How Cooking Is an Amazing DYI Skill
You think that cooking is not your thing? You fear you don’t have the patience – or the skills – to cook? I thought so too at one point in my life. The truth is that everyone can cook. Now, you won’t be an award-winning chef any time soon. However, even when all you know are some basic cooking skills, it quickly becomes possible to whip up some great meals at home. The really nice thing is that it doesn’t have to be a chore. Cooking delicious meals at home can be great fun (even more so with some simple tools), and can help you save (loads of) money.
Personally, I always enjoyed a good meal. For a long time though a good meal was synonymous with eating out or ordering food. My kitchen skills were limited to peeling and boiling potatoes, throwing sausages in a pan, and adding some canned vegetables. It used to be boiled potatoes, sausage, canned vegetables. This world of convenience came crashing down on me once I had to start living off of my own income, without support from the Bank of Mom ‘n Dad. Eating out definitely wasn’t in the books when you are faced with a tight budget. Instead, my hubby and I had to start cooking ourselves. Five years later, and I now believe that the decision to really start cooking ourselves was a monumental change, one that offers us benefits every day of the week.
Of course, things started off simple enough. Menus such as chili con carne or stews are easy enough to pull off. They are very forgiving in the items that you toss in, and a mistake or two here and there is easy enough to correct. Quickly enough, these simple menus become stepping stones to more impressive ones. Nowadays, we often eat menus you typically associated with restaurants such as coq au vin and tiramisu. Nowadays it’s coq au vin and tiramisu. Probably the biggest revelation – apart from now using a scale to measure everything – was that we had to write our menus down. No matter whether a menu is simple or complicated, you will soon enough forget about it. Most of us aren’t professional cooks or gluttons, so we’ll only cook the same meal once or twice a month. If you write it down though, it allows you to obtain exactly the same result as before, and it allows you to tweak menus to your liking1.
Hand-written recipes turned out to be a disaster though. Ideas were scribbled on paper, got splattered, were disregarded once the food was made, and ended up getting lost. In this digital age – luckily! – far better tools are available. Our go-to recipe manager, and a true life saver, is the Paprika app (iPhone/iPad). All recipes are safely stored – and backed up – which makes managing recipes so much easier. Recipes can be imported from websites with just a few clicks so no need to copy them. You can make all the changes you want of course, including notes, preparation times, dietary info, etc. Once you’re happy enough with the recipe, it’s also easy to share those recipes with others. Or you can select and scale the recipes you want to make and add them to your virtual grocery list to greatly simplify your shopping trip.
So cook ourselves or starve? Check. Measure out all ingredients? Check. Write everything down? Check. Now for the hard part. We had to change our habits and patiently keep working at it to gain these new, daunting cooking skills. Luckily for us we quickly discovered we worked well as a team. The hubby is the more creative one and has a good sense of which ingredients might work well together. He also has the patience to trial and error until the recipe is just right and it can be executed perfectly time and time again. I don’t work well without structure, so during the inventing stage I am happily taking the role of assistant, and glorified dishwasher. Once the recipe can be easily recreated, the hubby gets bored and I step up as a cook. As it turns out, this strategy works exceptionally well. Since I never tried creating the recipe before, it’s an immediate test to see if all the steps in the recipe are clear, and whether anything needs to be changed or added. Like a great wine, a recipe gets better with time. You combine it with other ideas, you try out different steps, you fail, you tumble, and eventually you get to something which you truly like. Even better, it will be adapted to your taste buds and skill level. So for all recipes out there: just try them out, adjust them, and find out how they can work for you!for all recipes out there: just try them out, adjust them, and find out how they can work for you!
This strategy is working so well for us that it now is our way of life, and we could not imagine a life without cooking anymore. As time progressed we also became more confident in our cooking, quickly gaining the ability to tackle more complicated recipes and steadily growing our list of recipes. As it stands, we have collected around 150 tried-and-tested menus, offering enough variation to cover every season! It also had the desired outcome of saving money by eating out less. Going out for a meal is now a treat, and only happens if the restaurant serves food we can not prepare at home ourselves. Why pay a lot of money while eating for food that you can prepare at home?Why pay a lot of money while eating for food that you can prepare at home? Surprisingly, our new cooking habit also offered some unexpected benefits besides saving money.
For starters, we have become expert meal planners. While this might sound like a chore – it can be, I have to admit – when done right it can be a huge timesaver. The need for proper planning came as we greatly enjoyed our home cooked meals, yet did not always find the time to cook on weekdays. Cooking does take time, and you simply don’t always have the desire to cook for 1-2 hours after an exhausting day. If you plan ahead though, say for an entire week, you can prepare all the food during the weekend and freeze it. This comes with two big benefits. One, portion sizes rarely affect cooking times. You can often easily make 2x or 4x the normal portion sizes in the same amount of time. Two, with a freezer stuffed with food, eating great food during the week is no harder than heating a prepared meal – because they are!
I must admit, having a busy lifestyle was not the only thing that motivated us to start cooking in large batches! We lived in Canada for a while and were faced with gigantic portion sizes for us Europeans. Milk jugs of 4l are common, sausages are typically sold per 10 at least, etc. Smaller portions can be found in delis, but you often pay as much – if not more – for the smaller portions. To keep on saving money with cooking at home, this further motivated us to cook several portions at a time and freeze what we did not need right away. A tip for freezing: the weight watcher frozen menus come in black plastic trays that are amazing to re-use! They keep their shape very well, are easy to clean, and can be used in microwave and oven. And while we’re at it, another great idea to avoid even less foodwaste is to try and combine menus with similar ingredients. For example, planning chicken mushroom pie in the same week as another mushroom dish ensures that you can buy large portions (therefore often cheaper) of different types of mushroom (increasing taste) without having to throw away the ones that are left over.
A final surprising side-effect of cooking at home and cooking in batches is portion control! You need to know a bit of background for that though. I grew up in a family that loved to cook, and loved to eat. Meals were a big thing, usually involving way too much food. Leftovers were dealt with using guilt: “Only a little left, sure you don’t want it? Would be a shame to throw it away …”. Gaining more experience with cooking grew our awareness of the importance of healthy, balanced eating habits. An important part of this is portion control where you just eat enough, without any tempation to overfill your plates. By planning 1-2 weeks ahead we exactly know how many portions of each menu we need. Pots are no longer put on the table, and topping up after a meal is no longer possible. Instead, after preparing the meal, we immediately divide it up in the anticipated portions and the ones for the freezer are set aside.
How does all of this relate to DIY skills? Well, DIY is about saving a buck, and with a bit of luck doing a better job at it. Only recentyl did I realise how much of this applies to cooking! DIY is not just about painting a room. It’s about every skill where, with a bit of elbow grease, you can save swads of money and end up with a (hopefully) better result to boost. Cooking is a skill you can apply on a daily basis, it promotes healthy living, and it’s a really fun activity to do with the entire family. For me, cooking is therefore the ultimate DIY skill to have.
Or equally common: highlight problematic steps, clarify instructions, etc. ↩