And save some money while you’re at it
I love cooking. It’s always been a favorite pastime and activity, especially on weekends when I have more time. I love to go shopping for ingredients, spend time in stores and markets, try out new recipes, learn new skills and experiment with food. I do it for fun, pleasure and necessity.
This passion turned into a job about 6 years ago when I started working as a professional chef. Obviously, in time I slowed down the pace of cooking at home because I got too tired and lazy but also less fearful that I wouldn’t be able to learn as much about cooking as I wanted.
I still cook at home now, but it’s become less of a challenging task like it used to be before. Don’t feel stressed about thinking that just by being a professional chef, cooking at home could become easier and less of a burden.
It’s not true.
I’m here to share some of my ideas and suggestions as to how cooking can become both fun and pleasurable for you too, by doing it in a smart and efficient way. And save some money while you’re at it.
- Give food some of your time and love. Plan ahead
Yes, you need to plan and think ahead about your shopping and your meals. Weekdays are busy. Still, you don’t want/can afford to eat out or order in all the time. Honestly, you shouldn’t. It’s a waste of money, it’s not always great food and it can be super unhealthy on the long run. I mean, who orders in salad?
You’re always gonna go for the sexy food on menus and gorge on pizzas, burgers, fried stuff or greasy Asian. It’s not cool, man. The money you save on cheap take-out will be spent later or vitamins, medicine and gym work-out. It’s not worth it.
So, think ahead of time. Spare an hour or two on your weekends to go full-on shopping for everything that might come in handy later in the week — meat you can freeze or refrigerate if you plan on cooking that first, a lot of fruit and veg, eggs, dairy, cans and packets of pasta, spices for flavor and keeping things interesting, and so on.
The more things you will have in your fridge and kitchen cupboards, the easier it will become to whip up something quick and delicious to eat and not want to reach for the telephone first.
Also, you will spend less time during the day thinking about what to cook or running quickly after work to shop. You don’t have time for that too.
You can also go shopping on Thursday/Friday for the weekend. It will save you some time if you want to cook earlier on and not exhaust yourself shopping first.
Extra tip: Think ahead of about 2–3 recipes that you like or already know how to make and start with that. Less hassle, simple and easy. Print your recipes if it’s easier to carry them around with you so you know what to buy when you’re in the shop.
Go shopping earlier on and start thinking about recipes. These are the main ideas.
2. Stock up baby
As I mentioned earlier, it’s good to stock up. When your pantry or fridge are empty it’s hard to cook something out of thin air right? It’s so easy to dial that number and have pizza fly in moments later. Enough with the pizza already.
So, I like my pantry to have a bit of everything just in case I need inspiration and a variety of choices.
I recommend having a few packets of noodles and pasta — any kind, maybe a variety for filling and baking too, like cannelloni and fusilli/penne. Spaghetti works with just about anything so you can’t go wrong with that.
Rice is also good to have for risottos, stir fries, curries, but also as a plain side. I love those packets that you just dip in boiling water and 20 minutes later, as if by magic, it’s done — beautiful and perfect! So easy!
Pulses and grains also are a great addition to your stock. You can buy them in packets — the dry version, but they require longer time for soaking and cooking or in cans, already cooked and ready to use.
Pulses include beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas. Grains mean barley, corn, rice, millet, oats and wheat. You can do so much with these. Basically, the options are endless. I’ll let you in a few ideas and clues — chorizo stew with beans or chickpeas, your own hummus out of a can of chickpeas, pea soup or Turkish lentil soup with croutons. Cornmeal can be turned into a steamy polenta eaten alongside some ragu or mushrooms and cheese for a vegetarian options.
You need spices in your pantry too, some oils and vinegar for salads and dressings, wine for cooking but also drinking (haha), cans of fish, nuts and seeds, soy sauce, mustard, hot sauce, and some pastry stuff — flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, vanilla and some chocolate/cocoa powder.
Don’t forget garlic and onion, salt and pepper. Duuuh…
All of these ingredients have a really long shelf-life and you really won’t regret buying them in advance. They are vital to your cooking.
3. Other types of food you need
Alongside a stocked up pantry, you need stuff for the fridge, too.
Eggs for omelettes and frittatas, quiches and tarts. And pancakes.
Meats and charcuterie for steaks, meatballs, pasta dishes, sandwiches and stews.
Dairy — any kind, milk, cream, butter, yogurt, cheese. All of these can enrich your cooking and are necessary for things like risottos, pasta, sauces, cream soups, cakes or breakfast snacks — see yogurt pots, cheese on toast, milk with cereal.
Fruit and veg. Fruit is mostly for snacking and baking, so you avoid having that doughnut or balance out that doughnut, while veg can be made into a star dish, an accompaniment or just combined with other ingredients.
Veg is definitely a life saver when it comes to cooking light and easy meals like soups, grilled veg with sauces, veg spreads and big, hearty salads.
4. Be organised
Yes, that sounds so fun and enjoyable, I know! For me, it’s been always easy, because that’s the way I am, but I’ve also noticed that it does help tremendously when it comes to cooking.
If you know what recipe you’re cooking on Wednesday evening and you’ve bought already the ingredients on Sunday or even Tuesday evening, then once you get home it’s so easy to actually make it.
Let’s say you wanna make pasta with pesto sauce — from scratch. You have the pasta, it’s boiling now on the stove, while meanwhile you’re doing the sauce — fresh basil, garlic, walnuts/pine nuts, grated Parmesan, salt, olive oil — blitz it all in a blender and that’s done. In 30 minutes you have dinner on the table.
It’s the same with every meal you want to make. As long as you organize yourself a bit, it will become easier and more fun in time. You’ll have something nice to look forward to after work or on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
5. Invest in (some) kitchen equipment
It doesn’t have to be expensive and you don’t need a lot of it. Just a few things to get you started and you won’t feel like it’s so hard and hopeless to cook at home.
A big pot for boiling pasta, pulses and grains, stews and soups.
A medium-sized pan for one or two people for steaks, schnitzels, fish, pancakes, omelettes and more.
A wok for stir fries and Asian food, it that’s what you like. To be honest, a good pan and high heat will do the trick, although it can get a bit messy and sticky everywhere.
One ladle, some knives, chopping boards, small hand blender, scale, whisk, grater, wooden spoons, bowls, sieves, peeler, can opener, measuring spoons, silicone spatula — to name a few essentials.
A little bit goes a long way, when you’re just starting off.
6. Get some nice recipes online or from friends/family
Once you have your shopping done, your pantry and fridge all stocked up and some kitchen equipment ready, you need some recipes. It’s always easier to start off with a clear idea about what you want to make and go for the win, instead of improvising and maybe not ending up with dinner, but a fiasco. Talk about a meltdown. It’s not encouraging at all.
Make it fun for yourself. Cook what you normally like to eat or look for recipes that are easy to make but also delicious.
Go online on websites that you know are full of nice photos as well and a step-by-step approach or videos. It’s so easy nowadays to just follow a video and press pause or start again.
Some of my favorite go to resources are:
Food52, David Lebovitz, Ottolenghi blog, Anna Olson, and anything on Youtube, whether it’s chefs I love or just a recipe that I want to see made for a better understanding of the process.
I also follow local chefs and food bloggers from my country, but they speak/write in Romanian, so that can’t be of much help to you guys. It’s good though to look for people in your area because they will have access to the same ingredients and shops, so it will be easier for you than just being frustrated that you can’t find the same ingredients, like fresh avocados for example. No point in looking for this kind of recipes if you can’t buy them in your neighborhood.
I have to admit that in time, I have also started watching more professional cooking videos and I sometimes follow cooking schools which might not be that fun for everyone to watch. Here are some ideas of YouTube channels: Callebaut chocolate, Rouxbe Online Cooking School, ChefSteps, Bruno Albouze (some really fanstastic French cooking here!), Valrhona, Escoffier online, Le Cordon Bleu, to name just a few.
Asking friends and family for recipes is also a good start. You know someone has already done them and they can guide you through the process.
7. Ice, ice baby. Rely on your freezer for help
Your freezer is not just for ice-cream
You can’t cook all the time. Even I don’t. It’s not efficient and fun after a while. There is more to life than cooking. I know, it’s hard even or me to say that out loud.
But it’s true.
The whole point of cooking smart and efficient at home is that you don’t have to do it all the time. Cook a bigger amount of foods like pasta sauce like ragu, stews, lasagna, soup, quiche, muffins, rice dishes, just to name a few and freeze what you don’t need or use right away. Whenever you want to have dinner, just defrost something or whip up some pasta for that extra sauce in the freezer. It cuts your cooking time down by half and it’s less work.
You can basically freeze anything, fresh or cooked, and just know that you have food to count on in case of need.
8. Save money and get healthier
Understand that cooking at home saves you a lot of money on the long run. Eating out or take-away all the time is not practical or economical. Yes, it saves you time and it’s less of a hassle, but long-term it can get very expensive. It’s not practical to use up all your money on that.
Health-wise you might get into trouble too. We need a balanced diet and more nutritious food and we need to know what’s in it. Cooking at home gives you control over everything — amount of salt, sugar, preservatives, fat and so on that might end up in your food. You cook for yourself and your own needs. You take care of your health and body. What could be more important than that?
9. What if I don’t know how to cook?
Start off easy. Don’t go pro on your first attempt.
Think canned beans and a fried sausage. Think canned lentils and fried tofu.
Think boiled vegetables in water and then blended into a soup.
Think of boiled pasta and a sauce in a jar (cheat a bit).
There are ways. You don’t have to be a professional chef to cook at home. Yes, it’s much easier if you are one, but it’s not necessary. You just need to dedicate some time to it and learn to enjoy it. Plan something nice for that extra pocket money you’re saving.
10. Use leftovers
Give every food a chance
I think this is the big secret to cooking smart and efficient at home, by also saving money. Use everything you’ve got and try not to throw away food. It’s a waste of money and produce, not to mention it’s affecting the planet.
Many leftovers can be transformed into a meal and save you the time, energy and money to buy more stuff.
Basically anything in your fridge — leftover cheese, small bits of veg, herbs or aromatic plants, can go into a fine omelette. Simple as that.
Leftover steak meat can be shoved into a sandwich, a rice dish or a stew. Even in a pasta sauce. Keep getting creative.
Leftover rice can be turned into Asian fried rice. Yum!
Old bread can become delicious French Toast — it’s basically what’s needed for it. Or bread pudding — sweet or savory. Or croutons for soups.