It's Time to Rethink the Way We Cook

CC BY 2.0. Marco Verch

Preparing food on a per-meal basis is exhausting and inefficient. Surely there's a better way to put food on the table.

I am an obsessive cookbook reader and collector. My idea of heaven is sitting down on a lazy Saturday morning with breakfast, coffee, and an old favorite cookbook, flipping through the pages, reading the introduction and the recipes, seeking ideas for dishes I could make. There was a time when I used to act on all these ideas, filling the kitchen with decadent beef-and-wine braises, homemade gnocchi, and phyllo pastry concoctions, but that was before I started working full days. Now getting dinner on the table is a mad scramble, every single night.

Much to my disbelief, my beloved cookbook collection does not meet my needs anymore. It’s not for lack of wonderful recipes or ingredients in the house, but it comes down to time. As a young family with two working parents, no matter how fast a from-scratch recipe promises to be, it’s never fast enough. Then, within a matter of hours, more food is needed and we have to start all over again. It's exhausting.

According to Tom Philpott of Mother Jones, I’m not the only one feeling overwhelmed by this. Philpott argues that recipe books, as they’re written and used nowadays, are impractical for many people. The ‘single-meal model’ that most recipes follow is inefficient. It requires the same actions to be repeated multiple times a day in order to feed a limited number of individuals, and this is unsustainable. It will drive anyone mad, as it is currently doing to me.

Australian chef Adam Liaw, whose article for The Guardian inspired Philpott’s, calls recipes “the listicles of the food world... short, incomplete collections of vaguely interesting but not entirely useful information designed for ease of consumption." Despite having published recipe books himself, Liaw questions the wisdom of teaching a style of cooking that focuses solely on eating meals, rather than honing kitchen craft and home economics:

“No cuisine in the world could ever have been created in discrete packages. A standard Japanese meal contains three dishes: soup, rice and pickles. To make that from scratch three times a day would be impossible, but with good kitchen craft it’s possible to eat a full meal every time with a minimum of effort.”

It’s that kitchen craft that I’m needing to get back to. It’s thinking long-term when preparing food—not listing unique recipes to make on each night of the week, but rather figuring out a few key actions my husband and I can take on weekends in order to ease preparation of meals, using the same batch-cooked ingredients. I do this to some extent already, baking three loaves of bread on Sundays for the week's toast and sandwiches and making sure there's a batch of granola in the pantry and muffins in the freezer for school lunches, but that's about it.

Philpott suggests:

“Say on Sunday, you cooked a pot of beans, roasted a whole chicken, and whipped up a simple vinaigrette as a salad dressing and marinade. Monday's dinner could be a quick chicken-bean soup; Tuesday could be taco night; Wednesday, these elements could be incorporated along with some quick-sautéed vegetables into a pasta; and so on.”

The fact that my household has cut out meat almost completely makes this much harder, since hearty vegetarian mains tend to be more complex than meat-based ones (at least, in my experience), but again, that’s where the advanced planning comes in.

My ideal 'kitchen craft' at this time of year would include the mandatory pot of beans, a pot of stock, lots of oven-roasted root vegetables, multiple pans of casseroles (vegetarian moussaka, mac 'n cheese, lasagna) in the freezer, a jar of miso dressing for impromptu salads, and a big pan of rice pilaf or risotto to dip into for the first few weeknights. With such a stash in the kitchen by Sunday evening, the week's dinners would seem like a breeze.

I don’t plan on getting rid of my cookbooks, since they're a source of inspiration and can provide useful recipes with which to incorporate the big batches of ingredients that I’m aiming to prepare; but for now, the weekly cooking model's got to change.