“I know you’re not an elitist,” my husband, Peter, said. “But do you ever worry that you come across that way to readers?” Peter’s question arose from a conversation he’d had with one of his dental patients. This working mother of young children said she read my columns every week and enjoyed them. But then she sighed and said, “I’d like to cook more. But when I get home at night, I’m just so tired. I should be more organized, I guess.” This woman liked my articles, but they were also making her feel guilty.
I realize that eating nutritious, real food involves more than just turning away from fast food (including processed and pre-prepared supermarket foods). It also requires more time, thought and planning for buying and preparation. I’d never thought of it as being elitist, but understood Peter’s point.
Providing people with access to affordable, healthy, sustainably-grown food is critical to moving America’s food system towards one that’s not dependent on industrial agriculture, inhumane and potentially disease-ridden factory farms and slaughterhouses, and that doesn’t revolve around the production of highly processed, nutritionally inadequate foodstuffs.
Equally important is that folks can find the time and have the ability to prepare affordable, nutritious, sustainably-grown food. That’s not always easy in today’s harried and hurried world. It’s a worthy goal, easy for me to write about because I believe it passionately. It was integral to my family’s identity and something Peter and I had in common when we first met. But I also remember coming home after working all day in Peter’s office, dead tired, half my mind still whirling over an office problem, the other half attempting to “be there” for the kids, with only enough energy for nuking something in the microwave or ordering out for pizza.
My parents had it easy. Mom worked part time at the phone company (back when there was just one) when I was younger, then full time when I was in high school, but she never had to cook when she got home. My grandparents lived next door. Nana always had dinner on the table minutes after my parents got home. I had a babysitter only once in my life.
I worked part or full time during the early years of Peter’s practice, and my parents and grandparents took care of our children. In the beginning, we ate dinner there frequently, too, but as the kids got older and after-school activities increased, more often than not we were on our own for supper.
Yes, there were pizza nights. But my family’s organic farm provided us with wonderful ingredients, fresh in season and frozen or canned during cold weather. I’d learned good cooking skills from Nana and my mom, and had begun increasing my knowledge on my own. As important, I enjoyed cooking and so did Peter, so time in the kitchen was time shared. We drafted the kids to help, too, as soon as possible, who joked (accurately) that whenever I’d call upstairs, “Hey, guys, come help make supper” they didn’t need to ask what to do: they just started peeling garlic.
Not everyone likes to cook, but everyone eats. And there’s a generation of young adults who never learned from their parents to cook with fresh, unprocessed ingredients, often because the parents didn’t themselves learn.
Eating nutritious, home-cooked meals that require minimal preparation and cleanup during the week doesn’t have to be difficult, but it does take some planning and advance preparation. Slow cookers (aka Crock-Pots) have long been a wonderful mainstay for coming home at day’s end and having dinner ready, but they’re far from the only possibility.
Aside from slow cookers or prepping the night before, there are two basic ways to make meals ahead. The first is to make large batches of dishes that can be refrigerated or frozen for multiple repeat meals. That’s easiest of all: just reheat and add a salad or some carrot and celery sticks and possibly a loaf of good bread for a complete meal. Soups and stews are ideal for long-term freezing.
The second way is to make more of something than you’ll need for one meal, and then turn the leftovers into a completely different dish. Sometimes last-minute preparation is necessary, but it can often be minimal. Here are a few suggestions:
Roast or grilled chicken – One of the most popular cooking classes I taught was “One Chicken, Two People, Three Meals.” Just recently, someone told me it was the class he’d found most useful. But if your family is larger, it’s as easy to roast or grill two chickens as one. Leftovers can be used for two or more additional meals. Pull the meat from the bones and use the bones to make stock in the slow cooker. Although just the bones themselves will make good stock, it will be even better with some aromatics. Nothing fancy: carrots, celery, onions (even just the trimmings), a bay leaf and fresh or dried thyme. When making chicken stock for my family, I even use bones left from chicken we’ve eaten: the stock simmers for hours so it’s perfectly safe. The stock can be strained and then used with some of the meat to make soup during the week, or can be frozen. Additional chicken can be used for sandwiches, salads, in quesadillas or tacos and more.
Meatloaf – A mixture of many uses. Make enough for two or more, then shape and freeze extra loaves. Or, make it into meatballs, freeze in a single layer, then put them in resealable bags so you can take out as many as you need. Leftover baked meatloaf is good for things other than sandwiches, so consider baking more than one meal’s worth. Heat crumbled meatloaf with a good-quality tomato pasta sauce (check to make sure it doesn’t contain added sugar or high-fructose corn syrup) to make a quick meat sauce for pasta. Crumble meatloaf into a baking dish, add vegetables such as peas and/or carrots, moisten with a little stock or water, season with Worcestershire sauce, top with leftover mashed potatoes and bake for a shepherd’s pie.
Mashed potatoes – Leftovers can be turned into a variety of soups. Thin the mashed potatoes with milk to a soup consistency and heat gently without boiling. For simple potato soup, garnish with sliced scallions and parsley. Or, add other items: leftover or fresh vegetables such as broccoli, peppers, onions, asparagus, mushrooms, or diced ham or bacon. Transform it into cheese soup by adding grated cheese, 1/2 - 1 cup grated cheese per 2 cups of soup. Don’t use pre-grated cheese because it’s coated with something that keeps the shreds separate; it also prevents the cheese from incorporating into the liquid. Add the cheese gradually to the hot but not simmering soup before adding any vegetables or meat.
Turn ’em into soup – This is where having stock in your pantry or freezer comes in handy. Not everything can be turned into soup, but a little imagination can result in surprising and delicious concoctions. Cabbage rolls could similarly be turned into soup. How about thinly sliced leftover steak and smashed baked potatoes? Or leftover grilled vegetables such as onions, peppers, zucchini and eggplant combined with canned beans and canned tomatoes, both undrained and topped with grated Parmesan or Asiago cheese for a riff on minestrone?
Please, don’t feel guilty if you don’t have the time or ability to cook more – that’s never, ever been my purpose. But I do hope that some folks might start looking more closely at what they’re eating and where it comes from, and begin seeing new ways to make what they eat better for themselves and the environment, and more pleasurably delicious. Oh, and not least, to have fun in the process.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.