On Spending Less By Eating More

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On our way home from dinner the other night, I was having a conversation with a friend about his cooking habits (or lack thereof). Not a great topic, I know, and none of my business. But occasionally, when a glass or two of wine and I get on my soapbox, I have the tendency to harass innocent bystanders in my life about how much getting just the basics of cooking supplies in your home – and putting them to use – can transform your life. Yes, I know that this is a terrible and pretentious habit, and that none of my fully-adult friends need me telling them what to do with their lives. But he has recently moved into an apartment with the most beautiful kitchen I have ever seen for someone in our age group, and I am overwhelmed with petty jealousy.

Anyway, my argument was that everyone’s lives (and finances) would improve considerably if they made the effort to learn a few basic recipes, and challenged themselves to cook at least a few times a week. Nothing complicated, we’re talking about simple soups you can freeze, pasta with easy sauces, salads with whatever you have around, and one-pan roasts that can basically be put in the oven and left to do their thing. Of course, in his case, his life (and finances) are perfectly fine, and I was just upset at the idea that someone could not want to cook at all, ever. “I don’t have time,” he said, and to be fair, he does work a lot. He works 70+ hours a week, easily, and the last thing he wants when he gets home from the office is to have a recipe that feels like more work ahead of him. I get that, and I know that not everyone can or should find the act of cooking therapeutic, instead of a hassle. But for many of us – I would argue the majority – only good things stand to happen when we start cooking.

One of Marc’s Christmas gifts to me was a beautiful hardcover copy of My Life In France by Julia Child. I spent a good part of the afternoon in the corner of the living room; devouring the book so quickly I had to remember to pace myself. It’s just so good, and feels like you are there with her, wandering the streets of Paris, nervously taking your first cooking classes, and spending hours in the big, coal-stove kitchen, trying new recipes you’d assumed could only exist in restaurants. Reading her, my whole body ached and itched to be back in my own (recently neglected) kitchen, making and eating and photographing (with my fancy new food photography lens and tripod, woo hoo!). I miss every aspect of it – the therapy, the mindless physical activity, the thrill of opening an oven door and finding out just how perfectly you timed everything. While eating at Marc’s family’s farm is the highest privilege – his grandmother’s roast chicken with jus and fresh-cut french fries will make you believe in God – I can’t help but look forward to picking back up my own humble culinary life.

The current wisdom, it seems, is that a lot of our current problems of excess – obesity, overspending, poor nutrition – stem from our cultural shift towards eating out, instead of making things at home. Even within my own personal lifespan, I can see the shift. As a kid, my mother cooked approximately 80 percent of our meals, and a restaurant or takeout was a relatively rare pleasure. It was a treat, something we got to look forward to if we’d been well-behaved and our rooms were clean. But today, aside from my two or three dedicated friends who take great pleasure in cooking as often as possible, I would say that the majority of my peers are more used to eating out, or ordering in. Some of this was surely learned at home, but a lot of it is societal. We work longer hours, we sleep less, we are stressed and tired and want people to take care of the tedious aspects of life for us. It’s understandable, even if it’s culturally sad.

And I can say from experience that, in my own life, frequent eating out leads to an overall decrease in quality of life. You eat much richer foods, filled with salt and butter and (often) preservatives, with ingredient lists and calorie counts that you’re never sure of. You spend 20 dollars on a takeout or Seamless meal that would cost all of six dollars to prepare at home, and end up feeling dissatisfied and upset with yourself for taking the easy way out. And while sometimes going to a restaurant or getting delivery can be a fun treat, or a solution in a pinch, when made into the norm, it blends into a grey kind of reality. It’s no longer exciting, it’s just what you do, and the options online and in your neighborhood begin to seem narrower and more boring, filled with things you’ve ordered a thousand times already.

I want to set challenges for myself this year — not for all of 2015 in some overarching “resolution” that I’m going to drop within a few weeks, but in manageable little pieces that I can check off when I’ve completed, and document along the way. I want to set budgets and goals: 50 dollars, 5 filling, interesting, home-cooked meals with plenty of leftovers. Recipe books to work through, new things to try, finding the thrifty way to make something that tastes and feels expensive and rich. I want to make boeuf bourguignon, endive salads, cold sesame noodles, fruit tarts with whatever is in season, and a quiche that doesn’t fall apart when being sliced out of the dish. I want to try all of the things I’ve been putting off, and test in practice what I already know: the more you make from scratch, the less expensive it is. Buying pre-made dough is two or three times the price of some flour and butter and salt. The tough, cheap cuts of meat that may take some time to stew with wine and broth and vegetables become something extraordinary after several long, low hours. Figuring something out from whatever is leftover in your refrigerator becomes its own activity, its own experience, when you choose it over ordering in. I want to continue to cleanse my life, to purify and simplify and take things down to their most essential ingredients (sometimes literally). I can’t wait to get home and get started.

Some people will never love to cook, and that’s just that. But there is something (hopefully) everyone can appreciate and enjoy about the pursuit of spending less money, or spending it better. Even if you are not in any dire need to save, shaving 20-30 bucks a week off your food costs by mastering some simple recipes, and resolving to treat prepared food as a treat, can quickly add up to a vacation, or a designer purse, or something you’ve been putting off paying for. And as an added bonus, when you are able to control and understand the ingredients going into your food, you automatically eat better without even thinking about it. (Yes, really.) The more meals you prepare yourself (whether to be eaten right away, or stored for the week to come), the more in touch you are with your own body, and your own nutrition. When you cook, you are given the “something to do” that we are often vaguely searching for, and eating becomes an activity in and of itself, an hour or so (or less if you like) to be dedicated to something specific, and manual, and immediately gratifying.

2015 will be the year of cooking more than I’ve ever cooked before, and going from “good, but limited to a rolodex of go-to recipes that don’t scare me, and prone to kitchen panicking when something doesn’t go right” to “really damn good.” I want to commit to spending drastically less money, and becoming markedly healthier, just by making my eating deliberate and conscious, and homemade. I want to challenge myself in small and large ways, and set fun, concrete parameters that I have to work within to force myself to make better decisions. And then, hopefully, it will become such second nature that I will go back to the homeostasis of my childhood – eating out as a rare treat, with a rich home life that orbits, throughout the year, around my kitchen.

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