Simplifying and Appreciating Food Prep

What is one thing that only you can do? This question often makes me think on a grand scale, as if I’m searching for my hidden super power. But this week, coming across this question in a student’s paper, I was challenged to see the question differently. In day-to-day life, what are the things that, if I don’t do them, they won’t get done? The answer came to me loud and clear: serving up healthy meals.

That answer surprised me. As a freelance writer, I tend to think my value depends on how much I have written in a day. And it is true that there are projects people are depending on me to complete. But that kind of deadline can often be negotiated. Dinner, on the other hand, cannot simply be rescheduled for another day.

My husband and I have divided up housework so that he does laundry and lots of cleaning and I do the cooking. And if I don’t plan something healthy, the convenience and tastiness of pizza is just too strong for either of us to resist. If I don’t make something healthy, we might eat junk.

I can prevent this by making meal prep easier. Here are a few things I’ve tried.

  1. My favorite strategy, when time allows, is to prep the meals on a Sunday afternoon. Then, throughout the week, I can just pull out the pre-chopped veggies and any other ingredients, and it almost feels like somebody else has done my cooking for me!
  2. Easy recipes! Of course! Be sure to add Elizabeth Weaver’s Creamy Asparagus Baked Potatoes recipe to your list! And here are two flavorful recipes that come together quickly. These four recipes from our friends at Wolff’s Apple House are also some of my favorites.
  3. I often love to have the staples on hand and then go to a small local shop like the Weaver’s Orchard farm market to get the fresh ingredients. Here are a few meals I’ve made that way:
    • Pasta + onions + spinach or kale + sun-dried tomatoes + feta cheese
      • For a meal for two, I sautéed half an onion in some olive oil over medium heat until the onions were soft, then added two handfuls of washed spinach or kale and cooked them until they were wilted. Then I snipped sun-dried tomatoes and stirred until they were warm. Then I served all of this over cooked pasta and sprinkled feta on top. I may have also sprinkled a pinch of crushed red pepper and roasted almonds on top.
    • Burritos: Beans + roasted peppers + caramelized onions + salsa + avocado + cheese + tortilla
    • Skillet dish: Potatoes + onions + greens + sun-dried tomatoes + cheese
      • Bake the potatoes (about 1 per person), then chop them up and add them to a skillet along with the onions (about 1/4 onion per person). I like to let the potatoes get really crispy, then I add a few handfuls of washed greens, such as spinach or kale. Then I stir in the sun-dried tomatoes until warm. Then I add whatever cheese I happen to have on hand–feta, grated cheddar, fresh mozzarella, queso fresco… it’s all worked well! To serve: dish it up and have salt, pepper and ketchup handy.

 

Here are some inspiring ideas other people have mentioned and that I want to try soon.

  1. If the meal can be frozen, double the recipe and put half in the freezer for later.
  2. Keep a list of the food you always like to have on hand, including fruits and veggies. (My mom does this, and I also saw it recommended here.) You can keep this list on your phone or on an index card in your purse. Why reinvent the wheel every time you make a shopping list? If you know you always want to have apples, onions, and potatoes in the house, add them to the list!
  3. Know your favorite recipes. Keep a list. I have a Google Sheet with different tabs for our tried-and-true favorites, recipes that are best for company, and recipes I want to try.
  4. Wash and prep your veggies as soon as you get home from the market. That way, you can do the work while you’re still basking in the glow of excitement you feel after finding fun local produce. (This idea comes from Tamar Adler’s enchanting book An Everlasting Meal.)
  5. Develop a repertoire of recipes that can easily be made ahead. Here’s a treasure trove of healthy recipes for meals that can be made ahead, all from the Jessica in the Kitchen blog.

I found out recently that easy meal prep has always been part of what Americans hunger for. When Europeans moved to North America, they quickly abandoned the practice of weighing ingredients and started using cups and spoons instead–which is why even today it can take some work to translate British recipes into American units since the British recipes go by weight. Visitors to America in the late 18th century even noted the American tendency to gobble food and get back to work. The British traveler Henry Wansey, for instance, remarked after a meal at a Boston tavern that “Americans know the value of time too well to waste it at the table.”

The idea of “wasting” time at the table saddened me. Do we know the value of time? Is it possible to rethink meal prep and meals themselves? How could we make meal prep (which is, after all, preparing the stuff of life!) more interesting? For me, it often involves cooking while listening to music or an audio book, overhearing the happy voices of neighborhood kids playing outside, having a good conversation with my husband or paying attention to the sensory experience of cooking.

It’s worth valuing the time spent in the kitchen. And it’s worth considering: What are the things that others are doing for you that only they can do? How can you express gratitude for the value this brings to your life?

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