As much as I love cooking (which is nearly as much as I love eating), I’m made very aware that it is not everyone’s favorite thing. For many, it is more like a chore than a relaxing hobby, and some people don’t really do it at all. While I will never think food should be something you should stress about (it is supposed to bring you fuel and joy, and you definitely won’t feel energized or happy if you’re stressed af about cooking dinner), I still recognize that it is so important to do a great deal of your cooking and eating at home (for both health and financial reasons).
So, I’m just here trying to make it feel a little easier for the people who hate it so much that they’d prefer to order Chinese food for the zillionth night in a row. Here are five small tips that will make eating at home just a little bit easier for you.
1. Have a “trash” bowl while cooking.
This is such a small, simple tip, but it makes a huge difference in my willingness to prep and cook a full meal. Walking across my (albeit small-as-hell) kitchen to throw onion peel or vegetable scraps into the trash while I’m cooking feels tedious, and makes the process either take longer (because of all the time I take in between steps to scrape my cutting board into the trash) or messier (because I forego the trash trip altogether and just make a mess on my countertops). A game-changing meal-prep tip for me has been putting a big bowl in front of me right before I start cooking where I can just throw all of the scraps — peels and ends of veggies, fat trimmed off of meat, any wrapping or packaging or stickers from food I’m using — and then just bring it all over to the trash can at the end and dump it in. (I suppose if your trash can is less clunky and more mobile, you can also just drag it over to where you’re cooking — my puppy would find a way to get inside it if I did, so I stick to my trash bowl method.)
2. Plan meals, but don’t stick to strict days.
My biggest meal planning problem has always been that regardless of how much effort I put into prepping and planning for a week of yummy home-cooked meals, I’ll still find a way to come home on a Tuesday, look at the meal I wrote on my calendar for that day, and think “ew…I so don’t want spaghetti tonight.” Your mood and cravings are bound to change day-to-day, so if you want to be a good meal planner but still remain flexible to adjust to your “taste” on any given day, plan by the week — not by the day. Instead of writing what I’m cooking Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. I just write down the 4-to-5 meals I am planning to cook for the week so I’ll make sure to have the ingredients on hand and the idea in my head that they’ll be cooked at some point, then leave it up to fate to decide which one I’ll make each day.
I’ve found that personally, it is so much easier to commit to the time and effort it will take to prepare food if I know I’m going to get a full, sit-down meal (with leftovers!) out of it. But when it comes to snacks, I err on the side of “easy, prepackaged, and most likely unhealthy” because my ass doesn’t want to put any prep time into something that is just a little snack. To keep myself from reaching for chips and salsa every time I’m feeling a little peckish (although not always, because chips and salsa is my ride or die snack), I’ve started to do snack-prepping the same way people meal-prep. I’ll slice up a bunch of bell peppers or cucumbers and put them into a small Tupperware container with a little balsamic drizzled on top, or portion out carrot sticks with a few globs of different dips in another. This keeps me from going HAM on the chip bag when I get the 3 PM munchies, which is a huge weak spot for me, food-wise.
When it comes to more fun, dessert-y snacks, I do something similar to keep me from making Drew bring me out for ice cream every time I get a craving for something sweet. This tip was taken right from my beloved Nana: make full batches of your favorite cookies (mine tend to be chocolate chip, oatmeal, or toffee bars, for which I have the most insane recipe ever) and keep them frozen. My Nana always kept hers in big freezer bags, but I have mine portioned out into smaller bags with 5-10 cookies in each, so when I’m having friends over or we’re just craving a treat, I take them out, let them thaw for an hour (or warm them up…omg melted chocolate), and dessert is served, without me taking a trip to the drive-thru for a McFlurry.
4. If nothing else, invest in flavor.
Even if you’re budgeting so strictly that you’re buying one single bulk package of chicken breast and eating one every night for a week with some sort of randomly selected veg on the side (no judgement, because this is genuinely what Drew and I do during tight-budget moments), you can make your meals amazing by simply seasoning them properly. Maybe your budget is tight, or maybe you don’t have a lot of time to get gourmet about your meal-prep — that is totally okay. But if you’re not seasoning your food well, God help you. Simply adding a heck-ton of garlic and some mixed dried herbs to your chicken will take it from “rubbery bird meat” to “flavorful home-cooked meal” in literal seconds.
5. Clean a little as you go.
The thing that kills my motivation to cook even more so than the idea of prepping and cooking the food itself is the prospect of cleaning it afterward. The anticipation of the cleaning process is enough to prompt me to order takeout (or just blatantly skip a meal). This fear of cleaning is especially bad if the meal-prep is one that is going to leave a lot of dishes and a huge mess to clean up. While I’ve personally remedied this by establishing a “Mary cooks, Drew cleans up” rule (which is possibly my favorite thing about my relationship), I’ve also found that on my nights alone, cleaning up a little bit as I go along in the cooking process helps make the mess at the end much less overwhelming (and sometimes nonexistent). Something as simple as quickly rinsing and scrubbing the cutting board right after you use it, wiping down whatever juices got on the countertop right after they’re spilled, and putting jars/packages of things back into the fridge or cabinet right when you’re finished with them instead of waiting until the end makes a world of difference — then all you have to do when you’re done cooking is sit back and enjoy your delicious home-cooked meal.
Mary writes every day for TFD, and tweets every day for her own personal fulfillment. Talk to her about money and life at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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