Friday, March 14, 2014

Bint Rhoda's Real Food Advice for Keeping Sanity in the Kitchen

After a generation or two of shortcut cooking, we have sadly lost the art of keeping a kitchen.  We have lost the rhythms of yesteryear, when food preparation was a central part of our lives.  Now, instead we have two approaches to food:  we have either overly complicated cooking (cooking as hobby, something gourmet and worthy of Instagram shots, something that we love to talk about and watch performed for us), or we have fast-food cooking, where we attempt to produce food in our kitchen with as little investment of energy and time as possible.

We know the problem of the second approach:  Little invested, little reaped.  Anyone who has survived for more than a day on junk food and processed food knows how quickly your health begins to fall apart.

But the other problem, the problem of approaching food as hobby, has just as devastating an effect on our cooking.  It is too overwhelming to produce gourmet food every day, let alone for three meals a day, and then for a family.  Never mind adding in snacks and drinks.  It is just too much, so we are stuck.

But there are ways to get yourself unstuck.  You just have to change your approach to food.  Here are a few practical pieces of advice for how to keep your sanity in a real food, traditional kitchen.  Many of these are the things that my mother taught me to do when I was growing up, and others come from my own experiments in the kitchen.

1.  When you cook, cook big.  Since the very beginning, I learned that if I cook enough for two days, I only have to cook half as much. That seemed like a really great deal to me.  Half the prep time, half the cook time, half the clean up time. Once I got into cooking more and more real food, I found that this wasn't just a time-saving technique, but really the only way that I could manage to keep up with all of my kitchen tasks. Aim to serve every meal to your family twice, if your family is small enough.   If boiling eggs, boil a dozen.  If making rice, make a huge pot, enough for leftovers and then some.  If cooking up beans, freeze extras for later.

2.  On days that your family is eating leftovers, use your kitchen time to prep other things.  On my "leftover" days, I use the extra time to work on other tasks, like replenishing my kombucha and kefir, restocking my yogurt, making labani or kefir cheese, baking bread or crackers, or making a special treat.

3.  Empty you fridge before you fill it.  This might seem like common sense, but it can be often overlooked.  Try to use up as much as you can before you refill your fridge (or pantry).  Yes, every family has a few items that we feel we must have at all times (butter! cheese! apples!) and it may be an emergency if you run out of these items, but try, as best as you can, to make sure that you have really used up all of your food before you do a full restock of your fridge.  This will prevent less waste all around - less cooking, less shopping, less food waste.  

4.  Make a master grocery list. Type it up and organize the ingredients in a way that makes sense to you.  I have a fresh produce section, a meat and dairy section, a dry goods section, and a place to write down my week's meals.   Print it off every week (or laminate it and reuse it), and use that to help keep your kitchen stocked.

5.  Repeat after me:  Real food doesn't have to be complicated.  Real food doesn't have to be gourmet.  Focus on the quality of the ingredients rather than how "foodie" it seems.   Think of your week ahead and set limits for yourself in the kitchen.  Find a few easy, nourishing recipes that everyone in your family likes and make them regularly.  

6. Choose dishes that stretch, instead of single portion foods.  Think casseroles, pots of soup, stews. Round out dishes by serving each of these main dishes with a veggie, a salad and/or some bread.  Not only does this stretch out your food, but I also like to think of this as hospitality food.  If you have a giant casserole in the oven, you can ask that friend to stay for dinner.

7. Roast a big hunk of meat a week.  Roasts have a high yield for minimum effort.  For example, one week, make a large pot roast.  Another week, roast a pork shoulder.  The third week, roast a couple of chickens.

8.  Consider centering your meals around one cuisine.  This is the secret of traditional cooks!  I know, I know, we live in a world where we can have exotic ingredients, condiments, and flavors from around the world, and we certainly do enjoy that.  The down-side of this is that you end up with half used ingredients, and far too many ingredients filling up your pantry.  I find that as I focused on developing a pantry centered around traditional ingredients for one cuisine, made sure my pantry was stocked with those ingredients, and developed simple recipes centered around those ingredients, planning, shopping and cooking became much simpler.

9.  Keep a couple of extremely easy, or extremely fast meals in mind, and keep the ingredients stocked.  For example, I can always make mujjadara, because I always have rice, lentils, and onions, and bone broth in my freezer.  For a fast meal, I always keep a few cans of canned wild salmon.  I can make salmon cakes in ten minutes (and my children are in training to learn how to make this on their own! A woman can dream, right?).

10.  Teach your family to eat (and be thankful for!) what is available rather than what they want.  If you are only buying local, and buying what is in season, this lesson is already evident (no, honey, there are no strawberries.  It is November).  It is so easy to develop a restaurant attitude in a home kitchen, there is so much to be gained by reorienting your and your family's relationship to food.  The gains: more efficient use of food and time, with translates for us, very practically into more time to play with my kids and enough money for quality ingredients.  But even more than these practical gains, this change in attitude changes our relationship with food.  This simple stand against a me-centered consumer attitude toward food (What do I want to eat?  What do I feel like having?) is gently broken when we look away from ourselves and instead look at what we have, what is in our pantry, what the ground has recently produced, and gratefully eat that which we have already been given.

And One More Really Important Piece of Advice . . . 

11.  At least once a week, take a break from the kitchen.  This might mean take-out or a picnic lunch, or a meal with a friend, or leftovers from the freezer.  Remember, cooking real food is real work.  One way that you can honor the real work of the kitchen is by stepping away from it on a regular basis.  I find that when I don't honor this, I run the risk of burnout.

What else do you do to keep your kitchen sane and happy?   


  1. This is great advice. Thank you!

  2. Again, great info. Would you be willing to post your shopping list template? I have done something similar in the past but we are on a restricted diet right now so it doesn't really apply. And I always love to see what other people eat to get new ideas.

    I've been doing the perpetual bone broth in my crockpot and using my rice cooker as our meal slow cooker (rice or lentils on the bottom and hunk of meat on top) and that's worked pretty well. I always use the same big cast iron pan for most of my stove top cooking. In fact, I keep it so well oiled that I rarely have to clean it afterward (except for fish nights.)

    I'm trying to teach the kids to help more in the kitchen by using the Accountable Kids chore program and that's *sorta* helping. I also periodically send the 3 oldest around with a spray bottle of eco-friendly cleaner and a rag to spot mop the kitchen for me. And we are ALL about teaching the kids to "eat what is set before you" (Luke 10:8.)

    I'm a phase person, so I'm never doing the same thing consistently (except breathe and that's involuntary), but I have found that God reveals new ideas just in time to keep me from going *too* crazy. Blessings on you and yours!

    1. Thanks, Melanie! It would probably be easier to describe my grocery list. At the top, I have a space to write down my meal plan. Underneath, I have these categories: produce, meat, dairy, and pantry staples.

      I love perpetual broth! I often (in fact, just yesterday), roast two chickens, pull the meat off the bones, and then use the bones to make perpetual broth. Then I make some kind of huge pot of chicken soup with the meat and broth and the freeze the leftover broth and chicken, if any is left.

      I'm like you - I go through phases, too. Our children go through "phrases," so I think we have to, too, to be flexible to meet their ever-developing needs! I like your spot mop idea. My oldest daughter would actually love to do that.

  3. Thank you for such great advice. I have been able to keep my sanity by finally accepting the fact that I am not a bad wife and mother if I do not cook gourmet meals every day. As long as I make balanced, nourishing meals, I feel that I am doing just fine. And once in a while, when I have the time, I will try a new recipe that is more complicated.
    My favorite way of using left overs this winter has been to cook a whole roast in bone broth and vegetables for the first night. After that I used the leftover meat, broth, and vegetables as a base for a soup, lentil stew or pasta sauce another night.

    1. That's a great idea, Janice. I firmly believe in cooking simply 90% of the time. If I do spend more time in the kitchen, it is to produce a massive amount of food to keep me out of the kitchen the next day. :-)

  4. I really love this post... very timely as I try to get back into a positive kitchen rhythm :). Thank you for writing and sharing.


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