It’s a Tuesday afternoon. I’m lounging on the couch, eating orange slices and unironically thinking: this is the height of luxury. Earlier in the day I made guacamole while listening to an audiobook. As always, I chopped triple the amount of recommended garlic. To top it off, the ingredients for tomorrow’s slow cooker meal were already in the fridge.
Now, I think in reverse: how does this feels so easy? How did my home cooking routine fall into place so naturally?
If I think about why my partner and I cook or prepare 90% of our meals at home, then it’s because it’s easy and good. It doesn’t even feel like a chore.
What makes it so?
If I think in terms of costs—or I’d like to say investments—then I recognize two which make my at-home cooking routine nearly effortless. One is a start-up investment and the other is ongoing.
1. High-End Chef’s Knife
I have thrift-store coffee mugs, but a $180 chef’s knife. And I think of it as a start-up investment. Sure, it sounds like a bit much to spend on just a knife—that is, until you’ve experienced how nice it is to cut with a light and sharp knife. As far as I know, a cheap mug usually holds coffee the same as an expensive one, but I can’t make this comparison with knives. I’ve had mine for four years and don’t regret it.
Recently, I was without my knife for a week, and the purchase was only reaffirmed. My parents are retired and just bought a new condo in south Florida. When visiting last month, I took out one of their new knives from the set, started chopping onions, and then realized something was off: it wasn’t easy.
To be clear, I live in an old house with cracked walls and a basement bomb shelter, but right then I was feeling rather elitist. “Ugh, Mom,” I said, lifting up the knife and scrunching my face. “This is heavy.”
I wouldn’t want to cook every day either if it made my wrist hurt.
Being so, this is my recommendation: instead of the whole set (bread knife, pairing knife, etc.), buy only one knife for preparing food. And make it a good one. I have a 8" Chef’s knife from a high quality Japanese brand, and it’s all I use.
Also, in the spirit of minimalism, having one great thing reduces the need for multiple “meh” things. Win-win.
2. Top Notch, Organic Produce
My partner and I don’t eat out much, but we still try to buy restaurant quality produce. This is my ongoing investment.
When we lived in Chicago, we went to a local shop that employed a spirited and dedicated produce professional that knew everything; he was the sommelier of carrots, artichokes, and gourds. Now that we’ve moved, we don’t have a veggie sommelier anymore but still seek out the best produce. We’re able to eat fresh produce every day because it’s good produce. Discipline is easy when it’s tasty.
I once knew someone that said they didn’t like avocados, and then I tried the avocados they were buying and realized I didn’t like them either. Bad avocados are tasteless, mushy avocados. If you can, buy the good stuff.
In my Indiana hometown there is a grocery store nicknamed the “Gucci grocery” because it’s nicer than the local Walmart. It’s a regional chain. Often I’ve found that local or regional grocery stores (with some exceptions) have the best produce—the kind that is, counterintuitively, smaller but packed with more flavor. Or better yet, the best produce can usually be found at the farmer’s market.
Eating healthy is an acquired taste; after all, if you eat a lot of sugar, then the microbes in your gut are actively trying to manipulate you into eating more sugar. The best way I found to alter these cravings is to simply eat more produce. Then you’ll crave more produce.
In regards to eating decisions, I like to ask myself, “what can I incorporate?” instead of obsessing over what I can deny myself. But to begin with, in order to want to eat more produce, that produce had to be good.
Spend More to Save More
So far I’ve recommended how to spend your money, but now I’ll explain how you’ll ultimately save money. First off, I’m suggesting both investments as a way to increase your at-home cooking by making it easier and better. And for a variety of different reasons, cooking at home saves money.
The first reason is that home cooking reduces your restaurant spending. Studies have found that frequent at-home cooking is associated with lower food cost expenditures (while still maintaining health standards). My grocery bill is high but it’s also a majority of my credit card statement. Personally, I estimate I’m saving around four thousand dollars a year by eating mostly home-prepared or home-cooked meals and snacks as opposed to eating out or ordering in. Again, that’s even while buying high quality (and more expensive) produce.
Secondly, a healthy diet increases your productivity which could lead to increased earnings. According to a study with 20,000 participants by Brigham Young University, employees with unhealthy diets were 66% more likely to report having a loss in productivity. It seems that if you eat better, then you will feel and work better—simple enough. Therefore, I will also vouch—anecdotally—that a healthy diet has increased my general sense of well-being even if it hasn’t directly affected my earnings.
The final cost-saving measure is this: since cooking frequently at home is associated with a healthy diet, becoming an at-home chef could potentially reduce your long term health care costs. A 2019 study found that closely adhering to the eating patterns outlined in the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) is projected to save billions in health-care costs in the United States. On an individual level, I’m factoring in my long term health-care savings if I maintain a diet that will help prevent chronic lifestyle diseases.
In short, it’s one of those “you have to spend money to save money” sort of things. And in terms of well-being, cooking healthy food has a significant ROI.
Produce, legumes, and nuts are the main affair in my diet. When I cook, I usually begin by washing something that came from the ground, a bush, or a tree. I turn on music and I add some spices—at this point, I know I like paprika, I go easy on the cardamon, and a little turmeric gives some earthy-sweetness. It’s a journey. And the two major pillars of my at-home chef journey are, without a doubt, my chef’s knife and quality ingredients. They might be expensive, but they’re not extravagant. You might even call them basic investments—basic, but necessary.