Cooking As a Busy Millennial with No Money

You really can cook *and* not go broke. I promise.

Cooking can be a scary thing. There are a lot of things to keep track of, there are sharp knives, Gordon Ramsay is in your head telling you how bad you are at the basic skill of feeding yourself, and, amazingly, fast food is faster. But it's also a lot cheaper than eating out, it tastes good, and it feels good to make real live actual meals for yourself. And it's hella romantic.

Cooking really doesn't have to be scary. In fact it's hella romantic.Thankfully we don't live in a communist country, which means we have stores filled from floor to ceiling with every ingredient you could ever want (assuming it's not banned by the FDA – soft cheeses, I'm looking at you), farmer's markets where you can snack and look at puppies while you grocery shop, specialty international stores, foods being prepared and packaged ever more conveniently, recipes all over the web ... all of it, at our fingertips, cheap.

Which all means that you really can cook, even if it seems scary. In fact it's so easy that you can get to the point of making up your own recipes fairly quickly. It's also easy – and hardly takes any more time – to make enough food for dinner and lunch so you don't have to spend time or money buying lunch at work.

So in the interest of leveling up in the Adulthood world, and just saving money so we don't go broke, here are eight two-meal recipes you can make in half an hour, some of which are healthy-ish, and all of which are cheap and easily customizable.

Carbonara Mac n Cheese

(This is a stick-to-your-ribs recipe so prepare yourself)

This is what you need:

  • One box mac n cheese (yes you can use Kraft)
  • One block of cheddar cheese (store brand is fine)
  • Two eggs (not necessarily ~organic~ or ~free range~)
  • Heavy whipping cream (just the little carton, not that huge thing)
  • Butter
  • Black pepper
  • If you want to be fancy:
  • Ground nutmeg (yup in the actual baking aisle with the spices)
  • Bacon/hot dog/kielbasa/chicken/etc.

What you do:

Cook the pasta. While it cooks, grate or cut up about half the block of cheddar cheese.

When the pasta is done and drained, turn the stove down to low heat. Make the mac n cheese like you normally do, with the cheese packet and butter and everything. Use the cream instead of milk. (If you want it to be richer and more stick-to-your-ribs, stop cooking the pasta when it’s about 98% done and add more cream than you’d normally add.)

Add your half block of cheddar cheese, the meat if you’re using any, and the two eggs into the mac n cheese. Stir until the eggs aren’t raw anymore. If you notice it’s getting a little dry and it’s not as saucy anymore, just add cream until it’s as saucy as you like.

Add black pepper and nutmeg to taste (You barely need any nutmeg!! It’s a very strong spice. Add a pinch at a time and taste as you go.)

Obviously turn off the stove, and then presto. Done.

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Burgers

This is what you need:

  • A pound of hamburger (preferably 80% lean)
  • Hamburger buns/rolls/pieces of bread
  • Cheese of your choice, if you want
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Ketchup/mustard/etc

What you do:

Cut the pound of hamburger into thirds. Put one third in a baggie and freeze it for later. Take the other two thirds and roll them into balls, then flatten them a bit with your palms (don't totally squish them or they won't be as juicy). Press the middle down a bit more so the meat makes a shallow bowl – they'll hold the seasoning better this way.

Heat a skillet on medium-high heat until it fizzes a bit when you spray water on it. Put the burgers on the skillet, season the top with salt and pepper and put some Worcestershire sauce into the little crater in the middle. Don't worry about it if it spills out onto the skillet. Cook for a couple minutes, then flip and season the other side again with salt, pepper, and Worcestershire sauce. Add the cheese at this point if you want a cheeseburger. Cook for another few minutes, time depending on how well done you like your burger. Then just flip it onto your bread and garnish with whatever you usually put on your burger.

NOTE: In the name of everything do not press down on your burger while it's cooking!! That will squeeze all the juicy goodness out of the meat and you'll be left with a sad, dry burger. Don't eat sad burgers.

Gnocchi with Tomato Sauce

(This is another stick-to-your-ribs recipe. Like really.)

This is what you need:

  • Gnocchi (potato pasta, usually with the other pastas). It’s a little more expensive than regular pasta and it looks like you’re getting less for your money, but it’s so filling that you don’t need a lot. And it’s a change from the usual pasta.
  • Regular tomato sauce, whatever kind you like (I personally like the Italian herb kind but it’s total personal preference)
  • Olive oil
  • Mozzarella cheese (preferably fresh but grated is ok too)
  • Grated parmesan cheese
  • Oregano if you have some

What you do:

Cook the gnocchi. If you’ve never cooked it before, it’s kinda fun: bring a pot of water to a boil and drop in the gnocchi in batches so you don’t have them crowded into layers. When they float to the top of the water (it only takes a few minutes), they’re done cooking and you can take them out and put them in a bowl while you cook more batches.

While you’re cooking them, pour the sauce into a big skillet and heat on medium heat until it’s hot. Turn the head down to medium-low, add the cooked gnocchi, a bit of olive oil, and oregano, and stir in. Top with mozzarella and parmesan cheese and let it sit until the cheese is a bit melted. Spoon into a bowl and prepare to feel like you’re never going to have to eat again.

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Tarragon Chicken

This is what you need:

  • Two chicken breasts, each cut in half
  • Just plain ol’ noodles. The curly kind. Enough for two meals.
  • Heavy whipping cream (just the little carton)
  • Two big carrots (the Bugs Bunny kind)
  • Olive oil (the virgin-er the better, it tastes better)
  • Lemon juice
  • Tarragon
  • Salt
  • Black pepper
  • If you want to be fancy:
  • Mushrooms
  • White wine (for cooking. And drinking. Both.)

What you do:

Pour a couple tablespoons of olive oil into a big skillet and heat it up on high heat. (How you know it’s ready: if you splash a bit of water on the pan and it hisses and evaporates, it’s hot.)

Add the chicken breasts without splashing hot oil on yourself. Cook until the bottom is golden brown, then flip and repeat. As soon as both sides are browned, pour in that little carton of cream and enough noodles for two meals. If you’re using wine, pour a glass for yourself and then pour about half a glass into the skillet.

Turn the heat down to medium-high and cook, stirring once in a while to keep things from sticking to the pan. If you have a cover for the skillet, great, put that on. Otherwise, it’s fine (don’t tell Cordon Bleu or Michelin I said that) but you might need a bit more liquid to keep it saucy.

While that’s cooking cut up your carrots, and your mushrooms (after you rinse them and twist off the stems!) if you’re using those.

When the noodles seem to be about half done, add the carrots and mushrooms and then keep cooking and stirring until the noodles are all done and the chicken isn’t pink inside anymore. The cream should be mostly gone, absorbed by the noodles, with a bit left over for an instant sauce.

Turn the heat down to very low and add a few squirts of lemon juice. Try to get it on the chicken first instead of the cream directly, because the shock of the acid on the cream can make the cream curdle a little, and while that’s not absolutely the end of the world, it’s not great either. Mix that in with the salt, pepper, and tarragon to taste.

Et Voilá!

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Bacon Alfredo

This is what you need:

  • Pasta (whatever kind you like)
  • Heavy whipping cream (just the little one)
  • Bacon (two meals’ worth)
  • Nutmeg
  • Garlic powder
  • Salt
  • Black pepper

What you do:

Cook two meals’ worth of pasta like you normally do. While it’s cooking, cook the bacon if it’s still raw. When they’re done, dump the bacon, half the cream, a little garlic powder, a dash of nutmeg, a little salt, and some pepper into the pasta. Stir it up and eat it.

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Beef Stroganoff

This is what you need:

  • Hamburger (a pound-ish, preferably 80% lean)
  • Plain ol’ curly noodles
  • One can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Salt
  • Pepper

What you do:

Put all the hamburger in a skillet and cook it on medium heat while you’re making the noodles. When it’s all done, dump it all together and add the can of soup, a few spoonfuls of Worcestershire sauce, and some salt and pepper. Mix it all together and boom. Done.

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Asparagus and Bacon Pasta

(This one’s especially good in the Spring and Summer)

This is what you need:

  • Pasta (whatever kind you want)
  • Bacon (enough for two meals)
  • Asparagus (10 stalks)
  • Grated parmesan cheese
  • Lemon Juice
  • Olive oil
  • Red pepper flakes
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Garlic powder

What you do:

Cook enough pasta for two meals. While it’s cooking, cook the bacon if it’s not cooked already, and chop the bottom ends of the asparagus off (the white, kinda dried-up part). Then chop the stalks into bite-sized pieces. Heat a bit of olive oil in a small skillet. When it’s hot (when it fizzles when you spray a bit of water on it), add the asparagus, toss it in the oil to coat, and cook it, flipping occasionally, until it’s soft.

When it’s all done, throw the asparagus and bacon in with the pasta. Pour in enough olive oil to coat the pasta and add a dozen squirts of lemon juice, four shakes of red pepper flakes, as much cheese as you want, and salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste. Mix it all up, put it in a bowl, and eat up.

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Potato Soup

This is what you need:

  • Three cups of chicken broth
  • Six red potatoes, skin-on, washed, with the eyes cut out (I know, I know. We need to give them a different name.)
  • Two carrots
  • Peas
  • Two cans of chicken breast (with the other canned stuff in the can aisle, usually next to the tuna. I promise you it’s real chicken that tastes like chicken and everything.)
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme
  • Garlic powder
  • Onion powder

What you do:

Pour the chicken broth into a pretty big pot and get it boiling. While it’s heating, cut the potatoes into bite-size pieces. When the broth is boiling, add the potatoes. Chop up the carrots and add them after the potatoes have been cooking for about five minutes. After another five minutes, add the chicken and peas (even if you got frozen ones). Stir it all, breaking up the chicken a bit, until the potatoes are soft enough for you to easily pierce with a fork. Add salt, pepper, rosemary, thyme, garlic, and onion to taste. Stir it in and serve it up.

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