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.

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22 comments on “Too Busy to Cook

  1. shoreacres says:

    Two observations. First, suggestions that were good in the 1950s still are good today. In school nutrition and home ec classes, we were taught about “plan-overs.” It’s one of the practices mentioned above. Instead of just seeing what leftovers might be hanging around in the fridge, the cook plans to have something left over for two or three more meals.

    Related to plan-overs were tv dinners. No, not the ones from the store: our own. When Swanson’s introduced their tv dinners, everyone had to try the new, “modern” way of dining, so everyone had a few of those metal plates hanging around. Instead of buying more tv dinners, we spent a morning cooking and filling those trays with our own food: swiss steak, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, veggies, etc. Then, we froze them. On an evening when it was Just Too Much to cook, we still had homemade food with all the convenience of store-bought. (There’s a phrase that’s really loaded with time and place: “store-bought.”)

    My second observation is that, as so often happens, we’re back to that old business of knowledge and will. The good that I would, etc. Maybe we should provide a Cliff’s Notes version of “The Bondage of the Will” to everyone in the country. How that for early morning fantasy? 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      Planovers seems to me to be a great way to think about cooking in a busy life. In the rural parts of the world we probably plan to cook every day. Likewise in the urban but “old world” way of living, shopping for fresh food to cook that day was part of a homemaker’s every day life. But nowadays, whether a person lives either a rural or urban life, it makes good sense to plan to cook more than one meal at a time. We keep a magnetic dry-erase board on our fridge that shows what food is in there and when it “expires” (for us that is usually no more than one week from the date it is cooked). We eat supper together every night and most often the food is freshly-cooked. But we’re usually on our own for breakfast and lunch and the erase board is a good way to help us choose our meals. Looking at it now, for example, I see “Mac and Cheese 5/3, Squash casserole 5/4, Asparagus soup 5/4, Blackberry cobbler 5/4, Sauteed microgreens 5/5, Venison summer sausage 5/5.” Makes me hungry just typing that. 🙂 But the point is that when each of those were cooked we cooked more than we could eat it one sitting. The leftovers (“planovers”) become lunch food for us for the next week.

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  2. Farmgirl says:

    This is a really stellar piece of writing! Brilliant ideas. I grew up thinking the only way to have alfredo sauce was in the jar. I was surprised that my aunt made it. You can make cream of soups for casseroles and such without buying the can? I had no idea. And I am in my 40’s. Imagine what our children’s generation thinks! I think people eat out and buy packaged food because they don’t know they can do something different. It is an interesting and sad revelation. And Doug and I? We spend SO much on eating out during farmer’s market season. Too tired, you know. This year I will plan better. Great writing!

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    • Bill says:

      Farmers’ market day changes the rules for me too. I usually eat breakfast around 9. By then I’ve already been up and working around the farm for hours. I just don’t have an appetite when I first get up.

      On farmers’ market days we’re at the market by the time my morning hunger arrives (and I never think to pack a breakfast). So I end up buying biscuits and pastries from other vendors. I never eat a good breakfast on farmers market days. Maybe this year I’ll do better.

      Thanks for you kind words about the post. As for editing that kind of food out of our lives, it’s a journey.

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  3. Laurie@hinterlands.me says:

    Great post, Bill! I have a couple of suggestions for harried people who work outside the home. (Been there, done that!) First, get the whole family in on the act. Husbands, children, aunts, uncles. Whoever lives with you. They can chop, peel, set the table, and help with clean-up. The old saying, many hands make the task light, is still true. An added bonus: Children will learn to cook without even knowing they have been taught. (That’s how my girls learned. There were never formal cooking lessons. They just helped with meal prep.) Second, I highly recommend any of Mark Bittman’s cookbooks for tasty, nutritious meals that don’t take hours to put together. His bean burgers are a staple in our house, and if you use canned beans, it takes hardly any time before you have a batch of delicious burgers. Add a salad, and you have a pretty good meal.

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    • Bill says:

      Yes, excellent advice! The responsibility for preparing home-cooked meals (including not only the shopping but the clean up as well) should not fall entirely on one person in the family, especially if that person already has a full-time job, as is often the case.

      We had an intern from Saudi Arabia a couple of summers ago and she commented on how it seemed Americans don’t like to cook. She enjoyed preparing meals and in her culture the responsibility for preparing family meals didn’t fall entirely on one person. The process of preparing the meal was fun and a time for socializing, just as eating it was. She said it saddened her to see Americans missing out on not only the good food, but also the joys of preparing it.

      We’re fans of Mark Bittman’s writing and recipes as well. Probably one of the reasons people are afraid to cook is the belief that it takes a long time to prepare a homecooked meal. But as you say, that is usually not the case.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Laurie@hinterlands.me says:

        Yes! Cooking together is so much fun. A couple of weeks ago, Clif and I made fish tacos for our daughter’s birthday meal. We had a great time, and we even wished that we could celebrate her birthday the following weekend so we could make fish tacos again.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. avwalters says:

    Good advice. Also, everyone needs basic cooking skills. Even in homes where partners take on specific chores–there are issues of absence and illness that quickly demonstrate the imperative of multiple talents.

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    • Bill says:

      Absolutely. And even in households like ours, where the cooking responsibility falls mostly on one person, it is good to have flexibility. I can cook a pretty good meal and do on occasion. I almost always cook my own breakfast. If circumstances required it, I could take on that duty and we wouldn’t suffer much.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Joanna says:

    My husband could cook chips (fries 🙂 ) and eggs when he left home, his mother did all the cooking. Over the years though he has learnt to cook for himself, partly because there was no way that I would pre-make a whole load of meals for him when I went away. Now when I go away he makes a mince (ground meat) based meal with tomatoes and vegetables. On the first day he has potatoes, the next rice and the next pasta (well not always in that order, but you get the picture). I keep a range of herbs in the cupboard that can vary the taste of a basic meal and I can whistle up a meal in 20 minutes, either an omelette or a pasta based meal. The pasta meals either use frozen or jarred tomatoes that have been reduced to a thicker sauce (home-made using the slow cooker) or leafy/onion stir fry with maybe a sauce – in other words whatever I have to hand to throw in it. I also cook a milk based porridge for four days and then just re-heat in the microwave for breakfast – I do love my microwave 🙂

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    • Bill says:

      I wish I had learned more about cooking when I was younger. In my bachelor days I ate poorly (as the stereotypical bachelor does). I knew how to cook a few things and did on occasion, but not as often as I should have. I’m better now, but admittedly rely on Cherie for the vast majority of the cooking. But I try not to take that for granted. I always thank her for cooking our food and she usually thanks me for growing it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] his blog Practicing Resurrection, Bill recently wrote “Too Busy to Cook,” a good piece that included suggestions for harried households where people feel too exhausted to […]

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Cooking meals that last more than one day is the rule around here, rather than the exception. And many meals taste better the second and third day out. I am thinking stews and chile. Another thing we might do is cook a basic meat and then easily turn it into other meals. For example, my beer-can chicken turns into a healthy salad the next night and quesadillas the next. When Peggy leaves for a few days, I cook up a batch of hot African or Indian food that I love but she doesn’t, and feast for days. 🙂 –Curt

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  8. Sue says:

    Excellent post! (aren’t they all!!)
    I think most of the time, people just don’t know HOW to do this. It’s very simple, but I guess easier to just use the “I’m too busy” excuse. It takes longer to stop by a restaurant and grab something than it does to cook 90% of dinners I make. The problem I see is everyone is getting so darn “fru-fru” with their cooking. SIMPLE MEALS —a pot roast, a roast chicken, a soup—is SO EASY. It’s all that “fluff”, as hubby puts it–that takes so much time. Stop trying recipes with 15 ingredients ya gotta do all sorts of things with. Scrub some potatoes and carrots, chop an onion, throw it into a crockpot with a hunk of meat and a cup of broth. How hard is that??????????????????????

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    • Sue says:

      Oh dear—I sound cranky. Sorry!

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    • Bill says:

      Amen! Preach it. 🙂

      I’m in full agreement with you. To respond to the “I don’t have time to cook” argument Cherie once figured out the time necessary to get take out versus the time necessary to prepare a meal. Cooking took, on average, quite a bit less time.

      And simple meals are easy to prepare. While some foods may have complex lists of ingredients and long preparation time, that’s not the case for most basic foods, as you point out.

      At the risk of sounding judgmental, I think often people rationalize their bad food choices with excuses like “I’m too busy to cook” or “Cooking is too complicated,” when the reality is that they’re just being lazy. As I’ve studied and carefully thought about our food culture, I’ve come to believe that what we call “convenience” is by far the predominant reason for our choices.

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  9. I think you are so right about people not knowing how to cook. I was just talking to a woman today about how I can get four meals out of one chicken: roast chicken and vegetables, chicken tacos, chicken salad sandwiches, chicken soup plus leftover stock for future soups. Mind you that’s for the just the two of us and we try to make the meat in our meals less of a main event – unlike how I was raised where meat was what you ate the most of. Anyhow – her response was “wow, that sounds like a lot of work”! Then I had to explain that no, you were doing most of the work that first night and then the rest of the meals would come together so much quicker. Then I realized she didn’t really know how to cook so that all sounded a bit overwhelming to her.

    When I used to work at the law firm, I worked 60-80 hours a week, so I’d spend Sunday afternoon making a couple of pots of something I could morph into many different meals over the week – like a pot of black beans, a pot of rice and a pot of polenta (which I would pour into a loaf pan so I could slice it up later). None of those are hard to make and all of them are super inexpensive. Then during the week I would just add sliced avocado and some salsa to the rice and beans for one meal, pour beans over pan-fried polenta for another, make black bean burritos or quesadillas, pan fry the polenta and serve with butter and maple syrup for breakfast, make fried rice with whatever veg I had on hand and a scrambled egg, and my favorite – sautéed kale with garlic (or even use frozen spinach) to serve over the polenta or the rice and top it with a poached (or fried) egg.

    When we start doing workshops and classes on the farm I want to show people how to do just that – because it is pretty simple, pretty inexpensive and pretty tasty.

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    • Bill says:

      Education is vitally important. Farm classes are a great idea and becoming very popular. We have friends who have started offering demonstration classes and in one case they’re earning more revenue from those than from any other farm operation. Cherie helped get a grant to put in a demonstration kitchen at our local food bank for free classes there.

      As with so many things about the food movement, there is both a trend toward industrialization and dependency and a countervailing trend toward traditional agrarian values and practices and self-reliance. I’m encouraged that there are many people who are eager to learn how to cook and to recover those basic skills.

      As you say, eating well is simple, expensive and delicious. Culture wants us to believe the opposite. I hope you’re giving those classes and spreading the message soon!

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  10. EllaDee says:

    “I can’t really justify cooking for myself…” I can’t not. I’ve always been grateful that I can earn a living, and feed myself. I use many of the ideas and tips in your post and the comments regardless if my living circumstances were feeding only myself or others.
    Housing trends, particularly in city apartments, are to smaller kitchens and appliances. In the city I struggle for freezer space to fit leftovers. I’ve prepared for our move to the country by buying a fridge that has a decent size side-door freezer with drawers. That, like shoreacres experience, will house our takeaway meals!
    I made a stash of soups for the freezer on the weekend for my mother-in-law and her husband. She said “oh, I like soup” and proudly opened the cupboard to display 8 packets of cup-a-soup. In their 80’s, they think modern convenience “foods” are wonderful!

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    • Bill says:

      Food storage is another increasingly lost skill. Canning, drying, fermenting, etc. all seemed to become irrelevant with the advent of grocery stores and the outsourcing of food production. But I’m encouraged by the movement seeking to recover those skills and values.

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