Overthinking meals takes all the fun out of food. Trying to cook in a drab kitchen takes all the fun out of it. A messy kitchen is frightening and anything but fun. Buying in bulk takes the fun out of it. Trying to buy enough for two weeks (I live a long way from the store) is not fun. Buying produce picked from a vine six weeks ago in a foreign country that is basically tasteless is not anyone’s idea of fun. Extreme carb consideration is SO boring and un-fun. And not buying any “fun” food takes – you guessed it – the fun out of food.
One at a time, beginning with overthinking it. “We can’t have spaghetti because: too many carbs; don’t have parmesan; out of basil, need Italian sausage to go with the beef, have to have salad with it, and only have two leaves of romaine left and no dressing . . .” Forget about carbs and think more about not eating like a horse. There is absolutely no law that says you must have parmesan (except the one in your kids’ heads). No basil is a thing, but you can use other herbs – do some research. If you must, turn this idea into a kid-friendly dish, which usually means fewer herbs. You can turn any ground meat into an Italian sausage of sorts with the addition of Italian herbs, or just use whatever sausage you have on hand and see what happens! As for salad, it’s nice, but the main thing is a happy atmosphere, and spaghetti of any kind lends itself nicely thereto. Or, take those two romaine leaves and add whatever you have – a few grapes, radishes, the last carrot, a bit of cauliflower, fresh herbs, scallions, and just have a salad small in size but large in taste. The easy and delicious dressing for this salad is simply olive oil and either vinegar or lemon juice, with a bit of sea salt, pepper, and a touch of honey. It’s all fun!
The Drab Kitchen. I have noticed that the more sophisticated, granite-laden, ultra-modern and clean a kitchen is, the less the cooking going on. The more brown, beige, and blah, the more drab and dull, the more the cook stays away. Paint that baby! Go garage and estate sale-ing, antique store browsing, and best of all, go looking into your own closets and cupboards and see what’s right under your nose to brighten things up. You can get 10 daffodil stems for less than $1.50 at Trader Joe’s right now. Instant bright cheer!
The Messy Kitchen. I have entirely changed my mind about tackling a messy kitchen. Rather, I look at it as one of the best time investments ever. That is, there is a huge return on satisfaction for not that much time and effort. And one of the ways I’ve changed my attitude is by doing lots of dishes by hand. Get an organic dish soap (or not, as you like) which smells lovely, and splash away! Fill the sink up nice and hot with plenty of soap and stack as many dishes as possible to be soaking as you’re doing other things – clearing the counters, washing the stove top, perhaps putting those daffodils right under your nose, or on the breakfast table.
Once I get going (and my fingers do fly when I do dishes by hand), I pause long enough to put something in the crock pot and something in the clay pot. I got my clay pot at an estate sale and it’s one of my favorite cooking utensils. Everything I’ve ever cooked in it has been wonderful (do some research on this if this intrigues you). If the kitchen is especially messy, with lots of dirty dishes (I use the dishwasher as well in such times) I let out the dirty water and run nice, clean, hot and sudsy water so I can soak and clean as I cook. I could go on about cooking in one afternoon enough for an army for a week, when it looked like there wasn’t that much to work with, but let’s stay with formulating fun.
Buying in Bulk. Buying in bulk is only fun, and only works if: it’s groceries that don’t go bad; if you don’t eat much more than normal because, again, it may go bad, or simply because it’s there; you really are getting a great deal buying things you would buy and use regardless. If it’s fun for you go have enough Pace Picante Sauce to feed your teenage boys for the next six months (that actually sounds wonderful to me) and the bulk prices were worth finding the storage for the Pace, then by all means, buy in bulk. I’m just saying, believe it or not, grocery shopping can be fun, and buying in bulk is usually not.
Shopping so you don’t have to go back to the store for two weeks is also not my favorite fun thing, and not really cost-effective. It’s better to buy only two or three organic on-sale red bell peppers, and just run out and do without for the second week, than to try to buy enough for any and all eventualities, ignoring that certainty that they’re not likely to last two full weeks. A stuffed-to-the-gills fridge, with crispers crammed to the max is a recipe for stress – there’s the rush to cook things and the regret over wasting and the inability to even see what’s available.
It’s much more fun to have a few truly delicious, in-season and hopefully even locally grown items in the fridge, just waiting to be creatively combined into something wonderful.
The Low-Carb Drag. If your something wonderful happens to also be low-carb, so much the better. But always focusing on carbs can really be a drag. Better to focus on simply cooking something nutritious and delicious, and perhaps, if needed, to cut back on carbs, rather than totally trying to eliminate them.
For example, for breakfast have omelets and sliced tomatoes, or a protein shake some days, and on other days make pumpkin/walnut pancakes, sausages, scrambled eggs with cream cheese and a nice pot or two of tea. Then let that be the end of the bread and sugar for the day.
No Fun Foods, No Fun. And then for not ever buying fun foods – bad idea for me. I’ll just end up eating out because I’m bored to death. Fun foods include spices, especially those we grind at home. There is such a lovely difference in freshly ground nutmeg and black pepper, both in taste and in health, from the pre-ground versions. Having some good seasonings, such as a dried veggie soup mix (no MSG or MSG equivalents needed for great soup), or a taco blend, or simply buying everything in the blend plus some variations of chili powders makes it fun to put together a deliciously seasoned meal.
For me fun foods include raiding not only the bulk spices, teas, and seasonings, but also the bulk foods. It’s so much fun to have three colors of lentils, wild rice, black eye peas, chick peas (don’t buy someone else’s hummus!) Anasazi, black, pinto and navy beans, split peas, giant golden raisins, dried apricots, pecans (apricot/pecan scones and a tea party, anyone?), macadamias (white chocolate macadamia cookies, perhaps, to go with the mango black tea I found in the bulk teas?). Cooking with homemade vanilla (beans found in the bulk spice section) is more than fun, it’s fabulous.
I want to make homemade mustards, too, because I have never met a mustard I didn’t like. But until then, having a variety of mustards on hand is a cheap and real thrill. Fun food, already done. Trader Joe’s is my favorite place for these kinds of foods. Mocha Joe Joe’s, Almond Windmill Cookies, Truffle Pizza, SO good bacon ends and pieces, Virgil’s Root Beer, Rooibos and Honeybush Tea, and Cherry Cider are among our family favorite fun foods from Trader Joe’s, and here’s the thing: all of these are remarkably inexpensive. Fun atop fun!
This fun quest is not frivolity. My hope is that these ideas will spark more ideas for you, the goal being we make the most of the gift of cooking at home, where the real fun begins.