Thursday, October 27, 2011

Want to Eat Cheap? Learn to Cook.

The Topic: Rediscover cooking and eating at home (while saving money!) with VN Associate Publisher Colleen Holland

The Dish: I recently read an astonishing statistic on how nearly half of Americans don't cook. Instead, people grab a bagel and coffee on the way to work, step out of the office for a sandwich or burger at lunch, and order in pizza or Chinese for dinner. And that doesn't include morning doughnuts at the staff meeting, the afternoon sugar fix, post-work drinks, and that bowl of ice cream at 10pm. Given the (sad) state of our health in this country, there's no question that high-fat and huge-portioned restaurant fare is contributing to our demise. I say it's time to take back our health and get cooking.

By preparing your own food at home, you can control the quality of ingredients (organic, local, GMO-free), the amount of salt and oil used (restaurants are notorious for using excessive amounts of salt and oil to flavor food), and the portions you consume (a one-serving plate of food at the local diner could serve an entire family in other countries). Think about how you feel after a home-cooked meal versus a typical restaurant meal. Whenever I go out, I overeat and feel full for hours. The food is always good, but I pay the price. 

Thankfully, delicious (and budget-friendly) meals can be made at home. But if you don't know how to cook, where do you start? Do we all need to spend $50k on cooking school to learn basic cooking techniques that are no longer passed down in our families? Absolutely not. Here are four ways to become a stellar home chef in no time flat. Your culinary education begins now!

Use Recipes
I am the first one to admit that I rarely cook with recipes. I like to make healthy meals fast, and I don't have the patience to plan my meals or follow instructions. But recipes teach you how to cook. Find a cookbook you love (check out VegNews for recommendations), and force yourself to make one or two recipes a week. Then make them again. After a few times, you'll no longer need the recipe and will have an arsenal of balanced meals to make at home. And you'll have learned the #1 trick in cooking: technique. If you know the technique behind a particularly type of food (curries, pesto, stir-fry, soup, etc.), you are 75 percent there.

Watch Cooking Shows
Unfortunately, there aren't many vegan friendly cooking programs to help you master your culinary skills, but if you find yourself drawn to a particular food personality or their cuisine, watch them. Seeing a chef julienne carrots and zucchini for an Asian dish will stay with you longer than reading that same instruction in a cookbook recipe. And, once again, you'll pick up on technique and start to understand the broad strokes of cooking so that you can then customize whatever it is you're making. Check out our cooking videos on VegNews TV for excellent visual instruction!

Take a Cooking Class
This is the most hands-on way to learn how to cook, and vegetarian cooking classes are easier than ever to find. Whether it's a course on Thai cooking or how to prepare a 10-course vegan Thanksgiving feast, nothing beats real-life practice. You'll always go home with recipes, and you'll want to keep making them while they're fresh in your mind. Soon, these new dishes will be part of your at-home repertoire to dazzle everyone you cook for.

Read About Food
Often times, I find myself inspired by food articles and recipes I read and work those ideas into whatever it is I am making. Let's say I am editing the January+February 2012 issue of VegNews and salivate over Gena Hemshaw's raw pad Thai recipe (this may or may not have happened). That night I am craving Southeast Asian flavors and whip up a salad with fresh lime juice, chiles, garlic, and soy sauce. Think of cooking as a college degree, and read everything you can about it. Peruse magazines, books, blogs, or anything that inspires you to cook.

The Final Word: Cooking at home is a joyful, therapeutic experience, and you'll save a lot of money in the process. Whenever I encourage friends to do more cooking, I offer this advice: 1) It's not how you start, it's how you finish. There are no rules in cooking, so as long as you enjoy the flavor at the end, you've succeeded. 2) Cook like crazy. The more you practice, the better cook you'll become. 3) Stock your pantry. You'll be more inspired to cook if you're kitchen is filled with fresh produce, a variety of pastas and grains, and spices you love. Bon appetit!


  1. I thought this sounded a little familiar so I checked and a couple of posts down is this post on the same topic:

    Also, isn't this blog about saving money? Cooking classes aren't exactly budget-friendly, unfortunately!

  2. Hi there anonymous! Thanks for reading Savvy Vegan; we really appreciate it! All VegNews staffers write for this blog, so we feel it's okay to occasionally cover similar topics since we'll each have a different take on it. And have you checked your local community college or recreation department for affordable cooking classes? They're definitely out there. We also suggest hitting up any vegetarian festivals in your area, as there are always free demos. Good luck!

  3. While the tenor of this article on the lack of cooking skills in the masses is as commendable as it is true, the proposed solutions are merely ineffective trifles. It is simply not possible for an adult female to learn in a few casual meetings, TV shows or recipes the range of cooking skills her mother failed to teach her over the 15 years of her childhood. To suggest this is misleading.

    The only solution that assures quick success is a one week full time course (eight hours per day) at a credentialed cooking school, not in ethnic cuisine, but in "Basic Technique" conducted by a trained cooking teacher - not a televangelist talking head. Such courses typically cost $300 to $500 and are the cheapest way to get full time cooking into your life plan. Anything less is a waste of time.

  4. That's so true! on the long term, cooking by yourself is cheaper and healthier. You can keep big quantities into the freezer for later use. You'll gain in practice and recongnize good products.
    Thx for this reminder ;)