without measurement and being able to open anyone’s pantry and put together a meal without a recipe book. At this stage, you won’t be a master chef, but you’ll be competent and confident enough to take on any recipe.
Experimentation is very important and is key to discovering the joy of cooking. If you think chocolate and chili pepper would be good on pork, try it. If you are bored at home, just grab some random ingredients and see what you can cook up.
Make cooking social
Keeping cooking a lonseome pursuit could stop it from progressing into a full-fledged hobby, so it’s important to share. Sharing the cooking and eating experience with friends and family is one of the best parts.
I remember baking cakes as a young kid with my grandma, and I think baking and cooking with kids is a great learning tool. I wish cooking with my parents had been a part of my whole life. Cooking with your partner also brings in a new intimacy to a relationship and shares a responsibility that is often left to one person, most often the woman.
Expanding beyond family, it’s great to host potluck meals or host a dinner party on rotation. Friends of mine set up a little club where four couples set four Saturday nights aside. Each Saturday night, the eight people would all visit one house, and the hosts would cook a three-course meal. The result was that it pushed everyone in that group to try to up their cooking game, and it was somewhat competitive. The dinner parties were successful enough that they have all improved their cooking skills.
I hope I have you convinced to give it a try and I hope you have overcome any apprehension. You may not even enjoy cooking at first, but you’ll enjoy the challenge. Here are some tips to help you get started. Please come back to let us know how it went.
- Cook a basic flat bread that can be used for lunches, side dishes and more.
- Bake a real loaf of bread. This is the very first basic bread recipe I ever used, and it’s good.
- Find an online video recipe for your favorite restaurant meal and try to make it.
- Use the ingredients in your pantry and create a random meal. It doesn’t matter if it turns out bad, just mess around!
- Try another favorite dish or two from another part of the world.
- Invite a friend over for dinner and you cook. They can bring the wine.
Good luck with your new money-saving, healthy hobby.
Please don’t hesitate to ask any questions, or ask for any resources, ideas or anything that comes to mind. If you love cooking, what inspired you to start?
Updated April 13, 2016 and originally published January 6, 2012.