Friday, September 11

Week 4 - Make Mealtime Matter

So by now you've made some changes to the way you plan, shop, lunch. This week has more to do with the way you actually eat. If you are going to spend all of this time thinking about food - what kind of food you're eating, what you're going to prepare, what it's going to cost you - you might as well take a little time in your day to enjoy your food.

I know we're busy and people's schedules are all different. But I don't think it's too much to ask to take one meal a day and do nothing during that meal but eat and enjoy the company of those around you. For a lot of people this will be dinner. For some breakfast. For a very few others, lunch. But pick a meal and then try to really enjoy it every day this week.

If you are part of a family, sharing a meal is the perfect time to force your kids to tell you what happened at school ("Nothing!") and to check in. Eating dinner together, as a family, also can go some ways to ending Mom-as-Short-Order-Cook-Syndrome. If everyone eats together, you may stand a better chance of prepping one dinner instead of four. Eating together also gives you a chance to model good behavior, just as eating pasta standing up over the sink models other behavior for your kids.

If you are living alone, find ways to share meals with friends, but if you are eating alone simply taking the time to eat off a plate and turn off the TV can be a wonderful, peaceful break in your day. When I was working in Seattle's Pioneer Square, I find a wonderful, urban park with a waterfall and made a ritual of eating there every day. Maybe you have a similar lunch spot near your office?

If you are a couple, try making meal time a time to connect. I'm way too grumpy before coffee to do this with breakfast. The only person I allow to talk to about anything substantial before coffee is Chris Cuomo of ABC's Good Morning America. My husband and I spend our share of time eating pizza and watching our Netflix, but dinner can also become an opportunity for romance. Light a candle and you'll look much more beautiful as you eat - even if what you are eating is not yet quite so beautiful.

Friday, September 4

Week 3 - Pack your Lunch

Since I have become under-employed I can walk to my kitchen at noon (or 11:01 - breakfast has no meaning to my stomach) and rustle up lunch. But for most of you I'm guessing lunch is like it used to be for me - a somewhat harried affair involving lines, $10+, and, sometimes (I'm not proud) the hot/cold lunch buffet. (Btw, while we're on the subject, how come at every one of those places is there something that looks like General Tso's chicken but doesn't taste like the General Tso's you get at a chinese takeout place - but all the hot/cold buffet GT-esque chicken tastes the same? It leads me to believe that there is somewhere a mega-supplier of the stuff that delivers it through pneumatic tubes.)

I digress.

Look, I know how it is. Sometimes going out to buy lunch is your only escape from cubby-hell. Bringing lunch is like advertising that you are going to work through lunch, that you don't take lunch. It's depressing.

But, bringing lunch will save you major money. While you're packing your lunch, think about a cloth napkin. Keep real silverware and a cheap but real plate in your desk (as long as you wash them - euew.) The whole process will help you to start seeing food as something nice and nurturing and civilized. Let's face it, the hot/cold lunch buffet never made you feel that way. It always made me feel like I was crashing a weird and poorly planned multi-cultural wedding.

Saturday, August 15

Week 2 - Money and Time

The Food/Time Continuum

There's something about cooking and shopping for food that can get very overwhelming. The irony is that enjoying food - it's preparation and its delicious consumption - is one of the main ways in which we, as human beings nourish and enjoy one another.

There are two approaches to kitchen time-saving. One is all about literally getting you out of the kitchen and includes a lot of take out, prepared foods, and leftover cartons languishing that, the next day, look used and unappetizing, as if they are doing the walk of shame in your fridge.

The second involves cutting down on the dreary and overwhelming parts of food prep so that you can enjoy the good parts, like watching your loved ones slurp up your meal or actually feeling a sensation of calm wash over you as you sit down at an actual table to eat and, perhaps, drink a bit of wine out of an actual glass. (The wine itself can come from a box, but drink it out of a glass.)

I am a big fan of takeout, actually. I love pizza, for instance, and don't think anything is quite as fulfilling as sitting down in my pajamas and watching Battlestar Gallactica while eating pizza and drinking Chuck Shaw. But I've come to the conclusion that take out tastes better when it's planned. Just like a romantic encounter, a whiff of desperation can take away from one's enjoyment of the main course.

I'm more of a fan of the second school of thought when it comes to saving time. It's not so much about "saving time" but about eliminating, cutting down or consolidating the tasks that make you want to poke your eyes out.

So here are my thoughts on saving time in the kitchen:

- Plan your meals and become a once-a-week shopper. I know, I know we've already discussed this. But really, there is nothing that will make you feel more frazzled than stopping at a grocery store on your way home from working wondering what's for dinner. Mostly when I did that I would begin to cry as part of a hypoglycemic meltdown and run from the store.

- Simplify your dishes. Cook recipes with 5 or fewer ingredients. When I first started cooking I would reject any recipe that had fewer than 20 ingredients. This was the height of insanity, I now realize. Here's an article from Cooking Light to get you started.

- Explore and Embrace Quick Cooking Methods. I'm talking stir-fry people. You could feed people stir-fry every day and every day would bring another mouthwatering mix-and-match flavor combination. I'm talking broiling - which is still the only acceptable way that I've found to cook a chicken breast (no offense George Foreman). I'm also talking about slow-cooking, either on your stove or in a Crock Pot, because slow-cooked foods usually do not ask for a lot of your time, just a lot of totally unattended time left alone in their pot. Check this out - The Julie Powell of the Crock Pot: A Year of Slow Cooking

- Weed. No, not that kind of weed, that just makes you want to eat White Castle. I'm talking about throwing away any crazy gadgets, hoo-has and bangdimlers that have accumulated in your kitchen. At least put them into a box and shove it in the back of your closet. If you don't have to hunt for every G-D thing, you will be less stressed in the kitchen. Same goes for your fridge. Clean it out regularly, like every week before you go food shopping with your list.

- Work Clean. I totally used to just throw everything in the sink as I went when I was cooking. The only problem is that then, after dinner, you have to face the mound of dishes after dinner. That's drudgery. You should be drinking wine or cuddling up to some NCIS after dinner. (I miss you Mark Harmon.)

- Block out a 1 hour, weekend kitchen session. This may sound counterintuitive. You want to get out of the kitchen and I keep drawing you back in, Michael Corleone-style. But the truth is, if you work during the week, finding a couple of hours on the weekend to pre-cook some meals and chop some veggies can make weekday meals as simple as heating something up, or throwing some stuff in a stir-fry. The best part of that system is that instead of cooking when you are beat after a day at work and just want to eat, you can cook when you are fresh and sated, meaning that you might actually find that you enjoy cooking more.

Some things you can do during this block of time?
  • Wash all of your vegetables and herbs for the week.
  • Cut up any veggies like onions, celery, peppers. Store in Ziplock bags or Tupperware. Imagine how easy those stir-fries will be if all the veggies are pre-cut? (The store will do this for you too, but at what price?)
  • Cook up batches of rice, couscous, barley, quinoa or whatever kind of grain. It all keeps pretty well and reheats pretty well (you might want to add a sprinkle of water)
  • Cook meals to freeze, say a lasagna. Freeze it in individual servings in ziplocks.
  • Cook a chicken or slow cook a big hunk of pork that you can adapt into a variety of meals all week long.
Finally, remember that sometimes it's actually less about saving time and more about feeling less harried and stressed. I used to feel really stressed about cooking dinner because I was always ravenous when I got home from work. So, I started having a sort of first course, usually something like hummus, when I got home and then starting in on dinne

A teacher I used to work with, every time you said you had to do something like, say, you had to go and feed your cat would smile wide and say, "No! You get to go feed your cat!" (I know that sounds annoying, but it really wasn't because this guy was so great and was usually wearing an Hawaiian shirt or a Math AP conference t-shirt with Star Wars/Math puns, so how could you be annoyed by anything he said?) But, there's something to that "get to" stuff with cooking. Even if you hate cooking right now, find a way to enjoy it - at least a little. Maybe cook with a glass of wine (which always makes me feel vaguely Italian) or to blast you favorite music (I like Louis Prima for cooking and if you've seen Big Night you know why).

Friday, August 14

Week 2 - Money and Time

Some tips on saving money from Sustainable Table

Here's a great link to Sustainable Table's Guide to Good Food: Money
. A lot of their tips are things we will cover (in smaller bites) in the weeks to come, but if you want a head start, this is a great place to see how to free up some funds for food. In fact, they had so many ideas, they did a second installment, Money 2.

Thursday, August 6

Week 2 - Money and Time

So, the two things that keep me from eating the way I want: Money and Time. Real food can be expensive. Who has time to cook three square meals? (Actually, I have recently been under-employed, freeing up some time, but let's face it, I'm extraordinarily lazy so this is still an issue.)

It's a big goal of mine with this blog to talk about being realistic and frugal, not out of some quaint exercise, but because we are truly on a budget over here (see above comment re: underemployment).

So this week, right up front, we' re going to take a look at how you can make a little more room in your food budget and a schedules.

First of all, the meal planning and shopping listing that you worked on last week will help a lot, both in saving money and time. So keep it up!

Week 1 - Planning Goals

Okay, so you may be wondering what planning has to do with eating better. After all, you could plan to eat nothing but Twinkies and Diet Coke for a week. (Good luck with that.)

So, here's what I see as the big goals for planning your meals:

1 - No more impulse buys. By planning you can shop with a list. If you control what you buy, you control what you spend. You'll save money.

2 - You can stop throwing away money by letting food get soupy in the fridge. You'll save money.

3 - You'll eat out less. I love eating out, believe me. But I have realized that I would rather eat out with friends, as a treat, or for a special occasion. There have been times when I've been tired and couldn't stand the thought of going to a store, wandering the aisles hungry, trying to figure out what to eat, and then, hours later cooking it. Then I would pick up take-out, not as a treat, but as an act of despair. If you meal plan, when you get home at the end of a hard day, you will know exactly what you're supposed to be eating that night and have everything on hand to make it. You'll save money (and feel less frazzled).

4 - So, I'm not going to pretend that every change I suggest on that blog is going to be cheap. Some really quality foods that are healthier, better for the environment, and tastier, are also more expensive. By figuring out how to keep from wasting food or impulse buying, you will learn how to save money. By saving money you will be able to spend a little more on quality ingredients in the future.

Tuesday, August 4

Week 1 - Planning and the Single Girl (or Boy)

Last year I got a flashback taste of single life when my husband moved to South Carolina for a job and I stayed behind in Seattle. For a year, it was just me and George, our super-sized cat. For about the first month I cooked like I had been cooking for my husband and his slightly peeving teenage metabolism and me. Result: lots of mushy stuff for the yard waste.

Meal planning and home-cooking - this is the stuff of Family Circle, not Glamour or Maxim. It's sort of assumed in our culture that you start homemaking when you are married. Until then, what? You happily exist on martinis and Peter Luger's steak for two - or worse, Yoplait and Lean Cuisine?

The truth is, planning meals is even more important when you are planning around your busy single life. Unless you have a dog, you are the only one who can save your leftover pasta salad from getting the fuzzies.

I know that sometimes even cooking a 30 minute meal for yourself seems like an outrageous amount of effort when you can just pick up a Harry's Burrito on the way home (my go-to fast food when I was living in Manhattan). Maybe some of you agree with me when I say cooking for someone, nourishing them is a true act of love. So why wouldn't you do that for yourself? You deserve it. It can also save you a ton of money to spend on martinis and skinny jeans.

Some tips for planning single:

1 - Halve the recipe. This will generally leave you with 2-3 portions. Plan to have the leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day. While takeout can often look grim the second day, home-cooked food usually mellows and mingles and is better the next day.

Here's a helpful online converter so that you can halve successfully: Recipe Quantity Calculator

2 - Double (and triple duty). Sitting down alone to a whole roast chicken may seem over the top. But if you were to cook a small 5 lb. bird on Sunday you could have chicken soup for lunch on Monday, soft chicken tacos for dinner, chicken salad for lunch on Tuesday, etc., etc. Rather than always cooking tiny portions, think about finding things that you can cook once and turn into several different meals.

3 - Freeze! When I was living alone last year I would sometimes buy family packs of chicken breasts. Then I would bring them home and put them in little, individual sandwich bags and freeze them. If you have the room, this is a great way to take advantage of bulk-pricing and keep your meats from getting sludgy.

Here's a link to help you figure out how long you can freeze stuff: Freezer Chart

4 - Potlucks. Have more weekday potlucks, which are a great, casual way to entertain without entertaining. If you have friends who are neighbors or live close by you could have a standing date - or you and your friends might decide that potlucks end up being a nice, social salve for the recession.