Too Busy to Cook

A few days ago I blogged about the disturbing cultural trend toward relying on restaurants/corporations to prepare our food for us. We now spend more money in restaurants than in grocery stores, and a high percentage of the money we spend in grocery stores is on pre-cooked “ready to eat” food.

I suggested that one reason for this trend is that increasingly people simply don’t know how to cook. They weren’t taught to cook when they were growing up and never learned as adults.

Another reason of course is the busyness of modern society.  Preparing and cooking food takes time and many people don’t feel they have the time to spare.  While that is no doubt true for many, I’m skeptical that it accounts for much of the trend, particularly given the amount of time we spend watching TV or on social media.  But whether it’s overstated or not, certainly many people, especially if they’re cooking for one, have trouble finding the time to cook.

In our two-person household we divide up responsibilities in a way that leaves Cherie time to cook.  She has the skill-set, and I don’t, so it makes sense that she handle most of the cooking.  But I recall a time a couple of years ago when she was away from home for a week.  Without her here to set a fixed time for supper, I’d work until nearly dark then come in hungry and dead-tired.  Once the leftovers were gone I found myself starting to eat crackers for supper.  I realized that I was being a hypocrite.  Having repeatedly argued that we should prioritize the preparation of healthy meals, and not use being tired as an excuse, I was not making meal preparation a priority and I was blaming it on being too tired.  So I adjusted my schedule.  I started preparing meals during my lunch break.  I’d make large enough portions so that whatever I had for lunch on day 1 would also be supper on day 2.  That way I had homecooked meals but didn’t have to eat the same thing twice in a day.  It was a simple plan, but it worked for me and still allowed me to work till dark.

That’s the kind of thing folks might have to do these days in order to accomodate busy schedules and the necessity of homecooked nutritious meals.

That’s all a long lead-in to something I read recently on The Simple Dollar blog that I thought was relevant and possibly helpful to people struggling with this. The post is HERE and the relevant excerpts are here:

How do you stop eating fast foods or microwave foods? Their convenience just makes them a requirement in my life. Four days a week, I work sixteen hours with a two hour gap in the middle, and two other days I work eight hours. I cook some on the two shorter days and my day off but on those long days I just can’t make things click without hitting a fast food restaurant or stopping at home and eating a microwave burrito. There just isn’t time for anything else.
– Andrew

My solution for busy days like that over the last several years is to use a slow cooker. I just load it up with a simple recipe before I leave and when I get home a hot meal is just sitting there waiting for me. There are tons of slow cooker recipes out there. Here are a few of our favorites.

One strategy you might want to employ is to cook a double meal with each slow cooker batch. That way, you can eat one meal immediately, then put the other meal into storage and eat it as “leftovers” the next day, take it as a “lunch” to your next job, or even that evening when you’re done with your second job.

Another approach is to just make a whole lot of convenience foods for yourself on your day off. Make a giant batch of breakfast burritos, for example. I often make a batch of 32 of them at once, using just a spoonful of egg, cheese, and vegetables in a tortilla, folding the burrito up, then putting it in a freezer-safe bag and storing them in the freezer until I’m ready to eat. That way, I know that they’re both cheap and convenient while also being relatively good for me.

I followed the suggestion from your PDF and tracked all of my spending for the month of March to figure out where all of it was going. The one area that really shocked me was food spending where I spent $1,100 last month on food.

As a single person I often find it hard to justify making a big meal for myself at home and I also live in a neighborhood with a lot of restaurants within walking distance so I eat out all the time. Often I eat out for breakfast at about 7 AM and eat out for dinner when I get home.

I can’t really justify cooking for myself but eating out obviously adds up. Solutions? Suggestions?
– Henry

For you, I’d particularly encourage you to just try to cook some simple things. For one person, it’s not particularly hard to make a simple meal in one skillet and barely generate any dirty dishes at all. If your apartment has a dishwasher, a plate, a couple of bowls, a skillet and a few silverware items and spoons are only going to make up a fraction of a load and you’ll probably only need to run it once a week.

What kind of simple things? Try scrambling some eggs with a bit of salt, pepper, and shredded cheese. It is hard to mess up scrambled eggs and, over time, you’ll learn to make them exactly like you like them. Try making some oatmeal for breakfast – that’s another thing that’s hard to mess up.

For supper, make some simple soup in a slow cooker by adding ingredients before you leave, then assemble a sandwich to eat with it when you get home. Put the leftover soup in the fridge and have it two nights later.

Remember, the goal isn’t to eat every meal at home, but to eat many more than you currently do. If you feel like going out sometimes, do it. However, you should strive to feel good about making some of your own meals at home, too.

The Old House at White Flint Farm

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When I was a boy we called the old “home house” on our farm “the old house.” That name has stuck over the years and it is fitting I suppose.  The part that remains was built, we think, in the 1880s, being the final addition to an even older and larger house that is now gone.

It’s a simple house, but it has character.  And sentimental value of course.

We considered trying to renovate it and make it our residence, but we weren’t sure it could be saved and we didn’t want to risk sinking a lot of money into it and not ending up with a home we could live in.

The place needed a little work

The place needed a little work

So we built a new house on the farm, intending possibly to renovate the old house when we retired.  But one thing led to another and without planning to do it so soon we renovated the house and made it livable.

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Of course we didn’t need two houses on the farm and we struggled to figure out what to do with it.  Friends of ours lived in it for a couple of years.  We let a family that was between jobs and without a home live there a while.  Our interns live there two weeks during the summer.  We’ve loaned it out to our neomonastic friends in town for weekend planning retreats.  Missionaries have stayed there to decompress for a few days. A couple of years ago a band stayed there for a week to finish work writing the songs for their new album.  But most of the time it just sits there empty.

In our quest to find a good use for the place, this year we’re going to try something new.  It’s now available for “farm stays,” a form of agri-tourism, like a B&B without the breakfast.

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Whitney photos

Folks who stay will be able to enjoy the sights around the farm, go fishing and hiking, and generally escape the rat race for a while.

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It’s an experiment and we’ll see how it goes.

Our hope is that it will be a fun and relaxing getaway for folks who want to unwind in the country.

Whatever the result of this experiment, we’re glad the Old House will be around for a few more generations.

Grasshopper Weed Pizza

On Fridays we have “pizza night.”  That means that, most of the time, we have a pizza for supper that night.

Last night Cherie made a pizza using plantain, along with feta and mozzarella cheese.

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My half

Plantain grows wild here.  When I was growing up we called it “grasshopper weed,”  and the only thing I knew it to be useful for was making pistols in the summer. (That will only make sense to people who know this plant.  Maybe I’ll do a post this summer to explain.)

Leave it to my city-girl wife to teach me that grasshopper weed is food.  If you want to see a “before” picture, Cherie has one up on her blog (HERE).

Last week we had asparagus and wild onions on the pizza.  I wonder what an organic asparagus and wild onion pizza would cost at a restaurant?  It cost us very little.  I bought the asparagus crowns and planted them about ten years ago. I don’t remember what they cost, but it wasn’t much.  And they have been reliably producing asparagus every year since then.  By now they’ve paid for themselves hundreds of times over.  And the wild onions?  Nature provides them gratis.

We have kale, spinach and baby collards that we could have used on the pizza too.  Those seeds cost $1/ounce at our local feed store.  The seeds are tiny, so an ounce would probably plant an acre or more.  A tenth of an ounce would be far more than the amount necessary to provide a family’s needs for a year. Assuming they’re planted generously, that’s ten cents for a year’s supply of spinach, kale or collards.  Now if you’re thinking a dime is a steep price to pay for a year’s supply of fresh spinach, kale or collards, keep in mind that when they go to seed at the end of the season you can save the seed to plant next year.  So the ten cents actually buys a lifetime supply.  Not a bad deal.

And of course if you don’t have a dime to spare, there’s always plantain and wild onions.

Outsourcing Cooking

For the first time in history, in March Americans spent more money at restaurants and bars than at grocery stores.

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As the chart shows, we’ve been trending in this direction a long time.

Keep in mind that as a society we spend less of our income on food than any society in the history of the world (less than 10% on average for Americans). And now the amount we spend on food prepared and eaten at home is less than half of that historically-low amount. Because food eaten away from home is more expensive than food prepared and eaten at home, it would be possible for us to spend even less of our money on food if we quit eating out so much.  Yet the claim/myth that we can’t afford to eat healthy diets persists.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the declining state of our health corresponds to our increase in meals eaten away from home.  While it’s possible to eat meals of nutritious health-sustaining food at a restaurant, it’s much more difficult. It’s darn-near impossible when the meal is from a fast-food restaurant and is eaten in a car (as about 20% of our meals now are).

So why are we eating away from home so much? According to a food culture study by the Hartman Group, 52% of Americans don’t want to “spend time or energy even thinking about cooking.”

This new change has also led Americans to expect customized meals. Americans no longer feel that their meals are limited to ‘mom’s cooking’ or their own knowledge in the kitchen, nor do they feel the need for meal planning. In fact, 63% of people (and 78% of Millennials) typically decide what they want to eat within an hour of eating because they have adapted to this new ‘made to order’ lifestyle.

We’ve been shocked to discover that many people these days don’t know how to cook.  They’ve simply never learned to prepare food.  I’d wager that while many of the people who are driving the red line on that chart ever higher would say they eat away from home because it’s more “convenient,” for an increasing number of them a significant reason is simply that they’ve never learned to cook.  And of course the generation growing up in homes where little or no cooking is occurring will enter adulthood without that basic skill as well.

We all have to eat of course.  Just as we’ve become dependent on the industrial system to supply our food, now we’re increasingly becoming dependent upon it to cook it for us too. We’re essentially outsourcing our cooking. It is just one more way we’re embracing dependency.

As Wendell Berry put it in his 1989 essay “The Pleasures of Eating”:

The food industrialists have by now persuaded millions of consumers to prefer food that is already prepared. They will grow, deliver, and cook your food for you and (just like your mother) beg you to eat it. That they do not yet offer to insert it, prechewed, into our mouth is only because they have found no profitable way to do so. We may rest assured that they would be glad to find such a way. The ideal industrial food consumer would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach.

If we are to stop our cultural descent into poor health, we must find a way to convince people to spend their money on whole foods and to prepare and eat them at home.  For that to happen, our culture might first have to recover the ability to cook.

Busy Bees

About 18,000 new residents arrived on the farm Monday.

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They’re now buzzing happily in their new homes, busy building comb and tending to their queens.

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We’ve been busy too, getting ready for our Open House on Saturday.

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Every year I worry that no one is going to show up, and this year is no different. We’re keeping a nervous eye on the weather forecast. We’ve had great weather every year, but this year’s forecast is dicey. Hopefully we’ll have a dry afternoon.

Optimists

Every one of the great revolutionists, from Isaiah to Shelley, have been optimists. They have been indignant, not about the badness of existence, but about the slowness of men in realizing its goodness.

G.K. Chesterton