It has been a long two years in the kitchen. Whether you were an enthusiastic home cook or a reluctant one, the pandemic has made everyone burned out by the act of cooking. It’s also made us realize how much work it is to cook every meal every day.
It’s time to stop being so tough on ourselves and setting unrealistic expectations for what comes out of our kitchens, according to Leanne Brown, author of “Good Enough: A Cookbook.”
“We find ways to criticize ourselves when we’re already having a hard time,” Brown said. Home cooking is not “anything like a restaurant chef or a person on Instagram trying to create content so that the algorithm will notice them.” Unless your family is paying you for the act of making them food, the pressure doesn’t need to be so great.
Instead of beating ourselves up over what we think a “good cook” should be, Brown encourages us to think of what is “good enough” instead and reframe our approach to the process (and yes, the work) of cooking with a few mental shifts and tactics.
Here are Brown’s strategies for making the daily job of feeding yourself easier.
Acknowledge that cooking is about more than cooking
“We think of cooking as being in the kitchen, chopping the stuff, making the thing,” Brown said. “But you can’t be in there unless you’ve done all these other things” – such as deciding what to eat, buying ingredients and making sure the kitchen is stocked with the right tools.
“Feeding ourselves is an undervalued skill,” she said. “We undervalue it in the capitalist world and in our homes and expectations about it.”
While there’s no simple fix to streamline the multipronged act of cooking, Brown emphasizes acknowledging the work and the mental load that comes with every meal. “If you feel weighed down by the general sense that there is too much to deal with when you enter the kitchen, know this: You are not alone,” she said.
There will always be a trade-off of time and labor versus money in fixing the pain points that come with the act of cooking, and budgets don’t always allow for grocery delivery, purchasing pre-chopped or partially prepped meals or meal kits.
The work begins with identifying the points “where you can get stuck,” as Brown notes – “the dishes and the grocery shopping and fridge management.” Make small changes in those areas.
“Ask for help, make it fair, establish some good routines and do what works best for you,” she said.
If meal planning doesn’t work, try a meal routine
With all the steps that go into the act of cooking and providing food, it’s easy to get weighed down by decision fatigue. If you’ve found you can’t stick with meal planning, Brown suggests a simpler approach: a meal routine.
The idea of a meal routine is highly adaptable. You can pick two or three dishes to rotate through over the course of the week, whether that’s switching between smoothies and overnight oats at breakfast or going back and forth between chicken salad, hummus and Brown’s Cauliflower-Cheese Pita Sandwich for bagged lunches. You can also choose a specific day of the week to eat a specific meal, such as taco Tuesdays or chicken soup Sundays.
“It’s all about finding the meal plan strategy that works for you,” Brown said. “Routinize the parts that are more cumbersome to you.”
Brown is admittedly not a morning person, so she sticks to simple breakfast foods and leaves the brainpower for making more complex meals later in the day.
Make the routine “a thing that you can look forward to, like having a clean out the fridge pizza night or omelet night.” Bonus: When the meal routine is set, there’s no negotiating with kids over what to eat.
Fight unrealistic expectations with ‘assembly only’ meals
Another way decision fatigue can rear its ugly head is in the perception that every meal has to accomplish multiple things. The food must be delicious, healthy, easy, quick and ready on time to meet multiple family members’ schedules but also give us time to connect over the meal – sound familiar?
When these unrealistic expectations become overwhelming, “it is OK to simplify,” Brown said. “Pick one or two things you want to accomplish with your meal.” If your goal is to get dinner on the table in a way that allows you to do as few dishes as possible while connecting with your kids, just focus on those two things.
Keep a stash of “assembly only” foods on hand so you can make a meal with low effort and less stress. Snack boards are an ideal vehicle for serving a full meal out of simple components, and no, they don’t have to look like they do on Instagram.
Along with standards such as cheese and crackers, dips and spreads, Brown recommends:
- dates – plain or stuffed with cheese, nut butter or salami
- pickled vegetables and olives
- hard-boiled eggs
- sweet and salty snack mixes
Instead of feeling shame over serving an unconventional meal, according to Brown, celebrate the ability to make a decision that fits the situation. “We should be proud of ourselves of the kindness we’re giving to ourselves when we do that,” she said, rather than “thinking you have to be a superhero.”
Do ‘leftover analysis’ to get rid of the guilt cycle
Leftovers might be the biggest source of shame in the home kitchen. We’ve all been there, avoiding that container in the fridge for the fifth day in a row but feeling like we should do something with it.
The key to conquering the shame of leftovers, according to Brown, is about “accepting our own natural tendency to have a disgust response to certain types of food in certain situations.” She recommends doing a “leftover analysis” on which meals and types of foods tend to languish in the fridge, while others are eaten more enthusiastically.
Does the consistency of leftover rice or chicken freak you out? Do you love eating day-old Thai food or pizza? Do you get sick of eating soup by midweek? Take note of your tendencies, then start adjusting your cooking practice bit by bit.
Plan for eating the leftovers you like as if they were fresh meals (just like “assembly only” foods). And freeze soup or other foods, such as Brown’s Fast White Bean, Chorizo and Hearty Greens Stew, that you get tired of quickly so you’ll have a ready-to-go meal down the line.
For foods that are unappealing in taste or texture, try making less of those particular dishes so you won’t be forced to eat them as leftovers. “Be gentle; this will take time to become a habit,” Brown cautioned.
Take yourself on a date
When all else fails, it helps to fall back on comfort food. When Brown needs a pick-me-up, she makes a cheese platter for herself and said of this habit, “it feels like I have taken myself on a date, and it is going very well.”
Find your own personal cheese platter and make it a guilt-free ritual that can work as an emotional reset button for the week. That’s it – no further instructions required.
Casey Barber is a food writer, illustrator and photographer; the author of “Pierogi Love: New Takes on an Old-World Comfort Food” and “Classic Snacks Made From Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand-Name Treats”; and editor of the website Good. Food. Stories.