Talk to any frugalist, a simple living advocate, a health junkie or a personal finance guru and at some point in time or the other, you will very likely hear the mantra “cook and eat healthy food at home”. And why not – it is the one way to ensure that you can both get good nutritious food and save some money at the same time. But there is one small problem with this – in the crazy busy lives we live, it is a lot easier to just take out food, eat out or grab something on the go. I have been struggling with this for a while and have slowly started getting into the habit of cooking at home. I still falter and cheat every now and then, but more often than not we eat at least a few meals at home every week. Most of them healthy and nutritious :) Here is a list of things that helped me. I hope you find them useful and if you have any tips to add, I hope you will share.

Set some realistic goals
In my case I started out with the goal that for every night that we eat out I should cook at least two nights at home. This helped set up a rhythm and also a rough schedule. Also, when I cook I know I can take a break on the third day without feeling guilty about “not cooking”. Once I got settled into the routine, I slowly tried to stretch it to cooking three nights in a row. So now we eat out roughly every third/fourth night making sure that we eat at home 5 – 6 times a week.

Plan your menu ahead of time
At the end of a busy day, while I am headed home, if I have to worry about what to cook, I am most likely to just say “dang it” and get food from outside. So I got into the habit of planning a rough menu when I do my groceries. This helps in two ways – (a) I now have a simple multiple choice option to decide what to cook every night and (b) I save on the grocery bill by only getting what I need. When you start out, I would say don’t worry too much about the nutrition aspect – just plan on something that is easy and convenient. As you get into the habit of cooking regularly, you can work the nutrition in slowly.

With just those two steps half the battle is won! Now it is a matter of making cooking interesting and making the habit stick.

Start out by investing in sensible equipment
Trying to chop tomatoes with a blunt knife or struggling with the can opener every time you have to open a can will add just a little bit of frustration, and slowly that piles up into discontentment with cooking in general. Set up your kitchen with some good quality equipment. You need not buy the whole array of kitchen tools – just the ones that you use most often. Quality costs more upfront, but in the long run, it usually pays for itself.

Start collecting recipes and update them with your observations
If you cook the same things over and over again, both you and the family will be bored and there will be little enthusiasm left to cook. Start collecting new recipes, so you can add some variety. You don’t have to buy expensive recipe books (though I did get a few – some for the authentic recipes and others for the pretty pictures). There are a many websites which allow you to download recipes for free. Print them out and stick them in a binder. This way you can write little notes about what you liked about the recipe, or the changes you made, the kind of side dishes that seemed to go well, any disasters etc., right there. If you have a large enough collection of recipes and don’t repeat them often, then such notes can come in real handy when you return back to a dish after a long time!

Don’t hesitate to experiment
Once you are comfortable with cooking, start experimenting with food a little. Give that old recipe a new twist. Try new cuisine, new spices and new ingredients. Add your own personal touch to suit the recipes more to your family’s tastes. Create you own fusion cuisine. You will be surprised how addictive cooking can get as you start having success with some of *your* recipes.

Add some glamour
Dress up your dishes. It is just a little extra work, but making food visually appealing is worth the effort. Usually, even before we take the first bite, our brain pre-judges the food based on how it looks. So if you make it look good then automatically the brain is more inclined to be a lenient judge in the taste test, and let some of the small slip-ups pass. When you hear the ooohs and aaahs from the family, it not only makes the time spent on cooking worth it, but also encourages you to continue cooking.

Get your spouse/roommate/friend/kids involved
For even better results, get folks involved and make cooking a fun way to pass the time. As you get into the habit, cooking starts to become a comfortable way to unwind from the busy day and swap stories, instead of a chore that is dreaded. It might take a while to get to this stage, but work towards it and you may just surprise yourself!

Watch food network and find other ways to motivate yourself
Boy, when I see some of the food challenges on food network, or the Iron Chef cook up a storm in the kitchen stadium, I really get all charged up. It makes me want to experiment and cook up some wows of my own in our little kitchen. I also keep a few recipe books with tantalizing pictures handy for the days when I can’t make up my mind about cooking. Usually spending a few minutes looking through the pictures makes my mouth water and puts me in the right mood for cooking :)

Show off your successful dishes
Whether you create your own recipes or turn up great dishes cooking by numbers, make sure you celebrate your success. Have some friends over and cook up a storm (if you don’t want to cook too much, have a pot luck dinner). When folks start to praise your cooking and ask you for recipes, it creates that beautiful positive feedback loop that makes you want to cook more often. Before you know it you will be the gourmet chef you never knew you were!

Take a break
This brings us back a full circle to the very first tip – for every few days you cook, make sure you take a day of break in the middle. Like everything else, if you don’t take a break, eventually fatigue will set in and things start to slip and slide and crumble. Every now and then if you take a break, you can keep things interesting and fun!

I hope you all cook up some fancy stuff in the kitchen. If you have any tips of your own to cultivate and motivate the habit of cooking at home more often, please do share. I am slowly getting there, but could always use some extra help!

*Image Credit: Photograph by bengarland [via Flickr Creative Commons]

PS:This article was featured as an Editor's Picks in the Festival of Frugality #139 over at Our Fourpence Worth. Head on over there for some really good reading...

11 comments:

  1. Briana said...

    I did really good once - like 10 days in a row of cooking meals at home...now school is back in session and the sporting events have started and we have NO time in the evening.  

  2. Jenna said...

    I use Saving Dinner. I think it's Saving Dinner.com if you don't mind the link. Basically it's printable menus that let you freeze food ahead of time, and it comes with a grocery list.

    I have a really hard time putting a week's worth of meals together at a time, so when I shop I end up spending too much, and then getting tired and not cooking half of it, which is just wasted money. The pre-made grocery lists stopped all that for me.

    If you're up for an article idea, I would love, love, love to see a post on how to maximize coupons. Apparently there is a lot to this, and I am a real beginner!  

  3. ispf said...

    briana: I know exactly what you mean!! Trying to find the time is really hard, but now I have a few tricks up my sleeve. For instance, I always have a lot of frozen veggies/meat and some bottled pasta sauces on hand so I can quickly make some pasta. Also, when I do get a chance to cook, I cook enough for two days and freeze some of the left overs, and on the days I cannot cook, I take out the frozen stuff and just toss a fresh salad on the side so we don't feel like we are having yesterdays dinner. You can keep all kinds of semi-cooked stuff handy for days that you cannot cook from scratch. Don't give up... I am sure you will amaze yourself with how resourceful you can be once you make up your mind!

    Jenna: Thanks for the link to the "saving dinner" site! It looks interesting and I sure will spend some time looking around! As for coupons, even though I clip and use some now and then, I don't know if I do enough :( Who knows maybe getting started on that article will get me to think of ways I can save more money - so i will try to give it a shot!  

  4. Kate said...

    What a great list! I agree with the previous comment - freezing meals is a huge time and money saver! I do this as often as possible. It really keeps me from feeling the need to eat out if I know I can just grab something from the freezer on those days when everything else happens but cooking.

    And I also agree with your statement to not be afraid to experiment. I have found that being courageous in the kitchen is the biggest motivator.

    I've come up with many tricks along the way in order to feed my family of 6 for $300 a month. But I always love reading about what others do and I found this SO encouraging. Thanks.  

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  6. Pay Day Loans said...

    Yes, freezing meals is really a huge time and money saver. It really keeps me from feeling the want to eat out if I know I can just grab something from the freezer on those days while everything else happens but cooking.  

  7. Quick cash loans said...

    I agree with your statement to not be frightened to experiment. In fact, I have also experienced that being brave in the kitchen is the major motivator.  

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  10. MoneyShop said...

    There you go my friend, I really appreciate what you said here, even for me it's hard to take out time for all these things but one day I make up my mind and jumped into my kitchen and from that day my interest for cooking kept on increasing and obviously the aroma and flavor for my dishes too.
    MoneyShop  

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