Foodie. Hippie. Locavore. Food Douche. Call it what you will but we, like thousands of other families, have take great strides to improve what we eat. Make more homemade. Support local agriculture. Cook more.
There’s an article by fellow Clevelander, Michael Ruhlman, that’s been making the rounds for the last year and when first I read it I nodded along in agreement. Everyone has time to cook – just not everyone makes the choice to cook.
But as it’s resurfaced and I’ve read it again, this time through the lens of a working mother of 2 kids under 5, I get defensive.
I cook a lot. I make much of what we eat from scratch. But why should it have to take an hour or more for it to be considered real cooking? In reality, if it weren’t for the “fast and easy meal” recipes from people like Jamie Oliver and – my favorite source – America’s Test Kitchen, then I would probably not cook as much as I do today.
Here is our evening: I pick up Matilda from preschool, drop the carpool kid off, and walk in the door between 5:15 and 5:30 . Mark and the Madman get home between 5:30 and 5:45. The Madman goes to bed at 7:00. That leaves – at the most – 90 minutes for dinner to be cooked and eaten, baths to be given and, hopefully, some playtime, reading and snuggles thrown in. I imagine that this scene is played out in countless homes of working parents throughout the country.
My solution is to seek out recipes and ideas with faster cooking times and things I can do ahead. The entire family loves this Korean Beef Rice Bowl. It’s a 30-minute meal that, with a little prep (I do all the chopping, cutting and marinating the night before), can be on the table in 10 minutes. Because of this recipe and others like it, on the nights Matilda has gymnastics we can still have a healthy, real-food dinner cooked by me. We all enjoy it, it’s healthy and it makes me feel good that I made it. A really crazy night might see scrambled eggs with spinach and herbs from our garden thrown on a plate. In the few minutes it takes to cook dinner Matilda can have the table set and when the boys walk in we all sit down for dinner.
My goal every work-week is to make 3 home-cooked meals with enough leftovers to get us through 2 more dinners. I do what I can on the weekends to make this happen. Something I learned from the 30-minute-meal type shows is to prep all the veggies as soon as I get home from the market. On the weekends I’ll roast a chicken (or 2) to use during the week or make overnight stock if my freezer stash is getting low. I’ll clean and chop and measure out all my mise en place for the 3 meals on Sunday night. I store them in tupperware, labeled with blue tape. I’ll fill a huge bowl with torn lettuce for my lunch salads and will make a big batch of tuna salad. If I’m feeling wild and crazy I’ll make my own mayonnaise, butter or bread, too.
Some weekends I’ll even get chicken breasts from the Plum Creek Farm stand at the farmers market and will spend an hour cutting them up to make chicken nuggets to stash in the freezer for nights I don’t feel like cooking. Or I’ll make a big batch of waffles on a Sunday morning and freeze the leftovers for out-the-door breakfasts (yes, I give my kids waffles that are still-frozen…they eat them in the car). But I also never feel guilty serving my kid a store-bought nugget or waffle when the homemade supply runs out.
Listen, I do love to cook – when I have time to enjoy it. Give me a weekend with nothing pressing and I’ll make chicken pot pie, braised short ribs or a luscious lasagna from scratch. But trying to shove the meal prep or long cooking (and/or oven-heating) time into my small window of weekday evening of time with my kids is not a high priority. That’s not even mentioning the stress of trying to cook while tripping over a one year old who is reaching for the burner knobs on the stove while the 4 year old whines that she’s hungry. That is not enjoyable for anyone.
I do think that Ruhlman’s overall point is very valid: everyone has time to cook, but not everyone chooses to do so. And while I’m happy that today he has time to enjoy “carnal exertions” with his lovely wife during the hour his dinner roasts in the oven, I’m sure he remembers a little bit of what life was like when his kids were knee-high rugrats clamoring for “food! food! now!”
So please, Michael, stop making at-home 30-minute cooks feel like we are the enemy to good food. And please don’t discourage editors, publishers, producers and chefs from developing new fast meal ideas. I rely on them. In fact, I invite you over to see how I can have a rocking from-scratch meal on the table 20 minutes after I walk in the door.