I have a serious confession to make: I wasn't always the culinary artiste that you see before you.
(I'm going to wait for my friends who have known me for more than, oh, three years to stop laughing. That's right, I see you snickering at me.)
I was infamous in college for being clueless about cooking. I never really had to learn until my senior year. I lived on-campus as an resident or a RA for the first three years of college. Even after I finally moved, I hung out with three guy friends who loved to cook so there was never any pressing need to learn.
My friends love to tell these two stories:
When I was 21 and finally living outside of the dorms, my roommate walked into the kitchen to find me very carefully measuring cups of water and pouring it into a pot. When she asked me what I was doing, I explained that I was making boxed macaroni. I was measuring the water to make sure I g0t it right. She laughed her butt off as she explained that it is NOT necessary to be that exact with mac and cheese. I didn't know--I was just following the box.
I also called a friend and told him that I had frozen ground beef and I wanted to turn it into nachos, but was not sure how.
After graduation, my now-husband and I moved to Texas together. For the first two years we did not make very good food decisions. We ate out at least twice a week if not more often. When we "cooked", it was pizza rolls or chicken tenders.
Three years ago we moved to Illinois. We had very little money and we were both getting fat. Something had to change about the way we approached food. It was difficult to go from eating out or making frozen food to cooking every night--so here's how we did it.
1) Create a two week menu.
We go "hardcore" grocery shopping every two weeks and get odds and ends once during the off week. Before I started making a menu, every single evening my husband and I would blankly stare at the pantry trying to decide what to make. We inevitably made meat and macaroni.
We usually build two nights of leftovers into the menu. When trying to decide what to make, I go for: 1 pasta dish per week, 1 Mexican dish, 1 chicken dish, something that uses the crockpot, and 1 new recipe. Each night we have one main dish + one veggie + one carb.
I'll post an example of a typical menu later this week.
2) Have some no-effort main dishes and side dishes.
Be realistic: You are not going to want to cook an difficult meal every single night. There are a couple of "no recipe" meals that we enjoy--ravioli (I love the frozen brand from Walmart), shake 'n bake (extra crispy!) pork or chicken.
For our veggie, we usually have steam-in-the-bag frozen veggies. They're good, they're quick, they're easy. Salad is also a quick alternative (I love romaine with feta cheese and raspberry vinaigrette).
For the carb, we usually have 10-minute brown rice, southern style biscuits, or garlic bread. We started buying the bags of biscuit and the frozen slices of garlic bread because so much goes to waste if you buy and make an entire can/entire loaf at once.
3) Freeze half, eat half.
Otherwise you will get bogged down with leftovers. Lasagna, chili, soups, pot roast, pretty much anything you make in the crockpot--half can be frozen for a later meal (I usually include it in the next menu).
4) The crock pot is your friend.
Get one. I use mine about once a week. Check out this blog for inspiration if you think that all crock pot meals are the same.
5) Fresh ingredients are lovely, but unnecessary if you are broke or in a hurry.
It would be nice to have the time to buy everything fresh but you know what? I don't. I buy my ginger pickled, my garlic pre-minced (and by the pint--I use a lot of garlic) and my basil already dried. I use bottled lemon and lime juice rather than buying the fruit. I've even been known to substitute a can of diced tomatos for the fresh variety.