Many people who have found themselves staying in during the lockdown have become home chefs. But cooking at home doesn't have to be expensive to feel creative and fun, even for people who often have busy nights and not a lot of time to get dinner on the table.
Lauren Miyashiro, food director for Delish.com, says right now people are definitely looking to cook more and save money. "We have a gallery online for our budget dinner, and it's by far outperforming year over year, month over month," she says, while downloads of the site's lasagna recipe were up 400% percent year-over-year in March.
Here are some easy, cost-effective tips to strengthen your skills in the kitchen so you can use more of the foods you have on hand and craft delicious meals. This way, even once you can go back to eating at restaurants, you might find you don't need to.
"My biggest rule for this period is have fun, and there are no rules with recipes. You can swap in whatever you already have as much as you can," says Miyashiro. She and her colleagues created a no-recipe lasagna formula where you can take virtually any ingredients you have in your pantry or fridge and turn them into a lasagna.
If you're not sure what items in your refrigerator will go together, the app SuperCook shows you what you can cook based on what you already have at home, so you don't have to spend extra money at the grocery store.
Miyashiro recommends chicken dinners. Roast chicken is a kid-friendly meal that can get boring quickly, but there are easy, affordable ways to keep it interesting. "You can turn it into something new like grilled cheese or a quesadilla or a green bowl," she says. "I'm trying to do that more and more, like chili can go into a quesadilla."
Miyashiro and her husband enjoy baking cookies, and they're not alone. "A lot of people are baking right now, but part of the issue is then you have a ton of desserts," she says.
Rather than get stuck with too many cookies and end up throwing them out, you can put away your mix for a later date, she says. "I like making a big batch of cookie dough, prescooping the cookie dough, and then freezing that, and then baking it off. We call them on-demand cookies, baking them whenever we're in the mood."
It's easy to think you need to spend money on premade food to get something tasty, and that maybe you're just no good in the kitchen because your meals come out bland or underwhelming. But Miyashiro says that many people who think they can't cook are really just underseasoning their food. "Taste as you go, and don't be afraid of salt," she says. "That brings out a ton of flavor most of the time."
Since every kitchen is different, she also recommends you check as you cook or bake. "Garlic may take 20 seconds for it to smell fragrant on my skillet, but it could take you a minute or so. You know what tastes and smells good, so trust your gut a little bit, and your instincts."
Video by Courtney Stith
One way to cook in bulk but not get bored of eating the same meal is to keep the component parts separate. "I was talking to our test kitchen manager, and she says that she likes to like batch cook ingredients separately," says Miyashiro. "For example, she'll cook a pot of beans, a pot of rice, carrots, onions, and chicken, and store them separately in the fridge, and then she'll just the next night decide how she wants to play around with those ingredients."
Cook a huge tray of roasted broccoli, for example. Then one night you can toss some of them into a simple pasta, and the next night you can throw what's left into a veggie grilled cheese or on a plate with caramelized onions. "There are a lot of different comforting ways you can reinvent a lot of simple ingredients," she says.
Pasta can be hard to find right now, so Miyashiro says you can try substituting a vegetable in its place. For example, you can make a family friendly cauliflower baked ziti as a quick dinner. "Instead of ziti, you load in a big cheesy meat sauce and it feels like a pasta dinner," she says.
Instead of buying pricey sauces, you can add flavor with aromatics like onion, garlic, and herbs. These can make a huge difference if you're cooking beans, she says: "They act like a stock in adding a ton of flavor during the cooking process."
Miyashiro recommends not limiting yourself to traditional bean recipes. Instead, treat the beans like a pasta or a green. "We developed a cheesy white bean skillet with tomato sauce and threw eggs on top to bake in the oven" for a quick meal. "It was super just like, 'What do we have in our kitchen? Let's just throw it all in there.'"
The Delish team also successfully swapped out chicken for beans to make a "superhearty" cheesy white bean buffalo dip.
"A lot of people that are totally comfortable in the kitchen might follow a recipe to a tee," she says. "But I strongly encourage them to have a little bit more fun and creativity to really stretch what they already have. They'll gain a lot of confidence, and they'll save a lot of money that way too."
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