I take cooking pretty seriously. The fact that I catered my own wedding should give you a pretty good benchmark for just how seriously. I’m in the background of most of my own wedding photos as a blur in a white dress and a stained apron.
Nobody taught me how to do it—I taught myself the moment I realized the extent to which buying premade food was killing my budget.
The amount of money you can save by preparing your own food is staggering. But as cooking became my habit, I discovered all sorts of unexpected additional benefits to my social life, physical health, mental well-being, and even my sex life.
Please go into this article with a basic working knowledge of the works of Frank Herbert, as there is a joke later that I think is really funny.
You can save so much got-dayum money
The price of convenience
The average American spends over three thousand dollars a year dining out—almost as much as they spend on groceries. Sadly, the bulk of that spending comes from young people. Millennials spend 44% of their food budget on dining out and ordering in.
There’s a lot of reasons why millennials spend more money dining out than other generations.
I really think a portion of this is because cooking is a fairly intimidating skill that isn’t taught much by parents or schools. But maybe that’s just my own experience talking. The most complex thing my parents taught me how to make was sliced cheese placed upon a dry Wheat Thin, a culinary innovation known in some circles as a Protestant Patty Melt.
Companies know there’s money to be had from us. Why do you think Seamless is called Seamless? It wants to make the experience of ordering in so invisible and effortless that it becomes your habit. The marketing machines behind these apps are really, really good at tapping into your exhaustion and appealing to your “treat yo self” mentality.
We’re also a young generation who’s more likely than a Baby Boomer to be dating. And having a drink or a meal with someone is pretty much the default way to meet and vet potential partners. High dining out bills can feel like a tax upon the single.
It’s a perfect storm of dining expenditure. But the good news is that it’s not completely out of your control.
Cooking as a budget hack
If you don’t know how to cook, now is an amazing time to learn.
Recipes used to be disseminated in one of two ways: passed on from family members, or published in magazines and/or cookbooks. Both are problematic, because let’s face it, Tuna and Jello Pie is a recipe that was written and published by competent adults (most likely somebody’s grandma who thought she was a real great cook).
Now the internet is a fucking treasure trove of user-rated, scientifically-vetted recipes. Photos and videos make it much easer to judge whether you’re “doing it right.” Cooking blogs and TV channels make it easy to find a handful of trustworthy gurus who align with your personal tastes. And best of all, if you burn your meal into an indiscernible sludge, you can console yourself by watching Gordon Ramsay yelling at professionals who are still much, much worse at cooking than you.
You know exactly what’s in your food
Working around allergies is easier
I’m lucky—I have no food allergies or special dietary requirements. But within my extended group of friends and family members there are vegans, vegetarians, paleo practitioners, kosher adherents, celiac sufferers, the acid reflux-cursed, and all sorts of folks with special dietary needs.
We often cook for folks with allergies to soy, peanuts, tree nuts, mustard, berries, eggs, milk, shellfish, wheat, barley, rye, and sesame. Mr. Kitty’s own family is rife with that weird genetic mutation that makes cilantro taste like soap. (90% of my reason for refusing to bear his genetic material into the future is because of this issue. I cannot participate in perpetuating this dark curse into a new generation.)
If you cook your own food, you know exactly what’s going into it. And it’s much, much easier to avoid getting accidentally poisoned by restaurants, which aren’t always trained or equipped for dealing with patrons’ special dietary needs.
You can make your food healthier
Restaurants and packaged food manufacturers don’t care all that much about the nutrition of the food they prepare. Their chief concern is whether or not it tastes good. If it tastes good, you are more likely to feed them in return… with your delicious money.
Unfortunately, there are lots of ways to make food taste good that also make food shitty for you. Salt, sugar, and fat were rare commodities for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, which is likely why our brains are hardwired to seek out those tastes. You can dump tons of salt, sugar, or fat into it almost anything for a pleasurable jolt of that good-good brain juice.
But this is a pretty lazy way to cook things. Allow me to demonstrate why.
My all-time favorite food is my partner’s pasta carbonara. Crispy bacon, tender green peas, flavor-soaked onions, and al dente linguine are tossed together in a garlicky parmesan sauce until it’s all shellacked with a glossy, impossibly smooth sauce. It is a heavenly combination. When I eat it, I pig out on it. If I eat until I am stuffed, I’ve consumed about 970 calories. With a side salad of arugula dressed with lemon,that’s about half my recommended daily caloric intake.
The same dish at the Cheesecake Factory consists of a shocking 2,290 calories—more that double our homemade version, and well over an entire day’s worth of suggested caloric intake. Yet it also tastes way worse. Why?
See, the carbonara recipe my husband uses is prepared in a very particular and time-sensitive manner. Raw garlic, raw eggs, and parmesan cheese are combined into a wet, chunky, bright yellow batter. When you pour it over freshly-cooked pasta, the residual heat of the pasta melts the cheese and cooks the eggs and garlic to just-done-ness. Too much heat and the eggs will toughen and scramble. Too little and the sauce will be wet and overpoweringly garlicky. It takes time, attention, and lots of practice to get it right. And when you do, it’s a rewardingly rich and silky sauce that’s shockingly nutritious for all its sinfulness.
But the Cheesecake Factory can’t afford to do that. It takes too much time, attention, and expertise; it doesn’t work with their business model.
So they dump heavy cream into it. Loads and loads of heavy cream.
Heavy cream is also silky, and when added to a sauce gives food a velvety richness. Unlike the raw eggs and cheese, it maintains this texture no matter the heat, making it much easier to cook with. But there’s a price to pay for taking this shortcut. A single cup of heavy cream has 820 calories. You’d have to run for 90 straight minutes to pay it back.
And the Cheesecake Factory doesn’t pay the price for this shortcut, which is why they use it. It’s your body that absorbs the shock of diarrhea-inducing richness.
What’s more, the heavy cream acts like a thick, milky, mouth-coating blanket over all the other flavors in the dish. That’s probably why the Cheesecake Factory adds a bunch of other crap to the dish, further raising the calorie count. Mushrooms and chicken are thrown in for no reason that I can see, other than to bring flavor back to a dish that now tastes like Cream of Cream Pasta Cream Casserole with Cream Gravy Cream.
Feast your eyes (I’m so funny) upon a visual comparison. The left is from the peerless Pioneer Woman, whose recipe is pretty darn close to my hubby’s. The right is from the Cheesecake Factory, and I apologize for making you look at it and think about it.
My cat has vomited more appetizing entrees. And she plated them better, too.
When you make your own food, it’s much easier to make your food healthier, even if you’re doing so passively. You don’t have to rely on the shortcuts that make industrialized food preparation easier.
Easier to make ethical food choices
If you care a lot about how the animals whose bodies and byproducts you eat are treated during their lives, it’s much easier to know the source of your food if you cook it yourself. Same for if you’re very passionate about sustainable food, local food, or any other kind of philosophically- or ethically-driven consumption choice.
Not everybody cares about this stuff, and that’s okay. Personally, I could give a flying fuck whether or not my food is organic or GMO free. But if that’s your bag and you don’t know how to cook for yourself, I don’t see how you could possibly be successful.
Learn a socially valuable skill
Show the people you care
I started learning to cook in order to save money—but I started getting good at cooking when I started dating my partner. It ooks me out to say it because I hate conforming with traditional gender norms. A younger me would’ve curled my lip at the thought of learning to cook to please a man, as if it were 1963 and I’m Esther Greenwood and he’s Buddy the tubercular hometown boy.
But I think that attitude was pretty reactionary. Eating is a necessary act for all humans, with apologies to breatharians. Cooking for anyone—even yourself—is a wonderful way to demonstrate love and caring toward them.
When someone is really sick, or really busy, or really sad, making them food is a very compassionate and loving thing to do. It says “I care about you, I’m thinking of you and your needs, and I hope this gesture means you have more time and energy to focus on your self-care today.”
Be That Friend Who Cooks and Enjoys It
I’m going to say that I’ve singlehandedly saved my buddies hundreds or possibly thousands of dollars over the duration of our adulthood by being That Friend Who Cooks and Enjoys It.
Every group of friends needs That Friend Who Cooks and Enjoys It. I’ve made the food for probably hundreds of informal get-togethers, big parties, holidays, and formal parties.
Cooking for groups can be pretty stressful. More than half of Brits surveyed said that hosting a dinner party was more stressful than a full day at work, which is… yikes.
So if no one in your social group likes doing it, hosting can become an onerous task that diminishes everyone’s willingness to get together. But I know my way around both my own kitchen and those of my closest friends. I have many go-to cheap, crowd pleasing recipes that extend the length of our get-togethers by keeping everyone full and happy. And my friends with centrally-located apartments are less likely to feel mooched-upon if guests bring their own vittles.
It also avoids the dreaded No One Brought Anything So We’re Ordering In scenario—or the even worse Do You Guys Wanna Go Somewhere scenario. Dining out and ordering in with friends can be super fun, but it’s wallet-draining in the extreme.
Make the whole experience of eating better
If you live downtown in an urban area, you might have access to a wealth of options for ordering in. And some grocery stores are better than others at providing interesting frozen food choices.
But for most people, you probably have access to a Chinese place, a pizza place, a Something Else place, a mall food court with more of the same, and fuck all else.
Variety is the spice of life.
Also the spice is life because the spice extends life.
The spice expands consciousness. It stains the lips of the Mentats but allows them to be human computers, as thinking machines have been outlawed.
The spice also plays a very secret role in the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, of which Piggy and I are charter members.
You can also just give into your cravings more often. If you really, really want a gyro and nobody in your area serves them or sells them frozen, you can just go home and make one for yourself. It’s a very satisfying form of self-care to give in to your culinary whims.
Food made exactly the way you like it
How spicy do you like your spicy food? How sweet is too sweet when it comes to desserts? Does cilantro taste like soap, you poor cursed prince/ss, you?
Learning how to cook enables you to make food exactly the way you like it. And that makes it a lot more enjoyable to eat.
Okay, okay, so your milage will absolutely vary. Some people I love and trust have looked me dead in the eyes and told me they love running. So. I just have to accept that the world is full of lunatics who don’t understand what fun is.
But I love cooking.
After a long day of shuffling pixels around, I love standing up, moving around, and using my hands. I eschew labor-saving devices like food processors and stand mixers in order to lengthen the process—I want to do as much with my own hands as possible.
Cooking makes me feel creative and experimental. If I discover I’m short an ingredient, it’s fun to improvise my way around it. If some piece of it fails to come together, I’m challenged to figure out how I could save it.
Best of all are the moments when my partner and I are working together on a meal. While one of us is cutting vegetables and the other one is brining meat, it’s our opportunity to spend time together focusing purely on our everyday human needs. And there’s nothing as wonderful as setting food down in front of your loved one and watching their eyes light up.
(Also, Mr. Kitty and I have a kind of Sexy Peter Rabbit versus Sexy Mister McGregor dynamic in the kitchen. I like to sneak in and steal smackerels of whatever he’s working on, and sometimes he gets fed up with my cookie dough thieving ways and chases me upstairs and fucks me. I don’t know what to tell you guys. The spice is life!)
So do y’all like to cook? Do you hate it? Have I changed any minds here? Are you one of those cilantro-tastes-like-soap people, and do you have a set of instructions on how we can un-curse your restless soul? Tell us your story in the comments below!