7 Tips to Make Cooking at Home Easy and Fun

7 Tips to Make Cooking at Home Easy and Fun
Ditch takeout and whip up something delicious in your own kitchen with these tips.

A new study confirmed what you probably knew already: cooking at home is the ticket to healthier, more affordable meals. But if you’re used to heading out to eat, making the leap to home cooking might seem overwhelming or expensive. It doesn’t have to be! Try these tips to make cooking at home easier and more delicious.

Cooking at Home for Your Health

Restaurants love to add salt, sugar and fat to foods. From a business perspective, this makes sense. Salt, sugar and fat make food taste great without adding a lot of cost, and customers want cheap, great-tasting food. Unfortunately, they also wreak havoc on our health in excess.

This new study looked at the eating habits of 400 adults and found that people who cooked at home three or more times per week ate a healthier diet than people who ate more restaurant meals. People who cooked six or more meals at home scored even better in the healthy eating department. There’s also evidence that cooking at home can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

When you cook at home, you control what’s going into your meals and use herbs, spices and fresh ingredients for flavor instead of unhealthy flavor-enhancers.

Cooking at Home on a Budget

Cooking at home isn’t just better for your health, though. It can be better for your budget, if you plan properly. Sure, some recipes call for pricey ingredients, but you can just choose a different recipe in that case.

The recipe you choose is only part of the money you spend on food. Food waste is the harder-to-avoid cost of cooking at home. Some of the tips below are focused on how to use what you have and avoid buying food that you don’t need.

My family eats five to six home-cooked suppers each week, and these strategies are ones we use to make cooking at home easy, delicious and budget-friendly.

TIPS FOR COOKING AT HOME

1. Plan your meals.

Meal planning can feel like a pain, but it also saves time and money when you can make it happen. I don’t plan our week’s meals every single week, but I’m always glad when I do. You have a couple of options when it comes to meal planning:

  • Do it yourself. Hop onto your favorite food blogs or pull out a few cookbooks, and choose your recipes for the week. Remember that you’re likely to end up with leftovers from some of your week’s meals, so you can have one or two “leftovers nights” to avoid wasting that food and give yourself a night off from cooking.
  • Use a meal plan. There are services that will provide you meal plans, or you can look for free meal plans online. I’m a fan of Kathy Hester’s menu plans—she does a great job making your week’s meals easy and delicious!

Once you have your meals picked out, you can create your grocery list and hit the store to stock your fridge and pantry for the week. Since your list is based on food you’ll actually cook, you’ll waste less and save money in the long-run.

2. Stock that pantry and freezer.

Like I mentioned above, it’s not always realistic to plan out your meals for the whole week. That’s when a stocked pantry comes into play. I like to keep handy kitchen staples around like:

  • canned beans
  • boxed tomatoes
  • dry pasta
  • whole grains
  • nuts and seeds
  • broth cubes
  • dried herbs and spices

With a stocked pantry, you can pull together a meal on the fly, even if the fridge is pretty bare.

Your freezer is also your friend when it comes to last-minute meal prep. Sure, frozen veggies aren’t as good as fresh, but they’re better than no veggies or ordering delivery. I try to always have frozen broccoli, greens, peas and corn on hand. Those, combined with my pantry staples, come in very handy when we need a quick and easy meal.

You don’t have to be a chef to make a pantry meal. Sites like All Recipes have ingredient searches, where you can plug in what you’ve got and get back recipes that use them.

3. Prep veggies in advance.

You can also buy pre-cut veggies, like shredded carrots or broccoli that’s already in florets. Like with frozen vegetables, you lose a small amount of nutrition, but it’s better than ordering salty delivery food or having no broccoli on your plate at all.

If you’re prepping in advance, just slice and dice your veggies, then store in glass containers in your fridge. This way, you can throw together an easy salad or toss already-chopped veggies into the pot for a simple soup on nights when you would rather not spend a lot of time in the kitchen.

4. Embrace leftovers.

I mentioned working one or two “leftovers meals” into your weekly meal plan, but even if you’re not meal planning, leftovers can be your friend. If you don’t think you’ll eat that leftover soup or stew, for example, stick it in the freezer for a quick meal on a night that you’re too tired to cook.

You can also remix your leftovers into a whole new meal. Whenever I make beans and rice to go with a meal, for example, I make extra so that we can have Beans and Rice Casserole a day or two later.

Having a plan for your leftovers gives you a break later in the week, and it’s a good budget plan. Otherwise, those leftover noodles end up shoved into the back of the fridge where they spoil. That’s food (and money!) down the drain.

5. Grab a bowl.

Bowl meals are a great fall-back on nights when you don’t feel like cooking. They’re handy for using up produce that’s about to turn, and you can even incorporate leftovers into the mix. We eat bowls about three times a week around here, more if we are busy.

Building a bowl is just a simple formula. Here’s how to do it:

  • Bottom layer: salad greens, a grain or mashed potatoes (or a combination of these)
  • Middle layer: cooked and/or raw vegetables (I like to do a mix of both—yum!)
  • Top layer: protein of choice (We do a lot of air fryer tofu or beans in our bowls.)
  • Tippy top layer: sauce plus any toppings you like (avocado, nuts or seeds, shredded coconut, sliced nori sheets, pickled veggies or sliced fruit are some of our favorite toppings.)

Once you get the hang of these bowl meals—aka Buddha bowls—you’ll be able to make a meal out of a virtually empty fridge and pantry.

6. Follow the recipe.

Whether you’ve got recipes gathered for your weekly meal plan or have found a recipe online that uses what’s in your pantry, read through the whole recipe before you start cooking, so you can have the right pots, pans and utensils at the ready. When you’re using a recipe, try not to deviate too much from the author’s ingredients and instructions.

Unless you are very confident in the kitchen, I do not recommend making a lot of substitutions to recipes. Food blogging may look easy, but recipe developers work hard on our creations. We test, tweak, test again and keep at it until it’s just right. Sometimes, it can take weeks or even months to perfect a recipe.

If you’re looking at a recipe, but you either don’t or can’t eat some of the ingredients, I’d suggest looking for another one rather than making a lot of changes. Changing things like the type of flour, the main ingredient or substituting one spice for another can turn a great recipe into something no one wants to eat.

7. Embrace the kitchen gadget.

You don’t need gadgets to cook at home, but they sure do make it easier.

I use my Instant Pot and air fryer to make cooking quicker, easier and more hands-off. Many nights, I make our entire supper without turning on the stove or oven. These gadgets do cost money and take up space, but if you can get some gadgets into your kitchen, you’ll save time and money in the end by ordering less take out.

The pressure cooker and air fryer are my go-tos because they cook food more quickly than the stove and oven, and they’re both pretty much set-it-and-forget-it situations. Throw the food in, set a timer and go do something else until it’s time to shake the air fryer basket or release the pressure on the Instant Pot.

A blender and food processor can also save you a lot of time in the kitchen. I love creating quick blender dressings, like peanut sauce, for our Buddha bowls. And if you aren’t a fan of chopping veggies, you can use the food processor to do the chopping for you.

This post originally appeared on Care2.com.