Sunday, 3 January 2016

How to learn how to cook to save money and calories - for the complete and utter beginner

If you've found yourself here it's probably because you either don't know how to cook or hate cooking but are tired of wasting money on fast food or even pre-made meals at the grocery store. These fast food and processed foods often have low nutritional value so not only are you pouring money down the drain by not cooking you're also not doing your body any favours.

Eating fresh vegetables and whole foods can be really cheap and do so many great things for your body that you might as well suck it up and learn some basic cooking skills now. 

If you learn now you have the rest of your life to benefit! I love cooking now but I didn't always - just a short time ago I was living off pizza and beer! I also weighed 200 lbs and was technically obese so this diet was not friendly to my body. Eventually I sucked it up and learned how to cook and lost a ton of weight through my improved diet and exercise. Here's how I did it.

How to start cooking 

1. Don't try difficult recipes. Get recipe books that are easy and use some canned foods. My favourite easy recipe book is Looney Spoons  which also has healthy recipes.  Looney Spoons is the book that got me off my 5 days a week pizza addiction so I have a lot to thank for that book!

Jamie Oliver  and Chef Michael Smith also have some great easy recipes that are simple and taste great. I also love the 21 Day Fix cookbook from Autumn Calabrese called Fixate.

My favourite super-easy recipe book.
The recipes are easy to follow, taste
great and use a lot of canned food to make
them super simple.

2. Don't be afraid to use canned food - just check the labels for the ingredients to see if they've added anything in - choose the foods with just one ingredient. Canned food is usually pre-chopped which makes things easy when you're starting out. If the cans contain salt, rinse the food first (like beans).
3. Read blogs that describe the cooking process and gives tips like Oh She Glows
4. Don't stress over quantities or how finely something is chopped. Cooking (unlike baking) typically has a lot of leeway - you can change up the quantities and make substitutions and you might find you like the recipe a lot better than before.
5. When in doubt google it!
6. Find a few of your favourite recipes and stick to them - there's nothing wrong with eating the same thing over and over as long as it's a well balanced meal.

Tools of the Trade

Don't get frustrated and stop cooking just because you don't have the right equipment.

1. Sharp knives. 

You don't have to spend a lot to get good quality, sharp, knives. Avoid the ever-sharp knives that are slightly serrated - once you switch to real knives you'll thank me. You don't have to spend a lot to get a good knife. A "chef's knife" (that's the type of knife) like the one below will get you through all your chopping needs. You will also want a sharpener or just take it to a knife shop and they'll usually sharpen them for you. 

One of my favourite knives - and it's cheap too!
2. A nice cutting board. 

What I suggest is a cutting board that will grip your counter top and the knife. This way the cutting board doesn't go sliding around and your knife doesn't either. Now that I've switched over to a nice cutting board I will never go back! Check out this Kitchenaid cutting board with grippies on the corners.
A good cutting board will make a world of difference in your
chopping and keep frustration at a minimum.
3. Strainer

You'll probably want a fine mesh strainer for beans and rice and a regular strainer for rinsing vegetables or straining pasta but you can get away with just a fine mesh strainer.  This over the sink strainer means you don't have to hold the strainer while pouring boiling water near your hand.

This fine mesh strainer will work for rice, lentils, beans and pasta.
4. Measuring Cups

Cheap measuring cups are fine and will get the job done but a set of sturdy glass measuring cups can hold boiling water and are ideal for measuring liquids (because of the pouring spout). They're also great for storing your chopped vegetables in while you prepare your meal. I use mine all the time for making stock with boiling water and a boullion cube too. Since they are glass you can easily see through to accurately measure food. They also have cups and ounces marked right on the glass so you don't have to do conversions.

This set of measuring cups can double as hot liquid containers,
prepped food containers and measuring cups. 
5. Containers

To make things easier on yourself you will want to cook large batches and then freeze the leftovers to eat later in the week. You're going to want some glass containers so you can microwave your leftovers right in the container (this will save on dishes). My favourites are the glasslock brand because they are durable and the lids last a long time. The square design also means they fit nicely in your fridge and freezer. The other brands I have tested usually have lids that break after a year.
My favourite brand of glass containers for saving leftovers.
Glass containers mean you can microwave your leftovers
in the same container and save on dishes.
6. Pots

If I could only buy one pot I would go with this ceramic coated Dansk Kobenstyle pot. I've used this pot and it's perfect for everything from frying to stews. The bottom doesn't burn and it's easy to clean. The design is really clever too so you can put it in the oven and use a spoon to lift the lid. You can also use the lid as a hot plate. It's quite clever. It's not in everyone's budget though so if you can't afford a $200 pot choose a pot with a sturdy design, thick bottom and no plastic parts (you might want to put it in the oven at some point and besides, plastic breaks).
My favourite pot in the world - so beautiful!

7. Pans

I love my cast iron pans. I use Lodge because they are pre-seasoned. Just make sure you never clean them with soap (if you do you'll have to season it again). There's a certain technique to unlock the secret non-stick properties to the pan and I'm going to share it with you: don't put anything on to the pan until it's fully heated up. If you put a drop of water on the pan it will form a bead - that's how you know the temperature is perfect. If you follow this advice nothing should stick to your pan! It's the original non-stick. Studies also show people that use cast iron pans actually get a positive effect from the iron. Whatever you do, do not used teflon (non-stick) pans that are scratched and do not use metal spatulas on teflon pans.

My favourite pan that I use every day.
The original non-stick (if you know how to use it!).

What if I still hate cooking? 

1. Shakes

If you still hate cooking (or don't have access to a kitchen or don't have much time) try a plant-based meal replacement shake. Make sure your shake has a complete nutrition profile (ie. not just a protein shake) and start with half-servings. Your body might not be used to the fibre and beans in certain shakes. Personally, even though I love cooking, I drink about a shake per day to save time and make sure I'm getting my complete nutrition. I stick with plant-based shakes myself because milk protein tends to give me a bad stomach ache. 

After testing a number of meal-replacement shakes, and researching their nutrition profiles, my favourite is Vegan Chocolate Shakeology. It tastes great and it has a great nutrition profile. You may be thinking - of course I would recommend this because I get paid for referring it. The reason I signed up as a coach, though, is because I loved Shakeology wanted a discount it - I wouldn't recommend a product I don't already love. Other vegan meal replacement shakes with a balanced nutrition profile include Vega and Soylent. 

2. Limit creamy dressing, mayo, cheese, fries and pop

Eating out can be okay - it's just more difficult to find things that are healthy. Most fast food restaurants have some sort of grilled chicken salad - just be sure to check the nutrition info and avoid creamy dressings. Some salads can be just as many calories as a Big Mac! Also say no to fries whenever possible and pop. Studies have shown even diet pop causes weight gain even though it doesn't have calories.

Be Safe

There are a few simple rules to follow when cooking so you don't hurt yourself or your friends. I've learned this the hard way and yes I have given myself food poisoning. About 24 hours after I ate some questionable chicken I was writhing in pain on the bathroom floor for the next 24 hours. Food poisoning can take effect between 1 hour and 24 hours after you eat and most people get it from eating something they made themselves and not at a restaurant. Here are a few simple guidelines to stay safe.

Cooking Meat Safely

1. Clean anything that touched raw poultry (that's chicken and turkey) with hot soapy water. Clean them separately from everything else to be extra safe. Wash your hands immediately after touching raw chicken so you don't spread salmonella. Cook chicken completely - there shouldn't be any pink left.
2. Get a meat thermometer - I like the oven safe version. (If it doesn't say oven safe then don't leave it in the oven please). Be sure to stick the thermometer in the meat so the tip is hitting the center of the mass.
3. Don't leave meat out on the counter for more than a few hours.
4. Defrost meat by putting it on a plate it in the fridge for 12 hours or more. Don't defrost meat on the counter because the edges will go bad.
5. Cook the meat before the best before date or freeze it in a freezer zip lock bag.
6. Use a separate cutting board for meat. I love this foldable cutting board plus strainer from Joseph Joseph.

 7. Cooked meat can be kept in the fridge for 3 to 4 days and frozen for 3 months.
8. Don't defrost meat and then freeze a portion of it again - even if it's cooked.
9. Avoid all this hassle by cooking vegetarian meals or buying pre-cooked frozen meat. Avoid deli meat though as deli meat has a lot of salt and sulphites.

General Cooking Safety

1. Assume any cooked leftovers have gone bad after 3 to 4 days in the fridge.
2. Wash all vegetables and fruits before cooking to remove both bacteria and pesticides.
3. Rice goes bad quickly - just two hours on the counter at room temperature and you should throw it out.
4. See this chart on more detailed food storage times.
5. Use sharp knives and tuck your finger tips in on the hand that's holding the food being chopped. It sounds backwards to use sharp knives but sharp knives slip less often and that is usually when accidents happen.
6. Soak beans for the required amount of time or use canned beans.
7. Don't put food in the fridge with a utensil in it.

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