Channeling Your Inner Grandmother: How to Gain Health, Wealth, and Autonomy by Cooking at Home
If there is any group of people with a stereotype that involves not cooking, it’s programmers. TV shows portray us as late-night snack food junkies, who magically subsist on Mountain Dew and Cheetos while we power our way through the latest hackathon.
Whether that’s entirely accurate or not is another story, but there does seem to be some kernel of truth there.
In my experience, it’s not the external stress that causes such poor eating habits. My brain just works differently when I get deeply entrenched in solving a programming problem. I can barely pull myself away from the computer.
I have this self-imposed feeling of urgency, a sense that if I don’t solve the problem right now, I may never solve it.
Have you ever had some weird bug totally derail your day? Maybe you start out feeling fresh at 9 a.m., but by mid-afternoon you haven’t eaten lunch, and you’re tearing your hair out trying to fix it?
Yeah, me too.
I used to skip lunch or go grab Chipotle once I got my head out of the weeds. I would almost always rely on food that someone else prepared for me, because I’d think to myself, “Hey, I make good money and I just solved a hard problem. I deserve it.”
This is where I want to challenge your assumptions today.
When it comes to money, life is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. Those little expenses add up over time. They gradually drain away your financial independence.
Everyone wants better health, more autonomy, more money, and a sense of purpose.
What if there is one thing you can do today that will give you all of those things?
What if it isn’t that far out of your reach? (As in, literally a few feet from you right now.)
What if it takes you no more than a few hours a day to do it?
As unglamorous and old school as it may seem, that thing is home cooking.
Take Control of the Means of Production
I am convinced that deep inside each of us, there is an Italian grandmother waiting to come out. She spends all day canning tomato sauce after the summer harvest. She bakes fresh bread every four days and turns the stale stuff into breadcrumbs to be used in other recipes.
She knows what dry beans are, how to store them, how to boil them, and how to make cheap and delicious meals with them.
She owns a food processor and uses it daily.
Here’s another thing about this grandmother. She is the most powerful person in the world. Nobody can tell her what to do.
If they did, they’d regret it pretty shortly. Who else would make dinner? Plus, even if they tried, they would fail, because she controls the means of production.
Your grandmother didn’t buy some fancy five-dollar loaf of bread. She baked it herself. She didn’t go to Whole Paycheck and spend seven dollars on a jar of almond butter. She roasted the almonds and produced the tastiest spread you’ve ever eaten.
You exist because several generations of people like your grandmother knew how to keep themselves from starving. They did all of this, amazingly, without going to Chipotle. Not even once.
Cuckoo For Convenience
My generation, the millennials, didn’t grow up that way. For most of us, it was perfectly normal to eat sugary breakfast cereal every morning before binging on cartoons. You didn’t question it.
Now that we’re all grown up, we have carried those same habits well into adulthood.
We think nothing of grabbing takeout several times a week, buying expensive processed foods, and having meat with every dinner as if that’s been totally normal throughout the course of human history (hint: it wasn’t).
In fact, lots of fancy, high-falutin’ software developer jobs advertise daily catered lunches, all in a bid to attract talent. That’s not a bad thing (who doesn’t like free food?), but it does say a lot about our priorities today.
People in my generation seem to prefer to give up their personal autonomy in exchange for the privilege of having others prepare food for them. We do this daily. We do this like it’s not a thing.
“Woah woah woah,” you say. “You just packed a lot into that little paragraph. What does enjoying a nice lunch out have to do with me giving up my freedom?”
As it turns out, everything.
Be a Rebel. Cook at Home.
Would you want to go to your job today if you no longer needed the money? Would you get up out of bed and do your work just because you find it personally meaningful? Would you go to the office because you happen to like the people you work with?
I frequently ask myself these questions. I use them as a guide when deciding who to work with.
Removing money from work is one of the most ethical things each of us can do. When we no longer need the money, we can’t be bribed. When we don’t go to work to collect a paycheck, we can’t be coerced or treated unfairly.
Take a minute and imagine a workplace where everyone is there solely because they want to be there, not because they’ll eventually starve or lose the house if they don’t show up. It probably looks a lot like the Enterprise, from Star Trek.
Would you want to work there? I know I would.
I’d like to believe places like that exist. I’m pretty sure they do. It’s just hard to tell because the current work world has money and passion all mixed up together in a soup.
Soup, as luck would have it, happens to be one of the keys to gaining your financial independence.
When you cook everything yourself, you don’t just save money. You actually set yourself free.
Financial independence happens at that magical point where the income you receive from passive investments matches the money you spend.
Most people try to optimize the income side of the equation. It’s certainly the glamorous route that gets the most attention from the media.
However, I have found optimizing the expense side to be far easier and more effective.
If you want to become financially independent, you need to start doing more work for yourself and less work for others. It might not seem like a big deal, but entrepreneurial thinking starts with something as simple as deciding to insource your meal preparation.
Take a step back and examine all of the systems you currently depend on for your existence. Ask yourself, “Why does it have to be this way?” and “Can I take one small step to become more self-reliant?”
With food, the answer is right in front of your nose. When you bake your own bread or pickle your own cucumbers, you become less reliant on the big food corporations and more reliant on yourself.
Seriously, let that sink in. Cooking is the most readily accessible form of rebellion against a system that makes you unhealthy and poor. You already have a stove. All you need to do is use it to take money from Big Food, invest the savings, and set yourself free.
Rebellion Never Tasted So Sweet.
All of this rebelliousness has a nice side effect. When you cook at home, the food you eat will be more delicious, and you will end up healthier because you control what goes into it.
If you bought something at the grocery store, and you didn’t get it from the outer edges (i.e., the produce aisles), there’s a solid chance it contains a bunch of added sugars. Most store-bought, processed food does.
I’m not just talking about cookies and Pop Tarts and snacks you would generally categorize as crap. I’m talking about freaking bread. Plain old boring bread contains high fructose corn syrup. Amazing.
The bread I bake at home has some sugar. You need it to get the dough to rise. But my home-baked bread contains far less sugar than the store-bought stuff. It’s healthier, fresher, and more delicious. It also costs much less.
You can take that logic and apply it to pretty much every sort of processed food you could buy at the grocery store. If you can make it at home, there’s a good chance it’s gonna taste better, cost less, and it will be healthier, too.
Your Health. Kitchen or Gym?
I used to think the obvious answer to this question was exercise. We’re programmers, after all. We sit in front of computers all day and solve problems. We really do need to get outside more.
It turns out exercise isn’t nearly as important as you might think. What you eat, and how much, has a far greater impact on your overall well-being.
If you only have one hour to improve your health today, that hour is better spent in the kitchen than in the gym.
This is especially true when it comes to weight loss. Most people don’t realize that 75 percent of the calories you burn each day are burned by doing nothing at all. They’re called Resting Calories. The other 25 percent come from things like exercise. We call those Active Calories.
You have to work really, really hard to increase your daily active calorie burn. You don’t have to do anything to burn passive calories. You get those for free every day.
Given the choice, wouldn’t you pick the thing that takes zero effort compared to the thing that takes far more effort? I sure would.
If weight loss is your goal, you’ll get better results by simply cooking everything at home and counting your calories. Exercise is great too, but it’s not nearly as effective as diet.
America is this bizarre place where everything we do seems to get filtered through some corporate entity that charges a convenience fee. Over the course of a lifetime, those convenience fees add up and result in each us spending more of our lives mandatorily working for someone else.
We want a refreshing drink, so we buy a Coca Cola. But Coke has sugar and calories that make us fat, so we decide to get a gym membership to burn them off. Then we decide we need a nice new car to get to the gym, which adds all sorts of fees and insurance. It’s even worse if we decide to buy that car on credit — many of us do!
Most of our problems stem from a few simple choices. Those choices create a vicious cycle of consumption that forces us to spend our lives on things that don’t matter.
What happens if we drink water instead? What if we go on a run outside, or buy a cheap set of weights? What if we decide to walk more places instead of driving?
This is an article about cooking, but it might as well be an article about taking more control of your life in general.
Cooking is just one of many ways you can escape the convenience fees that get siphoned off each of us every day. It is the start of your radical departure from the unhealthy debt-ridden American status quo.
Cooking Myths Debunked
At some point in time, I believed in one or more of the following myths. Since I started doing all of my food preparation myself, it has become clear to me why these cooking myths are false.
Myth: Programmers make more money than cooks, so my time is better spent programming.
I used to think that if it costs me a few extra dollars to grab a burrito and I can spend the extra hour I saved by not cooking on programming, I would pocket the difference in hourly rate between my rate and that of, say, a line cook.
This isn’t wrong per se, but if you’re making daily decisions based on this myth, it might be a good idea to consider the following:
1. You will create better software if you take frequent breaks. Most of the research on highly productive people shows that they take more breaks than their less productive peers.
If you’re nearing the end of the day at the office, it’s more productive to go home and cook a nice meal than it is to stay and crank out more work. If you work from home like me, you might want to consider taking a few short breaks throughout the day to do the prep work for dinner.
Either way, cooking is a refreshing break from sitting in front of a computer. It helps you think through problems.
2. You aren't saving any time by going out to eat. You still have to get in the car, go to the restaurant, wait in line or sit at a table, and then eat. If you have a well-stocked pantry and a few basic skills, you can whip up a meal in minutes without going anywhere. If you frequently go to the office, invest in some tupperware and cook the night before.
3. The government can't tax money you save by living a more efficient life. When you treat your life like a business, you quickly realize that food is a business expense you don’t get to declare on your taxes.
It’s always great to make more money, but the U.S. government has tax tiers. The more you earn, the more you pay. You’ve known this since you were ten.
The good news is that once you pay your taxes, the government can’t touch the leftover money. It’s up to you to make the most of it.
Your true profit margin is your post tax income minus your “life business expenses,” or the cost of the goods and services you need to conduct the business of your life. Food is one of those expenses, and cooking is how you optimize it.
When you earn more money, that money has to get filtered through the government before it arrives in your profits. They always take a cut.
Saving is more direct. It simply means you subtract less money from your post tax income when doing the true profit margin calculation. The government can’t touch it.
When you look at it this way, a job that saves you $50/hr will actually make you way more money than a similar job that pays you $50/hr. All things equal, saving always beats earning.
Once you factor in taxes, it’s usually more lucrative to be a line cook in the business of your life than a programmer in someone else’s business.
Alternatively, if you have extra time you would otherwise spend watching T.V., you can think of cooking as a “side hustle” that earns non-taxable income in the form of savings (up to an obvious point of negative returns known as “rotten leftovers”).
4. Cooking instills a respect for mise en place, which will make you a better programmer.
Mise en place means having all of your ingredients prepped before you start cooking. It also means cleaning up your messes as you go. For many professional chefs, it’s a philosophy of life.
Ever since I started cooking everything at home, I spend more time thinking about all of the individual pieces that need to be prepped for a software feature to work properly. I get them ready, and like a chef, I bring them together to create a useful product.
I also clean up my code and refactor as I go. I don’t wait for things to get messy before sweeping up. This helps me think more clearly about the problems I’m solving.
In cooking or in coding, every little mess drains your attention. Mise en place means getting rid of all the distractions and focusing 100 percent of your attention on the task at hand.
Myth: Software jobs are really demanding. There’s no time to cook.
Early in my career, I also thought some version of this. I hadn’t learned to take charge of my work-life balance. I would end up skipping dinner because I’d find myself caught up in some phone call or meeting.
Lately, I’ve just said “no” to anything that starts to drag into the evening, and it has made me a happier person.
When you’re on a call, just tell the other person, “Hey, let’s get back to this tomorrow morning. I’ve got dinner responsibilities tonight.” If they are reasonable and they respect your life outside of work, they will totally understand.
Cooking really doesn’t take as much time as you think it does, especially once you get good at it. I used to think it would take me an hour to cook dinner each night. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Typically, if I cook dinner on a given night night, that’s 30 minutes of buying groceries, 30 minutes prep work, and usually about 15 minutes of actual cooking. The leftovers almost always yield a dinner for the next day, so we’re looking at 38 minutes a dinner.
I also try to consolidate all of my other kitchen-related tasks. While I’m preparing ingredients for dinner, I might be roasting almonds, making vegetable broth, baking bread, or boiling chickpeas to make hummus for lunch. All of this parallel effort brings down the time cost per meal, and it saves money on snack items.
When you count lunches, the time savings are clear. Cooking takes less time than going out to eat, and by a substantial margin. Eating out costs 20 to 60 minutes a meal, whereas home-cooked meals can be as fast as putting some hummus on a slice of bread.
Pro Tip: If you’re really feeling stressed out, do a bunch of cooking on Sunday and freeze it. Soups and chilis are really good for that sort of thing. If you need more helpful suggestions, read this fantastic Lifehacker article on how to cut down your food prep time.
Also, don’t trust my numbers. I think you can do better. I don’t mind going to the grocery store every other day, and I have a thing for fresh vegetables. I’m sure you can reduce your shopping time by using frozen veggies or just generally being better at planning your meals than I am.
With cooking, it isn’t usually the time commitment that’s the problem. It’s the fact that it happens right after work, when we’re tired and hungry. To combat this, try doing your prep work the night before you cook. When all the veggies are chopped, and the spices are mixed in the right proportions, dinner comes together much faster.
How to Slowly Build a Passion for Cooking
Even though I’ve made cooking for yourself sound so simple, it still takes a while to get started. When you’re plugged into the modern food matrix, everything seems harder than it is.
There’s a feeling that you have to go to the store and buy a bajillion different spices and ingredients just to follow one recipe. Then you have to do that again and again, every time you try something new.
Don’t worry. The shopping gets better, and so does the cooking. After months of cooking every meal at home, you will eventually get a feel for the basics. You’ll have all of those common ingredients on hand at all times. You’ll only ever go to the store to buy fresh meat and vegetables every few days.
If you’re willing to be partially vegetarian, you will find that many dishes won’t require a trip to the store at all. Meat goes bad in a few days. It takes years for the same thing to happen to dry beans and grains.
As luck would have it, cooking is a lot like programming. It can seem really daunting at first, but once you master the fundamentals, the efficiencies will start to add up.
How to break a meal into modules
Just like a program can be broken down into function and classes, a meal can be broken down into stages. Programs and meals are both modular. A good cook knows this. It’s why you see all the ingredients separated into tiny dishes on shows like Martha Stewart. Those are the modules.
When I cook, I prepare all of these stages in advance. Sometimes I’ll do it in the morning or while I’m taking a lunch break. Then when it’s time for dinner, I take the stages out of the fridge and “fire” them on the stove (cook-speak for doing the actual cooking).
What’s in a stage? Lots of dishes start with olive oil and chopped onions. That’s a stage. Then the dish might progress to spices and some other vegetables. There you go. Another stage.
Not every recipe will have the stages outlined so clearly. You have to read between the lines and figure it out for yourself.
I often find myself reading and rereading the same recipe to get a sense of what can be turned into a stage (a.k.a. modularized). It’s no different from reading a description of a software feature and breaking it down into classes and functions.
If you write software for a living, you already do this. A programmer really is just another kind of cook. All you have to do is take your ability to break things down and apply it to your meals.
Some day, just a few months from now, you will have a well-stocked fridge full of fresh bread you baked yourself, exotic seed butters like tahini, and vegetable stock you made from old carrot tops and onion ends you used to throw away.
The next time you find yourself deep in some difficult programming task, you won’t skip lunch. You’ll have plenty of leftovers from last night’s feast, and your programming task will be that much easier because you won’t be running on empty.
Of course, none of this will happen overnight. But by studying the techniques of generations past, you will gradually unleash the power of your inner Italian grandmother.
Some Simple Next Steps
The first step you can take is to calculate just how much money you’re spending on restaurants and processed convenience foods. Toward the end of last year, I did a thorough audit of my expenses and discovered it was more money than I am comfortable to admit.
Once you realize the cost, you’ll be motivated to take action. I am typically not one to mess around, so I immediately started cooking everything at home. This felt a lot like getting thrown into the deep end, so here are a few tips to help make that transition less jarring.
Search for Seasonal Recipes.
The first thing you’ll want to know is what to cook. This can be a paralyzing decision for some, but you can save money and narrow down your options by thinking about food in seasonal terms.
When you buy fruits and veggies in season, you maximize flavor while minimizing price. At the peak of tomato season, there is an oversupply of tomatoes that causes the price to go down. Fresh tomatoes taste way better too.
Conversely, when you purchase blueberries in the middle of winter, they have to get shipped from halfway across the globe due to undersupply. They’re expensive and tend to get moldy after just a few days. I don’t know why the grocery store even sells them.
Back when I started cooking at home more often, I Googled simple things like “fall recipes.” This resulted in some fantastic recipes for beef stew and rosemary chicken. I bought the ingredients and tried them out. They both turned out delicious.
When the ingredients are fresh, it doesn’t really matter what you do with them. It’ll probably turn out great.
This is an area where I am still learning the ropes. Efficient shopping requires a little more planning, but once you master a few basics, you will save boatloads of time and money.
The big thing is knowing how long it takes certain foods to go bad in different environments. If you know that almonds go bad after 12 months in the freezer, you will purchase the largest possible bag of almonds for your almond consumption rate and freezer size.
I buy ten pound bags of almonds on Amazon, and they go straight into the freezer. I eat them well before the 12 month expiration window.
It’s important to know that most foods don’t last nearly as long in the pantry compared to the refrigerator or freezer. This should be obvious for things like meat, but I was surprised to discover that those same almonds go rancid after just one month in the pantry.
Knowledge is power. If you know you always cook with garlic, lemons, carrots, potatoes, and onions, and you also know that those vegetables last at least a month in the fridge when kept whole, you can just buy a bunch of them knowing you will eventually use them up.
This is kind of a no-brainer for things like rice, beans, and grains. However, it did surprise me to learn that some fruits and vegetables are well protected from foreign invaders and tend to last quite a while in the fridge before going bad. As long as you don’t chop them up, you have more time than you think.
Cook with Discipline
A recipe is not something to be taken lightly. You have to read and re-read it several times to fully grasp how to make the dish. This requires discipline and planning.
Lots of new cooks get frustrated when their food doesn’t turn out the way they thought it would. Most of the time, it can be traced back to a simple lack of discipline.
When the recipe calls for a certain kind of spice, you really do need that spice. And yes, you really do have to measure it out. I know it sucks to repeatedly clean your measuring cups, but that’s cooking.
Just follow the instructions, use the right ingredients, and your meal will turn out great!
Ditch the gadgets. Buy the basics.
Get a good chef’s knife, a wooden cutting board, a medium saucepan, and a large pot for cooking soups and stews. That’s really all you need for most dishes. Go watch Chef Ramsay. He explains it better than I ever could.
You want to avoid the expensive knife sets, single purpose gadgets like onion choppers, and basically anything that seems like you’d see it on an infomercial. All those gimmicks just make your kitchen more cluttered. They take up valuable countertop real estate, and you rarely use them once you get good with a knife.
But some machines will save you money. Buy those.
I would also highly recommend purchasing a food processor, pressure cooker, and bread maker. They will save you thousands of dollars over the course of your life, making staples you would otherwise pay a premium to purchase pre-made (almond butter, especially).
With a food processor, you can make your own nut butters, hummus, pesto, and all manner of sauces.
Here’s a great video on how to make your own almond butter with a food processor. Here’s another on food processor hummus. Oh, and you can even make pizza dough with a food processor.
A pressure cooker will help you deal with the dry bean situation. Dry beans are an unbelievably cheap source of protein, but they are notoriously difficult to soften. A pressure cooker does it in minutes.
Bread makers are great too. These things require very little supervision, and they make amazing fresh bread. Plus it’s just really nice to come home to the smell of bread baking.
I am a general fan of Kitchen Conundrums, a YouTube channel that tackles some of the common questions you will inevitably have while cooking. It’s nice to browse through the videos to get up to speed on the basics.
If you’re looking for seasonal food that’s trending, Pinterest never disappoints. Just search for the season, and you’ll find all sorts of new recipes from thousands of food blogs.
You should also check out Thug Kitchen. It’s a vegetarian cookbook with tons of practical recipes. It’s great if you want to be partially vegetarian but have no idea where to start.
Never Stop Experimenting
Boredom is your number one enemy. If you don’t feel like your food is better than restaurant food, you will want to eat out more often because it will seem like they can make food you can’t.
You ultimately want to feel like you can do a better job than the restaurants. You want to know that your food is more flavorful, your ingredients are fresher, and you put more care into a dish than some line cook in the back.
To get there, you need to keep experimenting with cooking new meals. I started by trying one new recipe each week. That passion grew, and now I find myself making new dishes all the time.
You also get a total pass on junk food. Bake as many cookies and cakes as you want if it will stop you from going out to eat. Anything to break up the monotony of cooking the same thing every day is generally good. Home-cooked food should feel like a treat, not a burden.
Healthy, Wealthy, and Free
I really do feel like I live in the lap of luxury, with fresh bread, tasty homemade almond butter, amazing pumpkin waffles, and whole bunch of other deliciousness that I can’t go into because it would sound too much like bragging.
Did I mention that I managed to accomplish all of this while cutting $5,000 from my yearly food budget? It’s true. I also happened to lose a bit of weight, because that sort of thing happens when you transition to a mostly plant-based diet. You get fewer insulin spikes.
All of those things are great, and they represent a dramatic improvement to the quality of my life. But the real thing I’ve gotten back is my time.
Because I cook all this food in advance, I now have these long uninterrupted periods of time where I can produce the bulk of my work. Because I prioritize eating over exercise, I now feel more okay about skipping a run or a weight session if I have to. Inspiration rarely keeps such a tight schedule.
For me, cooking and freedom are one and the same. I feel more self-reliant now, more able to pick up new skills, and more independent overall. I feel like I could handle the worst of what life has to throw at me because I know how to live luxuriously on so much less than what I make.
There isn’t a price you can put on that feeling, but I will tell you this. It is delicious!