Spaghetti twice a day every day gets old fast
March 2, 2010 6:03 AM   Subscribe

College student. I suck at grocery shopping and I suck at cooking. Help me out?

I'd like to learn how to cook. I'd like to avoid all of the crap food that's easier and also a bit more expensive than cooking on your own. While I'd like to think I've got the patience to cook all my own things, I simply don't know where to start.

If I've got a single meal in mind, yes, I can go out and buy what I need. But then I make one meal in the week, unless I want to walk to the supermarket once a meal. And when I look at recipe books and add together all the ingredients, it looks like a boggling amount of purchases. I'm simply not good at figuring out what things to buy that I can use over and over again for simple meals.

I've got a kitchen. I have pots, pans, a griddle, a wok. I'm not broke, but I'd like not to spend excessive amounts of money.

So when I go food shopping for a week, what should I be looking for? What are the basic recipes I ought to know that I can add on to as I get riskier? What sorts of meals can I make in a pinch, without much? Are there any ways to buy large amounts of food for cheap that's not some sort of pasta?
posted by Rory Marinich to Food & Drink (45 answers total) 104 users marked this as a favorite
This question seems to get asked a lot, and the answer that always comes up: stick to the outer ring of the grocery store, and don't buy anything in a box.

I also asked this question a while back, which should help.
posted by nitsuj at 6:09 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Outer ring makes sense. I'm a little confused about the box advice.

I think the larger problem for me is planning out what I'm going to eat in advance. When I'm trying to think of what I can make myself I go blank. Same when I'm out shopping. I tend to buy a thing of bagels, a pasta sauce, and yogurts, which combined last maybe two days.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:12 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Learn to make chili. It's easy, and you make it large quantities, and then it lasts a few days.

Also, buy the kinds of vegetables that are good for pasta sauce and stir fries. Then when you need to make something, that option is there.

Also, buy rice in huge bags, and eat rice often. Leftover rice can be fried with some vegetables and an egg for a quick easy meal.
posted by molecicco at 6:16 AM on March 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Try subscribing to a cooking magazine like Cooking Light or Eating Well. Both have pretty easy, healthy recipes and a lot of variety. When you get the new issue each month, pick a couple of recipes each week to try. You'll soon build up a repertoire of tasty meals.
posted by something something at 6:17 AM on March 2, 2010

I will say that Williams Sonoma's Healthy Eating is my favorite cookbook. Healthy and pretty easy recipies. And trust me, I can't cook for squat.
posted by stormpooper at 6:19 AM on March 2, 2010

Stormpooper: Link? Google's showing nothing for that name.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:21 AM on March 2, 2010

Staples to buy that you will use over and over:

Flour, eggs, milk, salt, pepper, vinegar, rice, pasta, bread, butter, margarine, cornstarch, vegetable oil, olive oil, onions, carrots, potatoes, green beans, garlic, ketchup, mustard.

Herbs I like to have on hand: Oregano, bay leaves, chili powder, cumin, sage, garlic salt, onion salt, rosemary, basil, thyme, seasoned salt.

As long as you have those staples, you can easily make:

Red sauce (olive oil, garlic, onions, salt, oregano, bay leaves, rosemary, basil, pasta- add tomato sauce, tomato puree, tomato paste)

Chili (onions, salt, pepper, chili powder, cumin- add hamburger, tomato sauce, beans, can of Coca Cola)

Goulash (pasta, onions, salt, pepper, chili powder, oregano, bay leaves, garlic- add hamburger, stewed tomatoes, green peppers, tomato sauce)

Pot roast (flour, salt, pepper, season salt, onions, vegetable oil, carrots, potatoes- add a chuck roast)

Beef Stew (flour, salt, pepper, season salt, onions, vegetable oil, carrots, potatoes, cornstarch- add stew beef)

Meatloaf (flour, eggs, onions, salt, pepper, ketchup- add hamburger)

Chicken & Noodles (pasta, cornstarch, salt, pepper, butter- add Cream of Mushroom soup, chicken)

Chicken Pot Pie (cornstarch, salt, pepper, butter, carrots, potatoes, green beans, flour, milk- add chicken)

Stuffing (bread, eggs, onions, carrots, salt, pepper, garlic, sage- add chicken broth)

Baked chicken + stuffing (bread, eggs, onions, carrots, garlic, sage- add chicken broth, add chicken breasts on top)

Fried Chicken (flour, egg, salt, pepper, milk, vegetable oil- add chicken)

Baked Beans (ketchup, mustard, onions- add beans, bacon grease, brown sugar)

Green Beans (green beans, onions- add bacon grease or ham stock)

French toast (egg, milk, bread- add syrup or powdered sugar)
posted by headspace at 6:25 AM on March 2, 2010 [44 favorites]

make a quiche or egg casserole is pretty easy.

mix a bunch of eggs and some milk together. add some grated cheese.
add some flour to give it a little thickness but not too much.
add some frozen spinach that you have thawed in the microwave and some crumbled up bacon.

bake in a greased (veg oil or butter) dish or aluminum pan at 350 or 375 until it's pretty solid. 30-50 minutes depending.

you have to be willing to experiment. there's a jacques pepin book that is all about techiniques with lots of pictures, something like that might be helpful.

stir fry is easy - rice/tofu/veggies/ etc.

try finding a cookbook or recipes where you can freeze things. my friend and i made some kind of tofu marinade thing and some quesadilla things with chicken and rosemary the other weekend. took a lot of prep and all day but now we have frozen stuff to make whenever.

don't be afraid to screw up at first. it's like chemistry and things don't work out (like my attempt at making dough - yeast is weird. ugh.)

also - my cuisinart has proven indispensible. it lives on the counter, not put away. 2 cans of chickpeas, some tahini, lemon juice, and a jar of premade pesto makes some pretty banging hummus. have it on sandwiches with turkey and cheese or by itself.

you have to cook more to know how things go together and how they cook up. if you can afford to, don't be afraid to get stuff and try things that you're not sure about. you may waste some food, and that sucks i understand, but in the long run, you'll be a better cook.
posted by sio42 at 6:26 AM on March 2, 2010

My SO and I sort of had the same problem for awhile. Now we have a list of things we always buy (bagels, cream cheese, pasta, beans, rice, carrots, peppers...) and have a few meals we can always throw together (beans and rice ROCKS). It just takes experimenting to figure out what you like and what you can use.
One thing that worked for us was to get out of the "three cooked meals a day" mentality. We're both college students with full-time jobs, so we rarely eat together. We've learned to eat when we're hungry, which often involves what others might call large snacks (cut-up vegetables, crackers, cheese, etc.) When we have kids (or graduate), I hope we'll re-work this into a more structured schedule, but for now, it works.
posted by OLechat at 6:28 AM on March 2, 2010

When I'm trying to think of what I can make myself I go blank.

While I think I´m an okay cook, this is a problem I run into a lot too. It´s not so much a matter of knowing how to cook something, but of knowing what to cook, right? Start making a tiny list (on your computer or simply in a small notebook or whatever) of stuff you know how to cook*, and if you want to, make a file or something with recipes and lists of ingredients for those meals. Don't worry about the list of meals being too short for now, it will grow!

Over the next few days, weeks or months, add meals to your list. Even the simple ones that you'd never write down a recipe for. For ideas, use the answers to this question, for instance, or previous similar questions. Use the other methods others have mentioned to get inspiration.

Your list will grow and there will be meals on it that you'll cook weekly or just once a year, but you'll always have options to choose from, and planning meals for a whole week will become much easier!

*Even more convenient, use a recipe program that compiles a grocery list for you based on the recipes you click on for a certain week. I can't recommend one, as I rarely do this myself (I should, though ;-)) and when I do, I use a certain website for it, which is in Dutch so it won't be of any use to you.
posted by Ms. Next at 6:30 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

when I look at recipe books and add together all the ingredients, it looks like a boggling amount of purchases.

Well, first pick a cookbook that uses relatively few ingredients. Don't be scared off by a recipe just because it uses, say, 8 ingredients, but stay away from the cookbooks where every recipe is a staggering two-page spread designed to wow you.

As you'll see if you search for the previous threads that are very similar to this one, the thing to do is DON'T WORRY about the fact that "gee, if I go to the grocery store and buy all the ingredients for this recipe, that'll be a lot of ingredients and cost a lot of money." Disregard the price of the first meals you make. Even a simple spaghetti sauce (per your heading) could easily cost as much as a meal at the most expensive restaurant in town if you're using several different kinds of herbs. But so what? Once you have those herbs, you can make a bunch of different recipes with them. Don't focus on the initial cost of your meals as you're beginning to cook: it's all an investment.

What sorts of meals can I make in a pinch, without much?

Get Mark Bittman's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and make some of his basic soups: potato leek (preferably the pureed version) or carrot ginger. You don't even need a stock or broth. But try adding honey and nutmeg to his carrot ginger. (The potato leek recipe is searchable at that link.)

Once you've mastered potato leek (which is very easy), try adding other vegetables to the soup. Use whatever you want. Make enough of it, and there's your dinnerr.

Aside from the soups, Bittman specializes in presenting a very basic recipe and then giving a list of fun variations, so his books are very conducive to learning some basic meals to cook.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:38 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's a green curry to start with. It's really easy to make and very popular with my family.

Green Curry Paste (I use this one - a tub like this, refrigerated, will last a year).
1 Can of coconut 'milk' - available in any asian supermarket (and many ordinary supermarkets).

Other ingredients (choose whatever you have at hand - you only need 2 or 3 of these):
Meat (chicken, beef, pork, possum, whatever), cubed or sliced
Shrimp (prawns)
Bell pepper (cubed or sliced)
Mushrooms, chopped in half or into quarters
Green beans or snow peas, whole

Extras (optional, if you can find them):
Kaffir lime leaves (about 8) - tear each one into 2-3 pieces - I buy these frozen from an asian supermarket
Cilantro (coriander),
Thai fish sauce
Lemongrass stalks (bash lightly with a hammer or rolling pin, then use whole)

In a big pan or wok, stir-fry the meat for a few minutes in a little oil until it just starts to brown around the edges, and then add the vegetables and some of the curry paste (I use about a tablespoon). Fry all this together for a few minutes longer, then pour over the can of coconut milk. Throw in any of the optional leaves and lemongrass and allow to simmer for ten minutes or so until the meat is cooked through. If you're using shrimp, don't add them until a few minutes before the end.

You may want to sweeten the sauce a little with a pinch of sugar. Add a dash of fish sauce. Remove the lemongrass stalks. Serve with rice (preferably thai, although basmati will do). You can pretty much start cooking the rice at the same time as you start the curry.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:39 AM on March 2, 2010 [8 favorites]

I'm a little confused about the box advice.

No "[insert meat here] Helper", no "taco meal kit", no instant mashed potatoes -- generally try not to buy anything where you have all the ingredients packaged up for you and you're supposed to "just add meat" or you have something freeze-dried and you "just add water" or something. The reason is that you have no real control over the quality of the ingredients, and usually the "seasoning packet" is not all that healthy. It's also just as easy to make some of these things yourself from scratch anyway.

I follow this advice myself, but I make an exception and WILL buy macaroni and cheese in a box, because, seriously.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:41 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I'm trying to think of what I can make myself I go blank.

I used to have this problem a lot as well. but i've found that after a few years of forcing myself to try new recipes (from books or the newspaper usually) and cooking different unusual things i've developed a pretty good sense of what goes together and now cook / shop mostly by whats on special / in season.

So my advice is: use recipes for a while. and you'll get better and get more ideas.
posted by mary8nne at 6:41 AM on March 2, 2010

Also, if you do pre-order internet type arrangement then you can plan recipes based on what is availeble online. (well i'm shopping at a Farmer Direct online shop so the range is limited and different each week.).
posted by mary8nne at 6:43 AM on March 2, 2010

My main advice to starting cooks is: pick one or two dishes (for me it was risotto and pea soup) and make them over and over again. Like once a week each. Follow the recipe exactly the first couple of times, then start eyeballing stuff (maybe you will still measure spices and herbs, but rather than a cup of onion, learn what size onion will put the right amount of onion in your dish). Make enough to have a friend over and left overs for a day or two. That should keep you fed for most of the week.

Then expand your range. Add another entree into the rotation. Learn to make biscuits. If you like Indian food, make a curry or vindaloo then experiment with different kinds of rice, both varieties and preparations. Or find a basic vegetable soup and try swapping out vegetables until you find the mix that makes you happy.

Essentially, you need to practice, practice, practice. Becoming a decent cook is a lifetime project, although one that shows a payoff pretty darned quickly.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:43 AM on March 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Do you have a freezer? I'm assuming you don't, but if you do you have many more options.

Other things that you can buy plenty of that will last forever:

Cous cous
Beans of all kinds (dried or tinned, also baked beans)
Tins of tuna
Spices (indian ones or chinese/thai ones if you like that)
Bottled lemon juice
Dried noodles
Fish sauce, oyster sauce, hoi sin sauce or whatever you like
Thai green curry paste (maybe not FOREVER but it seems to last a while)

Things you can buy that will easily last a week:

Many kinds of veg (but not salad)

Things that will last long enough to get several meals out of:

A whole chicken (which you can roast and then eat cold for days)
A big lot of beef or pork mince.
A pack of (good quality) sausages

Things you can make easily with this lot:

Baked potato with cheese or beans or veg
Stir fry (with whatever veg you have on hand) and noodles or rice and oyster sauce (or whatever you have)
Sausages and mash
Sausage casserole
Frittata with sausage
Egg fried rice with sausage (good with left over rice)
Shepherd's pie
Chicken curry (with left over chicken)
Chicken noodle soup (with some of the green curry paste and some fish sauce if you have it)
Vegetable noodle soup (ditto)
Vegetable curry (with tinned chick peas if you like and whatever veg you have)
Vegetable cous cous
posted by emilyw at 6:44 AM on March 2, 2010 [5 favorites]

I try to balance the staples with one or two planned meals. So I might think up something and buy the ingredients for it, but the bulk of the shopping trip is filled with buying what we are running low on.

I tend to keep pasta and sauce in the staples category. I also keep a bunch of things that can make decent stir fries and curries on hand. We always have rice.

Another quick and easy staple is a can of black beans, a can of corn (or frozen) and some salsa heated up served in tortillas. This one of the things Mrs. Advicepig can make when I'm running late ;)
posted by advicepig at 6:46 AM on March 2, 2010

You're going to need to spend a little bit of money up front for pantry staples. This has a couple of benefits, including not balking at cooking a recipe because you need to buy a seven dollar jar of spice for the teaspoon of it that the recipe calls for.

Read this, then go to the store.

Borrow someone's car and stock up on the following:
-Salt (get a 2 lb. box of kosher salt - it lasts forever)
-Spices, especially whole peppercorns. Buy other stuff based on what you're interested in cooking lots of; if you're going for typical American household fare, then get some red pepper flakes, bay leaves, rosemary.
-Hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, vinegar (a couple different kinds, including white/red wine and sherry), olive oil (not extra virgin, unless you're mainly making salad dressing. You're wasting money if you're using extra virgin olive oil in your pans.).
-All-purpose flour, baking soda, sugar - even if you're not going to do any baking
-Rice (short and long grain)
-Pasta, including spaghetti-style noodles, penne-style, egg noodles, maybe some Asian noodles.

That's a good start for "stuff that never goes bad" (or almost never). "Stuff you should get that will last a longer time than you'd expect" includes (and get these, too, while you have the car):
-Butter (unsalted, a couple of pounds, stick most of it in the freezer. Get a pound of salted butter for slathering on stuff and keep all but one stick in the freezer.)
-Onions, garlic, ginger (if the onions and garlic start to sprout, they're no good. Ginger will desiccate and/or mold, so keep an eye on that, too).
-Lemons and limes (keep them around for fresh juice)
-Carrots and celery
-Frozen vegetables are handy - peas, beans, corn, etc.
-Hard cheese, like parmesan.

Ideally, when you go shopping from now on you'll be buying perishables for the week (meat and fresh veggies) and restocking what you ran out of.

Things you can cook once a week that will last for leftovers or reuse:
-Roast a whole chicken instead of just buying breasts. Cheaper per pound, you can use leftover meat for salads/soups/sandwiches, and you can make stock from the bones (and you will never go back to canned stock if you do this, trust me).
-Large pieces of beef like brisket, pot roasts, etc.
-Chili, stews, basically any "one-pot" meal is a great way to cook a lot and have leftovers. If you don't like eating the same thing multiple days in a row, then spend an afternoon cooking a couple of things and freeze them for later.
-Stir fries are incredibly easy, infinitely adaptable, and keep well.

If you're more of a steak and potatoes guy, you can have a steak dinner in a half hour.

If you want books, get The Joy of Cooking which has more recipes than you'll ever be able to make in a lifetime and Alton Brown's I'm Just Here For the Food which explains the basics of different cooking methods.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:46 AM on March 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

There are a bunch of quick, easy and healthy recipes you can try out. I would suggest cooking perhaps three times a week, during two of them you can make something in bulk that will last you for three days, e.g. chili, lasagna, daal, soup (soups are really difficult to screw up), and one day, let's say Saturday or Sunday, try to experiment and make a special dish for yourself. This way, you will be slowly expanding your culinary repertoire and learning to cook. I find the Cook's Book by Jill Norman awesome, it's an encyclopedia of cooking techniques and recipes. And for free you can look for food blogs (there are a lot of them out there, a lot of them feature easy, budget or bulk recipes). In terms of shopping, I always have flour, pasta, beans, rice, spices and herbs, milk, eggs, butter and cheese at the house, and I shop daily for veggies and meat/fish (if you don't want to be wasteful, shopping daily, or every other day, for fresh produce is simply something you need to do). Finally, I just wanted to say that cooking is awesome and actually not as difficult as it seems.
posted by kitchencrush at 6:56 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I used to have the "how do I plan my meals" problem until I decided dinner would always be a meat and a vegetable.

So a great deal of what I do is buy meats -- I tend to buy fish frozen, defrost it a day ahead of time, and eat that several times a week, then sometimes chicken frozen, but mostly chicken and beef unfrozen and eat those within the first several days of going to the grocery store. Other things I keep on hand to add to a meal: frozen shrimp, eggs.

Then I also buy shloads of frozen vegetables. Frozen vegetables are great because you can drop them directly into a frying pan with some fat and they cook fine and you'd never know they were frozen. All these need is some salt and pepper, then other seasonings if you're feeling inspired.

This means for the most part, I don't have to plan anything. I pick whatever meat is thawed at the time, pick a vegetable that seems to go with it, and cook it.

There are only a few more complicated vegetable dishes that I bother to keep in mind ahead of time when shopping, and they're no big deal. Even then, I don't think, "Thursday I'm going to eat this dish," I just think, "Sometime this week I want to make..."
posted by Nattie at 7:01 AM on March 2, 2010

I'm a lazy cook, so I'll usually make two or three meals a week and eat leftovers, salad, and frozen food the rest of the time. When I do cook, I keep to a two pan maximum. Favorites:

-Chicken or steak cooked in olive oil and herbs (I just buy some tasty-looking generic herb combo at the supermarket). Add chopped peppers, onions, or asparagus to taste. Rice or couscous goes well on the side, or it goes well over a bed of baby spinach. This also works with steak and fish (15 min)

-Spanish rice (I just buy the store brand) and chicken: can be microwaved (if you buy ready-cooked chicken) or cooked (12 min)

-Chicken gravy and rice: Broil a fattish-cut of chicken with bullion, and use the drippings to make your gravy. You could also just buy the gravy (takes about an hour).

-Polish sausage, potatoes, canned green beans: throw everything into a pot, cover it, and cook until the potatoes are soft enough to eat (the meat is done by this time). Usually there's enough fluid in the green bean can so that you don't have to add water, and water tends to dilute the flavor. (45-50 minutes)

-My mom makes an awesome stew (chopped stew meat, carrots, potatoes, onion, canned tomatoes, lentils, cabbage, and anything else that happens to by lying around the kitchen) using a pressure cooker. Pressure cooking is a great method in general for when you want to eat something quickly. (20 minutes cook time + prep time)

When shopping, I buy 2-3 lbs of meat for two weeks' worth of food (usually boneless cuts of chicken, steak, fish) and then cut and bag it into single portions. In the morning, I take my dinner out to thaw and then cook it up that evening with whatever side dishes seem to look good.

Plain rice, frozen vegetables, and boxed side dishes keep really well and can be bought in bulk. Although I like fresh food, especially fruit and vegetables, when you're single and buying produce for yourself, you either end up going to the supermarket every other day or throwing things out as they go bad. I only buy peppers, asparagus and so on when I have a specific meal that I'm going to use it in over the next couple of days, otherwise I tend to forget what I've bought and waste food.
posted by _cave at 7:02 AM on March 2, 2010

I highly recommend Bittman's How to Cook Everything. Check it out from the library if you aren't ready to spend $25 on a cookbook, if only to read the introduction. I cannot not say enough good things about this book. It is basically my cooking bible. I think this book is written with someone like you in mind: someone new to cooking, who wants to learn the basics and eat more real food, but perhaps doesn't know where to start. His recipes are great for the novice as they don't have a huge list of ingredients or a ton of steps, but tend to turn out very well. It will definitely build your confidence in the kitchen.

I'm also an evangelist for roasting a chicken and roasting veggies. These meals were sort of revelation for me. Everyone should do this. It is ridiculous how easy (and healthy! and economical!) these meals are, but the outcome is quite impressive and delicious. All you really need for both of these meals are, of course, the chicken and the veggies (onions + damn near any vegetable, aside from watery stuff, like lettuce and cucumbers), olive oil or butter, salt, pepper, and a lemon. The only equipment you need is a roasting pan. (I use a $10 Pyrex pan.) I often use both of these meals as a basis for a simple taco dinner, combining them with some warm corn tortillas, chopped onions, green salsa from a jar, and a quick quasi-refried bean dish. (Bean recipe: Can of beans with liquid + bay leaf cooked over low heat until it thickens up. Mash up with lots of roasted garlic.) When I lived near a farmers market, this is what I ate everyday instead of pasta.

Also, the classic not-pasta but results in massive amounts of food on the cheap and easy with mostly pantry items is lentil soup. All you need is a can of tomatoes, an onion, a bag of lentils, and a bay leaf. If you want to get fancy, you can add a little smoked meat, like kielbasa, bacon, or ham.

A place to look for recipes: Food Blog Search.
The food bloggers post lots of pictures and make a lot of comments about their process, which I find helpful.
posted by thewrongparty at 7:08 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's my absolute favorite simple thing to make: Duck Breast with Spicey Brussells Sprouts and Tomato Stew. I guarantee you can make this. Once you've got it down, you can make it in about 10 minutes (and believe me, no one you serve it to will believe it was so quick). At the start, it'll probably take you 30 - 40 minutes.

Ignore that this post is so long, I promise you this can be made easily by anyone.

You can of course make the breast or the brussells sprouts as solo dishes or accompaniments for other dishes--don't let not liking sprouts or duck stop you from trying the other dish.

Here's what you need, explained for the absolute noob:

4 fist size tomatoes (any kind but roma)
1 purple onion (again, fist size is good)
a bit of fresh ginger (about the length of the last knuckle of your thumb)
3 garlic cloves (which are in one garlic bulb)
2 tablespoons of coriander seeds
1 or 2 fresh (not dried) small red chilis
10 - 15 of the smallest brussells sprouts you can find
muscovy duck breast, skin on (one breast can do 3 - 4 meals, depends how much meat you like)
1 tablespoon of soy sauce (optional)
olive oil

two skillets, at least one stick-free
one pot

here's what you do:


FIRST, turn your oven on to let it get hot. 375 to 400. Some stoves you also need to choose "bake" as an option.


1. slice the peppers into super thin strips and discard the seeds. put the strips in a tiny bowl or cup.

2. peel the ginger (cut off the outer skin with a knife and discard) and slice into very thin strips. add them to the bowl/cup.

3. peel 3 garlic cloves, slice them in half, length-wise. you'll see a little root like thing in the middle, yank it out as sometimes they're bitter. then, slice into thin slices and add to bowl/cup.

4. leave the coriander seeds in the bag, press the air out of it. hold the open end down and take a can of soup or something and, using it like a rolling pin, apply pressure and roll it over the bag of seeds, crushing them. of course, if you have a mortar and pistle, you can just use that. :) When they're mostly crushed, add them to the bowl/cup.


5. discard the outermost leaves from each brussells sprout (usually this means 2 leaves off each, one on each side). cut each sprout in half through the root and drop each into a collander. wash them off and let them sit.

6. slice the onion into half-moon crescents. but them in a large bowl.

7. core the tomatoes and gently squeeze the juices out. then, slice in half and then slice into thickish slices. put them in DIFFERENT bowl.


Prep the duck by doing it exactly like this guy does--everything up to putting it in the pan. Note that when by myself, the size duck in the video is about 2 meals or maybe 1 and a half. I buy a $20 duck breast and it does me 4 solo meals or feeds 3 if I have guests, as I'm a little more generous. My $20 breast is the size of two in the video.

You are now ready to cook! If you've been organized and prepped all your stuff, you'll now be done in about 10 minutes. I do the two dishes simultaneously but you can do them individually if that's easier for you.


First, make sure your oven is up to temp (the light should go OFF)


1. boil some water in the pot (the smaller the pot the quicker it'll be--it only needs to be big enough for water to cover your 10-15 brussells sprouts).

2. when water is at a rolling boil, drop in your sprouts. Leave them in for only 30 seconds! Then, pour them back into the collander and let them sit till you need them. you no longer need the pot, get it out of the way.

3. heat one of your skillets (if you only have one non-stick one, don't use it yet) on medium high heat (on my stove, that's between 6 and 7).

4. drop in about a tablespoon of olive oil. Let it get hot (it'll do so quickly), and swirl it around to cover the pan.

5. when oil is hot, watch the clock on your stove. when it turns over a new minute, drop in your sprouts and your onions.

6. let cook for 2 minutes. at the 2 minute mark, drop in your bowl/cup of spices, stir to mix.

7. let cook for another 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. at the new two minute mark, drop in your tomatoes and your soy sauce. stir to mix.

8. cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

That's it, vegetable dish is done!


1. put your non-stick fry pan (not much larger than your duck) on medium high heat. let it get damn hot. DO NOT OIL IT.

2. When your stove clock clicks to another minute, drop in your prepped duck, fat/skin side down. make sure it's in contact with the pan but don't prod it with anything, just let it sit.

3. at the new two minute mark, flip it to the other side using tongs.

4. count to thirty seconds, then lift the pan off the stove and using tongs, flip the duck to the other side again.

5. put the duck in the prepped oven for 8 minutes.

6. remove duck from oven, drop it onto a plate, skin side up. skin should be golden brown and crispy, meat should be very very pink (duck is eaten medium rare).

7. let the meat sit for 3 or 4 minutes while you're scooping some veggies onto a plate.

8. drop the meat onto veggies and slice in thickish strips.


Make sure you turn off all your stove/oven stuff. Eat!
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 7:28 AM on March 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Stir fry is great, because it requires very little planning, and is very flexible.
Just fry some onion & garlic in oil until they start getting translucent, then add in veggies (broccoli, carrot, mushrooms, cauliflower, etc etc), stir those around until they get a bit soft, then add some leafy green (kale, collards, bok choy, spinach, etc), and cook until they're nice and limp. Add a bit of salt and pepper (and other spices if you like), and you're done! Probably 15-20 minutes total. You can also find lots of recipes for easy-to-make peanut sauce, which is great on stir fry.

Baked potatoes are the most mind-bogglingly easy quick-meal to make, and delicious to boot:
1. Preheat oven to 400
2. Rinse potatoes
3. Get rid of any eyes growing in them
4. Poke a few holes in the potato skins so they don't explode
5. Put them in the oven for ~30 min - just stick them on the oven rack - no pan needed! (they're ready when a fork can poke through them very easily)
6. Remove from oven, split open in a bowl, add olive oil and salt.
7. Eat. Mmmmmm.

Another easy one is mashed potato/sweet potato/squash. You make them all the same way.
1. Put a big pot of water to boil
2. Peel potatoes (or sweet potatoes or squash)
3. Cut them into chunks (~ 1 inch on a side)
4. Dump them in the water
5. Cook until they're soft (they should break apart pretty easily when speared with a fork)
6. Drain the water.
7. Add some salt (and oil if you like, but not necessary), and mash them. Yummm....

Another simple recipe, although it requires a bit more washing afterwards, is roasted summer squash/zucchini.
1. Preheat oven to 375
2. Wash squash and/or zucchini
3. Cut them into thin slabs lengthwise (~1/2 cm thick)
4. Oil a pan.
5. Lay the slabs on the pan.
6. Sprinkle vigorously with salt, pepper, and other herbs if you like (thyme and rosemary are good)
7. Flip them over
8. Sprinkle again
9. Stick them in the oven
10. Roast for about 10-15 minutes. You can roast them longer if you want them to be crispy, but I prefer them when they're just juicy and succulent.

This rice cooker is amazing - it makes it incredibly easy to make rice, and it makes very good rice too. You can even put the water & rice in in the evening, and set a timer so the rice cooker will have it ready in the morning! It's magical.

A little advice for shopping: Keep a list around with a pen nearby so you know what to get when you go shopping. Also, if you have a nice big camping backpack, they're awesome for shopping - you can fit a ton of groceries in one.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:31 AM on March 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

You can get frozen chopped onions and frozen chopped green peppers, which, especially when cooking for one, are VERY convenient. You often need just a bit of onion, chopping takes time, and you don't want it to go bad before you eat it all. I just toss them frozen in the skillet with oil a few minutes before I start cooking the other things, to give them time to thaw. You get some extra water, but it's fine.

I really like the More with Less cookbook, which is simple, heart, nutritious food. One problem I found with cookbooks is a lot of them act like you're cooking an elaborate meal for Sunday family dinner, and that's a lot of effort for a quick dinner on a weeknight for one or two people. More with Less is very workaday, and a lot of the recipes are easy and quick. (It has two companion books: Extending the Table, which is awesome international workaday food; and Simply in Season, which is recipes for in-season fresh produce, but which I don't use nearly as much.)

Another book, called How to Cook Without a Book, teaches you the basics of cooking "by ear" from scratch -- the sort of thing you would have learned had you cooked with your mom for 20 years, where you look in the cabinet and go, "Hmmmm, I think I'll make pasta with red sauce and a savory salad" and prepare a meal in 20 minutes with three or four dishes. I not only couldn't do that, I couldn't even begin to fathom how one cooked without recipes and shopping lists and hassle. That might be one to get from the library rather than to own, or at least to look at at the library before buying to own. It's not as useful a COOKBOOK, but it definitely helped me understand what I was trying to do when I was a beginning cook who could make exactly one thing: pasta.

Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, which gives the science and the "why" behind cooking, was EXTREMELY helpful to me learning to cook, because if I don't UNDERSTAND what I'm doing, I do it badly. If you're like me in that, this book seriously improved my cooking overnight because so many lightbulbs went on in my head. If you're not like me, it may be interesting in and of itself to you, or it may just be meh.

Those are the books that were most helpful to me in going from being able to make pasta (not even sauce! just the pasta!) to six years later being able to whip up a salmon souffle from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I also like How to Cook Everything (mentioned above, although his fixation on the food processor is unholy) for reference ("hm, what do I do with asparagus again?"), and the Good Housekeeping cookbook (I like my 80s edition better than my recent edition) for lots of recipes and for fancier things. My husband prefers Joy of Cooking and the Southern Living Cookbook. But no cookbooks in our kitchen get used NEARLY as much as More with Less.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:34 AM on March 2, 2010 [5 favorites]

This New York Times article has 101 quick 'n easy (under 10min) meals.
posted by jmmpangaea at 7:43 AM on March 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Plan out your meals for the whole week, and keep it simple. Hillbilly Housewife is a good website with simple recipes. I roast a chicken at some point every week:

Roast chicken: Remove innards from cavity and roast a 6 pd fryer at 450 for an hour. After half an hour throw in some cut up potatoes and root vegetables. Want to be fancy? Stick a lemon into your chicken.

When you get better at cooking, try making stock from your roasted bones, and then soup from that stock.
posted by xammerboy at 7:51 AM on March 2, 2010

get a cheap rice cooker and listen to roger ebert
posted by jrishel at 8:03 AM on March 2, 2010

I am like most non-cooking guy in the world. Recently I have been throwing chicken thighs or sausage into a pot w/diced tomatoes, kidney beans, navy beans, corn, and onions and let it simmer for a few hours. (I usually can get canned organic stuff at Trader Joe's pretty cheap) I toss in a little garlic powder and pepper to liven it up. I usually boil the chicken a little first or cook the sausage a bit first because I'm paranoid about not cooking meat enough. It would be easy to add spuds or carrots. I've tried it in a crock pot and it just seems to come out better from a pot on the stove. I usually eat it over brown rice or with crackers.
posted by marxchivist at 8:09 AM on March 2, 2010

My no stress fall back meal:
(have a few of these and you'll be all set!)

8oz. Catalina dressing (I but the 16oz bottle and use it twice)
1 can of ocean spray cranberries (whole berries, not the jelly)
1 envelope of onion soup mix (I use generic)

^mix those three things together in a large bowl^

Pour over 1 lb. chicken breasts in a casserole dish.

Cook at 350 for an hour.

So good! My MIL gave me this recipe when I was newly-married. I've made it on a regular basis for the past 6 years. Whenever someone new tries it, they always want the recipe.

I like it because it has so few ingredients and it is cheap!
(also it reheats well!)
posted by morganannie at 8:24 AM on March 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

I *buy* not but.

Also, cook uncovered.
posted by morganannie at 8:25 AM on March 2, 2010

Following on Eyebrows McGee's basic book recommendations, I'd also also throw in Michael Ruhlman's Ratio. His contention is that most "hard" recipes aren't really that hard at all, if you give it a try and keep it simple. The primary conceit of the book is that it's full of "un-recipe" recipes. If you remember the ratio of 2-5 or so key ingredients, you can easily create a dish well without a full "recipe".

As to my own advice, start simply picking out basic, simple things (meats, vegetables, fruit, grains) that you love to eat, and buy them. It doesn't take much trial and error to find good ways to make them go together.

Smaller advice bits:
* Using sauteed onion bits as the first ingredient will make almost all of your savory dishes taste better. Adding garlic to your fried onions is also awesome, but you might not want to eat garlic every day.
* Either roast a chicken, or buy a cooked rotisserie chicken every so often. Simmer (low temperature, few bubbles) all of the parts that you don't eat in water to cover with some salt for about two hours. The resulting liquid will be chicken stock. Add it to any savory dish that calls for liquid, and it's instant win. Preserve it by freezing into small portions.
* Take a dish that starts with carrots, celery, and onions, and use the opportunity to actively practice proper knife technique. You'll cook a lot faster once you've gotten used to chopping efficiently without hurting your fingers.

Good luck!
posted by Citrus at 8:48 AM on March 2, 2010

I like the formula of protein (meat, tofu, beans) + carbohydrate (pasta, rice, potatoes, bread) + vegetable + flavoring/sauce.

Keep your house stocked with your favorite proteins (you can store uncooked meat in the freezer; packaged tofu keeps a while in the fridge; canned/uncooked beans keep forever). The carbohydrates keep forever in the cabinet (except bread, which you'll go through, or you can keep in the freezer). You'll go through the vegetables and replace them.

You can pick 1-3 meals to cook a week - make enough to have leftovers. You can also freeze some leftovers, so you don't get bored & have a fast meal later.

Ideas for meals following this formula - you should easily be able to google recipes, or there are some in this thread already:
*stir-fry meat/tofu with any vegetables you like, garlic, soy sauce; serve with rice
*stir-fry meal/tofu with vegetables, add prepared Thai curry sauce or Indian curry sauce (check Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, or your regular market, or make your own if you're feeling ambitious); serve with rice
*Cook pasta, add marinara or any other sauce (from a jar or your own). Serve with a big salad or steamed vegetables - any that you like. Optional: serve with (ideally leftover) roast chicken or something on the side
*roast chicken & potatoes. Serve with steamed vegetables or a big salad.
*Cook rice, serve with beans. Add salsa and/or cheese if you want. Serve with a salad.

The idea I'm trying to convey is that you can use the same ingredients for lots of recipes, and that you can keep stuff around to make most of the recipes. It'll get more natural with practice.
posted by insectosaurus at 8:49 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I recommend getting a slow cooker (Crock Pot) and a cookbook for it. I'm about to have some chili for lunch that I made in mine. You can freeze the stuff you make.

On another thread, someone posted a recipe for their "lazy quiche": four eggs, 1 cup
Bisquick, 1 tablesppon of oil, salt & pepper to taste. Mix it up, then add anything you'd put in a quiche that you like: veggies, mushrooms, meat. Bake at 350 degrees for a half hour or until a knife comes out clean. I think you could do a "lazy apple dumpling" or other cobbler with the right amount of sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
posted by jgirl at 8:52 AM on March 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

This Site (Budget Bytes) is fantastic. The author focuses on how to shop, how to cook, and how to use all of the things you've purchased and cooked to make a variety of meals.

She includes detailed cooking instructions and photographs as well as a complete cost breakdown for the entire meal and per serving costs. And the meals are all fairly easy to make with simple ingredients, and taste fabulous.

I'm not necessarily budget conscious in my shopping/cooking, but I've gotten some great recipes and information on this site.
posted by CorporateHippy at 9:29 AM on March 2, 2010

You'll get a hang of this with practice. One really simple gage of if my grocery shopping is going well is how my cart looks. Mostly full of veggies, items from bulk containers (like rice), and a piece of meat, yes! Happy cart! Does my cart look more like a nascar threw up in it? (lots of logos, boxes, packaging, celebrity faces, ingredient lists that go on and on) = sad cart.

I also used to be terrified of shopping for a week's worth of groceries, afraid that when I'd get to the register I'd be smacked with a bill much larger than I was anticipating. I now have a pretty good sense of how much I'm spending, and the Happy Cart vs. sad cart is a really good indicator of this. Happy Cart rarely has items over $5 in it, and can feed 2 people for a week for $50-$70*. (booze and coffee not included)

Every other month or so, there might be an extra $40 for staples (that always seem to run out at once) like oil & spices. You mentioned you're not super strapped for cash, and this is great. Get your pantry stocked. There was already a great list up thread so I won't add to it. Also know that for every meal cooked, and every ingredient added to your pantry your cost per meal will go down. Even if those first few grocery bills are high they will go down. Say you're cooking 7 meals. Your cost per meal might be $2. Your grocery bill won't be the same as 7 x $2 for a while. Even if you're only using $.02 of cumin, you still had to buy the $3 jar. You've got the flexibility to invest in cheaper meals down the road. (this is a big issue in food/poverty/obesity politics)

That $20 giant jug of olive oil might hurt right now, but it's per oz. price is half the other containers. These are all things you will learn. Don't be afraid to take forever in the aisles with a calculator. Once you learn what the better deals is, and where everything is located, your trips will be quick.

Another thing to learn are what tends to go on sale, and what you can do with it. Pork tenderloins, for example, occasionally go on sale for $1.50/lbs. This is a great lean cut of meat, and very versatile. Last week we (the BF and I) bought a big pack of 2. We trimmed the tenderloins (remove fat and silverskin) and cut them into 2 even cuts of meat. A tenderloin has a skinny end, and the fat end has a flappy thing. Those funky sized bits were chopped to make an even hunk of meat which = an even cooking time. The 2 loins were seared all around in an oven safe pot, then roasted till 170 degrees. One was saved for sandwiches. One was eaten that night with a simple pan sauce. The extra bits were saved for pork tacos. It also could have been pork fried rice. Both of these dishes are great leftover collectors, and really adaptable to whatever you have on hand.

I've got a similar list of dishes for when whole chickens are on sale. Roast and eat breasts. Take rest of the meat off and save for chicken tacos, enchiladas, salads, chicken salad sandwiches. Simmer the carcass with carrots, onions, bay leaf, and just enough water to cover for 3 hours (or until you want to go to bed). Strain it, and keep your stock in the fridge for a week, or the freezer indefinitely. Make a soup with this and a bit of leftover chicken, or just simmer lentils in it. Depending on how big, you will get 3 or 4 meals out of this 1 bird.

Keep quick cooking starches on hand, like rice, couscous (and yeah pasta). Go for what veggies look best that week (Broccoli is a good bet) and plan meals to have 25% protein, 25% starch and 50% veg.

So I've been a bit rambly, but I usually try to have a week's meals planed out like this:

Weekend: something a bit more time consuming, like big batch of beans, soup, pasta sauce, roast meat or pizza. If I'm feeling ambitious, there might also be some bread baking, making muffins, scones, yogurt, or big batch of oatmeal for breakfasts throughout the week. If I'm really on top of things, I'll make something that can be used for packed lunches like a bean salad.

Breakfasts: cheap and fast like cereal, oatmeal or fruit.
Lunches: leftovers (or eat out occasionally)
Dinners: A leftover creating meal. Several independent meals (or you get jammed up), and a few pantry/emergency meals. I don't try to say Monday will be A, Tuesday will be B. I write down the meals planed and purchased, and pick one depending on mood and time. I keep a mental tally of what's going bad, and when meat needs to be cooked. Otherwise I try to stay flexible.

Invaluable to have in every kitchen is a stack of emergency/pantry meals. I define these as meals where all the ingredients are shelf stable or very long lasting (like onions or potatoes which will last a month) * I live in Texas, which has a fairly low cost of living, and a pretty awesome cheap grocery store chain. Expect this to scale to where ever you are and what "class" of grocery store you shop at.
posted by fontophilic at 9:59 AM on March 2, 2010

Jamie's Food Revolution. Seriously. Greatest cookbook ever (and I have most of Jamie Oliver's other books, Bittman, "Joy of Cooking", "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone"...for tasty, simple meals, this one leaves them all in the dust). With every recipe, there is a big photo or two, and when the recipe is more complex (not too tough, really!), there are little photos that show the food in all stages of prep. The Broccoli and Pesto Tagliatelle has become a weekly staple, and the Quick Salmon Tikka with Cucumber Yoghurt is our "special occasion" meal. My husband makes himself the Mini Shell Pasta With Bacon and Peas on a regular basis. We are relatively poor students/working folk, and we manage pretty well on our budget drawing from his recipes.

Jamie's "holy trinity" is ginger, red chillies, and garlic - throw in some sea salt, fresh corriander, mint, and basil, and you're ready to make just about anything taste uber-delicious.
posted by purlgurly at 1:48 PM on March 2, 2010

Oh, I forgot the spaghetti recipe with homemade tomato sauce - another staple in our house, and you'll never want to have from-a-can spaghetti sauce again. :)

We also improvise with his recipes - we did the black bean stirfry with tofu instead of beef, and it was very tasty.

I am honestly not a paid spokesperson for this book. :) I just really love it - and cooking from it has made me better at everything else I make.
posted by purlgurly at 1:51 PM on March 2, 2010

I have a website that changed my life, which I'm linking to, but understand that's it's for family size cooking and not for singles. However, there are key things that I learned that will make your life easier.

Buy 3-5 times the ground beef or chicken or pork that you'd normally eat when it's on sale. Cook it up on a weekend, use some for that nights meal, then divide the rest into about 1/2 lb servings and freeze. Then it's there to toss onto a salad, add to pasta, make a casserole, make soup, make a goulash and you can have meals much, much faster.

Do the same with onions and peppers. It's just as easy to saute a whole pan of onions as to saute one.

When making a pasta cassarole, I split half into a pan to bake that night, then put the other half (unbaked) in a freezer safe dish and save for another night.

Almost every week I make something that is a planned leftover. For example, last week the menu included roast beef. On the first day it was used for French dip sandwiches, then a few days later it the beef went into burritos.

When all else fails, use Allrecipes to see what you can make with what's on hand.
posted by saffry at 2:50 PM on March 2, 2010

I'm in the same student that wants to cook more but was intimidated by meal/menu planning/grocery shopping.

At first, I spent a few hours racking my brain for recipes I already knew/searching sites like allrecipes for simple, basic recipes and made a list of all those recipes. Then, when it came time to go grocery shopping, I would pick ~5 of them that shared ingredients (for example, black bean burgers and chili in the same week) and make a list of just those ingredients. I also try to keep a lot of different kinds of pasta, rice, etc around so I could throw together a few quick things. I've also started making a lot of things from scratch I used to buy premade- for example, when I make spaghetti and sauce I'll make sauce by saute-ing onions, garlic, and maybe boca crumbles together, then pour in a can of crushed tomatoes and some Italian seasoning. It's simple, but it's amazing how much better it is than sauce from a can.

Meals I make pretty consistently:
-Fried rice
-Sloppy Joes
-Black bean burgers
-Pasta with garlic butter sauce and arugula
-Baked potatoes/mashed potatoes (good, easy base for broccoli and cheese)
-Scrambled eggs/pancakes (save leftover pancakes in the freezer and pop into the toaster in the morning- works the same way as normal frozen pancakes!
-Crepes with various fruit fillings (they look really intimidating but they're pretty easy)
-Pot pie/shepard's pie
posted by kro at 6:17 PM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's what I did when I went through my food madness phase.

1. Watch the food network -- I learned a lot from Rachel Ray even though it took me at least an hour to cook her 30 minute meals.

2. Buy NICE cookware -- NON STICK. It's worth the investment, easy to clean, and will go with you wherever you go. I still have my Emerilware set from years ago.

3. Learn methods, not recipes. For example, how to thicken a sauce. How to whisk salad dressing, etc.

4. Make extra and freeze it in single portions either in freezer bags or those Glad plastic containers. Then you can toss it in the micro and you're good to go.

5. Don't go measurement crazy. Just estimate, unless you're baking. This makes it more fun and less crazy-feeling.
posted by thorny at 11:35 PM on March 5, 2010

There's a ton of good advice here, so I will only add this: You will find as you cook more that certain things come up again and again. For instance, every soup or stew and almost every sauce starts off with some base-flavor vegetables being sauteed/softened in some kind of fat. Depending on which cuisines appeal to you, that base group of vegetables may vary slightly, but it will come up again and again and again. Similar with spices. So you may want to check out this:

And see what the trinity is for the stuff you like to eat. You say you like spaghetti; Italian-American dishes almost always start with garlic and onion in olive oil, often with tomatoes, sometimes with carrot. If you're cook a lot of red sauce you're always going to need those things. Mexican --- chilies. Lots of classic French and American dishes --- celery. Etc.
posted by Diablevert at 6:03 AM on March 6, 2010

I am a super super amateur cook who moved out a few years ago but only this semester learned how to kind-of cook.

I like to buy a kind of meat (usually beef - marinating steak) and fry it. With some butter, and salt. Maybe marinade. And then boil some carrots/green beans, or steam some broccoli or microwave a potato. So yeah, meat and vegetables. And then I love bread so I always have some on hand to eat with cheese. Fresh fruit as snacks.

It's really simple and I feel like I'm eating enough of the right things, and enough varied things.
posted by hepta at 5:33 PM on March 7, 2010

EmpressCallipygos: "I follow this advice myself, but I make an exception and WILL buy macaroni and cheese in a box, because, seriously."

What! Its easy to buy big cheap hunks of cheese that last a long time and make a much better roux than that powdered shit that comes in the box:

In a saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in enough flour to make a roux. Add milk to roux slowly, stirring constantly. Stir in cheeses, and cook over low heat until cheese is melted and the sauce is a little thick. Pour over whatever pasta you want.

So much more delicious and you can mix it up with different cheese
posted by Blasdelb at 10:53 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

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