How to Manage Daily Cooking
It is absolutely crazy to think that a year ago we were all scrambling to get pantry staples, standing in insane lines at grocery stores, and preparing for what we thought would be essentially a prolonged spring break. At the time, I wrote a post on how to prepare your pantry for an emergency closure, imagining that this would all be over in just a few weeks. The tips I shared have stayed quite relevant and I think will prove to be useful even in “normal” times, but in reflecting back over the past year, the piece I don’t think many of us anticipated was the reality of how much cooking we were all going to have to do.
At the time we found solace in the idea that we had more time to experiment in the kitchen. That this was our chance to master sourdough bread or to make the more complicated recipes we never had time to prepare. For some, all the creativity that could be expressed in the kitchen was a silver lining of the pandemic, but for others the reality of preparing multiple meals a day, every day hit home very quickly.
As someone who advocates for more home cooking, you would think that meal prep would have been all sunshine and roses over here, but there were days (weeks) that I felt sick of cooking and uninspired. In those moments I had to figure out how to push past the exhaustion and resentment and find ways to keep going with the seemingly constant meal prep. Looking back, the coping mechanisms I created and lessons I learned will remain relevant as life returns to normal, so I wanted to share them with you.
Pantry Staples Are Lifesavers
I’ve always been a proponent of keeping certain pantry staples in steady supply, but over the past year, as I tried to limit my trips to the grocery store to the bare minimum, I have come to appreciate them even more. Here are some of the unexpected pantry staple heroes of my past year:
While I am a huge fan of fresh fruits and vegetables, using frozen ones that didn’t require chopping or washing was a gift on the nights when I felt really sick of cooking. They were also a fantastic backup once the fresh fruits and veggies ran out. I often used them in stir-fries, sauteed with a little garlic as a simple side dish, and mixed into soups and stews.
This is an ingredient I have always kept on hand, but as the year went on and my creativity in the kitchen waned, I found that I depended on canned tomatoes a ton for quick marinara sauces, soups, casseroles, and chilis. At this point, I honestly can’t remember the last week when I didn’t use canned tomatoes in some way, shape, or form.
I used to dread buying a head of cabbage because I was never sure how I would use the whole thing up. Over the past year, though, cabbage became a staple for me for a couple of reasons, 1) it was easy to come by, 2) it’s cheap, 3) it lasts a long time in the fridge, and 4) it can be really quick to cook or enjoyed raw. In particular, my family enjoyed shredded cabbage that was sauteed or roasted and I found it went well with many different cuisines if I just changed up the spices I used.
A Wide Variety of Spices
I’ve always loved playing with spices, but one of the places I found real pleasure in cooking over the past year was changing up the flavor of a dish through spices, especially spice mixes. I could quickly turn a marinara sauce into a Middle Eastern dish by adding za’atar or cumin, a Mexican or Southwestern one by adding chili powder, and an Indian-style meal by throwing in some garam masala.
Sausage has been a staple for me for years, but over the past year it became a weekly must-buy. Why? Because I could easily get two meals out of one pound of meat, making it possible to cut costs and reduce our meat consumption, while still giving my meat-obsessed son something to appreciate. I used sausage in pastas, chilis, casseroles, soups, stews, sandwiches, frittatas, and as a pizza topping.
Trust in the Favorites with Tweaks
As I got increasingly burned out by cooking, one of the things that made things easier was to trust in the family favorites. I’ve always been paranoid about making the same meals too often because I don’t want anyone to get sick of them, but I discovered that if I just tweaked an ingredient or two, that was enough to keep things interesting.
For example, one favorite in our house is bean and rice bowls. So, every other week or so I would serve these bowls but change one or two ingredients. I found that adding diced up leftover meat from a previous meal, a different roasted vegetable, a new kind of cheese, or even just a different salsa to the mix was enough and still allowed me to get dinner on the table quickly and easily.
A couple of times during the year, when I was so sick of cooking and eating at home that I was even sick of our regular dinner plates, I decided to go fancy. I’d have my son set the table with our fancier dishes. Juice was poured into wine glasses for the boys and I’d open a bottle of bubbly for my husband and me. But instead of cooking a fancy meal, I’d serve a regular one, just on fancy plates. It felt celebratory and fun and helped to shift my mindset about the same old meals.
Include Your Kids, But in a Limited Capacity
At the start of the pandemic, I told myself that this was going to be my opportunity to get the boys cooking a meal a week. In my mind it was going to be this beautiful opportunity to have them cook while I sat back and took a break.
Guess what? That didn’t happen.
While they did cook with me fairly regularly and definitely became more confident in the kitchen, I quickly discovered that adding another parenting task to my list (i.e., overseeing their dinner prep) was more than I could take on.
But I didn’t want to completely throw out my dream of the boys cooking more (and helping me at the same time), so instead I did two things:
- I had them make their lunches (almost) every day. Before the pandemic, I was having them pack their school lunches, so this wasn’t a huge step, but it did involve more hot lunches (they became pros at making themselves hot dogs, toaster oven pizzas, and tuna salad). And, more importantly, it meant that I wasn’t responsible for preparing three meals a day for everyone in my house.
- I got them to start using Raddish cooking club kits, which have been a game changer. Not only have the Raddish recipes inspired them to cook more and helped them to gain confidence in the kitchen, they also were able to prepare full meals on their own, which have now become their specialties.
Get A Break (But Not Always Take Out)
My family has been on the cautious side when it comes to the virus, so we didn’t even make our first take out order until the end if July. What did that mean? Over one hundred nights of homemade dinners before that point. While that sounds like a grind (and it often did feel like one), there were a few ways that I found to get a break even without ordering take out.
This has become an absolute family favorite. I usually pull together a combination of appetizers from the freezer section of the grocery store (dumplings, spanakopita, and fish sticks are current favorites) and some quick homemade offerings such as deviled eggs, crostini, or flatbreads (i.e., lavash or naan with whatever toppings I have knocking around baked in the oven).
A bag of tortilla chips, a can of beans, diced up vegetables, and grated cheese, all baked to melty perfection. Then I’ll put out salsas, raw veggies, and guacamole or diced avocado (if I’ve got it) and dinner is done. So quick, so easy, so fun.
There’s no shame in sandwiches for dinner. Ever.
Keep Family Dinners Going (With Exceptions)
Even though we were in the house together all the time, we still made sure to have dinner together almost every night. For me, it was important to enjoy the meal that I had prepared all together so that I didn’t end up feeling like all the work I was doing was in vain. It was also important that we kept that routine going and made space to check in with each other at the end of each day.
But sometimes everyone needs a change. So about once a week, usually on Friday Family Movie Nights, we would choose to eat in front of the movie. Sometimes we’d make it special and lay out a picnic blanket in the living room, sometimes we’d eat with our plates in our laps, the point was it was a change of pace to ease some of the monotony.
As life returns to normal, whatever that may mean, I know that we’ll enjoy more dinners away from home, but I also know that the need to prepare most meals at home won’t ever go away, so I plan to keep these lessons in mind to help me stave off cooking burn out and manage my daily cooking with ease.
Do you have tricks to manage your daily cooking? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!