“How do you guys eat so well, all the time?”
I often find myself equal parts perplexed and flattered when a friend or family member comments on how our household runs what I consider to be the epicenter of life — our kitchen. I’ve fielded questions about why we grow our own food AND participate in a CSA — why we shop at 3 or 4 local food providers, including stops at the butcher, bakery, coffee shop, and fishmonger, pretty much weekly, in addition to the grocery store — how we manage to turn out 5 or 6 home-made meals a week — and do it all within a family of four, average-joe budget.
I realize that our obsession over food isn’t everyone’s passion. And I remember a time when cooking for one (or two) seemed like more of a hassle than what it was worth. And other times, I stop and think: have we as a culture gone soft? Do we, as a race, know how to feed ourselves, without the packaged food aisles in the supermarket and processed meat squares that come from a fast-food window? Don’t get me wrong — we feed the kids mac and cheese; our car can and will be found at a drive-through window on a roadtrip. But that’s not our day in/day out. So how do we make our kitchen happen? We follow these simple rules. And no, it doesn’t take all my time. And no, it’s not my only hobby. But my kids did eat ratatouille from scratch last night (and watched me cook as they watched the movie) — and at ages 2 and 7, sang the praises of couscous and goat cheese. So maybe we’re on to at least a little something…?
Take or leave these tips as they serve your life; they have, and will continue, to serve our family well.
- Get a solid handle on the basics of good cooking and baking. Make time to learn a few crucial things like knife techniques, ratios, herbs and spices, and flavor profiles. If you have ever felt anxious walking into the kitchen because “you don’t know how to cook”… this is where you start. Get a book; take a class; ask a friend who knows this stuff to mentor you (trust me, we love to pass down the knowledge). We won’t all turn out to be epic chefs. But we all have the ingrained ability to feed ourselves well. It is how our species has survived for so long. Don’t let Betty Crocker and Hamburger Helper fool you; we ALL are smart enough to put together delicious meals, all by ourselves.
- Buy a few really great cookbooks you like and know you’ll use; find websites with trusted recipes and make them your go-tos. Try new things from them, and make peace with the occasional failure (there’s a restaurant open somewhere that will feed you if you burn the biscuits or ruin the roast). Donate or sell the cookbooks you don’t use; they’ll only frustrate and discourage you, but they may inspire someone else.
- Invest a little bit of money in quality kitchen tools that make your job a million times easier. A good knife and sharpener, a solid cutting board, high-quality food processor, and top-notch mixer can make what seems daunting pretty easy.
- Plan your meals weekly. Balance the menu (rotate meat, fish, and vegetarian dishes as well as flavor profiles) and plan for specific recipes. You won’t overspend at the grocery store, you are less likely to give up and go out to eat. Incredibly important key to success: plan in one or two days per week where you do nothing — eat a bowl of cereal, reheat leftovers, or grab take-out. Don’t kill yourself in the kitchen every day.
- Keep track of what you have available. We use a simple spreadsheet on Google docs that inventories our freezers, and add or delete as items are purchased or used. We throw away less freezer-burned fruits and unintelligible leftovers.
- Shop around and find the least expensive way you can buy local. This is a big fad right now — and a good one, in my opinion, but this is America, after all, and even the best fads allow an opportunity for someone to rip you off. Be smart. My neighborhood gas station sells the same eggs and milk I’d buy at the co-op for well less than half the cost. Same brands. So yep, I do make the trip into the gas station to save myself 5 bucks on eggs and milk every week. And you know what, everyone wins… I support my neighbors and local economy, I pay less because I don’t have to pay someone to ship it. Also, local food is delicious food. I think of it this way: imagine how you feel after walking to the corner store. Then, imagine how you feel after being on a 8 or 12-hour plane ride. That bag of spinach from Argentina tastes the same way you feel after that plane ride, compared to the bag of spinach from the farmer’s market, picked yesterday and driven 40 miles to get in your belly.
- Buy in-season. Lots of cash (and pollution, and unnecessary plant stress, and chemical fertilizers, and so on) goes into things that are force-grown/mass produced. Besides, in-season food tastes better (when it’s allowed to do what nature programmed it to do). No one wants to eat that mealy peach from Chile in February. Especially not at 3 or 4 bucks a pound.
- Avoid anything that has extra packaging. You pay a (relative) fortune for the packaging – and, when things are packaged, they often need preservatives, which is another thing you don’t need, but still pay for – and, ultimately, you just throw it all away.
- Learn how to grow the things you use most. You’ll save time and money if you’ve frozen a giant green bean harvest for the lean winter months, instead of buying a bag at the grocer’s every week. And again, have I mentioned how much better it tastes?
- Make it yourself (even if you have to freeze, can, or otherwise preserve it for later) whenever you can.