I have been planning this blog post for quite some time – it has just been sitting in my drafts waiting for me to have time and to be inspired to write it. I read Tracie McMillan‘s book “The American Way of Eating” a few months ago and it was a great book. My biggest takeaway from it was to never believe that any chain restaurant is actually doing any real cooking and opened my eyes to what my taste-buds already recognized – that the food we were eating out was all the same because it all came from the same few suppliers. Ever notice how that mixed greens salad you eat out at 10 different places all seems the same? It probably is – all from the same bagged lettuce mix and grape tomatoes and balsamic dressing. Nothing was new and exciting anymore unless you went to a really upscale restaurant. It all just tasted like a salty processed mess to me – including some of my old favorite mexican restaurants. Couple this with the real challenge of having a toddler with their own food preferences and the leisurely dinner out at a restaurant enjoying tasty food just didn’t seem to exist anymore within our budget. After years of basically eating out everyday for lunch and most nights for dinner this came as a shock to my system. This really made me sad and actually quite annoyed. It wasn’t worth the experience of going out anymore. But was it worth doing the chore of cooking all the time?
I thought back and couldn’t remember a time living on my own that I really did a whole lot of cooking on a regular basis. Sure – I did love to cook and I did cook for myself often but on the whole the majority of my food came from restaurants. I actually owe a lot of getting into the cooking habit to my husband. He wanted to eat at home more – he craved home cooked meals. And so I obliged – as long as I didn’t ask him what he wanted and just presented him with food – he would eat it all happily – no matter what I made. My daughter also was a good eater and I slowly started to realize that we didn’t need to eat out all the time and it was actually somewhat easier to eat at home – even with the prep time. No more arguing about where to meet and eat or what to order. No more dealing with those buzzers and waiting for a table with a squirmy toddler and waiting for our order to come. No more wasting money on entrees that my toddler didn’t eat. No more nights dying of thirst and a tummy ache from the salty, processed and lackluster food that just didn’t taste interesting or good to me anymore.
So now I just had to get into a rhythm of cooking all the time from home. This took some getting used to and took some hard knocks on meal planning. It also took simplifying. Sure- making things with crazy ingredients was fun when I wanted to make thai red curry paste from scratch – but was it worth it? Wasn’t their an easier way to make curry? Couldn’t I just make a very large batch and freeze it so I didn’t have to make it so often? The answers were yes and yes. As this Slate commentary by the author from the book above so eloquently puts it – cooking for a major event like Thanksgiving is fun. It can transport you to another country without having to travel there and it brings family together. Cooking for your family every night – that isn’t so fun most of the time. But it doesn’t need to be fun most of the time. It isn’t about being fun really. It is about eating and we all have to eat. It is just one of the things we have to do everyday – just like work or getting ready in the morning or cleaning up the house. So why is food/cooking treated any differently than those chores?
So then how do we find reward in doing something that isn’t that fun? We have to change our perspective. When I started focusing on providing nutrient dense foods for my family that would not only fill our bellies but start to heal our various ailments, my perspective changed dramatically. Cooking was no longer to just put something on the table. It served a purpose – to heal, to nourish and to delight our taste-buds as well as be a shared experience. In using real ingredients and homemade components like chicken broth, etc. – the food is much better than what we could ever get outside the house at a restaurant. But it takes mistakes and practice to get better. Some meals turn out disgusting – to the point of me just tossing them. Some turn out amazing and I find I can’t ever seem to replicate them to everyone’s dismay. Some meals take longer than anticipated and some just don’t ever get done because of unforseen circumstances (like a cranky toddler with no nap).
But that is the thing with real food isn’t it? Real food isn’t consistent because it is real and each of these mistakes are learning experiences for the entire family. They teach everyone real food and kitchen skills like how to eat foods that are nourishing, how to distinguish tastes (salty, sweet, sour, umami) but also how to be patient, how to eat leftovers and not waste, how to help with food prep, recipes, and how to set the table and clean up after ourselves, etc. These meals don’t need to sit up on a pedestal like on Top Chef or all those cooking channel shows we all watch. They don’t need to be pretty every night or include tons of ingredients or complicated techniques – sure some nights it is fun to focus on ‘presentation and technique’ but ultimately when you are cooking all the time at home it is more about taste than anything else. I want to make meals that my daughter remembers and craves when she comes home from college because they were just so good and comforting.
Last night we had the opportunity to go out – but when I asked my daughter where she wanted to go – she simply replied, ‘can’t we just eat at home mommy?’. This melted my heart and instead of dreading the chore of making yet another meal (and on a weekend – the horror!), I just pulled one more meal together and watched as my daughter, my husband and my father all savored their meal together (and thankfully shared their compliments!) and how easy it was to get her to bed after. No one complained that we didn’t go out to eat – far from it. We saved money too and used up leftovers that would have otherwise gone to waste.
How about you? Is cooking fun or not fun?