It’s been two long years in the kitchen. Whether you’ve been an avid home cook or a reluctant one, the pandemic has burned everyone out through cooking. It also made us realize how much work it is to prepare every meal, every day.
According to Leanne Brown, author of Good Enough: A Cookbook, it’s time to stop being so hard on ourselves and setting unrealistic expectations for what comes out of our kitchens.
“We find ways to criticize ourselves when we’re already having a hard time,” Brown said. Home cooking isn’t “something like a restaurant chef or a person on Instagram trying to create content for the algorithm to notice.” If your family isn’t paying you to cook their food, the pressure doesn’t have to be so great.
Instead of getting us excited about what we think a “good cook” should be, Brown encourages us to instead think about what’s “good enough” and our approach to the process (and yes, the work) of cooking with a few Thoughts redesign shifts and tactics.
Here are Brown’s strategies to make the daily task of self-feeding easier.
“We think about cooking, that we’re in the kitchen, chopping that stuff up, making that thing,” Brown said. “But you can’t be there unless you’ve done all those other things” — like deciding what to eat, buying ingredients, and making sure the kitchen is stocked with the right tools.
“Feeding ourselves is an underappreciated skill,” she said. “We underestimate it in the capitalist world and in our homes and expectations about it.”
While there’s no easy way to streamline the multifaceted process of cooking, Brown says he recognizes the work and mental strain that goes into every meal. “If you’re weighed down by the general feeling that there’s too much to do as you walk into the kitchen, know this: you’re not alone,” she said.
There will always be a tradeoff between time and labor and money to fix the problems that come with cooking, and the budget doesn’t always allow for grocery delivery, purchasing pre-cut or partially prepared meals, or cooking kits.
The work begins by identifying the spots “where you can get stuck,” as Brown notes — “the dishes and the grocery shopping and the fridge management.” Make small changes in these areas.
“Ask for help, make it fair, establish some good routines and do what works best for you,” she said.
With all the steps involved in cooking and preparing food, it’s easy to get weighed down by decision fatigue. If you find you can’t stick to meal planning, Brown suggests a simpler approach: a meal routine.
The idea of a meal routine is very adaptable. You can choose two or three dishes to alternate throughout the week, whether it’s switching between smoothies and overnight oats at breakfast or switching back and forth between chicken salad, hummus and Brown’s cauliflower and cheese pita sandwich for lunch in a bag. You can also select a specific day of the week to eat a specific meal, e.g. For example, taco on Tuesday or chicken soup on Sunday.
RECIPE: Cauliflower and Cheese Pita Sandwich
“It’s about finding the nutrition plan strategy that works for you,” Brown said. “Routine the parts that are more awkward for you.”
Admittedly, Brown isn’t a morning person, so she sticks to simple breakfast dishes and leaves her the intelligence to cook up more complex meals later in the day.
Make the routine “something to look forward to, like B. clearing out a pizza or omelet evening in the fridge”. Bonus: When the meal routine is set, there’s no negotiation with kids about what to eat.
Another way that decision fatigue can rear its ugly head is with the perception that every meal needs to accomplish multiple things. Food needs to be tasty, healthy, easy, quick, and ready on time to meet the schedules of multiple family members, but also give us time to chat while we eat—sound familiar?
When those unrealistic expectations become overwhelming, “it’s okay to simplify,” Brown said. “Pick one or two things that you want to accomplish with your meal.” If your goal is to get dinner on the table in a way that minimizes the amount of dishes to do while you’re with your kids chat, just focus on those two things.
Keep a supply of “assembly-only” groceries on hand so you can prepare a meal with little effort and less stress. Snack boards are an ideal vehicle for serving up a complete meal from simple components, and no, they don’t have to look like Instagram.
Along with standards like cheese and crackers, dips, and spreads, Brown recommends:
- Dates – pure or filled with cheese, nut butter or salami
- pickled vegetables and olives
- sweet and salty snack mixes
Instead of being ashamed of serving an unconventional meal, Brown says you should celebrate the ability to make a decision that fits the situation. “We should be proud of ourselves for how kind we’re proving to be,” she said, rather than “thinking you have to be a superhero.”
Leftovers are perhaps the biggest shame in the home kitchen. We all know this, have avoided the container in the fridge for the fifth day in a row but feel like we should do something with it.
The key to overcoming leftover shame, according to Brown, is “accepting our own natural tendency to react with disgust to certain types of food in certain situations.” She recommends a “leftovers analysis,” which looks at which dishes and foods are more likely to languish in the fridge while others are more likely to be eaten.
Does the texture of leftover rice or chicken scare you? Do you love to eat Thai food or pizza? Tired of eating soup during the week? Take note of your inclinations and adapt your cooking habits bit by bit.
Plan to eat the leftovers you like as if they were fresh meals (just like “assembly-only” foods). And freeze soup or other foods you tire of quickly, like Brown’s Fast White Bean, chorizo and Hearty Greens stew, so you have a ready meal later.
RECIPE: Quick stew with white beans, chorizo and hearty vegetables
For foods that are unappealing in taste or texture, try making fewer of those specific dishes so you don’t have to eat them as leftovers. “Be gentle; it will take some time to become a habit,” Brown warned.
When all else fails, resorting to comfort food helps. When Brown needs a pick-me-up, she makes herself a cheeseboard and says of the habit, “It feels like I’ve gone on a date and it’s going really well.”
Find your very own cheeseboard and turn it into a guilt-free ritual that can act as an emotional reset button for the week. That’s it – no further instructions needed.