Cheap Eats: Hot Tips for Beginners

Everyone is always saying, “Learn to cook!” (I have said, “Learn to cook!”) But how to start? Here are a few hot tips that helped me:

1. Start drilling it into your head that every time you see a cafe or restaurant or fast food joint, that those places are forbidden. Mantra: “You will not go there and give them your money for things you can do yourself.”

2.Think about what you ate as a kid. Your parents are great resources, either for what to do or what not to do. Google the type of dish you’ve got a craving for and the word “easy”. (This sounds stupidly simple, but I think a lot of people just don’t know where to start.) Soon enough, you’ll find a few go-to sites. Mine are Inn at the CrossroadsBroke Ass Gourmet, All Recipes, and Mark Bittman

3. Make sure what you’re planning on making is within your scope of experience. Do not try to make something complicated or with multiple steps if you’re just starting out (“cornish game hens with pancetta, juniper berries, and beets”). Keep it short and easy and you’ll be less frustrated and more likely to keep trying new things.  Mexican and Italian dishes are good to start. It doesn’t take a master chef to brown some beef in a pan or boil some water.

4. If you’re scared you don’t have the time, chill. You probably have the time. (Shut your laptop, maybe.) Even if you can’t spare a whole lot, any kind of sandwich, tacos, fajitas, spaghetti, or salad take under 30 minutes from start to finish. Take short cuts when you need to, like buying pre-cut or frozen vegetables, pre made sauces, sliced or shredded cheeses, or seasoning packets.

5. Keep a realistic shopping list. If that bag of spinach keeps going bad, you’re not a spinach eater. Stop buying it.

6. Include treats on your shopping list—special fruit, crackers, chips and salsa, fancy yogurt, stinky cheeses,  cookies. Whatever it is, buying it in bulk at a grocery store is a lot cheaper than buying it impulsively at a cafe.

7. Clean up while you cook. A sink full of dishes is daunting. Avoid it.

8. Start small: Make your coffee at home. There are so many simple ways to do this. You can buy a cheap coffee maker, use a pour over filter, get a French press—you can even just use instant coffee if you’re not picky on flavor.  Acup of coffee is about $2. You do that five days a week that’s $520 a year which is about the same as the cost of one cross country plane ticket. Just sayin’.


Katie Peoples lives in San Francisco. 


33 Comments / Post A Comment

I’d also recommend buying one (just one!) classic, workhorse cookbook like Fanny Farmer, The Joy of Cooking, or even Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. Read it over, then make at least one recipe out of it per week. Don’t worry too much about picking just the right recipe–they’re all in there for a reason, and many of them are basic enough that you can figure out why and how each step does what it does.

I like cookbooks instead of online recipes because it’s easier to keep them right by your side for reference, and it doesn’t matter if you slop a little sauce onto the pages. The cookbooks I mentioned are all so common that you can usually find an older version at a yard sale or thrift store for three bucks.

sony_b (#225)

@wallsdonotfall A second big vote for the Bittman books. They detail pretty accurately the difference between prep time and cook time, and give a lot of small suggestions to tweak a recipe.

For the more advanced and nerdy cook I also highly highly recommend Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. A lot of the stuff McGee wrote about has been used as fodder for Alton Brown’s shows, but there’s a lot of detail that never makes it on TV. McGee basically explains the science behind cooking, and how different components of food react to different processes. I’m a much better cook for reading it, and a lot fewer of my random experiments are disasters because I have a better idea of what to expect or how to recover something that has gone horribly wrong.

selenana (#673)

@wallsdonotfall I also love the Joy of Cooking, and I have a small library of cookbooks that I like to choose one from and try to cook a lot from it. I love writing in them and making notes – very satisfying.

Tatiana (#194)

Pizza is always an easy thing to make as well. If you make dough from scratch (I use Peter Reinhart’s Neopolitan Pizza Dough recipe), it yields enough dough for about 5 personal-sized pizzas. All you have to do is defrost your dough the night before (because I keep mine in the freezer), add your toppings, and it takes about 15 minutes. So cheap, so easy, so delicious.

Things that helped me hugely when I was learning to cook:

– Actually read the recipe all the way through before you begin, then get out everything – EVERYTHING – you need and set it out by wherever you’re cooking.

– If you have an electric range, set the temperature a setting or two lower than you think you need and then WAIT, NO, KEEP WAITING. Basically everything I’ve ever burned has been because I set it too high initially, then started cooking when the pan was the right temperature for me, only to have it keep getting hotter and hotter until it was insta-burning everything.

– Winging it mid-recipe can be great, but it can also be a disaster. I know we all think we’ve got some great, deeply inspired master chef secretly lurking inside us, waiting to burst out, but personally 90% of the Epic Cooking Decisions I make midway through turn out to have been terrible. Some people (me) do way, way, way better sticking to the plan. And if I’m going off-recipe, I try to decide well in advance and not after I’ve started.

selenana (#673)

I love smitten kitchen, the pioneer woman (for tons of accessible mainstream recipes), joy the baker and david lebovitz (for sweets), and the post punk kitchen and thirty a week for frugal/vegan food.

Ben (#1,287)

@selenana You have excellent taste ;) The only one of those that I don’t turn to on a regular basis is thirty a week, which I’ll have to add to my list. One other recommendation is 101 cookbooks (like smitten, but more san francisco style).

selenana (#673)

@Ben I love Heidi’s site and I am vegetarian too so it’s relevant to my interests, but I feel like she uses a lot of esoteric ingredients that aren’t easy to come by outside of well-stocked hippy enclaves. I don’t live somewhere where you can procure farro and rye flour and fiddlehead ferns, so I have to cook using basics – veg, tofu, and standard pantry staples. Once I move back to Portland I will totally cook from Super Natural Cooking every week!

elizabeast (#629)

I always send my novice friends to The Pioneer Woman. Even if here Thing isn’t your Thing, her recipe posts are great. She posts pictures of every step, which is great if you’re the type of person who doesn’t yet know the difference between a slice and a dice (you will soon though!).

Just remember to cut her recipes in half–or even quarter them–because most of her recipes are made to serve 8.

I love eating at restaurants, but I very rarely pay someone else to make things that are easy to cook. Also, I never order steak or seafood (e.g. lobster) at restaurants. Better to just drop some money on a really nice cut of meat or fish and cook it up yourself.

Now that I live in Maryland I do make exceptions for places that pile everything with crabmeat thoguh. Mmm, crab…

(Also, try to learn technique as well as recipes. Once you get the hang of cooking, your brain will rewire itself to know instinctively how you can combine whatever happens to be in your fridge into a tasty meal. Learning different ways to make sauces is highly useful if you’re a meat eater, for example; or learn to make a good marinara from scratch and you can throw in other ingredients to spice it up. Asian cuisines are also quite versatile once you learn the different flavor combinations and what works with what…)

Megano! (#124)

@stuffisthings Yes! I don’t like to go out for stuff I can make at home, if I can help it. Unless it’s a REALLY good burger or someting. I barely go out anymore though since I live in the middle of nowhere right now.

@stuffisthings For example: I’m about to go out for Ghanaian food, which I certainly don’t know how to make. That’s the kind of thing I’m happy to pay for.

dotcommie (#662)

@stuffisthings ordering salads at restaurants generally seems like a criminal waste of money. not only can i easily make it at home, it’s not even COOKED.

@stuffisthings I know right? I never eat enough salad, because it’s always a choice between being robbed by restaurants or having a fridge full of rotting lettuce.

RocketSurgeon (#747)

Also, think about different ways you can mix and match your standard ingredients to use up leftovers, half-bags, etc. That spinach that’s looking a little past its prime? Mix it in with hot pasta, some flavorful cheese (I like a crumbling of gorgonzola) and sprinkle with a toasted nut (pinenuts, walnuts, etc). The heat from the pasta wilts the spinach and melts the cheese into a sauce. It only takes a few minutes, uses up odds-and-ends and tastes great.

boysplz (#56)

I second wallsdonotfall. I have a giant America’s Test Kitchen cookbook that is super useful. It has a bunch of fancy recipes (Boston Cream Cupcakes!) but also covers things like, how do I make an omelette or boil an egg? Once you get some basic techniques down you’re set to tackle the meringues and game hens of the world. Then you can start making your own recipes and you’ll know you’ve made it.

dotcommie (#662)

@boysplz +1 on america’s test kitchen. as you might expect, the recipes are well-tested and generally pretty good (and simple–i love smitten kitchen, too, but a lot of her recipes are def not beginner-level). there’s lots of educational sections, like the differences between different cuts of meat, and recommendations on gear and technique.

thematt (#1,017)

I like this advice but I think #8 gets it backwards.

First of all, small quibble, but the math is misleading. If a cup of coffee is $2 at a coffee shop, a cup of coffee at home is not $0. I like strong coffee and go through a $10-$12 pound in the French press in maybe 12 cups; add the cost of milk and you’re saving $1, tops, making coffee at home. So $260, not $520, a year.

Compare that to cooking at home instead of going to a restaurant. In New York a meal for two at a neighborhood restaurant is hard to do for less than $60 and $100 is more normal. Say it’s $60. You can cook something pretty fancy at home for half that, saving $30 a meal. Do that once a month instead of restaurants and you’ve saved $360 – more than you’d save making coffee every day.

Of course you could do both – but the advice was “start small.” To me, “start small” means once every month, find a really fun recipe and make it as an adventure and an experiment – not “change your routine every single day to do a repetitive chore first thing in the morning when you haven’t even had your coffee yet.”

Sam Sifton’s NYT Magazine recipes are deliriously complicated, closely replicate some of the best restaurant dishes in the world, and can be followed by complete novices – the instructions are clear and workable. They will make you something way better than you’d get for $60 at a New York restaurant. Cook’s Illustrated – others have mentioned America’s Test Kitchen – also has fantastic recipes that are totally foolproof for beginners and make amazing meals. The other 29 days a month, proceed as you’ve been doing. Get coffee wherever you want.

Obviously this is a matter of personal preference but I feel like a lot of people are given the “make coffee at home” advice as a starting point, disheartened by French press clean-up, and never move on to cooking for themselves for real. For my tastes, making your own coffee every day is drudgery, rarely as satisfying as going to a coffee shop, and doesn’t save you that much money. Making your own adventurous weekend meals every once in a long while is fun, frequently more satisfying than going to a restaurant, and saves you a lot of money. That’s where I’d start. If you like it and it saves you money, you might even move on to making your own coffee.

(Also – real cooking teaches skills and creates patterns that can be extended. You cook enough fancy meals and you’ll end up making yourself an omelette when you’re exhausted on a weeknight instead of ordering takeout. You make enough coffee and you’ll just be sick of making coffee.)

sony_b (#225)

@thematt Hadn’t thought of it that way, but I think you’re right. I work at home 90% so I make my own coffee most days. (AEROPRESS – cheap, tasty, super easy to clean – I bought it as camping equipment and then threw my coffee pot away.)

Simple veggie soups like Julia Child’s carrot soup (here’s a blog post with pics: are simple and tolerate a wide range of additions, cook times, and heat. You can use that basic recipe to make a bunch of different soups – sub in butternut squash, broccoli, asparagus. Also, use water and salt instead of chicken stock. You can’t really tell the difference and most commercial stocks are gross.

Egg dishes are also good and easy, fancy stuff in a scramble, leftovers in a fritatta.

@thematt Waitaminute, $60-$100 for a meal for two at a New York restaurant? Where are you eating???? My meals out seem to usually hover in the $20-$30 range for two people, maybe $40 if we’re getting fancy!

thematt (#1,017)

@werewolfbarmitzvah Downtown Manhattan and brownstoney Brooklyn? I don’t know, I’d guess that most sit-down restaurants there have entrees starting in the $15-$25 range; two $15 entrees + two $5 drinks + $3 tax + $8 tip = $51 and all of those numbers are on the low end. Two $10 apps + two $20 entrees + two $10 drinks + one $10 dessert + $7 tax + $18 tip = $115 and that’s not, I think, outrageously extravagant.

Zagat’s notoriously understated cost figures have an average meal for one at a NY restaurant at $41 and change, or $83 for two, which is in the middle of my range.

@wallsdonotfall The Joy of Cooking is a fantastic resource- it tells you how to do anything and everything. Including things you never thought you wanted to do but might decide to do one day! I first used my copy for basic things- muffins, cookies, cakes. Frosting. How to roast a chicken. Ratio of eggs to dairy product in a quiche.

More recently I’ve used it for the homemade mayonnaise recipe! Homemade hot sauce! Things I would have NEVER done when I first started cooking, but now sound like fun.

RocketSurgeon (#747)

I love my online subscription to Cook’s Illustrated. Also, I’m working my way though “Ratio” by Michael Ruhlman. It teaches you how to understand basic preparations and measurements for baking, cooking, etc. so you learn to build dishes based on standard ratios/ingredients rather than on recipes. For instance, bread dough is five parts flour, three parts water and biscuit dough is three parts flour, one part fat, two parts liquid. It allows for more creativity than recipes and helps you be flexible if you have some but not all ingredients for a recipe you already know/like.

Also, if you own a rice cooker, the world is your oyster. You can do so many things with a rice cooker! I like mixing seasoned rice, a variety of vegetables, and fake sausage in the rice cooker to make a paella-like substance that is very nice with some hot sauce (stir periodically while it’s cooking or it’ll stick to the bottom).

@werewolfbarmitzvah But the soccarat is half the point of paella!

dotcommie (#662)

learn to make a couple good soups and stews. they’re usually easy to make–take delicious things and put them in a pot together to be friends!–and you can make large quantities and freeze them. plus, excellent use of odds and ends of food. you can save peelings and ends of vegges like onions, carrots, celery, and parsley and boil them for an hour, then strain, and you have delicious/free vegetable stock. i like to use these customizable soup templates when i have small amounts of random veggies in the fridge:

editrickster (#279)

@dotcommie Yes! Slow cookers are your friend for lazy, cheap eats like soups and stews. I usually use mine in the winter but now I’m on the hunt for good summer crock pot recipes. They’re ideal for summer cooking because they will not heat up the kitchen very much.

You can also use them to make apple butter, which is delicious.

broompeople (#1,256)

Stone Soup blog is really good for beginners too, most of the recipes have <5 ingredients and all (of the ones I have tried) are delicious. She also has some nice video recipes and how-tos. She is where I learnt about banana "icecream"!

mishaps (#65)

We’re coming out of the right season to do this, but: make a stew over the weekend. If it is good, freeze the leftovers in single/double-serving containers so you/you and your partner have a delicious meal or meals sometime down the road as well. Solves the “I am sick of eating that same dish I cooked” blues.

If it is not good, well, lesson learned! Stew is not that expensive to make. Try something else next time.

acid burn (#113)

Nobody has said Budget Bytes yet!! It’s my go-to for easy, cheap recipes.

alphonsegaston (#1,268)

Heck, I’m 78, have been cooking since I was a teenager. All of the advice given is good (although I do see the point about the savings on coffee), but I want to comment on the advice to clean up as you go. I have seen so many women (well, in my generation, men did not cook) become frustrated with cooking because of the mess. Have followed that advice–don’t know where it came from–for years and still do even though I am no longer the dishwasher in chief.

km1312 (#213)

This basic recipe has saved me so many times over:

-Make a bunch of pasta, rice, quinoa, whatever
-Add a package of frozen veggies (broccoli, spinach) – usually you can just throw it in with 5 minutes left on the pasta-cooking
-After the pasta/veggies are done cooking & drained, add a can of beans (cannellini, chickpeas)
-If I’m willing to dirty another dish, I’ll saute some onion, garlic, and/or crushed red pepper and toss it over the dish
-Add butter/oil/herbs/cheese

Carbs, protein, veggies – BOOM. I usually make a massive batch of some version of this and bring leftovers to lunch for work – it’s nice because it can all go in one tupperware, rather than multiple containers for meat/salad/etc.

km1312 (#213)

@km1312 Fave variations in this include:

Quinoa with sweet corn, black beans, onions, crushed red pepper, and cilantro

Whole-wheat pasta with spinach, cannellini beans, garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice

You get the idea.

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