Learn from my mistakes and skip these common cooking blunders.
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Welcome to Thrifty. A weekly column where assistant nutrition editor and registered dietitian, Jessica Ball, keeps it real on how to grocery shop on a budget, make healthy meals for one or two, and make earth-friendly choices without overhauling your entire life. 

Starting to cook can be, well, intimidating. But there's no need to fear the kitchen. Like with anything new, there is going to be a learning curve. Luckily for you, you can learn from some of my mistakes. Growing up, some of my favorite memories were spent in the kitchen with my mom. I thought, when I moved out of the house and had to start cooking for myself, it would be a breeze. I quickly found that being a sous chef and running the show were quite a bit different. Being a student athlete in college, I needed to learn how to make healthy, budget-friendly meals in a way that was efficient. Over the years, I have become comfortable in the kitchen and passionate about cooking, and want to share what I have learned along the way. From cooking basics to low-lift way to plan ahead, these suggestions can help set you up for success in the kitchen, whether you're a novice chef or more experienced home cook.

1. Read the recipe

That means all the way through—before you start cooking. This is quite the important step in getting prepared. Also, set out what you need before you get started. This prevents the "do I not have tomatoes?" question midway through cooking shakshuka. Save yourself the trouble and double check that you have what you need before you dive into cooking. This works for appliances and tools too. A quick recipe read-through could show that you don't have, say, a food processor for your pesto recipe, and can help you come up with a plan that's actually going to work.

2. Learn to half recipes

Unfortunately for those of us that aren't cooking for a family, most recipes are geared towards serving four to six people. After you read your recipe, see how many servings it makes and compare that to how much you want to have on hand. For example, if a recipe makes four servings, consider halving it to make two meals worth instead. Only buying half of your ingredients for a big recipe can cut down on cost as well as food waste from spoilage. Personally, I am not much of a meal prepper, though I know it can be super budget-friendly and easy. I like to have more variety in my week, so I usually make double what I will eat for dinner and eat leftovers for lunch the next day.

3. Skip some specialty ingredients

We have all had it happen: you have basically everything for a recipe, except one expensive, specialty ingredient you aren't even sure where to find (looking at you, chickpea flour). A quick internet search can give you substitution ideas with more common ingredients that you may even already have. For example, I grind oats into oat flour for recipes that call for bread crumbs. There is little-to-no taste difference, and I get a little added fiber in my meatballs. Other swaps, like plain Greek yogurt for sour cream or milk and lemon juice for buttermilk, can save you a few bucks and a trip to the store.

4. Do dishes in the downtime

Your Cheesy Roasted Cauliflower is in the oven for 20 minutes and you begin to sit there and twiddle your thumbs. Instead, get a jumpstart on your dishes when you have downtime between steps in a recipe. This saves you time at the end of the night and can make cleanup feel more manageable. Over time, I have become a master multitasker, cooking and cleaning simultaneously so that, when I sit down to eat, I can just enjoy my meal (and a glass of wine, let's be real) without stressing about a big mess waiting for me in the kitchen.

5. Make a plan

Walking into a grocery store empty-handed and without direction leads to lots of extra purchases and coming home with lots of food and no idea what to cook. A little planning goes a long way. You don't need to be a meal-prep pro (we have this lovely meal-prep beginner's guide to help you get started); just thinking through your week of meals and writing down the ingredients you need to buy will save you money at the store and time throughout your week. When you are making your list, check what you already have to avoid buying anything twice. This is yet another way to cut down on food waste (and your grocery bill). However, nobody is perfect.

6. Properly store things

Not only does storing your food properly make it taste better, but it can also help you cut down on food waste. The average American wastes about 40% of their food, yikes. Food waste is not only wasted food, but it's also wasted money, resources (water, energy, etc) and time. Overall, no good. Lucky for you we have tips for the best way to store fruits and veggies and how to stock your pantry to organize your kitchen and help you cut back on waste.

7. Stock up

Hear me out: good quality, basic cooking tools will change your life. This may seem obvious, but there are a few things I cannot believe I cooked without for so long. Once you start using a sharp knife, you'll never go back. You don't need to buy top-of-the-line everything but these essential kitchen tools are worth a small investment before you get cooking:

  • Chef's Knife: Do not be stingy about this one—I promise it is worth it. (From $32, Amazon.com)
  • Cutting Board: Opt for one with some grip. Safety first. (from $15, Amazon.com)
  • Pyrex: Repeat after me, "I will not measure liquids in a dry cup measure again." (From $12, Amazon.com)
  • Measuring Cups & Spoons: I prefer metal because the numbers fade on plastic ones. (From $12, Amazon.com)
  • Cast-Iron Skillet: Learn how to care for these game-changer pans and they will last forever. (From $12.90, Amazon.com)
  • Stainless Steel Pot: All the soups. (From $22, Amazon.com)
  • Strainer: From a can of beans to berries to mashed potatoes, you will use this. (From $14, Amazon.com)
  • Mixing Bowl: Cookies! And also healthy foods, like salads. (From $13, Amazon.com)
  • 9x13 Baking Dish: This is far and away the most popular size of casserole dish used in recipes. (From $20, Amazon.com)
  • Baking Sheet: There are few greater pleasures than perfectly roasted root vegetables. (From $16.59, Amazon.com)
  • Rubber Spatula: Get stirring and flipping. (From $9, Amazon.com)
  • Whisk: Three words: homemade salad dressings. (From $10, Amazon.com)
  • Metal Tongs: Flipping meats (or tofu, you veg heads) just got a whole lot easier. (From $9.45, Amazon.com)
  • Grater: Yes, you actually should use lemon and lime zest when it is called for. Also, shredded cheese. (From $11.95, Amazon.com)
  • Instant-Read Thermometer: Forget slicing meat and guessing its doneness, you're an informed home cook now. (From $13, Amazon.com)
  • Can Opener: A Swiss Army Knife will not work, trust me. (From $14.43, Amazon.com)

8. Always. Salt. Pasta. Water.

There is not much more to say about this one, other than the shorter the cook time, the more salt you should add. Fresh pasta that boils for a minute or two should have very salty water, whereas rice or orzo that simmers and absorbs the water should have just a pinch. Don't be salt-phobic when cooking from scratch. It's the first step in adding flavor to your pasta and not all the salt gets absorbed. But if you are worried about your sodium intake, check out these Sneaky Signs You Might Be Eating Too Much Salt.

9. Use Your Instincts

This might sound abstract, but it's really not. Even if you don't regularly cook, everyone regularly eats and most people can tell the difference between underdone, overdone and just right. If what you are making looks like its done and is going to burn but the recipe says 10 more minutes, forget the recipe. Every kitchen is different and your oven at 425 degrees or stove on medium heat may be hotter (or colder) than where the recipe was tested. This tip is pretty much permission to use your best judgement (and encouragement to pay attention during the cooking process).

10. Let The Pan Heat Up

Don't add anything to your pan until it gets hot. Yep, that includes butter or oil. This may be a nuisance, but is worth the short wait. Letting your pan (or pot) heat up adequately prevents your food from sticking and ensures that you will have a crispy, golden crust and an even sear. Food added to a cold pan heats up slowly and can get mushy. It can also mess with your cook time, leaving you with an underdone dish. However, beware of overheating your pan. If your oil is smoking, take it off of the heat source (that means it is getting near its smoke-point—not ideal). For more on this, check out these 10 Bad Cooking Habits You Should Break.

Bottom Line

One of my favorite things about cooking is that I have a chance to be creative. Recipes can be adapted, adjusted and played with a little bit to help you cook up exactly what you want. Though there is a lot of wiggle room when it comes to being a "good cook", these tips will get you on the right track and set you ahead of a true beginner. From how you plan to how you shop and cook, you can save money and reduce food waste all while putting something delicious on your plate.