cooking/grocery shopping/MEAL PLANNING is a lifeskill I just do not seem to have. Advice on frugal(ish) HEALTHY options?
I am not sure why I am having such a hard time picking this up. I live with people who can do it but they eat so differently than I do that the skills haven't rubbed off. I get the concepts but how to translate it into something I can use??? ugh. Out of 3 roomates 2 of them cook. However one of them lives on fried/pizza/chicken wing/mt dew and the other lots and lots of pork which I hate. Both of them do not cook with health in mind.
I think I just need to bite the bullet and learn how to do it myself from scratch. The problem isn't lack of information. The amount of options that come up with a simple search is so overwhelming I just don't know where to start.
I cannot afford to spend 20$ getting together the stuff for one meal. I can follow instructions but I lack basic cooking skills and often a recipe will assume that I have them. Basically after reading a list of 20 different things that I dont have on hand and mentally calculating the cost I run into stuff I dont know how to do. Makes it seem pretty risky and I just give up and go back to my normal habits.
Add to this the health angle. Also so much information out there your head will spin and much of it is conflicting. You get to the point where you feel that you can't be right no matter what you do. I do not want to count calories, I believe that if you eat real whole foods that you will be satisfied and do not need to obsess.
Here is the criteria. Any and all advice, even if it is pointing me to something to read or learn, would be MUCH appreciated. I have read through other posts regarding frugal living, and I feel bad that I am having a hard time with the amount I have when they are trying to live off of 10-20. I also find that it doesn't exactly translate as I do not need to be that restricted.
I think the one thing I need most help with is the concept of meal planning. Finding a theme and being able to buy all the stuff for that theme that will make meals for a week.
food budget (cooking just for me) 50$ a week or 200$ a month.
Healthy as humanly possible using only regular grocery stores
no butter and a min of oil (olive)
Love vegetables,beans,lentils etc. and willing to experiment with exotic grains.
Don't know how to cook fish but would prefer it as a main protein source along with low fat turkey and occasionally chicken. I only use lean ground beef to flavor chili. Dislike pork.
full time student so breakfast needs to be fast and healthy and lunches need to be portable in an insulated lunch bag. leftovers are ok.
Access to fully stocked kitchen as far as garlic/onions/potatoes/condiments(basics) and cooking utensils.
I am willing to do prep work if I knew exactly what to do.
All of this put together should mean that I could eat almost like royalty (for a student) but because of my lack of skills It all goes to waste. That bothers me more then anything else. The waste of it. So please, any advice at all would be welcomed.
In your shoes, I'd start cooking a few basic recipes that are easy and that you think you'd probably like, before investing time/money in complicated techniques/recipes. A place like recipezaar.com might help you, because the recipes are pretty basic and there are lots of reviews to guide you away from the clunkers. Also check out http://fortheloveofcooking-recipes.bl.... There are great, easy recipes there with plenty of explanatory photos.
One dish idea for you is a basic, fairly healthy greens-based soup:
-1-2 cans (16 oz.) cannellini beans [drained
]-1/2 large bag kale (pre-washed), large stems removed if necessary (could also sub. bagged spinach, but add just before serving)
-1 onion, chopped
-2 cloves garlic, minced
-1 lg. box chicken stock, plus 1 tablespoon chicken base or one bullion cube
-salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste
-1 lb. turkey kielbasa/smoked sausage
optional: fresh herbs such as thyme, rosemary, parsley, sage
1. In a large soup pot, sauté the onion.
2. Cut the kielbasa into thin slices, then quarter. Brown in olive oil with the onions. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant.
3. Add the remaining ingredients, and simmer until kale is tender.
Serve with crusty bread or a bowl of quinoa (rinse 1 c. quinoa in hot water, strain, and simmer with 2 c. water approx. 20 min, or until tender but still al dente).
Try it once. If you like it, try it again with some changes/substitutions. You could add a small can of diced tomatoes or swap out sauteed turkey breast chunks for the kielbasa, another green for the kale, add sweet potato or tortelloni, etc. Maybe an "Asian" twist with a splash of sesame oil, frozen dumplings, and sliced baby bok choy.
Also, I totally understand your hesitation with cooking fish. Here are three good, pretty easy techniques to have under your belt:
1) Baking fish wrapped in an aluminum foil/parchment paper pouch: http://www.marthastewart.com/article/...
2) Roasting whole head-on fish in the oven: http://www.spacelingcafe.com/archives...
3) Poaching fish fillets on the stovetop or in the oven in a sauce: http://projects.washingtonpost.com/re... (If you don't have an ovenproof dish, rather than moving the fish to the oven, just continue cooking on VERY low, covered, on your stovetop until done. Worked perfectly for me).
As Christina points out, soups are cheap and nutritious. She lists a soup with canned beans, good--but dried beans are cheaper and will take you farther budget-wise. One pound of dried beans can be soaked overnight, then cooked ... cooled and frozen for use during the entire week. Maybe devote a weekend night to soaking the beans, next day cook them (they only take 40 minutes or so to cook), then plan to use them during the entire week. CHOW had a segment on "Beans for a week" or something...will try to find the link. ALSO, don't forget the same idea for "Roasted chicken for a week"--roast a chicken on Sunday or Saturday....then use it in various ways for the next week, works really great!
EDIT: here's the link I was talking about...on the right, you'll see a link for the chicken ideas too:
In addition to the good advice given by others, you say you have access to a fully stocked kitchen with basic spices.
Buying spices can be expensive, but a little goes a long way and they last a long time (properly stored - try the freezer for rarely used items).
Once you build your stock of spices, your $20 ingredient list will become much cheaper (methinks).
Your love of beans and grains will be very helpful as they are cheap, and easy to work a week of diverse meals, backed up with a few spices and things like onions, tomatoes, garlic, etc.
Suggestion: buy a 1/2 bag of dried beans you like (e.g. kidney, or garbanzo, or ... )
Soak them on the weekend, and fully cook, with salt (and maybe a pinch of turmeric).
Keep this in the fridge. Maybe freeze half. It will make a huge quantity.
Have spices, tomatoes, garlic, onions, potatoes, on hand in pantry. Have parsley and cilantro in fridge.
Have 1-2 fresh veggies in fridge, and 1-2 in freezer (e.g. frozen spinach).
During the week, take out 2-3 cups full of the cooked beans, and make (as desired) an Italian soup, or a Mediterranean stew, or chili, or or chana masala / rajmah masala, any other appropriate dish that you have spices for. (pre-made, specific, spice mixes are your friends, bought cheaper from ethnic markets or mail order).
Eat with rice, or tortillas, or barley or whatever grain you have on hand. Make a veggie 'side' from your fresh / frozen supply.
These dishes meet all your criteria above.
First, here's an article detailing how to keep greens fresh after a a weekly trip to the store.
http://chocolateandzucchini.com/archi... I mostly follow that advice now and it works well.
Also, here's a dish from the blog 101 Cookbooks called "Big Delicious Quinoa Bowl" --
A recipe like that can be changed around so easily depending which add-ins you like/have on hand. (Quinoa is a source of protein, too.)
Hey, Happy New Year! What a great time to get started with something like this. And I completely agree with your philosophy of focusing on whole foods for health, rather than "going on a diet."
I'm going to recommend a book for you (check it out of your library, perhaps? since you're on a budget? You can pick up a used copy on Amazon, too, which will cost you about $10 including shipping), it's Mayo Clinic's "Healthy Weight for Everybody" (and that's Mayo as in the world-renounced research hospital, not of the fad diet of the 70's). They have an entire section on menu planning and shopping and give you 12 weeks of weekly menus and recipes, including weekly shopping lists. It will still probably overshoot your budget, at first (until you've finished stocking your pantry with staples, which you may need to do gradually), but it will give you a good place to start and a good framework.
Also, since you're just starting out, don't feel bad about buying frozen vegetables, especially right now (winter). I always have frozen broccoli and corn in the freezer. Also, berries of all kinds. Frozen produce (just get the plain kind--avoid the ones with sauces and herb packets and such) is super easy to prepare, portion out into individual serving, and keep in the freezer so it don't go bad. Watch for them to go on sale in your grocery store, then you can stock up and always have them around. Check your grocery store circulars (almost all grocery stores have website these days, showing their weekly sales and specials) as these items often go on sale and/or have coupons.
As far as meal planning, I like to pick one day a week to do a big cooking day in preparation for the week (or, if you have a lot of time, to portion up and freeze). On that day, I normally
~roast a chicken (http://www.foodnetwork.com/videos/roa... or http://www.bonappetit.com/tipstools/t...).
~make a pot of beans for the week (http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/recip... or http://www.chow.com/stories/11543).
~and cook up a batch of grains (http://www.chow.com/stories/11819) to last me for a couple of days.
Also, this time of year, maybe cut up and roast a squash. http://www.chow.com/stories/11996)
Or, maybe make a pot of soup or chili for the week.
Other healthful, easy, and affordable proteins I like that you didn't mention are eggs and tofu. Also, both of these will keep, unopened, in the fridge for quite a while, so are good staples. (Some tofu is even shelf-stable.
With the beans/grains/chicken combo, and a decently stocked pantry you have a good foundations to mix and match some meals. You could make:
~ a chicken frittata (eggs are good to always have in your fridge).
~chicken sandwich (keep bread in the freezer and defrost as necessary).
~chicken burrito or tacos (tortillas keep awhile in the fridge or freezer).
~chicken and grain salad
~chicken and pasta (100% whole wheat pasta is a good pantry item).
~chicken pizza (trying using whole wheat pita bread as your crust--again, pita keeps well in the freezer. it's good for sandwiches too. a little bit of cheese--say 1-2 oz at a time-- goes a long way and is good to have in your fridge; buy tomato paste in tubes, use a little as needed, it keeps seemingly forever).
~chicken stir fry
~roast chicken with beans and grain on the side, etc.
MANY WAYS TO USE ONE ROASTED CHICKEN:
One chicken, five dishes:
One chicken, three meals:
MANY WAYS TO USE TOFU and BEANS:
Chow story: 1 lb of tofu, 5 lunches
Chow story: 1 package of beans, 5 lunches:
My favorite tofu recipe:
Peter Berley's tofu with with white wine, lemon and soy:
A tofu recipe I plan to try because it was recommended by another 'hound:
Also, silken tofu makes great breakfast smoothies:
(Info on Silken Tofu:).
FOOD GUIDES AND COOKING TECHNIQUES:
Don't laugh, but Whole Foods "Food Guides" on their website are really good. Here are some particular ones of interest:
Guide to beans: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/recip...
Guide to pasta: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/recip...
Grains 101: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/recip...
Eggs 101: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/recip...
GOOD SOURCES OF "HEALTHFUL" RECIPES:
Good luck and keep us posted. Remember, the home cooking board on Chowhound is a great resource.
re: The Dairy Queen
Oh, one more thing, don't laugh, but when you're at the library, you might flip through some issues of Better Homes and Gardens and Good Housekeeping Magazines. Sounds nuts, but those magazines are often geared towards families on budgets and an article on "one chicken, 5 meals" or "Seven easy weeknight meals" would be typical for either of those magazines and might be helpful to you in your menu planning and in getting straightforward recipes. Their recipes are usually pretty thoroughly tested and I've noticed a trend towards more whole grains, etc. GH's website is only okay; BHG's is a mess.
re: The Dairy Queen
Also, rworange's series of posts where she tried to prove she could "Eat like a chowhound on $3 a day" might give you some great inspiration and ideas. She did not have perfect success on $3 a day, but then again, your budget is about twice that, so you'd have a little more breathing room.
(Scroll down to the bottom of her post for her weekly menus and recipes).
re: The Dairy Queen
wow thanks for all the advice=) I will start reading up on those links and grab the suggested material from the library. I especially like the winter squash suggestions as I have picked up a few because they are so darn cheap and last forever.=)
*also I do have access to a slow cooker (crock pot?)
*I think I will look up the suggestion of using a whole chicken. It just fits in with the whole concept of less waste if I can use it for several different things. It always seemed less cost effective to buy anything cut and processed. I know prices vary but does anyone know how much one would generally run at a regular grocery store in the northwest?
*oh and GREAT bean resources everyone thank you. I am reading through the one package of white beans 5 lunches now=)
re: The Dairy Queen
re: The Dairy Queen
If you take things in baby steps by attempting to learn one type of food (like soups) or how to prepare one type of food (maybe beans) well you will gradually build a good body of skills. The big thing to remember with cheap ingredients is flavoring. Things like beans, lentils, ground turkey can be very bland if they don't have the right spices and flavorings. With the right ones they are now wonderful eats. There are plenty of very good recipes in French, Italian, German, Mexican etc. that use cheap ingredients.
A few more thoughts/ideas/suggestions...
Don't be afraid to do a little research and substitute. We buy frozen tilapia fillets at Costco, and then use them in plenty of recipes that call for other white fish (halibut, grouper, etc) that are not in season and/or crazy-expensive. Sure, it won't taste exactly the same, but it will taste good. Some more common substitutions are here: http://allrecipes.com/HowTo/Common-In...
Try also looking at the Moosewood Collective cookbooks. I have the low-fat one ("Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites: Flavorful Recipes for Healthful Meals") and it's got some great ideas for cooking meals that meet your criteria. It also has basic instructions for cooking beans and grains - I tend to rely on this more than other cookbooks for "how-to" methods.
One trick that helped me out when I was a poor and busy grad student was to plan my week's menu (in part) based on what was on sale. If whole chickens were on sale, I would roast a chicken; if thighs were on sale, I'd make something with thighs. Also, things like meat/fish can be bought on sale and then frozen - so you always have a stash of "expensive" ingredients. Invest in some freezer bags and wrap (store-brand works just fine), and don't forget to label things.
Pasta is also a good base for some dishes, and a lot of grocery stores (at least in NJ!) now have store-brand whole wheat pasta. Don't get stuck with jarred sauce - try sauteing a little garlic in olive oil, add some spinach (fresh or frozen), white beans or chickpeas, and low-fat ricotta, and some shredded Parmesan on top.
Good luck and happy cooking!
Good point about using what's on sale that week... whole chickens are .69 a pound this week at one large grocery store here..also the point about frozen fish fillets...it can be very good tasting and sometimes a great deal. I'm also hoping that novicecrafter has noticed the related discussions at the bottom of this thread...great tips in all of those topics, too!
I agree that this is a great idea, and I hope you find that it is lots of fun. My suggestion is to make sure you don't overwhelm yourself at the beginning; you'll build confidence as you go. For traditional meat + veg + starch dinners, choose only one "difficult" element, and keep the other two very basic. For example, if you want to make almond-crusted chicken, then make no-fuss sides like steamed broccoli and a baked potato. On the other hand, if you want to make potatoes gratin for a side dish, consider simple baked chicken and a salad for the other courses. By focusing one only one difficult task, you'll get a feel for timing, prep work, and keeping a clean area, and you'll eat a lot less bad food while you learn!
Finally, if you find that you really enjoy learning to cook, then there is nothing wrong with spending a whole Sunday on an over-the-top, way-too-ambitious project that might turn out great, or might just be a learning experience. But those projects are much better reserved for weekends :) Have fun!
There have been so many excellent suggestions posted here- I especially liked all the paths that Dairy Queen suggested. Here are some of the steps we take to eat relatively healthily and without breaking the bank (many of these ideas mirror suggestions already made):
1) We always have a container of beans in the fridge and several in the freezer. We start with 2-4 pounds of dried beans (we favor black beans but also use dried pinto, garbanzo, lima, white/cannellini, red/kidney-types, etc.). We soak overnight and the following day (our most typical variation with black beans) we saute and onion or two, a few cloves of garlic in olive or canola oil. Then we add spices (usually ancho chile powder, oregano, and cumin) and soaked beans and fresh water to cover (adding water as necessary) and cook til tender- from 1 to 2 hours. At the end we add salt and adjust seasonings. We freeze in 2-4 cup increments and take frozen containers out ca. 36 hours before we want to use them. This type of project almost single-handedly got us through the lean years of grad school.
2) Similarly, we always have a large container of brown rice cooked to eat with said beans (or as a grain side dish with cooked chicken, etc.).
3) Between beans and rice, the meal options are enless for dinner (and easy to reheat for lunch). You can have basic beans over rice (plus fixings- we favor tomatoes, cheese, diced bell pepper- almost chili-like), or you can add corn tortillas for soft tacos, or flour tortiallas for burritos. We make a bean casserole by turning cooked polenta into a casserole dish, topping with beans and cheese, and baking til hot and bubbly. Or, you can make a simnple huevos rancheros- fry a few eggs and put beans and tortillas on the side for a dinner or for weeekend brunch.
4) With other beans (say cannelin or kidney or garbanzo) you can make various cold bean salads, or add them to a simple vegetable soup ("cheat" with decent purchased chicken or veg broth/stock- check Trader Joe's tetra packs), or add beans to cooked pasta along with some blanched vegetables. I like tossing garbanzos with chopped fresh tomatoes and garlic (plus fresh spinach or other leafy green, and maybe lemon zest) with cooked pasta. Leftover chicken is nice with this, too.
5) I can't say enough about the "whole chicken lasting you a week" idea. You can eat it cold as a leftover, or shred it for soup, pasta, or grain dishes- or even burritoes when mixed with beans. You can make a cold chicken salad for a sandwhich filling (one example: I dice chicken, add celery and a bit of mayo and/or plain yogurt, salt and pepper, plus a bit of mild curry powder... sometimes I get fancy by adding chopped toasted almons). Or a cold pasta salad (pasta tossed with oil and vinegar or favorite purchased dressing plus chicken- and garbanzo beans!- and other fresh vegetables). You can freeze cooked chicken in small portions and take it out as needed for various preparations. You can add cooked chicken it to a basic bean chili recipe...
6) Can I chime in about eggs? Eaten in relative moderation eggs are a fast and relatively inexpensive source of protein. For breakfast, lunch, or dinner we eat them: scrambled, poached, sometimes fried, or hardboiled. A straighforward omelette filled with just cheese, or raw or cooked veg, or leftover seafood or meat, is great. (Try looking for Alton Brown's omelet recipe online- it's easy once you've tried it once or twice, assuming you have a nonstick skillet.) Eggs can be paired with sweet (breakfast) or savory (lunch or dinner). We often pair with bread or toast, salad, steamed vegetables, etc. And let me sing the praises of hardboiled eggs, especially for lunch! You can eat them on the run (straight out of the shell) or in a egg salad sandwhich (I like mine curried like the above recipe for chicken salad but it can be as basic as diced eggs with a bit of mayo or salt).
7) In addition to beans we like to keep frozen batches onhand of: vegetarian or chicken chili and soup (especially a basic lentil soup- so inexpensive with just water (or broth), lentils, a few carrots, celery, onion, and garlic- can be dressed up with coins of cooked sausage or small chunks of feta cheese or toast or fresh greens tossed in...). It's also nice to have a large batch of "spaghetti sauce" (whatever your vision of this may be) frozen in 2-4 cup increments. Once defrosted you can eat as is or add fresh vegetables or cooked sausage, etc.
8) You also specifically mentioned breakfast. Aside from cold cereal, we regularly make large batches of hot cereal- which reheat easily in successive days if you have a microwave (and is still doable on stovetop). Sometimes I make a large batch of oatmeal or steel cut oats the night before, sometimes the morning of. I like to add dried fruit, frozen fruit, fresh fruit, chopped nuts, milk... sometimes brown sugar or maple syrup. The options are endless, it's pretty good for you, bought in bulk oatmeal and other dried cereals are reasonably inexpensive. Leftovers keep in the fridge for a few days.
9) So, we have some basics that rotate through our lunch and dinner menus (and we do plan the outlines of our dinner menus on Sunday nights so we have a sense of what we'll eat and shop for during the week)- basics being beans and grains in various ways as well as eggs and chicken. We also throw in a fancier meal about twice a week (say, quick-roasted pork tenderloin- a one pan dish!- that can be used for lunch the next day, or hamburgers with sweet potato fries, or a stir-fry, or fish).
Finally, two cookbook recommendations. In the words of Dairy Queen, "don't laugh": while I have plenty of fancy and/or specialty cookboos, I think "Joy of Cooking" is a good cookbook to have on hand. It has its problems, but it gives (for the most part) decent advice about the basics of cooking meat, veg, eggs, etc. and can come in very handy as a place to consult about basic (as well as more advanced) techniques. Some of the recipes are dated; some call for fancier ingredients; but many recipes are fairly basic. Maybe check out a copy in your local library to see if it might be of use to you.
Also, you might look into a cookbook by Pam Anderson (no, not THAT P. Anderson) called "How to Cook Without a Book." Sounds gimmicky but I've found it useful for its organization and steps. It has maybe 15 sections, such as: Salads, Soups, Omelettes, Tomato Sauce, Stir-Fry, Sautes, Roast Chicken, Vegetables, Chicken. Each section begins with a few paragraphs about the general technique (say, for making tomato sauce). Then they provide a basic recipe. The book then provides several variations on this recipe. I think the idea here is to show a person the METHOD for a type of dish, then provides variations that a new cook can get comfortable with. Ultimately this gives a person a basic repertoire of cooking skills that one can use and experiment with. It's only fault: no section on dried beans!
Good luck and keep us posted!
It sounds to me like you might benefit from following some Rachael Ray recipes. She has a budget section here: http://www.rachaelray.com/food/collec... where I'm sure you can find some good ideas. As well, she does lots of things that can be made in thirty minutes. I'm sure your local public library will have lots of her cookbooks.
The next thing is to think about maximizing both leftovers and unused ingredients. Say you made Rachael Ray's budget "Sicilian Eggplant Marinara Over Penne"- http://www.rachaelray.com/recipe.php?... (from the section of meals for $10 or less). If you had leftover eggplant marinara, you could add some vegetable stock, puree it and turn it into a Meditteranean Vegetable Soup. Or, you could add in a few more veggies (like zucchini and red pepper) and call it a ratatouille- serve it over rice. Heck, stir in some (drained, canned) chickpeas and pat yourself on the back for adding protein.
Rachael Ray herself apparently does this, calling these types of meals "Rollover Meals". You roll over the preparation and ingredients from one meal into the next. For example, Jerk Chicken with Roasted Vegetables and Pineapple becomes Rollover Sweet and Spicy Sesame Noodles with Shredded Jerk Chicken which then turns into Jerk Chicken Quesadillas with Slaw Salad. It sounds to me like you might end up with leftover chicken, noodles and cabbage when you're finished these meals, which you could then turn into an Asian-inspired dish.
As I mentioned above, the public library should have lots of good cookbooks. My recommendation would be to get some books that look simple, but not overly instructional. Shorter books with lots of pictures are good; it's always nice to be able to see what your dish is supposed to look like when it's done! It helps you know how big to chop things, how much sauce you're supposed to have, etc.
Great topic! Here is another post that I responded to with simple meal ideas: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/577921.
My suggestion is to learn to make 10 low cost, low calorie meals that you enjoy. That's it, you are done. No more stressing. Just rotate the dishes every week. You will be able to make them in your sleep and shop for ingredients with ease.
When I consider making a new recipe and I do not have the spices to make a dish, I don't make it and find another recipe. I hate spending on average $4.00 for a spice I may use only once or twice. Of course, there are some spices that I use every day and you will figure out what is good for you. (ie. cinnamon, cumin, etc.)
good for you. great for you! when i was in college i had to learn to cook too, and i found myself looking through The Joy of Cooking at night before falling asleep. you can pick it up and read just anywhere, flipping through until lights out, and the current edition is very good. in it you'll find all kinds of basic how to's, know your ingredients, how to prep veggies of all kinds... and you'll start to notice that it builds on basic knowledge. braising is a technique that applies to any number of varied dishes. once you understand a few ideas and the sequence, the recipe becomes a mere suggestion. you're finally pedalling without training wheels and feel more adventurous. as for the expensive ingredients, make a revolving list of those and include just one in each week's shopping or maybe twice a month. but keep at it and pretty soon you'll have accumulated a number of different tools, spices, specialty items and accomplishment. it becomes a wonderfully creative hobby! it's something you'll always have! and it's something you can share.... keep at it. don't worry. don't overload. make it part of your relaxing time. let yourself make mistakes. and remember to vary color, texture, taste, and shapes in your menus. rule of thumb -- if you can count several different colors, you're probably eating well enough. and please learn to use fresh parsley!
if you live in an area with ethnic markets--particularly korean and indian, but also latin american in some cass -- you can keep your food costs down! fish is often fresher because the volume sold is higher; spices are less expensive, produce is fresher for less cost, and you may find yourself seeing interesting options for learning some other cuisines. also learn to shop aldi if there's one available. read store circulars and clip cupons if you get a sunday paper or down-load them.
one very important thing to know about cooking dried beans -- do not salt them until they are cooked tender!! salt will make the skins tough and you won't be able to fix that. little things like this you'll miss if you don't start with good informational resources. on the other hand, always salt the water for pasta and potatoes....
I have always compiled my grocery list according to weekly specials. In addition, I check the markdown produce rack and deli ends before buying in either department. Bruised.overripe fruit and vegetables are fine for stewing. With deli ends, if you thin-slice on a 45-degree angle or more, you'll have sandwich fixings that are a real bargain.
As you don't have a lot of cooking experience, I think you would be less overwhelmed if you start with a basic cookbook (lots of threads on this) rather than trying to pick amongst a gazillion online recipes.
An easily-made and neat to eat breakfast or lunch option is to make a bunch of breakfast burritos, wrap in plastic wrap, and freeze. Nuke from frozen for breakfast, or pop into your lunchbag and either reheat or eat at room temp for lunch. Buy tortillas, scramble a dozen eggs, adding scallions, peppers, and sausage/seasonings if desired. Put a slice of cheese on each tortilla, spoon the eggs on, and roll up. It's a pretty simple assembly job that will give you 6 or 8 meals for a half-hour's work.
Buy a nonstich mini-muffin tin and make half-batches of sweets like brownies and muffins. That way you won't have so much that you get bored. You can bake balls of most cookie doughs in these, too. Turn heat down 25 degrees and add 10 minutes for the thicker dough. They won't look standard but will taste and travel fine.
Your budget is ample - it may not seem so at first because you'll be buying herbs, spices, and staples that will cost a good chunk, but they don't need replenishing often. Also, if you invest in a stainless thermos you can save a bundle by making your own coffee.
Speaking of books, here's a link to a recent thread seeking cookbook recommendations for the OP's daughter (at college), a "novice cook who IS adventuresome, healthy, but relatively poor" http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/677252 You might find some gems of cookbook recommendations in there. Again, the library could be a great resource.
For seafood specifically, once you've got the basics of shopping and menu planning, etc., you might consider "Fish Without a Doubt," which was a "Cookbook of the Month" here on the Home Cooking board in March 2009. (Meaning, a bunch of chowhounds voted to cook from this one for the month and post about it as they went along) http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/600185
It's not a "beginner's" cookbook", really, but it does walk one through all of the basics of all of the various preparations of fish. I would consider this a long-term investment: it gives you something to grow into. It is an outstanding single-subject cookbook.
Here's a thread on how to grocery shop and take advantage of grocery store specials: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/6466...
I forgot: Whenever you are using your oven, prick a few potatoes and throw them in beside whatever else you are cooking. Temperature is unimportant as they'll either take less or more time. Russets (Idaho is a russet) have fluffy flesh when baked but you can bake any variety. The flesh will be firmer but they all taste good. Doing this saves time and energy. Later they can be reheated in the microwave, or in a regular or toaster oven to restore the skin to crispness. A baked potato is a hearty and potentially healthy meal, depending on the toppings.
Write down a list of the dishes you know how to cook. Then write down a list of the dishes you would like to know how to cook. When you make your list of what you will cook for the week, mix them up - make something you know, then on a night where you have a bit more time, make something new. Plan on making a new recipe or cooking style a few times, or more, to get used to it and learn the details.
Another trick is to think in terms of techniques, not recipes. For example, the basic technique behind making a cream of vegetable soup, or cooking fish, can be applied to multiple types of ingredients.
So say you want to learn to do fried fish. Find some instructions, and make very basic fried fish - fry the fish in butter, season with salt and a squeeze of lemon. Make it again the next week, but try a different type of fish. Do it the next week, and this time, add a simple sauce. Keep the sides simple - you can match fish with rice and a salad, or microwaved vegetables.
Or for a cream of veggie soup; make cream of broccoli soup (saute some onions and a bit of garlic, add chicken stock and broccoli, simmer until tender, cool a bit and puree. Optionally add a bit of milk or cream.) Season with salt and pepper. The next week use the same technique, but make it carrot and potato soup. Next week, cauliflower and ginger.
By doing this, you will gradually build up cooking intuition - how you make a certain type of food, rather than simply following a recipe, and knowing what tastes good in what combination. Repetition is essential - the way to get gook at cooking is to do it over and over again.
Some other suggestions for good base dishes
Basic soup; learn to make a basic vegetable rice soup with chicken stock. Then, you can vary the vegetables and the seasonings to get different dishes with the same recipe.
Spaghetti sauce; learn to make a spaghetti with meat sauce. Then you can make it veggie, or with ground turkey, or diced chicken, or add brocolli or corn or black olives for variety. After you've played with that, then learn to make chili - the technique is very similar. Then try a vegetable stew or chicken - again, very similar technique with different ingredients.
Learn to cook eggs - high protein, fast and cheap. You've got fried eggs, scrambled eggs, baked eggs and omlettes, all pretty easy to learn, and still edible even if it doesn't look pretty.
And another useful trick - make extra and eat the same two days in a row. That way you only have to cook every second day, and for things like stews or soups it's actually easier to make more than a single portion.
As far as health goes, don't worry too much about that for now, If you are eating home cooked food regularly, and are getting lots of vegetables, you'll be doing pretty well already.
I just found a web site for you. I can't vouch for the recipes but I think it will be helpful for you to look through some of the recipes in order to learn basic technique. The recipes seem to have step by step photos of each operation and should be helpful for you. There may be other similar sites out there as well.
You tube or video jug etc. have some great cooking videos too.
I would also suggest that you do a search here for student recipes and pick ones that you like. Or start with a search for or a recipe book that has 5 ingredients or so per recipe. In other words, simple recipes.
Think about using all of your leftover bits as well to save money. Once you get some basic recipes down, you can improvise by tossing a leftover bit of this with that and come up with some great meals. If a recipe calls for something you don't have you can try to substitute a different item.
Once you find a recipe you like, let's say for chilli. You can make a batch (8 servings) and freeze these in small containers. Reheat or nuke them when you need a quick meal. I used to do this with beef pot pies when I was a student. I made 8 or 10 in those little foil pans, bagged them in freezer bags and I was set. I would pop one in the oven and study while I waited for it to cook. This might be more effort than you care to put in due to time etc. but you get the idea of what is possible.
There are so many great ideas and suggestions here from everyone. My advice is to relax about it. Start simple and basic. You will learn as you go and try different recipes.
Also, keep your heat low and don't walk away from the stove with the burner on until you have more experience. My other great tip is DO NOT buy spices in a grocery store unless they are half off. You can go to a produce or ethnic market and usually find them at a much better price.
Seriously, I've seen cardamom for $13 a bottle in a supermarket and paid $4 in an ethnic market. Big difference. Same for produce. A produce market usually has cheaper produce, $1.99 v $.99 for apples. They also sometimes have good but more reasonably priced meat and deli items. I guess it depends where you are living and what kind of shops you have around you.
By the way, you asked about buying a whole chicken. You can probably get one for .99 cents a pound on sale and a typical chicken might weigh 3-4 pounds. (Organic chicken would cost you more of course.) You can get quite a few meals plus some broth for soup or cooking out of one chicken. You can always freeze the broth or leftovers too. In a pinch you can buy a ready-cooked rotisserie chicken when you are low on time and eat for quite a few days. Here is a website that shows you some ideas for using leftover chicken whether you roast one or buy a ready roasted. It will give you some ideas at least for the possibilities. Take some leftover chicken, a little sauce (hoisin, bbq etc) and wrap it up in a tortilla. http://www.myrecipes.com/how-to/7-way...
Best of luck to you. Let us know how you are doing and if you need more help with anything. The folks here are always willing to help.
I'm going to suggest some things, one at a time, in a few posts. Otherwise, I just get too windy.
Roast a chicken, preferably, on the weekend. If you just don't want to or don't have time, buy a rotisserie chicken (around $5 - 6). You can also buy leg quarters for $1/pound and roast those. Chicken breasts cost about twice that but are healthier.
Eat what you want then bone it. Pick off as much of the meat as you can and save it in a zip lock bag.
Use the bones, carcass and left over skin for making a stock. A slow cooker is great for this.
Make a soup with the stock and some veggies and a little of the meat from the zip lock bag. You can stretch your soup with some noodles, beans, lentils or rice. You could probably even use that quinoa stuff, It is supposed to be healthy.
Make a risotto or rice pilaf with some canned stock. You can use some of your chicken with it. You can also throw whatever veggies you have in with it.
There are all kinds of things you can do with that left over chicken, including making a sandwich or adding it to a salad.
Stock a basic pantry and when you shop make your meals based on what's on sale. You can flavor beans or beans soups with smoked turkey. Eat beans over cornbread with sliced tomatoes and onions on top for a giant meal. Eat any cooked vegetable with rice or alone with some good bread. Pasta with eggs. Frittatas with veggies leftover from cooked veggies with rice. Pasta with pureed cooked frozen peas for a sauce. Simple salad with vinagrette and a fried egg on top. Liver, chicken beef or calf, cheap and delicious. Just some thoughts.