How do I grocery shop and cook?
March 3, 2008 7:41 PM   Subscribe

I've been living on my own for about five years now, but I still cannot for the life of me understand grocery shopping. I've tried buying the staples, easy-to-cook meals, and even specific recipes. But I always end up ordering take out after a week.

I know that one needs to grocery shop about once a week to replenish the perishables, etc. But I never feel like I'm buying the right things, that I have staple supplies at the ready, that I have a decent 'kitchen'.

I want to start eating healthier, as I wholly believe it contributes to a better life all-around. But eating take out 95% of the time leaves little room for this.

I've tried compiling a book of recipes that focus on healthy eating, but these recipes are so damned expensive and call for such specific things that I have all but given up on their conception.

So what I'm really asking is, what advice do the experienced MeFites have when it comes to grocery shopping and putting together a seven-nights-a-week meal plan? What should I expect to spend (I thought it was supposed to save money)? Where do I begin?

I'm overwhelmed with it, hope the hive mind can help. Thanks.
posted by pedmands to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 161 users marked this as a favorite
Have you checked EatMe for this? There are a number of AskMe threads listed there, including ones on pantry planning, that might help you figure out most useful staples and perishables.

As for the expense, I'd suggest buying spices in bulk if at all possible; I can get the same amount of cinnamon that would cost $4 for just over $1 by buying bulk and refilling an old container. Also, I think you'll find that there's an initial expense to many spice purchases that is spread out over a number of dishes, for instance cumin is used in Southwestern dishes, Indian dishes, Middle Eastern dishes, and so on.

Much of the attraction of take-out comes from the convenience; if at all possible try to make a soup or some other dish that keeps well once a week and have it as leftovers when you don't feel like cooking (soup, salad, and a slice of toast is not a bad meal).
posted by johnofjack at 7:54 PM on March 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Planning a pantry out in advance is not a bad idea, but the best way to make it happen is just _start cooking_. Pick some simple meals, like pasta dishes, or meatloaf, or whatever sounds good, and just start making stuff.

It's going to make some of your first meals way more expensive than they should--you'll probably spend $50 on your first pasta dish, because you're going to need to buy a couple of bowls, and a colander, and dried parsley, and balsamic vinegar, and whatever...but the next time, you'll make the same dish for $3. That's the main thing that's going to help you stock your pantry. It's hard to anticipate everything you're going to need, and you're far better off just jumping in, cooking dishes, and going from there.
posted by LairBob at 8:02 PM on March 3, 2008

Best answer: Part of the solution to this problem to my mind involves making takeout less appealing than whatever your other options are. With that in mind a few things that are helpful to the newer cook are

1. inviting a friend/date over for a meal
2. potluck stuff
3. cooking classes
4. cooking stuff you really like (for me it's lasagna)
5. moving to the country where you can't buy anythign to eat after 8 pm (that's what I did!)

My feeling is that you do save money, but it's over time. So at first you're spending money hand over fist getting not only staples [flour, sugar, oils, grains, whatever] but also all the ktichen stuff you didn't know you needed like a carrot peeler or a collander. So, don't worry about the money up front unless you are super broke, and set reaosnable goals for yourself like "I'll eat takeout twice a week and invite someone over for dinner once this week" Keep in mind that for a lot of people, cooking at home also invlves leftovers so you make something you like one night and you bring part of it to work for lunch the next day, or you make something big (lasagna, soup, chili) and you section it off into parcels for freezing. Which reminds me, good tupperware or other food storage stuff: essential.

I don't want to repeat a ton of stuff others have said except to say that there are a lot of good getting started AskMes listed in the wiki on the EatMe page. I'd suggest the pantry planning section as well as the I'd like to learn to cook thread. A few tips that I think are helpful
  • if you like to read consider a subscription to Cooks Illustrated or get a cookbook like The Kitchen Detectives. Their recipes are sensible, explain a little bit of the science of cooking without being precious, and really teach you how to cook.
  • If you're experimenting with recipes, think about getting some of the spices you need in bulk and getting a little at a time. Nothing sucks like spending $8 on garam masala only to find out you hate it. Buying spices and herbs in bulk is very cost effective and you can branch out more once you figure out what you like.
  • Even the best cooks just punt and make grilled cheese from time to time. Spend time when youhave friends over cooking fancy, but in the other times just figure out how to cook what YOU like to eat
As you go, try to figure out what your bottlenecks are. Maybe you hate the dishes, or your fridge is small, or your over isn't very good or you don't have a microwave. Like cooking itself, getting to be a cook is a process of a lot of adjustments so don't assume that just because you haven't hit the right combinations of things that it's not going to happen for you. For me the trick is making one thing that I love and then having variants on it for a few days in a row [fajitas, burritos, quesadillas, chips and dip, etc] It's more like one day of cooking and four days of eating. That I can get behind. Best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 8:02 PM on March 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

I freeze leftovers to use for nights when I don't feel like cooking, and for lunches.

Basically, once a week I sit down and think about which meals I'll need for the coming week. I write out a menu (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks) for each day, and write a shopping list from those recipes. I like to eat a lot of different foods, so it's pretty rare I'll eat the same recipes two weeks in a row. This takes maybe 15 minutes. Fairly easy, really. I also tend to chose at least one 'out of a jar' sort of meal - I get tired, and sometimes, slapping some pasta, sauce, meat together, topping with cheese, and shoving in the oven is the limit of my patience.

Part of it's a habit thing. There have been times in my life where (due to a combination of busyness and laziness) I've ended up eating out of home for weeks on end, and getting back in the cooking groove after that was pretty challenging. It does take a while for it to become a habit, and you have to stick it out for that long, until it feels normal to be cooking dinner instead of getting takeaway.
posted by ysabet at 8:10 PM on March 3, 2008

Pick a basic but thorough cookbook like "The Joy of Cooking". Thumb through it on the weekend, looking for things that you are confident you can make, or that you would like to try. And know that you're not going to switch from take-out to cooking everything in one week - start gradually - a few meals a week.

Pick out two or three recipes and write down what you need. That's your shopping list. Find a supermarket that is convenient and has good produce. This will probably not be the cheap chain supermarket in town, but it doesn't have to be the super-high-end expensive place either.

Buy spices as you need them - often a jar of spices lasts a year, so while there's some up-front cost, it's going to be spread out over many meals. The same goes for any kitchen implements - pots, pans, knives.

Once you get in the habit of making a few meals a week, you'll probably continue, as you have a lot more control over what you eat and what you spend for it when you cook for yourself.
posted by zippy at 8:13 PM on March 3, 2008

Besides the planning, my biggest (and still present) obstacle for cooking at home regularly is the cookware. You really have to just let yourself go and start stocking up on all types of pans, pots, utensils, and dishes. For a long time I was a snob - I only wanted super nice stuff and would put off buying cookware because I couldn't justify spending $100 on a pan. I was so full of crap. Generally cheap cookware will work almost, but not quite as well as the expensive stuff. So, just stock up like crazy. Once you have it, it's easy to pull it out and start working with it.

Recently I've discovered that really cheap, but reasonable quality no-name cookware can be had in Chicago's Chinatown for pennies on the dollar.
posted by wfrgms at 8:14 PM on March 3, 2008

I second the idea of making something simple that you don't mind eating through the week. Don't feel like you have to cook a from-scratch meal every night. I like to have small things in the house: hummus, egg salad, soup, greens for a salad, fresh bread, so I can mix and match to my preference that day. When I need to make a quick dinner, I'll scramble eggs or make soba noodles with peanut sauce and broccoli (the latter of which requires peanut butter and broccoli--I keep a bag of frozen florets in the freezer).

Pasta, like a baked ziti type dish, keeps well for several days, and is super easy to make in large quantities and doesn't require an exact recipe and can use whatever you've got lying around. (This week, green peppers and eggplant; another week, zucchini and mushrooms.)

I do recommend not buying too many spices at once. Spices are best when they are fresh. Buy a small container of whatever you're going to cook with that week. And don't underestimate the power of fresh ground salt and pepper. (Don't get me wrong, I love spicy food, but not everything has to contain the whole spice cabinet.)
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:15 PM on March 3, 2008

Best answer: I created a template shoppinglist of all our staple things, from fresh fruit to leafy greens to flour to soap to you-name-it. Then before our weekly shopping trip, we cross off the things we don't need. Finally, weird non-staple shit goes on. And that's our list.

This works well for us, because when you're trying to figure out what to get, it's really helpful to have a reminder to check things, rather than rack your brains for things that might be running out but you didn't notice.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:24 PM on March 3, 2008

Best answer: In case you haven't seen his books recommended in another cooking thread, I'll add a plug for Mark Bittman's books, especially How to Cook Everything. He focuses on few ingredients, quick, and easy, rather than exact, authentic perfection.

I want to second those who mentioned repetition and leftovers. Sometimes it is fun to experiment, or to try some strange new recipe from a new cookbook. But 95% or maybe 99% of the time, I draw on a limited repertoire of reliable dishes that I can make blindfolded. And when I can, I make extra and freeze it -- all the convenience of take-out, with the savings and health benefits of home cooking.

And don't be shy or ashamed about making sensible compromises. Yes, cooking beans from scratch is cheaper, and takes little effort. But opening a can of beans costs only a tiny bit more, and saves hours of cooking. Ditto using premade pasta sauces, or frozen veggies, or those "hamburger helper" extras. Think of it as a spectrum -- with some hyper organic localvoir on one end, and a Big Mac at the other end. You want to shift yourself from way out towards the Big Mac more towards the other end, but don't treat it as a failure if you move only a little way on that spectrum at first, and if during the week you slide back and forth -- takeout on Tuesday, a tasty pasta recipe on Wednesday, tuna sandwich on Thursday, and so on.
posted by Forktine at 8:29 PM on March 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, I know it has been linked here many times before, but in case you are trying to also buy kitchen equipment, here is a copy of the "how to outfit your kitchen on the cheap article" from the NYTimes a while back.
posted by Forktine at 8:32 PM on March 3, 2008

I think you are making this more complex than it needs to be.

Don't worry about buying staples. Leave your kitchen completely empty of food if you want.

Pick out a recipe. Buy the items needed for that recipe. Cook it. Eat it. Repeat.

Of course, this will require that you shop between every meal. So after two or three meals, you could try picking out two or three recipes at a time, and buying all the ingredients you need for those particular recipes in one shopping trip.

Keep this up for a while and you'll get the hang of it. You may even end up stocking up on some staples. But it all really comes down to (a) menu planning, supplemented with (b) developing a repertoire.
posted by alms at 8:40 PM on March 3, 2008

We couldn't figure out how to shop / cook to save our lives. We ate a *lot* of macaroni and cheese / spaghetti / Taco Bell / Chinese until we found 1 million pounds of awesome: you can sign up for several different meal plans based on shopping at different grocery stores, and they'll (1) plan a week's menu and (2) generate a shopping list for you. All you have to do is go buy it, cook it, eat it. There's a great variety of recipes and the ingredients are broken out by menu item so that if there's a dish that doesn't appeal to you, it's easy to delete those ingredients from your list. Best part is the lists are published as PDFs so you can archive and go back. It think it's $15.00 for 3 months; worth every penny to us.

Good luck!
posted by ZakDaddy at 8:55 PM on March 3, 2008 [5 favorites]

Do expect your meals to be a little boring for a while as you get into the rhythm (lots of pasta or sandwiches or whatever you end up making), but suck it up. And don't expect to immediately stop eating take-out if you're really eating it 95% of the time, or close to it; wean yourself off slowly.
posted by bettafish at 9:08 PM on March 3, 2008

I nth what people have said about not worrying about advance planning for shopping at first. You need to first find out what you can cook regularly before you can plan what to buy. I started cooking about nine months ago, and it was about 3-4 months before I could predict what I need to shop for for. Now I can plan my grocery shopping for the next two weeks at a time very reliably.

How to Cook Everything, as Forktine mentioned, is excellent for getting started on straightforward cooking. Simple Chinese Cooking has similarly easy-to-follow instructions that you can use to build your repertoire.
posted by ignignokt at 9:12 PM on March 3, 2008

Develop a love of leftovers. Cook 2 dishes every weekend and reheat all week. (Not as bad as it sounds - many dishes reheat well and improve with age.) You will probably end up cooking a main dish and a side dish (e.g. rice or pasta, etc) but that's easily doable. You'll quickly collect recipes that work well with this approach, or focus on soups, stews, pasta sauces, curries, and fairly liquid-y dishes, since those tend to reheat best.

Choose 2 recipes every week and make your shopping list based on them alone. Don't worry about stocking your pantry with staples - just get the ingredients you need for the week. Leftover staples will naturally accumulate and stock your pantry without conscious effort.

However, do keep some spaghetti and bottled sauce on hand as a backup just in case you get totally bored with the week's leftovers, or they don't last as long as anticipated.

Your food budget will depend on what you cook, but generally speaking, vegetarian dishes are cheaper than meat dishes. I cook a lot of vegetarian meals just because I'm a cheapskate. 2 meat dishes might end up costing about $30 - 40 for a week's groceries for 1 person, whereas a vegetarian week might run about $15 - 20. That's for dinners and lunches every day, so it's 14 servings at somewhere around $1 to $3 a meal. (My local yuppie grocery store is lovely but pricey, so your food costs may be less.) Good luck!
posted by Quietgal at 9:21 PM on March 3, 2008

I shop on Sat or Sun and usually cook several meals Sunday night. I put them in tupperware and they're my lunch and dinner for most of the week. So every week I have a grocery list that's staples (things like milk and fruit that are perishable and I use up every week) and also the ingredients I'll need to cook the meals. I've learned to make certain dishes that I like a lot, and I mix them up to keep myself from getting bored with what I'm eating several days in a row during the week. I give myself some leeway-- sometimes I have 3 ideas, know I only should cook 2 things that week, and decide between them when I get to the store. I organize my list so that the ingredients are grouped by the meals, if they're newer meals and I need to be reminded what goes with what. In the summers I go to a farmer's market, so I tend to just go and buy whatever and cook it together. But that takes less planning for me because it's what my family cooked growing up-- beans and corn and squash and potatoes etc.

I'm very picky about cookbooks. I don't buy them very often. A good cookbook gives you basic recipes, ideas you can build on, and some ideas about methods/timing. Here's the thing-- the "easy" ones often take shortcuts that are ok as a fallback for quick meals in a hurry but tend to make your food pretty bleecch if you cook that way a lot. I'm thinking of certain cookbooks where cream of something soups and frozen peas are in every single recipe. But the "less easy" books tend to add a lot of exotic ingredients that are unnecessarily complicated for everyday meals. It's all about appearing sophisticated for some of those. You would probably do best with a general book with a premise you're fond of, a general idea you can experiment a lot with. For me my first good cookbook was a general vegetarian cookbook with a lot of variety. A book of soups/stews followed. Those remain my staples-- I don't cook with meat very often, and I love soups. So start with what you know you like, and try to find a cookbook that covers a lot of variations on it. But try to avoid a book that promises something too easy, and also one that gets too complicated. I suggest you go to your local library and flip through some books until you find a few to check out as a trial.

A simple test I use-- I immediately look for a recipe I know well and cook well in every cookbook I look through. If the book doesn't contain a good working recipe for that dish, I usually don't look at anything else. Well, maybe pictures. I like foods from other parts of the world, and without a native palate and appreciation for techniques, it's difficult for me to tell what is and isn't a bad shortcut without experimentation. So I check the dish I know best, because that usually tells me if the book is going to go overboard on crazy ingredients or take shortcuts it shouldn't. You need to find a cookbook that can be a handy reference to meet your needs. What kinds of food do you like most?

Another thing to try is cooking blogs. Tigers and Strawberries (Barbara Fisher) is one of my favorites. She links to many other good ones. Many of her recipes are a bit complicated for a beginner (IMO), but she has many that are not-- try the category links. Her Appalachian cooking section is pretty damn good, and usually fairly simple in technique and ingredients. If you want to try Chinese, she has the best step by step how-to I've ever seen.

Lastly, stash a few quick and easy tasty things away in the kitchen for a night you feel burned out on your normal routine or the day you miscalculated and have no leftovers. Mac and cheese, that kind of thing.
posted by Tehanu at 9:40 PM on March 3, 2008

I really love This book. It's not just full of basic recipes, but it also explains basic things, like the best way to chop an onion and all of that good stuff.

I'm recommending it to you more because I am much like you, it's not that I'm not making it just fine on my own, but I just felt like I wasn't doing things right, nobody ever really showed me growing up how to stock a kitchen, or cut a tomato without exploding it, or what knives I should have, etc etc.

After I got it, I realized, hey, I'm really not as clueless as I think. I suspect you're not either, if you've been cooking for yourself for five years and aren't gaunt, malnourished and giving yourself food poisoning all of the time.

In my experience, though, you do need to go to the grocery store about once a week to keep on cooking meals for yourself. It ain't so bad!
posted by pazazygeek at 10:36 PM on March 3, 2008

What has really gotten me into cooking more than anything else is my weekly CSA farmshare box. I have a set amount of greens, veggies and fruit that get me through the week, and pairing that with a good cookbook works perfect (any of Mark Bittman's are good for beginners, I think - easy guidance and delicious recipes). It forces me to look at the seasonal veggies and be creative with them.. and sometimes not creative, like I'll just split open an acorn squash and throw it in the oven for a half hour.

As for planning, I agree leftovers are your friend. I love making big meals and freezing/refrigerating them and taking them for work for the week (I wonder if any MeFites have specific recipes to share!). So much better than take-out and you have the added accomplishment of making your own meal! And when you go to the grocery store, pretty soon you'll have an idea of what ingredients you like with what veggie/meat product and go from there.

Pairing is key, I think when food-shopping. Keeping in mind the relationship of one ingredient to another, this really helps me when I shop. Will that hummus taste good with that tomato? Avacado? It's easy to go overboard with this strategy, but you'll get the hang of it after a bit of practice. Oh, and always try and make lists before you shop (preferably with recipes) of things that you like together (what makes up a good taco? what goes good with flatbread? etc), plus the "essentials," e.g., bread to throw in the fridge (some varieties go bad quickly), milk, eggs, butter, etc.
posted by ethel at 11:45 PM on March 3, 2008

pedmands, pedmands.

What do you LIKE to eat? What do you WANT to cook?

(write your answer in the blank provided)

Please note, you can neither cook nor eat cheapness, healthiness, nor seven-nights-a-weekness. You can cook and eat lasagna. (For example.)

Start there. One meal.

Eat the leftovers.

Write a new answer in the blank provided. (May be same answer as previous one.)


Report back in three months and we can discuss refinements to healthiness, budget, and scheduling. I think you're trying to run before you've really, really discovered for yourself that walking is more fun than sitting on your butt.

And I can barely comprehend a food question that mentions not a single . . . actual . . . FOOD!
posted by Orinda at 11:49 PM on March 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

For your edification, here's our basic checklist.

What you should do is save a few weeks' shopping lists and collate them to build your own.

Vegetables and fruit
Kumara (sweet potatoes/yams to you)
Green leafy thing

Yoghurt (plain bulk)
Yoghurt (pottles)


Cleaning products
Laundry detergent
Washing up liquid
Scrubby things


Herbs & spices
Tinned tomatoes

Beans (black, pinto, black-eyed pea, chickpea)

Coffee beans

Toilet paper
Paper towels



Kitty litter

posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:51 PM on March 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Recipes are really not meant for daily cooking, they're once in a blue moon thing at best. I've been cooking daily for the last 6-7 years, never used recipes. One basic meal that's really easy to do is oatmeal. Quaker old fashioned, add boiling water, let stand for 10 minutes. If you actually boil it, it's not nearly as good. Add whipped butter. Make brown rice with misc. vegetables, lentils with vegetables, potatoes, again with vegetables, buckwheat. Learn to make soup with potatoes, then with lentils. Brown lentils are much better than red ones. Don't worry about recipes, you have to see what is available in the grocery, which vegetables are fresh, and the choice of dish depends on that. A bunch of good ingredients thrown together and cooked will make a good meal, even if there's no recipe for them. Even though others recommended making a lot of portions and storing them to use through the week, I'd advise against it - fresh food is always tastier and healthier. Reheated food isn't very healthy. Some meals are extremely easy and quick to make - i.e. the oatmeal. HTH..
posted by rainy at 2:24 AM on March 4, 2008

On the far end of the spectrum from rainy, my wife and I use recipes almost every day. Each week she finds about 5 dinner recipes (usually on the internet), and I make a grocery list. The printed-out recipes go into a drawer by the stove, on top of the kitchen towels and oven mitts. We do all the shopping late on Saturday morning. Through the week, we can easily choose a recipe (from the stack of 5) and know that all ingredients will be on hand. Typically the meals using the most perishable ingredients get chosen first (fish, chicken, meat, vegetarian, in that order). There are no kids in the picture, so there are always leftovers for lunches or for dinner on days when we don't have time or energy to cook. At the end of the week I scribble brief notes about whether we liked each recipe, clarifications of the instructions, etc. and file them in a big 3-ring binder.

Neither of us was a very skilled cook when we started this routine (about 3 years ago), and for a while I didn't know what to do with leftover perishable ingredients. We threw out an embarrassing amount of produce until I got over my fear of improvising side dishes, and also started telling my wife, "this week we need recipes that use [celery, cauliflower, whatever]."

More than anything else, it takes practice to know which ingredients are so expensive or difficult to find that you might want to choose a different recipe, how and where to buy ingredients cheaply, how to chop an onion or know what "medium-high heat" looks like. You won't find a strategy that makes you good at this tomorrow. As suggested above, find a way to make it fun so you stick with it long enough to get skilled.
posted by jon1270 at 3:31 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Here's a nice site that is (I think) pretty relevant to your question:

The Ultimatest Grocery List.


On a side note, the grocery lists on the first website are actually quite amusing.

Meal planning (as mentioned by numerous previous posters) helps as well - drawing up a plan and listing out the ingredients you'll need throughout the week, and then buying them, rather than going all ad-hoc on the supermarket.
posted by WalterMitty at 3:54 AM on March 4, 2008

Sorry to throw another book/magazine recommendation in there, but a cookery book I like is Martha Stewart's Food Magazine, because each issue contains various "starter" concepts:
- Cooking for One
- Recipes from Readers
- Cooking for the week by building on a core list of ingredients - this means that half of the leftover bunch of cilantro that you used for Tuesday's burritos ends up getting chopped up and thrown into Thursday's turkey burgers.
- grocery lists (based on the recipes included - just cross out what you don't need)
It's not gourmet at all, but has a nice balance of fresh ingredients to canned/frozen, so that the meals tend to be quick to make and certainly healthier than takeout as well as not too expensive on the uptake. Libraries may carry the magazine, so you might want to grab a couple and try them out. The other nice thing about this magazine is its small size - it's sized more like a datebook than a traditional large/floppy magazine, so it sits up on its own on my countertop, easy to keep around for quick reference.
posted by dreamphone at 5:02 AM on March 4, 2008

The book I started with was Help! My Apartment Has A Kitchen by Kevin Mills and Nancy Mills (amazon link here)

Kevin was, at the time of the first edition, recently out of college - Nancy's his mother. It's focused on simple, reasonably cheap food, and covers a whole bunch of basic concepts (including things like "Which pots will really make your life easier?" and "How do you cut an onion?"

The recipes are rated from Very Easy to Not So Easy based on time and number of steps (so something that takes 3 minutes and 3 steps is Very Easy. Roasting a chicken is Not So Easy, mostly because of the time involved.

The recipes are not the most exciting in the world - they're mostly standard American food - but there's a number of good basic vegetable dishes and other variants you can then start adjusting to your tastes (or that will help you with more complex recipes.) And everything I've cooked out of there has gotten really good raves from other people.

The other thing I really liked is that most of the recipes are sized for 2 servings, or are designated as really easy to store (i.e. they're designed for someone living and cooking on their own), which is not true of a whole lot of cookbooks.

In general, I recommend the "start with some basic recipes, do them until you want to start expanding, then look for other options" approach.
posted by modernhypatia at 6:35 AM on March 4, 2008

I find that I do best when I plan on the fly, but I have the advantage of walking by a couple of great little stores on the way home where I can pick up fresh produce and any extra ingredients. But here's one of my techniques:
4:45 pm Start to think about dinner, because I'm always hungry
4:50 pm Decide what I really want to eat (i.e. I'm craving noodles, I feel like making a stirfry, soup would be great, I want green vegetables, etc.)
4:51 pm Go online (try or and look for recipes involving my desired ingredients. Read recipe reviews and suggestions to weed out nasty recipes and bad ideas.
4:55 pm Actually finish working
5:05 pm Leave work
5:10 pm Buy any extra ingredients I need
5:30 pm Arrive home, settle in, start cooking when I feel like it

This isn't a daily routine for me, but it's great when it works: it saves me from spending money on cookbooks I won't use, I buy only what perishables I need so they don't go bad, and I get new recipes to try. It's a low-commitment way to experiment with different meals, and I've slowly built up a repertoire of things I'm comfortable making on the fly. Over time, as a recipe becomes more my own, it incorporates itself into my meal planning. So instead of buying firm tofu and bok choy on my way home, now those are two ingredients that I put on my shopping list when I do a big grocery run. Start small, with one dinner at a time, and slowly work up into longer-term planning and shopping.
posted by bassjump at 8:16 AM on March 4, 2008

I've never been good at the "stock the kitchen, then wing dinner" approach to cooking. It just doesn't fit with the way my mind works I guess.

Like jon1270, what I've done is collect several quick and easy recipes for weeknight dinners that my husband and I like. Then every Sunday, I take some time to plan the week's meals and make a grocery list based on the ingredients. That way I don't have to stress about what we're eating for dinner when I get home from work, and I don't find myself staring into a pantry asking myself, "OK, what can I make with rice, a can of green beans, 3 limes, and a bag of chocolate chip cookies". I also don't have to worry about over buying perishables that I'll have to throw out a week later.

And like others have said, cook what you like! It gets easier with practice, and you'll find sooner or later that you prefer eating at home to eating take out.
posted by geeky at 8:20 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

When I was trying to save money by cooking instead of eating out I decided to start making the things I'd normally get as take-out. I made Saag Paneer at least 4 times within the first few weeks. Then I branched out to pad thai, drunken noodles, falafel (mix from a box) and homemade tabouleh and hommus. Of course you don't have to choose ethnic foods, choose whatever it is you want: cheeseburger, homemade pizza, tacos, whatever.

Basically I just used my google-fu to find a ton of different recipes for whatever dish I was craving. After looking at 10 or 20 recipes for the same dish item I'd make a list of all the possible ingredients and head to the store. Whatever I couldn't find, afford, or fit into my basket I just omitted. Obviously some items can't be omitted but those are usually pretty obvious.
posted by J-Garr at 10:10 AM on March 4, 2008

I agree with Zippy to look through a basic cookbook, but I dislike the Joy of Cooking. I suppose it has some good ideas burried in it, but a lot of the recipes are really gross and outdated.
posted by radioamy at 10:28 AM on March 4, 2008

Here's how I cook. I'll make a tri-tip roast and serve it with some steamed vegetables and pasta. Then I'll use the leftover meat for sandwiches.

The Tri-tips are in the freezer (I stock up when the price is good). The pasta is in the cupboard. The vegetable is bought at the farmers market.

I'll roast a chicken have it with baked brown rice and a tossed green salad. Then I'll use the leftover rice to make Yellow chicken curry.

I'll grill some salmon and have it with coleslaw(with jalapena and sesame oil). Then I'll have a salmon salad.

We'll make spaghetti sauce and have spaghetti. We'll freeze some and use the rest for lasagna.

Baking bread is incredibly easy. Bake some bread, eat it with meals, use it for sandwiches and then have it as french toast and then make fresh croutons. Sourdough starters last forever with regular maintenance. If you use yeast buy it in bulk (2 pounds of Active Dry cost the same as 1 1/2 oz in those little envelopes.
posted by jeffbellamy at 3:59 PM on March 4, 2008

I'm a little late to the party, but I've been thinking over my answer for a couple of days.

After my son was born, we needed to have a much more stable dinner routine. In helping us get there, three resources, more than anything else, have helped me "learn about cooking"

At first, we did what you are (I'm guessing) doing now: buying lots of "ingredients" in a weekly shopping trip without having much idea of what we were planning on doing with them. For us, we would cook two or three nights from those ingredients meals that we "sort of kind of" had in mind when we bought them, then would end up going back to the market three or four times during the rest of the week to pick up things we needed to make something we'd like to eat that night.

This rapidly got expensive. So, like many others above, we began making weekly "meal lists" where we sorted out who would be home what night, figured out what we would like to make for meals, added in some healthy snacks for toddler-boy, and then used an index card system to help us make sure we were eating what we planned.

I'll also note that we filled up the freezer really fast - mostly with frozen veggies and meats that we wanted to make sure stayed good, but also with frozen leftovers, so we didn't have to eat (for example) Turkey Tetrazini five lunches in a row.

Over time, I got sick of eating the same ten-ish meals over and over again, so I decided to learn "how to cook". At first, I just noodled around with what we had in the house, but that led to some ... negative experiences, but over time I found three resources that really helped me develop my cooking skills a great deal. Those resources are:

+ Cook's Illustrated - the magazine, the cookbooks, and the TV show. They don't just say "cook this way" - they explain the technique in detail and tell you how many minutes to (for example) boil the pasta or pan brown the chicken, etc. They're big on teaching you how to, step by step, which was great for me.

+ Alton Brown's TV show Good Eats - again, cooking presented as science, with a step by step approach. Although I'll never be as AR about food as he is, he's taught me a lot of good, easy ways to do things I previously thought were hard.

+ Martha Stewart's Food magazine. I could carry it around in my bag and browse it at down moments during my day (waiting for elevators, parking lots, etc.), and it focuses on simple recipes that have a finite number of ingredients. (I also loved the now-defunct Eat magazine.)

In general, I find that most cookbooks are too complex for everyday use. But if you can pick, say, one new meal a week that you want to try to cook, and plan a night you're going to cook it, very quickly you find that its not really so hard and that you have a much larger repertoire than you thought you had. This means more diversity in your meals, but also that you will slowly be able to move toward cooking with whatever is at hand.

But before you get there, make a plan. You can even include "get takeout on Tuesday" as part of the plan if you want. Buy for the plan. Then stick to the plan.

Have fun and good luck.
posted by anastasiav at 7:00 AM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Eat nothing but Ramen.

Use a Good Quality Ramen. Sapporo Ichiban is best.

Make up variations:
- With mushrooms
- With Kimchee
- With catfish nuggets
- With Chinese Cabbage, shredded, and thinly siced pork roast and Oyster Mushrooms. Add scallions and toasted sesame oil and a teaspoon of sweet rice vinegar. Serve with warm sake.
- With white wine
- Using home made chicken stock instead of water

My point is that you can take something very basic and experiment. It will give you a sense for what can be done and how different ingredients affect the flavor and character of food.

Watch The Iron Chef for inspiration. Check out Frugal Gourmet videos from your library. Use lots of garlic. Keep a good quality knife, spare no expense, and learn to keep it sharp enough to kill with. Use cast iron pans (Inexpensive at thrift stores. People try them out, but find them to be too heavy - wimps), and learn to do that pan-flippy thing you see on cooking shows. It really impresses guests.

Make your own stock. Use a pressure cooker. Feed the remains to a flock of chickens.

Mmmm! I'm all hungry now.
posted by DanYHKim at 5:31 AM on March 7, 2008

Grocery shopping once a week is for hicks in the sticks. If you are in the city, enjoy the facilities you have -- which includes the ability to buy for only one or two days at a time. The advantage is that you buy the ingredients for what you really fancy eating today.
posted by Idcoytco at 4:41 AM on March 9, 2008

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