When you don't know the first thing about cooking

Kitchen 101

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Kitchen Beginner Seeks Help

Well, it looks like I am going to have to leave my job. My son has medical problems and I have decided to be a "stay-at-home" mom. I must confess that I cannot cook a lick. I barely know the basics. My husband usually cooks, but I don't want him to have to work all day and then come home to cook too. Does anyone have any easy, cheap recipes for a woman with no clue in the kitchen? Or do you have any suggestions on where to find the best deals on groceries?
Debbie B. in NC

Straight from Campbell's Kitchen

Try campbellkitchen.com. You can enter the ingredients that you have on hand, what type of dish and your preferred cooking method, and how long you want to be cooking. Then, it will give you a list of recipes. If you don't like Campbell Soup, try any of your favorite brands of food and they usually have recipe ideas. Campbell's also has a Tasty Tuesday recipe where you can actually watch them make the recipe. This is great because you can pause and rewind very quickly, so that you can make it along with them.

Enlist a Friend's Help

My husband also used to do most of the cooking and the grocery shopping, so when I decided to stay home I was in for a reality check! I did two things to help myself.

First, I knew a single friend, who was a really great cook, so I asked her to help me. Once a week or so, she came over and we would have a "cooking lesson." I would buy whatever ingredients she told me to buy, then she would show me how to cook that particular meal, and she joined us for the meal. These were "gourmet" style meals, but I learned a lot that applied to all cooking and I was able to ask questions as we went.

Second, I finally cracked open my Betty Crocker cookbook (you can find these at thrift shops if you don't already have one) and found that almost everything you've ever heard of (and lots that you haven't) was in there! I grew up on pre-packaged foods and take-out, so you can imagine my surprise when I realized that scratch pancakes are much cheaper and yummier than the boxed kind! The recipes are basic, easy to follow and there is a ton of other cooking information.

Get a Beginner's Cookbook

I had a cookbook at one point called Absolute Beginner's Cookbook (I just checked Half.com and it's available there at a good price). It has basic recipes and clear instructions for some tasty meals. The recipes include ingredients you probably already have or are readily available at any grocery store.

Shop Smart

The most inexpensive place to find groceries is Aldi's, if you have one in your area. Other products, like paper goods and some name-brand items, are best purchased at warehouse clubs, like Sam's or BJ's. The best place to find inexpensive high-quality produce is your local farmer's market. Buy in quantity when items are in season, and make good use of your freezer. Ethnic goods are best purchased at stores catering to those groups rather than a supermarket that may consider these items exotic and price them as such.

The easiest recipes are done with a crock pot. Be sure to pick up one of these little marvels and a cookbook to go with it. Or pick recipes off the Web. You'll be able to create entire meals with a minimum of time and effort, usually using inexpensive ingredients. The recipes are generally foolproof, and won't burn if you can't eat quite on schedule!

As a general rule to thrifty cooking, cultures all over the world have extended the use of more expensive meats and vegetables by basing the meal on starches, and only using meats and vegetables as flavoring or sides. In fact, some Asian nations subsist primarily on rice with sauces of meats and vegetables. The Irish have relied on potatoes, the English on Yorkshire pudding, Americans on biscuits and breads, Italians on pasta or polenta, and so on. Take a lesson from many generations of moms throughout the world, and learn to cook potatoes, beans, rice, pasta, and breads creatively to reduce consumption of more expensive meats and vegetables.

Take a Cooking Class

Call your Cooperative Extension Service. They'll send you booklets and print outs of basic recipes, already paid for with your tax dollars. Also call your local adult education center for basic classes that will cost you probably $30 tops for ten weeks of lessons.

Start with a Planned Menu and Stick to It

Congratulations on making a difficult decision to take control of your life, home, and kitchen! I have been a stay-at-home mom for two years now. When I made the decision to commit myself to making a home, as a full-time job, I decided to make our home-life as beneficial and stress-free as possible for all of us. And that included taking on the cooking!

I would say to begin with an overall view of what your life requires of you. How much time do you have? Does your child require a special diet? Do you have more time available in the morning or afternoon to shop and cook and do you have a freezer? Then start at the beginning. There are an amazing amount of resources on how to cook economically and to grocery shop efficiently. I'm not going to address that because I am sure there are more experienced subscribers to Dollar Stretcher that will respond.

When I began, I would incorporate a new recipe once or twice a week and put it up for a family vote. I also make large meals, so I don't have to cook everyday. This might be a good idea if your child's medical care takes a lot of time. Do you know how to make toast? Well, that can translate to tuna sandwiches! It can be amazing how good a simple meal like sandwiches and fruit can be. Make a menu for the next week or two, shop for those ingredients (plus some snacks), and you are off to a running start! I tried two or three grocery stores that were convenient and chose one; you have to decide how much effort you can put into the shopping. Many people recommend shopping at several stores to optimize your spending dollar, but ultimately, you need to balance effort and lifestyle. I save the most when I start with a planned menu, stick to it, and use coupons. I am planning to work my way up to more savvy grocery shopping, but with a small child, I decided that I don't have the time right now to commit to complex grocery shopping.

And remember, like any new venture, you will have to go through a learning period, but with a little effort and organization, everything falls into place!

Watch the Food Network

I have always loved cooking, and so watching Food Network while I was recently recuperating from surgery was a treat. A friend of mine, who has never cooked, found equal enjoyment and a lot of success by watching some of the basic shows and then allowing herself to begin "playing around" with cooking and recipes. She had always thought that cooking was "hard" and now has a totally different belief. If you are a person who looks at written recipes and doesn't "have a clue," try watching and sampling some of the programs on the network.

Have Your Menu Mailed to You

Leanne Ely, an occasional contributor to this and other Internet newsletters, has some great helps. You can subscribe to her online Menu Mailer or she also has a new book out called Saving Dinner Basics. Her recipes are simple, healthy and inexpensive. She provides you with a week's worth of menus, as well as your shopping list. Each recipe has suggestions for what to serve with it, as well as substitutions that vegetarians can make. Our family of five averages about $65 a week at the grocery store when we stick to her menus. (Of course, we don't purchase anything on the shopping list that we already have in the pantry or freezer.)
A big fan of Leanne's in Las Vegas

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Start at the Beginning

The best way to learn is to get a good children's cookbook. The meals are tasty, they explain what all the terms mean, and have a picture of each type of pan and utensil. All my kids learned to cook using the Better Homes and Gardens Junior Cook Book for Beginning Cooks of All Ages, but there are so many on the market. Invest in a couple, follow the recipes exactly until you get the hang of it, and learn to laugh over mistakes.
K.B. Georgia

Invest in a Slow Cooker

Invest in a slow cooker and a good slow cooker cookbook (I own the Betty Crocker's Slow Cooker Cookbook, which I purchased at a discount on eBay). Slow cooker meals save you a ton of prep time. I often start the following day's meal the night before at bedtime. By morning, my husband has lunch to bring to work and dinner requires the addition of a quick salad and toasted bread. Best of all, if you let your slow cooker meal overcook by an hour, it's not a big deal. Slow cooker meals also save you money since you are cooking from scratch. Once you find a recipe book that you like, select five or six recipes and then always keeping those ingredients on hand. That way, you don't have to make any last minute grocery runs. Just rotate your recipes, so things don't get boring.

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