My Story: Why I Don't Use Recipes

contributed by S

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A few years ago, I worked with a man (who had a reputation for being very frugal) whose wife had a reputation for being a very good cook. I asked her once what recipe sources she used most for meal-planning. She said that she rarely cooks from a recipe because she finds she usually spends more money that way. Her answer surprised me at the time, but I understand now what she meant. When I start with a recipe, I often end up buying expensive, out-of-season and/or processed foods like canned soup. When I start by shopping in the fridge, freezer and pantry, I do a better of job of using ingredients on hand and spend less at the grocery store. Besides the money savings, there are other advantages to cooking without formal recipes, such as:

  • Dishes are often healthier; a vegetable prepared in a simple way like steaming usually has fewer calories and salt than the same vegetable in a casserole or fancy sauce.
  • I am more likely to eat produce in season when it's the cheapest and best-tasting. If I choose a recipe in August that calls for fresh asparagus, I end up paying several dollars a pound more than the April price (and I'm disappointed in the quality).
  • I have opportunities to get creative, and have even "invented" some dishes that become favorites.

I do have a huge collection of cookbooks and recipe files, and a list of recipe websites. But more often than not, I go to these sources for ideas and then adapt recipes according to what I have on hand, or what is on sale that week. My "go to" resource is a small binder with notes on ways to use specific ingredients. It includes some basic and favorite recipes, but the majority of the booklet is simply notes. One page has ideas for using leftover cooked chicken and another lists ways to use the last 1/2 cup of applesauce.

Cooking strictly from recipes can be fun and a great way to experiment with new ingredients or regional specialties. But for day-to-day cooking, the best way to save money and reduce waste is often to leave the cookbook closed and just go for it with what you have on hand combined with your experience and imagination.

"My Story" is a regular feature of The Dollar Stretcher. If you have a story that could help save time or money, please send it by

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