The best taste for little cost that I use is whole chickens. Use salt, pepper, paprika, or montreal steak seasoning over it and bake until the timer pops. Then chicken can then be quartered, giving you 4 nights worth of meals. There are also some basic online meal planners that you can find. Lastly check out www.angelfoodministries.com, they have very inexpensive food distributed throughout the country.
I agree with Will.
I strongly suggest anything published by America's Test Kitchen. These people make it easy and really spark your interest on how food science works. Their magazine is called COOKs, and their BEST of is the best way to go. They also have a show on the public channel. Trust them they've done all the mistakes for you and just deliver the best.
I also would say to go adventure. In college i lived on Chad's 3 for dollar burritos and chicken sandwiches, so eating Thai food really turned my palate on. Adventure with all sorts of foods and then adventure into those culture's food markets to buy the curries, or coconut milk, or sundried tomatoes, and bbq rubs. It's good to have a pantry with seasonings from different cultures. Then you can turn chicken into anything.
Another book that's great for technique as well as recipes is 'How to Cook Everything'. He walks you through cleaning a chicken, how to pick produce, and meal frameworks that you can plug in with your own choices. Very helpful.
It depends on what kind of kitchen equipment you've got access to; if you're in a dorm with a hot-plate, a mini-fridge and a microwave, your options will be different than with a full kitchen.
I've always made full and complete use of my freezer, and I've been considering getting a chest freezer as well. While you will have to keep control of inventory (finding peas from 2003 is always a little chilling), it allows you to buy in bulk, and then freeze, which saves on money in the long run. Also, having the freezer allows you to do a lot of prep work when you've got time, and then pull a pre-prepped meal from the freezer and cook in twenty minutes.
As a fan of fresh soups, I often will dice the vegetables for two or three batches of soup and then freeze whatever I'm not using today. Generally, a single bunch of carrots and a single bunch of celery will provide enough vegetables for three batches of soup. Dicing a medium-sized onion for each batch will get you a full mirepoix for pretty much anything. You can either freeze just the veggies, or make the broth and then freeze it, your choice. To make a basic and tasty soup, thaw the veggies, sautee them, then add meat and/or potatoes and enough water to cover it all. Boil until the meat is cooked through and the poatoes are soft; serve.
In the realm of budget meals, pasta is a filling and cheap starter... but skip the whole "Hamburger Helper" genre of boxed meals; you can make better (and better for you) by yourself. Add frozen peas and carrots to boiling pasta, drained and toss with a cream sauce, you have a pasta primavera. Simmer a can of crushed tomatoes with browned ground beef crumbles and italian seasonings, pour over pasta and you've got pasta bolognese. Other budget meals can centre around ground beef; the most handy 'leftover' I keep in my fridge these days is 'taco meat': ground beef browned with taco seasoning (made of powdered chile, garlic, dash of salt and a bit of cumin). Wrap this in a tortilla and top with lettuce and cheese: tacos. Sprinkle this on tortilla chips with salsa and shredded cheese and bake: nachos. Roll this in tortillas with salsa and cheese: burritos. These are all cheap, quick and easy meals, with a splash of preparation one afternoon between study sessions and exams.
I think pasta is a good way to begin. I would suggest starting with a jar of Paul Newman's spaghetti sauce, to which you just add 500g of ground beef, a few mushrooms and an onion. Boil a small handful of spaghetti for 10 minutes, combine, and serve - easy! Simple side dishes are always veggies, such as broccolli or carros, cut up into bite-sized chunks and microwaved in a cling-wrap covered bowl with a couple of tablespoons of water, for 4 minutes....lovely, steamed vegetables :)
Get yourself a well-seasoned cast iron skillet and learn how to cook on it. Something cheap and easy to make in one is a frittata - basically an omelette that you start on the stove top and finish under the broiler.
If you don't mind fussy writing*, I recommend Cook's Illustrated and their associated books. They are filled with good tips and good recipes. There's one for make ahead meals which may work well for you. Grab The Joy of Cooking also. It has a zillion basic go-to recipes and articles about food, cooking, and tools.
* The editor of CI has an extremely fussy and non-manly style. I had to stop reading his editorials because every month I felt like slapping him around a bit once I finished with them. And I'm not a violent guy. He needs to channel his inner Anthony Bourdain.
I agree with trying to cook 1 or 2 days a week. I work at night and do most of the cooking in my house so I try and do all of my cooking on sunday. I'll drag out the grill (I used a bag of kingston in the park when I was in college) and make a couple of tuna steaks for salads, pasta, whatever. a cheap bag of chicken thighs/legs put some BBQ on a few and just salt and pepper on others, a bag of hotdogs whatever. But that way you have the core of your meal done already when you get home.
Also Topher is dead on with his crockpot suggestion. I have two, one for the main dish and one for a side. When you drag it in late and there is a piece of roast with veggies and a side smelling up the joint, makes the day melt away.
THere is one cookbook I will treasure till I die, it's the copy I have of the Fannie Farmers cookbook. This will show/tell you how to do everything from scrambled eggs to a standing rib roast. A must have for every kitchen.
Thanks for the all of the advice so far guys. I've already grabbed a copy of the Joy of Cooking and I really appreciate the meal planner website. I was hoping to eat better my final year of college and maybe shed some weight while cooking on the cheap. I might look into Cooking Illustrated later on after I've managed to cook something without setting it on fire.
To add to the wide variety of advice you've already got, I'll add some more. Alton Brown taught me how to cook. Between his books, and his show ("Good Eats", most of it is on YouTube) he gives you the knowledge not just to cook specific recipes, but also how to modify them for what you have. The "America's test kitchen" books are also great for that. There's not just a recipe, but also a discussion on what they tried that worked, and what didn't work.
In terms of kitchen tools, buy them as you need them, and don't skimp on quality. It's better to spend some money on a good knife and never replace it than to need a new one every two years. Of course, price <> quality, since you can get some fantastic deals at restaurant supply stores (especially with woks, for some reason).
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