By Samantha Lam, 18, International Polytechnic HS (Pomona)
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Samantha says to always make sure you read the recipes completely.

Ever since I started high school, my typical breakfast included a couple s’mores, complete with the layer of chocolate and marshmallow fluff spread between two honey graham crackers, a snack pack of Saltines, and if it was a good morning, a banana. But I noticed how the food I ate always left me either very tired or hyper, and I would crash an hour or two after eating.

Toward the end of my junior year, I felt like my eating habits needed to change. I came home one day and looked in the freezer and saw dozens of individually wrapped frozen pizzas, taquitos, 2-minute meals, pretty much anything that could be “cooked” by the microwave.

In an attempt to eat healthier, I Googled a few quick, simple recipes on a budget. I chose “quick” because I know I don’t have lots of time to spend making food, and “simple” because I fail at even the easiest of cooking jobs. As soon as I hit search I had tons of recipes to choose from. The hardest part was figuring out which ones I could follow through with. I chose turkey quesadillas and a pasta salad since they seemed easy enough for me to cook. I was intimidated by the thought of creating two whole meals by myself, but my parents remained supportive. I shopped at Fresh & Easy and found everything I needed for two meals (each served four people, plus leftovers) for less than $20.

The first recipe I tried was turkey and balsamic onion quesadillas. All I needed was an onion, balsamic vinegar, tortillas (I bought whole wheat ones because they have more fiber, which helps your body digest food better and has more nutrients), low fat mozzarella cheese, and pre-cooked oven-roasted turkey slices.

As I was slicing the onions my eyes began to water and I made the rookie mistake of rubbing my eyes with my hands. Soon I felt like my eyes were burning right out of my head! I spent the next five minutes flushing out my eyes with water from the sink. After the burning subsided, I put the tortilla on a pan that had been sitting on high heat since I started cooking. Then I covered it in thin layers of cheese and turkey slices and waited for the cheese to melt. When the cheese had melted, I reached into the pan with my bare hand and folded the tortilla in half to give it the classic quesadilla shape, while managing to keep my fingers burn-free!

Roughly 20 minutes after I started, a plate of quesadillas sat on the dinner table, ready to eat. Luckily the onion mishap was the only mistake I made, yet my parents were still skeptical about eating my dish. After some reassurance they tried it and said it was not that bad. To me, the quesadillas were tasty, but a bit dry. If I were to do it again I would add lettuce to give it more substance and texture. I’m no Rachael Ray, but if a dish is dry, adding something wet would compensate, so why not lettuce?

The next day I tried making my second healthy recipe, a pasta salad. Most pasta salads I’ve eaten have had a thick, creamy sauce, but with healthier ingredients, such as the ones I used, pasta salad could actually feel like a light salad!

All you need to make this dish is a huge bowl, about a half a pound of pasta (any kind is OK to use, but I have found that it is easiest to eat with small pastas like shells, twists, or elbow macaroni). The recipe calls for half a pound of cooked pasta so there can be plenty of leftovers, whole kernel corn (I used canned corn), thinly sliced lettuce (about half a head) and a couple tablespoons of salted low fat sour cream. Toss everything into the bowl and mix in sour cream until it is evenly distributed. Garnish with some ground pepper for a bit of spice, and it’s ready to eat! This simple meal can be served on tostadas, which are fried tortillas (there are also baked tostadas, which I would recommend) or on wheat bread. Preparing and making this dish was easy, fast and delicious. My mom, who ate some of it with me, said it tasted really good, especially with the ground spices, which added extra flavor to the light salad.

Since I had luck with my first two recipes, I challenged myself to make chicken pad thai, my favorite restaurant meal. I went back to Google and found the Food Network’s website where they had dozens of pad thai recipes. Although the list of ingredients for the one I chose was quite long, the recipe was labeled easy and I had made two semi-successful dishes, so I thought I could handle it.

Unfortunately, I got a bit cocky in the kitchen and decided I didn’t need to read the directions. My failure began with the first step, making the sauce. I ended up putting everything that was a liquid (oil, water, soy sauce, chili paste and vinegar) in a bowl and mixing them all together. I didn’t see that some ingredients were measured in tablespoons and others teaspoons, so in the end I had about a bowl full of foul-smelling, slimy-looking, watered-down goo. I realized I had to look at the directions and it turned out I had done several things wrong. After throwing everything away I started over, from scratch, and followed the directions a bit closer … emphasis on the “bit.”

When I put the raw chicken into the hot oil, the oil immediately began splashing out of the pan. I panicked and jumped away from the wok, nearly slipping on some oil I had spilled earlier during my sauce-making episode. When I regained my balance I turned back to the wok, hot oil still spitting back like an angry dragon. I tried stir-frying the chicken as instructed and was hit by splashing oil drops flying in every direction from the pan. There was screaming, burning from the hot oil landing on my skin, a little smoke, and a lot of chaos.

The result was unlike any pad thai I had ever tasted. It was spicy, rather than sweet, and had an overpowering garlic taste. I had also left the ginger chunks in the dish, which blended in with the noodles and led to more than a few unexpectedly unpleasant tastes. The mess I left behind took longer to clean up than cooking and eating the meal. A recipe that should’ve taken 20 minutes ended up taking about 45 minutes, plus cleaning up.

After somewhat successfully finishing my two dishes I learned that cooking isn’t as easy as the Food Network makes it look, but having a recipe to follow makes it doable. When I was looking for recipes I looked for the ones that had the most detailed instructions and positive comments so I could see the way the recipe worked for others. I still make my pasta salad, which my parents and I eat when it feels like 100 degrees outside, and quesadillas whenever I want a quick bite to eat. The more I cook, the easier it gets!

By improving my diet I discovered other foods that tasted even better than fast food, like craisins, which are sweetened dried cranberries, and rice cakes, which became my go-to snack food. Not only are these cheap, but they come in big packs, which reduces waste and helps the environment, unlike most individually wrapped snacks. Instead of buying a box of cookies, we buy apples, oranges, bananas and pears. Instead of buying microwave meals, we picked up different types of lettuce, carrots, and chicken (for some protein) for salads.

Before, I thought eating healthy would cost more than it was worth. After making the change I realized that the easiest way to save money is by being a smart shopper and looking for sales and coupons in the weekly advertisements for local supermarkets. We ended up saving over $30 on our last grocery bill just with coupons alone!

After I made the change to a healthier diet, I had more energy through the day and I slept better at night. Making the switch from junk food and fast food to food that is actually good for me has taught me that what I put into it is what I’ll get out. If I eat junk, I’ll feel like junk, but if I eat according to what is right, I’ll feel full and refilled with energy. Now my breakfasts consist of oatmeal with diced fresh fruit and yogurt with granola topping and afterward I feel awake and ready to go.

Click here to read Ernesto’s story about trying to eat healthier even though he’s surrounded by junk food and fast food.

Click here to check out the L.A. Youth Healthy Cooking on a Budget Challenge. We told our teen staff that they couldn’t spend more than $7 per dish. We chose that amount because $7 is about how much a family on food stamps has to spend on a meal. We wanted to show that healthy cooking can be affordable.