How I Learned to Stop Ordering and Love to Cook
Posted by wendiwendy
I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but I wasn’t always that good at it. I was enthusiastic, yes, but I didn’t have enough practice or years of tasting behind me. I cooked here and there (mainly sweets) when I lived at home, and I was just shy of 21 when I got married the first time. I was still a very picky eater; corn and green beans were the only vegetables I didn’t consider to be suspicious.
I copied some recipes from my mom and had a few things I made regularly for dinner. The first cookbook I remember buying was The Frugal Gourmet – I liked the word ‘frugal’ in the title. I learned how to make a decent Chicken Marsala and how to make chicken and beef stock. I followed recipes precisely.
For all those years, cooking was just a thing I did – I was working full time and didn’t feel like experimenting or devoting a lot of time to cooking once I got home. Then the kids came along, and dinner became an afterthought. Once I became a single mom, working full time, dinner for me was always after the kids were fed and in bed, and it often reflected my exhaustion – usually a bowl of cereal or soup.
It wasn’t until the kids grew older, I was remarried and working from home that I started getting interested in food beyond what I absolutely needed to do to keep my family nourished. I have to give some credit to food blogs and cooking shows – I was introduced to so many ingredients I’d never heard of or never thought to cook with. Things like fennel, jicama, leeks, kale…and I have to sheepishly admit that it wasn’t until just a couple years ago that I cooked with fresh mushrooms, broccoli, squash or cauliflower. (I told you I was picky!) The internet filled in when I wasn’t sure how to chop or prepare a certain vegetable. (Bok choy, I’m looking at you.)
I can’t tell you how many nights I was prepared to make a certain meal and then realized I was missing just one crucial ingredient. Those were the nights we ended up ordering takeout. (A local pasta/pizza place kept us fed for a few very busy years in the early days of the candle business. They’ve since gone out of business, probably because we stopped ordering from them when I started cooking more.) There were also nights I planned on making something that I just couldn’t even consider cooking when the day rolled around, usually because it was just too hot to cook.
We were starting to order out just a little too much for my comfort, and I was getting frustrated by the many times my plans to cook were thwarted by missing ingredients. I did get more creative, learning what I could and couldn’t substitute…but sometimes you just NEED that item and nothing else will do. So I decided it was time to get more organized.
What has saved my sanity over the past few years, helped our budget and kept me from recipe burnout and the What the heck should I make for dinner tonight? conundrum is this: A spreadsheet of menus. It took me maybe 30 minutes to initially put together. I sat down with my cookbook and went through all the recipes I knew my family liked. I made sections on the spreadsheet for Beef, Chicken, Grill, Soup, Pasta, and Other. In each section I typed in the names of the recipes that used that main ingredient. (‘Other’ has things like homemade pizza, vegetarian dishes, grilled cheese, breakfast for dinner.) To the left of the recipes, I have the days of the week listed, Monday through Sunday, and a space next to each day where I type in the recipe I’m planning to make.
To plan menus, I open the spreadsheet and I open the weather forecast in my browser. I take a look at the temperatures coming up and plan my weekly menu accordingly. I also have a tab in that spreadsheet that lists all the extra things I have in my freezer – any veggies, meat, etc. that I already have, so I know what I have on hand to work with. If it’s going to be warm but not warm enough to have the A/C on, I pick something that we can cook on the grill, in the slow cooker or oven…basically anything except the gas stovetop, which heats our house up like a bonfire. If it’s going to be really cold, I plug in something warm and hearty like chili, beef stew or soup. I alternate so we aren’t eating chicken three days in a row, and so that at least two or three days are meat-free. Once I nail down the menu for the week, I type a shopping list in another tab of the spreadsheet. By now I have a lot of my recipes memorized, but if not, I reference the recipe and check my cabinets/fridge to make sure I have what I need. Anything missing goes on the shopping list, along with any staples we’re getting low on.
Since I’ve started this, I almost never have a night when I either don’t feel like cooking or can’t make what I planned. I get those meals set ahead of time and don’t have to think about what to make for dinner on a daily basis. The most I might do is switch some meals around if the weather changes drastically or we have something planned that’s going to prevent me from having the time to cook. If I know we have a busy afternoon planned, I’ll plug in a crockpot recipe so I can get dinner started in the morning before we go out. I always have the ingredients I need on hand, and I don’t end up with three bottles of vanilla because I forgot I already had some in the pantry. (Not anymore, anyway.)
If things start getting boring, I check around on my favorite cooking/recipe sites and add some new recipes to the mix. In my quest to try more vegetables and ingredients I’ve never cooked with before, I’ve come across some recipes that are now family favorites. I also signed up to test recipes for Cooks Illustrated, as a way to make myself try new things and practice new cooking techniques.
A big part of what makes cooking so fun is the appreciation of my family. The kids aren’t living at home now but when they did, they never hesitated to rave about a meal they liked (and they still do this when they’re here for dinner). It makes me feel good when they request certain meals; I know now that they have fond memories of mom’s cooking, and that they look forward to the things I make. Dave is my biggest fan, really. He will just stop eating, look at me and say, “This is AMAZING.” He’ll rave about the flavor or the meal in general. Positive reinforcement really works…it’s so much more fun to cook for someone who absolutely appreciates it and lets me know.
I know his praise is genuine because he doesn’t hesitate to tell me when he doesn’t like something; he would never lie and tell me something was tasty just to keep from hurting my feelings. I always warn him when we’re trying a new recipe, “Tell me the truth now, because if you like it then it’s going in the repertoire and you’ll be eating it again!” In other words, if you secretly hate it, you’re going to be stuck eating it again in the future unless you speak up.
I think the biggest complaint I hear from friends and family who don’t like to cook is doing the dishes that it creates. For whatever reason, doing dishes just doesn’t bother me. I find it kind of relaxing. I tend to clean as I go, and Dave is almost always there with me in the kitchen (he’s a great sous-chef) so between the two of us, we have most of the dishes cleaned up before we even sit down to eat. Sometimes we do the whole ‘whoever doesn’t cook is the one who does the dishes’ thing, but since we generally work together on a meal, we work together on doing dishes too.
We don’t always eat fancy, but we do always eat good and yummy. Tonight it’s just homemade sloppy joes (I used to use Manwich until I found a simple, delicious recipe that puts it to shame) with potato wedges roasted in the oven. In the summer, we’ll be eating zucchini and tomatoes in almost everything, as long as our plants thrive. Some days we just throw together a scramble (eggs, diced potatoes, sweet peppers, onions, maybe mushrooms) and call it dinner. Sometimes it’s lasagna – something that seems so fancy but is really very simple to put together. For all of it, though, the key for me is organization. I can’t make that lasagna if there’s no ricotta cheese in the fridge, and the scramble isn’t possible without eggs.
If spreadsheets aren’t your thing, or you just aren’t that into meal planning, I can highly recommend finding a recipe site that lets you search by ingredients. (I know my favorite site, Allrecipes, has this feature, and I’m sure there are others out there too.) If you’re feeling like having a chicken dish with a few key ingredients, you just plug those in and you’ll get a bunch of recipes to choose from. Anything to make dinner time easier, right?
By the way, I found the homemade sloppy joe recipe because I didn’t have Manwich on hand…so sometimes it works out well when an ingredient is missing!
About wendiwendyI'm a real-life bionic woman.
Posted on June 24, 2013, in Food & Cooking, Not Related to Hearing Loss and tagged Allrecipes, cooking, food, learning to cook, meal planning, menu planning, picky eater, recipe organizing, trying new foods. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.