Save me from bachelor cuisine.
June 18, 2013 6:25 AM   Subscribe

Cheap/easy meals needed for someone helpless at cooking. Particulars within.

I have absolutely no instinct for cooking. I’d like to develop some culinary skill, but I’m told it requires practice. As a student I have very little time or money to devote to cooking; all the same, I’m getting tired of sandwiches and pasta. That’s where you come in. I’ve skimmed some previous threads and the EatMe wiki, but I’m hoping for some additional anecdata.

I’m looking for any meal ideas or recipes (I can follow instructions as long as they’re painfully clear) that fit (at least some of) the following criteria:
-Fairly inexpensive;
-Doesn’t require lengthy prep or cooking time;
-Yields multiple servings, if possible (pasta gets old, but one package and a jar of sauce=four dinners);
-Not horrendously unhealthy (so most frozen dinners and instant ramen are out);
-Won’t leave me with ingredients I have no idea how to repurpose.

Dinner suggestions would be most valuable, but I'm open to ideas for any meal. Thanks!
posted by xenization to Food & Drink (26 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Did you see this from yesterday? How-can-I-learn-to-grocery-shop-and-cook-on-a-college-budget
posted by travelwithcats at 6:32 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One easy go-to meal during my student daze was Swedish meatballs. You will need:
1) Frozen meatballs
2) White rice
3) A can of cream of mushroom soup.

Cook the rice. You can do instant, but real rice is just as easy. Throw X amount of rice in a pot. Add 2X the amount of water. Boil until the water level reaches the top of the rice, then remove from heat and cover. Nuke the frozen meatballs, first on a low setting to defrost, and then just a little bit on full power to heat them up. Open the can of soup, boil. By now, the rice should have absorbed all the water. Throw the rice on a plate. Throw the meatballs on the rice. Cover all that shit over with cream of mushroom soup. Voila! Swedish meatballs!

Simple recipe from an old 'Cook with Campbells' cookbook. Super-easy, with everything resembling actual meals. Looks like they're still around...
posted by Capt. Renault at 6:36 AM on June 18, 2013

Best answer: Do you have a Trader Joe's nearby? If so, try the Trader Joe's cookbook. It utilizes pre-prepared Trader Joe's foods to make fast, easy, simple meals. Not super-healthy, but cheaper and healthier than takeout, and more interesting than pasta. Also, because the building blocks are pre-made, you won't have a lot of leftover ingredients. (I actually hated the cookbook for all of these reasons, but I think it would work really well for someone at your stage of learning.)

Examples of the kind of recipes the book has:

-Buy frozen guyoza, add chicken broth and chopped veggies. Soup! Serve with bread.
-Buy canned beans and salsa, add broth or water, cook for a while. Soup! Serve with bread.

If or when you're a step above combining pre-made foods and looking to start proper cooking/meal planning, I really like Everyday Foods (no longer publishing, alas, but it looks like they have an ap).

Also, if you're a visual learner, The Pioneer Woman Cooks may be helpful -- her recipes are generally not super-healthy but she breaks everything down with step-by-step photos.
posted by pie ninja at 6:36 AM on June 18, 2013

Best answer: Frittata -- eggs plus any veggies and/or meat you have on hand (or purpose-buy). When I was learning to cook, and I had half a green pepper left over, I'd toss it in a frittata. (I learned the recipe from "How to Cook without a Book," I think this link will take you there.) It is pretty easy and once you get the basic idea down, you can improvise like crazy. It's a good "planned" meal, but it's a GREAT end-of-the-week meal for using up your odd scraps of ingredients from earlier in the week. Every two eggs you use makes one serving, so an 8-egg frittata (fits most skillets) will give you four servings. They do reheat. I'm not a huge fan of the texture of reheated eggs, but my husband insisted I was an insane person and thought they were great leftovers.

Dinner salads are also a nice alternative. It's also pretty easy to learn to make veggie pastas with simple cream sauces.

Pro-tip: shop at a supermarket with a salad bar, so you can get 1/4 cup of cauliflower florets instead of a WHOLE HEAD OF CAULIFLOWER that you'll never eat you way through in time. A lot more recipes-for-one become available if you shop at a salad bar so you can get fresh ingredients in small quantities!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:38 AM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Chili mac. I've made this dozens of times. It's a winner. Use the entire box of elbow macaroni, not two cups. It makes food for days. I omit the corn.
posted by Fairchild at 6:39 AM on June 18, 2013

Best answer: "Did you see this from yesterday? How-can-I-learn-to-grocery-shop-and-cook-on-a-college-budget"

I think the Help My Apartment Has a Kitchen! book mentioned there may be of interest. I was given a copy (I think) when I went to college and, while I almost never look at it (I'm a vegetarian, which doesn't help), it does cover the 'I want something simple and straightforward to cook' area in a way that meets your criteria.
posted by hoyland at 6:40 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Get a slow cooker. For the most part you just chuck stuff in it in the morning and by supper time you have a fregging KILLER meal, all hot and ready to go. Can't get much easier than that.

My past askmefi for healthy easy slow cooker recipes
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 6:45 AM on June 18, 2013

Best answer: Oh, here's another one I did a lot when I was in grad school -- I make a sort of rice pilaf with various frozen veggies. (I probably got the base recipe from "how to cook w/o a book" too.)

1 T. butter
1/2 small onion (small handful of frozen chopped onions)

Saute onion in butter until softened in rice pot. Add:

1 cup brown rice
2 cups chicken broth

Stir to mix onions and butter throughout. Cook rice in broth for 40-45 minutes with lid closed, following directions on the rice.

So that's where you start and that's pretty tasty, but then you get fancy. Want broccoli rice? Add frozen broccoli to the rice when there's about 10 minutes left to cook (however long the frozen broccoli says it takes to cook on the stove). Or sprinkle parmesan and black pepper on the finished product. Or put in a small can of salsa at the beginning (with the onion) and you can make a pretty creditable "salsa rice." Sautee mushrooms or squash in with the onions. Or, my favorite, saute 1/2 cup chopped carrots and 1/2 cup raisins with the onions, then add 2 cups frozen peas and 1 cup cashews when there's 10 minutes left to cook. Delicious!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:47 AM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: How 'bout turning boring old hamburger into delicious juicy burgers or ground steaks? I've been using this mix lately, and my wife I both love it.

Mix together:
A pound of 85/15 ground beef, a few tablespoons each of Dijon mustard and ketchup, a few splashes of Worcestershire sauce, an egg, some salt and pepper, and a quarter cup of finely chopped onion or minced garlic. Mix it thoroughly with your hands and cook over medium heat in a skillet. You'll get 2 to 4 servings. Prep time is 5 to 10 minutes.

Cooking hint: make the patties about 1/2 an inch thick and cook about 5 minutes per side. Until you get a feel for how long to cook the patties, it's perfectly acceptable to cut it in half when you think it's done to make sure it's cooked through. I won't tell anyone.

The result should be a very juicy, flavorful burger with nice dark caramelized coloring on the outside. Your ground beef mix will last for several days in the fridge.

You can eat it like a steak, topping with A-1 sauce if desired, or on a bun with other burger fixings. I always like to grill my buns in a little butter to give them a crispy texture that also prevents them from getting soggy with burger juice.
posted by The Deej at 6:47 AM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I I had to do this part of life again, I'd get a rice cooker, and Roger Ebert's book about how to cook everything in a rice cooker.
posted by thelonius at 6:48 AM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Not quite adding to your culinary skill, but when I'm lazy and need something healthy:

Broccoli can be microwaved with great success

Kind of a bachelorette cuisine, but still healthy and quick: no-cook fridge oatmeal.

I also recommend chicken. Can be bought in bulk-ish (cheap) and marinated/prepared many different ways. Not too time consuming- just whip up a batch of whatever sauce you feel like and let a couple of breast pieces sit in the fridge throughout the week; cook when you get tired of pasta and sandwiches. Easy to repurpose! Just mix with your pasta, sandwich, or broccoli ;)

Same can be said for tilapia- season lightly and bake; done.
posted by mschief at 6:57 AM on June 18, 2013

Best answer: A sweet potato is a meal in itself and dead easy to prep and cook. Plus, it's healthy.

You can top it with some salsa, or pepper and butter, or whatever takes your fancy. Some people like it plain. Add a green to the side like a side salad or some steamed broccoli if you need more.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 6:59 AM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Get 1 package of thin cut boneless pork chops, a can of diced tomatoes, a jar of your favorite salsa, a jar of peach or apricot jam, and your favorite taco spices (or a packet of taco seasoning if you want to go really quick / easy.)

Cut the pork up into bite sized pieces, and coat with about half the seasoning mix. (If you're making it from scratch, I'd use about a teaspoon of cumin, a teaspoon of chili powder, 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper, 1/2 tsp. black pepper, and a teaspoon of salt. Maybe add some garlic powder, too.)

Brown the pork in a skillet over medium heat, then add the diced tomatoes, half a jar of salsa, and 2 tablespoons of the jam. Stir well and cook, uncovered, until the sauce begins to reduce, add the remaining seasoning mix, cover with a lid and put on low heat for 15-20 minutes. You can also add a can of black beans (drained) if you'd like some extra protein.

Serve over rice, and it re-heats great.
posted by BZArcher at 7:19 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Chili, which can top rice, or other grains, or corn bread., all of which are easy to buy and/or make. You can use meat, or not, or beans, or not, and making a week's worth of servings takes the same time as making one meal. You can use mixes (I usually add extra beans compared to the instructions), or work from scratch if/when you get more confident.

I also like making lentil soup. Lentils are dry beans that cook very quickly, so it's mostly a matter of rinsing the dry beans, adding a few cups of water or vegetable broth, and letting it cook on low heat for 20-30 minutes. You can add any convenient root vegetables for additional flavor. It costs like 3$ for a one pound bag that will have you eating lentil soup for a week. Freezes well too.

Eggs--scrambled, fried, fritattas, quiches (which sound fancy but which at their simplest involve scrambling eggs, adding a bit of milk or cream, unrolling a pre-made pie crust, and filling with whatever bits of cheese, vegetables, or meat are about to die in the fridge Bake at 350F until the center stops jiggling, about 35 minutes.).

If you cook a big batch of rice you can make fried rice the next night, again adding bits of whatever veggies you have to hand, a scrambled egg (can even be leftover), bits of meat or tofu, and a good sized glug of soy sauce.

As a grad student living solo I also made a lot of couscous. I know, it's basically pasta, but it cooks faster (nice when the weather gets warm), and it's different enough from spaghetti that I could pretend it was something else entirely.

Also, if you're getting tired of boiled pasta with tomato sauce, there are other things you can do with it--baked into a lasagna (buy no-cook noodles and layer on sauce and cheese), cooled down and made into a salad. I like making cold peanut noodles--prepare some buckwheat soba noodles just like you would spaghetti, rinse them off and toss them in a mixture of peanut butter, soy sauce, hot sauce or red pepper flakes, some kind of acid (rice vinegar, lime juice, whatever I have) and enough water to make it liquidy. Taste as you go, and add more of whatever seems lacking. Slice up some veggies to go with it.

During the summer, dinner is often a pile of chopped up veggies, cheese, pita, and hummus. Cheap and tasty and healthy and involving no cooking implements.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:26 AM on June 18, 2013

Best answer: Oh - here's another one I posted in a similar thread that provides a pretty complete dish.

1 head of savoy or green cabbage
1 lb. chicken sausage
1 sweet onion
2 tsp. paprika

Roughly chop the cabbage and onion (keeping them separate) and slice the sausage into bite-size pieces.

In a large pot, heat up a tablespoon or two of olive oil, then add the sausage and brown it. Once it's been browned, add the onion and cook until it becomes translucent.

Add the cabbage and paprika, toss it well, and cook until the cabbage is a bit wilted. Add salt and pepper to taste, and you're done!
posted by BZArcher at 7:27 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here is a fast dinner idea I prepared many times when I was single: a mexican refried-beans-&-cheese dip that you eat without plates or silverware.

In a small skillet, add in 1 can of pinto beans (minus most of the bean juice). While it's heating, add in salt, pepper, cumin, and chili powder. Then mush it up with a fork for a few minutes so it is like refried beans consistency. You might also throw in a few tablespoons of salsa.

Once it is fully heated, grate some cheese over top and turn off the heat. Give the cheese a few minutes to melt.

At this point you could add additional toppings such as sour cream, salsa, cilantro.

Use corn chips as your silverware. Eat right outta the skillet! It's healthy, fairly cheap, and there's very little cleanup!
posted by see_change at 7:51 AM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I had a roommate who was a fabulous cook. Thanks to her, I went from feeling useless in the kitchen to feeling confident in my cooking skills.

Here are the big lessons she taught me:
  • Pay attention. You can choose simple, quick recipes, but you need to focus on what you're doing. Distracted or hurried cooking yields mediocre food.
  • Go for big flavors. Onions, garlic, chilis, and citrus can work wonders. As you begin learning to cook, start with relatively simple recipes from bold cuisines.
  • Taste and adjust the seasonings as you go, and trust your instincts. If your tomato sauce tastes too acidic, try stirring in a little sugar, a teaspoon at a time. If your soup tastes bland, try sprinkling some salt. If a savory dish tastes too heavy, try a squeeze of lemon or lime juice to brighten it. Always add a little bit of seasoning and then re-taste.
  • It's ok to fail. Some recipes won't work out. Order a pizza and try again tomorrow.
To my roommate's lessons, I would add: use the Internet. Simply Recipes is a food blog with generally tasty, easy-to-follow recipes. has great how-to videos, advice forums, and recipes. The videos in particular can be really helpful for learning new techniques. There are tons of excellent food blogs out there, but I'd start with those two sites first.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:11 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Chop up some chicken meat and heat it up or cook it through with taco seasoning (from a packet is fine, but if you mix your own spices it's cheaper) You can do this with a rotisserie chicken from the deli section of the store, or one you bought whole and cooked yourself, or chicken parts you cook as you need them.

For quesadillas, put a tortilla in a warm skillet, add some shredded cheese, wait for the cheese to get a bit melty, add other warm ingredients like your taco seasoned chicken, some beans (refried or not), maybe some mashed sweet potato, add another sprinkle of cheese because cheese is like the glue that holds this food together. Top with a second tortilla. Flip when the bottom is the color you like. Remove from pan when done. If you use little round tortillas for this you can also make tacos! Lots of people think that tacos require lettuce, which means they don't make tacos because who can use a whole head of lettuce before it goes bad. Ditch the lettuce. Here's a link to lots of different taco recipes. For grilled shrimp ones, know that you can A. use shrimp cooked another way. and B. buy a bag of frozen shrimp and just thaw as many as you want before you cook them (in a separate ziploc baggie in the fridge).

The next night, for nachos, put some tortilla chips on a baking sheet (use foil to line the sheet if you doubt your motivation to scrub cheese off the pan later). Sprinkle the chips with cheese. Toss on some chicken chunks, jalapenos, beans, ground beef, tomato pieces, whatever you want. Bake in the oven for 5 minutes or so. maybe less. Watch carefully. A good rule of thumb is that as soon as you can smell "nachos" it's probably done.

You can cook fish in a foil or parchment paper packet which I do sometimes with just a bit of butter, some salt and pepper, maybe a lemon pepper. Sometimes I'll throw in a chunk of lemon or a slice of ginger. Doesn't take long at all and it's totally hands off once it goes into the oven. Also, because the moisture stays in the packet, it's hard to dry this fish out unless you set it on fire.

Roasted veggies will take you far. You'll need that baking sheet again, with or without a foil liner. Chop up root veggies like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and chunks of onion. Toss them in a big ziploc baggie, pour in some olive oil and some spices. I like oregano for this, but follow your heart. Seal the bag, shake it up. Pour the veggies onto the pan in ONE LAYER. Bake at 450 until it's really easy to stick a fork into them. Start checking at 1/2 hour. The time really depends on the size of the chunks. Serve with rice and/or meat.
posted by bilabial at 8:34 AM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'd try getting a Rachel Ray cookbook and cooking through it. Her recipes tend to be quick, easy, and require usual "American grocery store" type ingredients that can be repurposed in the other recipes.
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:18 AM on June 18, 2013

Best answer: Mark Bittman's the Minimalist column is great for this.

The first recipe is Roasted Asparagus with crusted Parmesan topping. It's three ingredients, plus oil, salt & pepper.

If you already have the breadcrumbs, it's two steps. Bake for a while, then broil for a couple minutes. Though he recommends it, I wouldn't bother peeling the asparagus.

Many of Bittman's recipes are like this.
posted by cnc at 1:14 PM on June 18, 2013

Best answer: I'd like to recommend Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything: The Basics (not to be confused with the first How to Cook Everything). My 16-year-old son is learning how to cook and he's getting great mileage out of this book. It's what it says on the cover -- the basics of how to cook stuff. How to chop vegetables. How to roast meats. How to choose produce. A basic chicken recipe, then a few variations. Step by step pictures. Clear text. Nicely done.
posted by houseofdanie at 3:31 PM on June 18, 2013

Best answer: My bachelor staple is couscous with things in it. Couscous is great: put kettle on, put couscous in bowl, stir half a spoonful of boullion powder into the dry couscous [crucial], pour in boiling water to juuuust cover the couscous. Cover the bowl with a plate, wait 60 seconds or so, and it's ready. Like instant ramen for adults.

Now.... what do you put in your couscous? Anything you want, my friend. Things I like (in whatever combination) include:

- a little olive oil (if you use olives, use the oily vinegary gloop they came in)
- pesto (has its own oil, so don't use extra oil)
- olives
- sun-dried or fresh tomatoes
- feta cheese
- grated Parmesan
- tuna
- bacon
- chopped pickled onions
- bits of salami or bacon or any leftover meat in the house
- toasted pinenuts
- black pepper
- balsamic vinegar
- chili sauce
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:05 PM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: A chicken recipe that is easy and good:

Easy Company Chicken
1 cut up chicken (or 6-to-8 bone-in breasts, thighs, etc)
1 8 ounce bottle Russian Dressing (Catalina will do if you can't find Russian)
1 packet dried Lipton Onion Soup Mix
1 jar apricot preserves
garlic powder

Wash chicken, dry and put in buttered baking dish--sprinkle salt, pepper and garlic powder over pieces.

Mix dressing, apricot preserves and lipton onion soup mix in bowl--pour over chicken.
Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 325 for 1 hour 15 minutes. Uncover and cook another 20 minutes at 375 to brown skin. Check for doneness (internal temp of 165 degrees)

Serve with white rice and peas. Sauce is epic on rice.

This recipe is from the Absolute Beginner's Cookbook, which has a lot of very toothsome, good recipes--and easy.
posted by I'm Brian and so's my wife! at 7:30 PM on June 18, 2013

Best answer: One other go-to:

1 lb. ground beef
4 tbslp soy sauce
1 package frozen broccoli florets
1 can of black beans (drained)

Brown the ground beef, then add the broccoli ( still frozen) and cover for 5-6 minutes, or until it has cooked through. Remove the lid, add the soy sauce and beans, then reduce heat for 5 minutes. You can easily as other spices, onion, garlic, etc to vary it up, but it's a good, quick, basic bachelor chow meal.
posted by BZArcher at 8:13 PM on June 18, 2013

Best answer: I learned almost everything I know about cooking technique from Delia Smith's How to Cook. My go-to book for quick and easy recipes is Donna Hay's Food Fast (conveniently organised into 10 minute, 20 minute and 30 minute recipes), bonus of which was it taught me a lot about which foods go together.

Eating cheaply is easier if you plan ahead - that way you waste less stuff, and you start to build up a pantry of condiments and spices that will open up more options.

I also like The Skint Foodie.
posted by girlgenius at 3:21 AM on June 19, 2013

Response by poster: AskMe, you never let me down. Thanks, all--great stuff here. I can't wait to try some of it out.
posted by xenization at 9:46 AM on June 25, 2013

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