Anthony "Tony" Magestro--or known on the field of battle as Metzge--is an avid writer, gamer, and entrepreneur. When he's not writing, gaming, or entrepreneuring, he enjoys cooking, trippy movies, and trying to be awesome to varying degrees of success. Feel free to check out his LinkedIn page, especially if you need freelance help with content writing or digital marketing. Or just like to network, that's fine too.
Whenever I play survival games like Don’t Starve Together, I feel like my character eats better than I do. In fairness, I just vegetate in front of the computer, making sure to fend off starvation and darkness without being able to get ample time away to grab myself something to eat. Still, as the designated house marm, staying back at base and tending to the farms and crock pots while others go out exploring, I’ve learned a few things about food that I’ve found myself applying to my waking life.
As the title of this article suggests, I want to share those few things I’ve learned from Don’t Starve Together that’s inspired me to cook more and be a better team player for the sake of myself and my roommates.
Crockpots Are Magic
Before playing Don’t Starve Together with my roommate Steve and a few of our other friends, I was used to just scrounging for whatever I could find in-game and heating them up on the fire. Extra seeds were toasted over the open flames, berries and carrots were warmed and mashed, and meat morsels were thoroughly cooked before ingestion. I, personally, never managed to survive long enough to make a slow cooker (sad, I know). Steve, a much more intrepid survivalist than I, built one almost immediately and showed me the ropes. There were so many exciting combinations of foods that were vastly more filling without the micromanagement I was used to. The same, in part, applies to our waking life.
When time is of the essence (or you’re just feeling lazy), slow cookers are a godsend when staving off starvation. In-game, a crockpot allows you to combine multiple ingredients to create high-quality, satisfying food while you do other things like chop down some trees or murder innocent rabbits. Some of the best food available in Don’t Starve Together is made in a crockpot; without it, you can only prepare meager morsels that get the job done, but they pale in comparison to honey ham or meatballs. Crockpots can also make foods that are unpalatable by themselves (such as monster meat) into delicious delicacies — though I don’t suggest putting rancid animal flesh into a slow cooker expecting anything good to come of it.
While there’s plenty of stove-top and oven varieties of food you can make in the real world, slow cookers can still produce some impressive results. If you know your way around one, they’re quite versatile: you can make plenty of soups, dips, roasts (especially turning pork shoulder into barbecue pulled pork), and even bread in one. If you need something quickly, a slow cooker is obviously not the right choice. If you’re like me, however, and you like freshly-made food without the stress of actively cooking, a crockpot is a wise investment.
Don’t get me wrong, I love cooking, but I’ve been struggling with a few key issues:
- I feel crunched for time, though I’m getting the hang at timing everything just right so it all finishes at the same time (or when different components of a single dish need to so I can move on to the next step).
- If I’m just cooking for myself, it’s the same amount of equipment used as when I cook for others.
- When I feel tired at the end of the day, cooking actively is all the more difficult.
That last part was especially true when I was working in restaurants when I was in college.
Using a slow cooker lets you just prep a few things and toss it all in, set it, and forget about it for a few hours, only reminded that something’s cooking as your house slowly fills with mouthwatering smells. A few of my favorite (non-affiliate-link-related) recipes are:
- Slow Cooker White Chicken Chili
- Slow Cooker Cheesy Salsa Chicken
- Slow Cooker Baked Potato Soup
- Slow Cooker Pulled Pork
And what’s nice is that this easy-level cooking has helped me build my confidence in the kitchen, substituting different parts of the recipes to experiment with taste and texture. Some recipes might have additional prepping steps that require a stove or cooking and adding things before, during, or after the rest of the components are done in the crockpot, allowing me to hone my skills without stress.
Plus, homemade meals can be one of the most fulfilling (and necessary) things we get to enjoy as humans. I mean, who doesn’t like a person who can cook well?
Organization and Efficiency Are the Keys to Sanity
In Don’t Starve Together, it’s important to keep all your supplies in order. After all, a well-stocked base is much better than subsisting on random things you hope to find. Just like in any survival game, the game of life yields much better results being proactive rather than merely reactive. These effects can be increased exponentially when trying to survive with others — well, one way or the other.
As those newly out of their parents’ house will find, cooking and taking care of yourself can quickly become daunting. This is especially true if you don’t have a system in place (and no, your helicopter parents or all-too-helpful roommates don’t count as a system of sovereignty). With food, for instance, it’s good to keep the basics in your pantry:
- A basic selection of spices and seasonings: salt, pepper, cumin, chili powder, and some spice and herb mixes for some quick flavor solutions. Some examples from my own spice rack include fajita mix and taco seasoning for chicken or ground beef, or Italian herbs to add some flavor to pasta and sauces). Of course, when it comes to taste, it’s best to have fresh herbs when you can since they’re rich with natural oils compared to dried herbs.
- Baking supplies: flour (can also be used to bread things like chicken and pork as well as provide a base for roux and white sauces), sugar, baking soda and powder, and vanilla extract are my personal main baking staples.
- Pasta: cheap and versatile, it’s good to have a few varieties of noodles around. There’s plenty of recipes you can make with spaghetti, penne, fusilli, and macaroni that are easy and tasty.
- Stock and/or bullion: good bases for soups and sauces if you don’t know how to make your own from scratch.
To make things easier, keep track of things as you use them up so you can have a running grocery list instead of trying to guess. For example, if you use a box of macaroni, add that to the list right away to replenish your supply — assuming you want more. Maybe you’re sick of macaroni. I don’t know, I’m not your mother. Buy what tastes good.
Either way, you can use this system for your refrigerator and freezer too. I like keeping those stocked with the following:
- Eggs (I usually just keep six at a time since I don’t use many and they end up spoiling if I buy more at once)
- Two proteins (I usually get bacon and chicken, but it depends on what I’m making that week and what’s on sale)
- At least three cheeses (block cheese seems to last longer than pre-shredded, takes up less space, and is more versatile since you might need non-shredded cheese in one recipe, and can easily shred more for another); I’m from Wisconsin, don’t judge me.
- At least one pint of ice cream
- At least two frozen pizzas (for those nights I intend on cooking but then can’t be bothered)
Depending on the recipes I want to use that week, I’ll buy fruits and vegetables as needed. Again, I don’t like buying things just to have them as that’s a quick way for groceries to go to waste. Not only is it shitty for the environment (food waste is a huge sustainability problem) but it’ll start to sting financially. Not to mention it gets old cleaning out your fridge and feeling like a sad excuse for an adult, tossing food that you could’ve used but didn’t. This way, if you only buy what you’ll cook, the fridge cleans itself out because… you know… you’re actually using the food. But I digress.
Prepping and Cooking
Now that you’ve got your larders stocked, on to the fun part: cooking. In the culinary world, there’s a term that everyone who wants to make cooking quick and painless ought to engrave into their brain tissue. That would be mise en place, a French phrase for “everything in its place.” Instead of just whipping pots, pans, utensils, and cutlery out all willy-nilly while you’re neck deep in stroganoff, mise en place suggests you take a minute or two to collect all your equipment beforehand.
Set up little stations in your kitchen and capitalize on what counter space you have. Pre-measure your salt and spices into small dishes (if you’re fancy enough to have them); put your meat on the cutting board and knife; wrap your baking pans in foil and grease them as needed. The more you do to set up, the more efficiently you can prep ingredients and cook them.
If you’re using a recipe, read it over beforehand and gather all your ingredients precisely as it says. Once you begin to know the recipe by memory, this process should come naturally and you can start to experiment with different ingredients and substitutions. Cooking is an art, after all. Gordon Ramsey isn’t breathing down your neck telling you what you can and can’t do. Just don’t start the house on fire or poison yourself (both of which are highly unlikely unless you’re incredibly apathetic and inattentive to what you’re doing) and you’ll be fine.
On the topic of attentiveness, let cooking be a mindfulness exercise. Turn off your phone, put on some music, and focus on everything going on in your kitchen: the smell of the chicken baking in the oven with a hint of oregano, thyme, and lemon; the sound of bubbling water in the pot as your pasta cooks, mingling with a bit of sea salt; the feeling of shredding Parmesan by hand, the cheese scraping off in stiff strands with every push against the grater.
Where some people (myself included) find cooking anxiety-inducing at times, turn it into a means of escape. Preparing food and eating and enjoying it is one of the most human experiences we have — especially if we have family and friends to share in it. Revel in it. Play. Like everything else, the more you do it, the better you’ll eventually get. And if you mess up, don’t stress out. That’s what those emergency pizzas are for. At least you tried. Just take note and figure out how to not make the same mistakes next time.
After you’ve cooked and enjoyed your meal, you’ve only one last step to surmount: cleaning up. Though it’s tempting to leave your kitchen in a state of casualty, cleaning up after you’re done eating is a much better option that saves you (and co-inhabitants) grief. It’s much easier to scrub dishes with fresh food on them than those that have caked, dried remains seemingly fused to the surface. Personally, I keep one side of the sink filled with warm, soapy water that, after rinsing off the dishes on the other side, I can just wash them right away during downtime as I cook.
Of course, using a dishwasher makes the process even simpler. In case you don’t have the luxury of such a device, batching your dishes (that is, separating them into smaller sub-groups) helps get through them quickly. I usually follow this method:
- Plates, bowls, silverware, and cups — the stuff you use at the table in individual place settings
- Bigger serving bowls, dishes, and cooking utensils
- Storage containers like Tupperware
- Pots and pans — these are usually the dirtiest and best saved for last (because washing your drinking glasses in dirty water is gross af)
Besides, a dirty sink causes more problems than just a mess. If you never have clean dishes (or worse, the dirty ones become part of a terrarium in your sink), you’re more inclined to order out, in turn wasting money on food that’s overpriced by comparison to just preparing the food at home. And as an adult, if you don’t know how to do the dishes, it’s kinda embarrassing — or at least it ought to be.
Being useless when it comes to basic chores isn’t a charming characteristic to those you live with, whether romantic, familial, or platonic. Much like the one person on your team in Don’t Starve Together that keeps dying and using up all your time and resources doing it, every time you don’t look after yourself, you’re bringing your whole domestic team down. That said, don’t be the weak link in the chain.
And even if you live by yourself, one’s living space is a reflection of who they are. Chaos only breeds more chaos and small wins like making food for yourself and cleaning up afterward are boons to your sanity. They’re proof you’re in control of your life and surroundings. Your guests, significant others (both potential and at-present), or whoever is mincing about your domicile will appreciate you more for it.
More Practice Means a Higher Survival Rate
Perhaps this can go without being said but I included it for good measure: just like any other life skill, the more you cook, the better you’ll do. Assuming, of course, you have the basics down. Practice doesn’t always make perfect, but it definitely makes permanent.
Don’t believe me? Try cooking all of your meals from scratch every day for a month and test yourself as you go to see how much you’ve retained. Try making the same recipe once each week and time yourself as you do. All other things equal, the better you get at something, the quicker you should be able to do it.
Conversely, by changing up your recipes, you’ll be better able to visualize which combinations of foods can make actual dishes. This process is really no different than crafting in-game; the first few times, you might need a reminder but start making the same stuff over and over again and it becomes second nature.
If you really want to get scientific about it, try reverse engineering some of your favorite recipes by isolating the ingredients and familiarizing yourself with their texture, flavor, and nutrients (i.e., is this a protein, fat, carbohydrate, and so on). Get to know what foods complement (or spoil) the features of other edibles, substituting different ingredients in well-known recipes and tailoring them to your own taste.
For instance, potatoes with a little bit of butter, cheese, bacon bits, sour cream, and chives come together to make something delicious, monopolizing on the salty and savory taste profiles. On the other hand, unorthodox combinations like bacon dipped in chocolate or dill pickles with a little bit of pure maple syrup make for some unusual (though pretty good) tastes. Though this is less Don’t Starve Together and more Skyrim, even a budding alchemist can learn the effects of different herbs by trying small samples. So too is it the same with food — though obviously be careful and don’t eat stuff you shouldn’t. I wash my hands of all liability if you decide to eat raw meat or moldy cheese in the name of culinary science.
And if the fun of exploring tastes or learning new things isn’t motivating on its own, perhaps you’ll instead find ambition through how much money you’ll save or how much more desirable your company is when it comes to hot dinner dates. At the end of the day, eating is something we just have to do. If it’s tantamount to survival, why not excel at it?
Now, if only I could feed myself as well and as often as I do my characters in-game, I’ll be golden.
Got any cooking tips or quick and easy recipes you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below!