As someone who lives alone and enjoys making food for myself almost every day, I thought I might talk about how that works
A few months ago, someone on twitter was asking – as someone new to trying to cook regularly, how do people enjoy that whole process. It seems very frustrating and stressful. What if you aren’t good yet and it’s terrible and then you’ve put all this energy in and are still hungry?
And that is stressful! And the advice I’m giving here is not aimed toward poverty and subsistence living. There is a lot of reassurance in knowing that if you end up making something absolutely inedible (yes, I’ve done it, too) that you can order last minute delivery or make a meal out of other food in your pantry.
After the covid lockdown, when I started going back to working in person, everything took more effort and energy. One of the habits I picked up then, which I’ve recommended to several people since, was ordering 4 or 5 soups (wanton, hot & sour, egg drop – the ones that are extremely cheap ($2-4/pint) from Chinese restaurants) on delivery at the start of the work week. And then when I came home too tired and hungry to plan dinner, I would have a soup and that would give me space to figure the rest out.
But there are also other ways to make the daily dinner making engine go.
Grocery shopping – Grocery shopping is stressful and has become more expensive and there are so many people. You can do delivery. But this tip isn’t about how you shop, but what you shop for. Because it’s stressful, it’s easy to fall into a pattern where you buy the exact same things every time and you have the exact same resources every week. I fully believe in keeping regular stocks of breads and grains and beans and sauces and the components that let you build a variety of meals. But for produce (and meat?) I recommend letting some things run out and letting some things be seasonal and trying one thing new. And let the change in produce drive variety and experimentation.
Freezer shopping – I have a chest freezer (again, these are not subsistence living tips). That’s why I put a question mark by the meats – Since lockdown, I mostly get meat delivered, and that makes it harder to build in experimentation. But I also make and freeze stocks, soup, shredded braised meat, and I have a collection of frozen items I inherited from my parents’ freezer when my mother died: vegetable soup, terrible chili, tomato puree, and marinara sauces. And I almost always have a meat pulled out to thaw (and have a bowl the meat will fit in just in case it leaks as it thaws). When I first use a meat: if it’s a pound of ground beef, I’ll use a quarter of it in that day’s dish and then either right away make hamburger patties of the other 3 quarters to freeze again or keep working through the pound, one quarter at a time; if it’s a steak, I’ll often cut it in half or thirds and slice the part I won’t use that day to freeze in bags for the future. So the cycle of having a meat thawed and available narrows down and targets the creativity from the vegetable choices.
And then I’ll also pull out one of those miscellaneous items: stock or soup or a thing from my mother’s freezer once every week or two. So that can also be either an easy dinner or a randomly generated challenge to do something different than usual. But it’s all supports that are planned ahead to make the process of choosing what to make more interesting.
Gifts for your future self: You can build in supports while you are already cooking and have the energy. If I make rice, I make double the amount, so in the next few days I can also have a rice dish, but I only have to wash the pot once. If I’ve got plenty of the base of whatever I’m cooking, I might pull out half a cup or so and just stick it in a container in the refrigerator. I won’t necessarily have a plan for it, but it will be a fun addition to a future dinner or a tasty side dish – maybe the sweet potato curry will get added to meat to make a hash as dinner, or maybe it will be a taco filling, or an omelet, or I’ll shred a quarter of a cabbage and add some canned tomatoes and have a whole additional meal with 2 fairly stable ingredients and spices. And you can make these gifts outside of your meal prep – if the mushrooms are going to go bad and you don’t feel like eating them tonight, but you have the energy to just cook them – then they will last longer and you have a gift for future you.
Leveling up – cascading meal prep: Here’s how I deal with making larger quantities of food – because sometime large cuts of meat or 5 pounds of potatoes are on sale, and I am still but one person. So first you cook the big quantity of food – and you look for something that will be fairly versatile and keep it mostly one thing. Roast the meat or braise/stew it. Then you eat a portion for your meal. Instead of freezing the leftovers whole, portion them into future meal sizes. If it’s a roast, maybe freeze some as slices, some as big chunks for soups or curries, and some diced for hash or other quick cooking meal. If it’s stew or braised and shredded, then freeze it in both pint and half pint containers. And then when you turn those leftovers into a meal, don’t forget to pull out some of that deliciousness to pop back in the refrigerator as a gift for future you!
[I’ve mentioned hash twice – for those who are unfamiliar, it’s a dish where any variety of meat and potatoes is cut into the same size dice and then they are cooked together (maybe with minimal vegetables) to make a hot filling, not super visually attractive, meal. (Example)]
So anyway – those are some tips. Have fun, good luck, and don’t despair.