Six lessons for cheap and delicious home cooking

Meals cooked at home rarely cost more than a dollar or two per plate: a delicious way to save money.

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    This chicken pie (recipe #14 on the list) cost about $8 to make and made 8 servings. A dollar per meal for a nutritious dinner. That's worth an hour in the kitchen, isn't it?
    Trent Hamm / The Simple Dollar
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I’ll start off with what everyone will probably want to use this post for in the future – an index of all of the “Summer Meal Series” posts, as well as last summer’s “How Low Can You Go” meal series and a few other meal posts before that.

The Recipe Collection
Here are all of the “visual” recipes I’ve posted on The Simple Dollar over the years.

Summer Meal Series
1. Honey Mustard Chicken Strips
2. Grilled Vegetable Kabobs, Barbecued Beans, and Rice
3. Skillet Cilantro-Lime Chicken Fajitas and “Poor Man’s” Spanish Rice
4. Grilled Apple Pork Chops, Garlic Baby Potatoes, and Steamed Broccoli
5. Chicken-Broccoli Crepes
6. Simple Homemade Pasta and Pizza Sauce
7. Tuna, Vegetable, and Cheese Stuffed Manicotti
8. Chicken, Broccoli, and Mozzarella Calzones
9. Tuna Melts
10. Grilled Chicken-Salsa Burritos and Fresh Tomatoes
11. Turkey Quesadillas
12. Spinach, Pesto, and Cheese Lasagna
13. Ratatouille
14. Chicken Pie
15. Butternut Squash and Carrots with Coconut Milk and Curry

How Low Can You Go?
1. Vegetarian Burrito Bowls
2. Potato-Peanut Curry
3. Chicken-and-Corn Fried Rice with Lemon Spinach
4. Lemony Fettuccine with Asparagus
5. Cheesy Corkscrews with Crunchy Bacon Topping
6. Dal, Chilean Style
7. Coriander Meatballs with Yogurt-Mint Sauce
8. Moorish-Style Chickpea And Spinach Stew

Other Meal Posts
1. Homemade Pizza
2. Homemade Bread

So what did I learn from all this (beyond the eight powerful lessons I learned from last summer’s “How Low Can You Go” series)? Here are six new lessons I picked up from this summer’s food experimentation.

Capitalize what’s in season

Whenever you’re preparing a meal at home, you can almost always save a lot of money by simply banking on whatever vegetables and fruits are in season at the moment.

Often, these items are on sale at the grocery store, but you can often find even better deals by hitting roadside stands and farmers’ markets during peak seasonal conditions. Getting pounds of vegetables for $1 a pound or less creates the foundation of many of our summer and fall meals.

Right now, for example, apples are starting to be heavily discounted – it’s late summer/early fall and picking has begun. Sarah and I bought 8 1/2 pounds of apples for $8 over this past weekend. Can we possibly use eight pounds of apples? We’ll certainly try – and this will be the foundation of a lot of meals (and other things) over the next few weeks.

Focus on nutrition – but not all at one meal

It’s really easy to get caught up in the idea that you have to have some of everything at every meal – some protein, some vegetables, some calcium, and so on.

The problem with that philosophy is that it really restricts what you can prepare for meals. If every meal has to have A, B, C, and D in it, you’ve suddenly locked yourself into a pretty tight set of meals.

Our philosophy is different. We usually look at a whole day – or sometimes two or three days – for our nutritional balance. If we have a protein heavy meal that’s light on vegetables, we’ll follow it with something like ratatouille. If we eat a lot of cheese at one meal, we cut down on the dairy for other meals in the day.

The end result is that our meals are much more flexible without denying ourselves our nutritional needs. If you look at the list above, some of the meals are vegan and others are loaded with protein. Some have tons of dairy and others have none.

Mix and match them and you’ll find a great balance.

Manage your appetite cycle, too

One thing that several people noticed is that my portion sizes are sometimes small and sometimes purely vegetable-and-fruit for our evening meals. As one person commented, “If that were my dinner, I would be hungry an hour later.”

I agree – if I ate that for lunch, I’d be really hungry by two or three in the afternoon. However, this is my evening meal. In three hours (ideally), I’ll be in bed.

My largest meal of the day is usually breakfast (which is usually made inexpensive by eating a healthy dose of whatever fruit is in season), followed by two or three small meals throughout the day before dinner. If I come to the dinner table really, really hungry and devour a lot, I usually feel miserable in the evening and don’t sleep well.

Plus, since I’m (in theory) active all day, I’m burning the food from breakfast for energy during the day instead of digesting and storing a bunch of energy when I sleep.

It also makes dinner costs much lower – and since dinner is usually the most “prepared” meal (meaning most expensive), doing this reduces the food cost of the day as a whole.

Give it a shot sometime. Instead of eating a huge dinner, eat a bigger breakfast and a small dinner instead. Don’t go to bed stuffed and wake up with a healthy appetite.

Make meal creation social

One big element of making this series has been the teamwork between Sarah and myself.

On many of these meals, one of us is taking care of chopping while the other one is sauteeing (or taking pictures – or chasing children). It gives us an opportunity to talk about our day and just reaffirm our bond with each other, plus it gets dinner on the table much quicker.

Yes, this isn’t always possible. There are many days when I’m writing until right before dinner time. There are other days when Sarah is working and I prepare meals by myself.

Still, we both get much more value out of meals we prepare together than out of meals we prepare apart.

Use a tasting spoon

What kind of advice is that?

Over the last year, I’ve started the habit of tasting the food I’m making over and over again as I’m cooking and trying to figure out if it tastes good or if it needs something else. A bit of salt. A bit of pepper. A bit of oregano.

Consider that the recipe you read in a book doesn’t necessarily match your palate, one that has been developed over the experiences you’ve had in your own life. You’re going to be intrigued by different flavors than the chef, or you may need stronger (or softer) flavors.

Learning how to adjust a meal a bit with additional seasonings constantly helps me turn a bland meal into something tasty and a tasty meal into something sublime. It lifts the enjoyment of preparing food at home greatly.

However, there are sanitary reasons to be careful with it. Use a new spoon with each tasting (unless you’re preparing for yourself). We’ll sometimes go through five or six spoons for a meal.

Hit yard sales

Most of the really interesting and useful food ideas I’ve found in the last few years have come from old cookbooks.

Most of the interesting old cookbooks I’ve found in the last few years have been found at yard sales with a sticker on the cover – $0.25 or so.

Food is simply prepared differently today than it was fifty years ago. The ideas contained in older cookbooks come from a different time with different levels of home convenience. Add into that the changing palate of America and an older cookbook is a peek into another world.

A tasty world.

Explore that world. Pick up a few old cookbooks and dig through them. You don’t even have to duplicate a thing – just try some of the ideas out.

Good luck in the kitchen!

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