By Christie Popp
This week, my kids went back to school, and my oldest began Kindergarten. It has been an exhausting and exciting week, and I was glad that I had a game plan for dinner each night.
While Indiana’s schools start earlier than most in the country, within the next few weeks, we will all be in the throws of the school year once again. The lazy summers and easy dinners have passed, as we juggle our long workdays and our kids’ tiring schedules. This is the time when many harried parents reach for the easy solution: the pre-packaged food, the fast food dinner, or take-out. Cooking can be tiring and falls low on the list.
Because I am passionate about cooking, I wanted to devote this month’s column to encouraging and helping other parents to cook. I get that cooking for me is different than cooking for many people. I really, truly love to cook from scratch. I am also lucky that I have a partner who is willing to do the dishes each night. But for those who do not share this love, or perhaps who need a little push into the kitchen when the stress piles up, I offer this why and how of weekly cooking.
First, why should you cook from scratch, instead of grabbing a pre-made (or semi-made) meal off the shelf? Corporations can make cooking more quick and efficient. Yet, as Michael Pollan wrote in his most recent book Cooked, “Industrial cooking has taken a substantial toll on our health and well-being. Corporations cook very differently from how people do (which is why we usually call what they do ‘food processing’ instead of cooking). They tend to use much more sugar, fat, and salt than people cooking for people do; they also deploy novel chemical ingredients seldom found in pantries in order to make their food last longer and look fresher than it really is. So it will come as no surprise that the decline in home cooking closely tracks the rise in obesity and all the chronic diseases linked to diet.” Many scientists are now honing in on the lack of cooking as one of the primary reasons our Western Diet has wreaked havoc on our health.
Second, home cooked food tastes better. When we buy what others’ offer, we give up flavor for convenience. At the end of Cooked, Pollan discusses the Korean concept of “Hand Taste” vs. “Tongue Taste.” “Tongue taste is the straightforward chemical phenomenon that takes place whenever molecules make contact with taste buds, something that happens with any food as a matter of course. Tongue taste is the kind of easy, accessible flavor that any food scientist or manufacturer can reliably produce in order to make food appealing.” (e.g. McDonald’s). “Hand Taste, however, involves something greater than mere flavor. It is the infinitely more complex experience of a food that bears the unmistakable signature of the individual who made it—the care and thought and idiosyncrasy that the person has put into the work of preparing it…. What hand taste is, … is the taste of love.”
Of course, I do not mean that you do not love your kids if you choose McDonald’s for dinner. We all love our kids, and we all do what we can do. Still, it is important to consider the health, social, and environmental consequences of not cooking.
I get how hard it is to come home from work and put food on the table. Before I had kids, my husband and I really lived it up (I realize now!). We would come home, take leisurely walks (or meet for a drink after work), maybe garden, and then, late into the evening, we would prepare dinner and finish the evening with a home cooked meal and bottle of wine. When our first son was a baby, we continued this pattern, but as he grew and had different needs (an earlier bedtime, for example), something had to give.
Eventually, I stumbled upon the concept of meal planning. Whereas before, I would buy a bunch of fruits and vegetables at the farmer’s market, and then decide day by day what to cook, this didn’t fly when I had a cranky kid who needed dinner. I could no longer spend a half hour or so looking through recipes. When I first started meal planning, I would devote an hour or two on Sunday morning to my piles of cookbooks and online food blogs and plan a meal for each night of the week. Then I would grocery shop. But this planning took a while, and often the meals I planned were time-consuming. There were many nights I came home and decided that I was too tired to cook what I had planned.
Finally, I read a tip to meal-plan by designating a certain kind of dish for a certain day. For example, this is our current weekly meal plan:
Tuesday: Eggs (Usually a Frittata or Shakshuka)
Thursday: Pastry or Pizza (and sometimes out)
Friday: Leftover Night: a bread salad (Panzanella), bread casserole, or bread soup out of all of our weekly leftovers.
Saturday: Wild Card (Planned from the morning Farmer’s Market run) or Eat out
Planning this way has made decision-making easier. We usually buy a bunch of fruits and vegetables at the market on Saturday morning, and I can use those to determine what to cook each night. Sunday in the winter might mean a long braised beef stew, and in the dog days of summer a chilled cucumber yogurt or gazpacho soup. Pastas are on Monday because that first day of the week is the hardest, and pastas are easy and generally quick to throw together.
In addition, because I know what I’m cooking the next night, I can do any necessary preparation while cooking for tonight’s dinner. So on Tuesday, while I’m preparing my frittata, I might throw some chickpeas on to cook so they are ready to heat and eat on Wednesday. Or on Wednesday, I might make a simple pastry or pizza dough for Thursday. We have also periodically changed our line-up. Last fall, we were into grain bowls for a while. We also had a “Mexican” night, where I served up truly inauthentic tacos, enchiladas, or quesadillas.
Meal planning does not need to be limited to dinners. I have experimented with associating school lunches with each day. For example: Monday, egg salad; Tuesday, cheese sandwich, and so on. Planning lunches in this way also makes that element of my nightly routine easier. I know I have just what I need.
By taking the time to plan out your meals, you are simplifying your life in amazing ways. You will save money, as home-cooked meals cost less than processed prepared foods or take-out. You will also cut down on food waste because you will use what you buy. When you come in the door, tired and stressed and hungry, you can get straight to work because you know what to do (and maybe you even did a little prep the night before). Cut up a few vegetables and put out some olive oil for dipping, or set out a few olives and sliced cheese to tame any cranky kids, and get to work (and put them to work helping you!). Your family will be healthier and richer—both economically and socially.
One final note: sometimes life does not go as planned, and you get home later and more tired than you expected. Perhaps you planned a dish and you just can’t make the effort. For those nights, I like to make sure I have pantry staples like pasta, olive oil, garlic, cheese, and eggs, so I can whip up something fast.
In that spirit, here are two simple recipes for those “just can’t” nights:
Aglio, olio, e peperoncino
This is truly a pantry-staple pasta and one of our favorites:
- 1lb of pasta
- ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil
- 1 clove of garlic, peeled but not chopped or smashed (or more to taste)
- red pepper flakes (to taste)
- Salt and pepper
- Put on a pot of water to boil, and when it comes to a boil, salt well and add pasta to cook for the “al dente” time on the box. When you are about a minute from finishing, begin to make the sauce.
- In a skillet or large saucepan, heat the olive oil. Add the garlic clove and cook just until it begins to lightly turn golden and smell fragrant. Discard the garlic. Remove the pan from the heat and add in a pinch of red pepper flakes (more if you like it spicy). These will toast lightly in the warm oil.
- Drain the pasta when it is finished, reserving about a half cup of the pasta water. Add the pasta to the oil and toss, adding pasta water to moisten if necessary. Salt and pepper to taste.
One Pot Pasta
I have adapted this recipe from a Martha Stewart classic. It is truly a genius recipe.
- 1 lb Pasta—any kind, but I like penne or spaghetti. The original recipe calls for linguine
- 1 lb cherry or grape tomatoes. Halve or quarter the larger ones
- 1 onion thinly sliced
- 4 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
- ½ Teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 2 sprigs of basil (plus extra for serving)
- 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (plus some for serving)
- Salt and Pepper
- 4 ½ Cups of Water
- Freshly grated Parmesan for serving
- Combine everything except the cheese in a large pot or straight-sided skillet (I just use my regular pasta pot), along with 2 teaspoons of salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over high and boil, stirring and turning frequently until the pasta is al dente and the water has almost evaporated. Season with additional salt and pepper.
- Serve with basil, olive oil, and parmesan.