“Cooking is not about convenience and it’s not about shortcuts. Our hunger for the twenty-minute gourmet meal, for one-pot ease and prewashed, precut ingredients has severed our lifeline to the satisfactions of cooking. Take your time. Take a long time. Move slowly and deliberately and with great attention.” – T. Keller
When I was growing up, eating out was considered a rare treat. As a family we probably never ate out more than once every two months. My parents come from a background where eating out was either not preferred or not possible. Despite the emphasis on home cooked food growing up, I did not see the importance of learning how to cook for a long time. Perhaps this was because I had mom during my school days, hostel food and the odd takeaway during my initial university years and mom again during the holiday breaks. When began renting my first apartment, I had to start thinking more about where my food was going to come from. What first came to mind were a number of take out, delivery and other ‘easy food’ options.
Stretching your budget and health
When thinking about cooking on my own for the first time, I created a mental argument that I could stick to cheap take out meals. The advantages that shaped my argument were saving money on food and having to spend minimal time cooking. This reasoning was flawed because it only held true if I ate a lot of the same substandard unhealthy food. ‘Healthy take outs’ or better prepared restaurant meals usually cost more. As Adam Sinicki from HealthGuidance mentions, these higher costs come from “paying for the service, for the location, for the effort cooking and then allowing the establishment to make a profit out of it all. If you cook for yourself you buy ingredients so the chain is much shorter, and at the same time you can get a lot of use out of these ingredients.” We might still be able to get away from the effects of eating unhealthy fast food for sometime (and save money). However, what happens if you persist with this habit into your late 20’s or 30’s and beyond? In my case I never reached a point where my vital signs went pear shaped but I did notice other issues. I generally felt more sluggish and worn out, eating out became a chore and at some point it felt like all that fast food was stuck in my throat.
Some factors which may have impacted my health related to the mystery around food preparation. Ultimately we do not see what ingredients go into a take out or restaurant meal. Did they put too much oil? Was the oil being reused? How much salt, sugar and fat is going into our food? Research has shown that the average serving size of a meal has been going up over the years. So by eating out we are perhaps eating worse and more than we should be.
When I started shifting towards cooking at home I noticed a few changes in terms of my health and budget. I began to think more carefully about what I wanted to eat and what it would cost me to prepare that meal. This in turn gave me a better idea of what portion of my budget was going to be used on food items. Things were not always perfect with this approach. My initial mindset to cooking at home was as limited as buying frozen foods that I could put into the oven. It took time to refine and expand my concept of cooking at home but even in a short time a lot of expensive, unhealthy and impulse purchases started falling away. This reflected in how in how I felt better and spent less on food over the course of a month.
One of the things that put me off from cooking at home was the idea of just cooking for myself. To me it seemed like a lot of effort to benefit one person. Andrew Kobylarz from Aloha mentions that cooking is “something ingrained in who we are as humans. You break bread with people who are important to you—whether it’s family, friends, or a significant other. You, me, everyone cooks and eats with one another.” I also feel that there is a different joy to cooking a good meal for people you care about and watching them enjoy it and having a decent conversation.
I’ve felt this social bonding taking place whether it is some family or friends that have come over or even if its just my wife and I making a simple meal. The atmosphere at home is more relaxed and easy going. There is also a shared learning experience. We share knowledge about the dishes we make, provide suggestions and help each other during the process. Added benefits we could relate to are cost savings. Essentially it is far more cost effective for my friends and I to prepare food at home versus eating out at a restaurant. In addition the cost of drinks (wine, beer etc.) is far cheaper when we buy at a grocery store and bring home.
Its becoming an increasingly busier world, where we have less time to have meaningful interactions with everyone we care about. Cooking with loved ones or simply inviting them over for a home meal presents an effective way to reconnect with people and build new relationships.
A happier you
Depending on which values enhance our feelings of happiness and contentment, cooking can play a role in adhering to these values. For example, we may strongly value our independent nature in everything we do. By cooking at home, we adhere to this value by being less dependent on take outs, restaurants and others to nourish us. Clay Routledge from Psychology Today mentions that “cooking healthy can make you feel like you have more control over your health. And feeling that you are autonomous or able to make your own decisions promotes a sense of meaning in life as well as greater self-esteem and well-being”.
I have found that after coming home from work, cooking is a way I can focus my mind on something else. I will usually take a bit of time thinking about what I want to prepare, the ingredients required, the quantity and how I would like to present the meal to my spouse (or family and friends).This process makes me experience a sense of purpose, control and satisfaction. I also find this in contrast to a take out meal where there is a sense of instant gratification. However, any satisfaction derived is dulled over the long run.
Eating Out in the right way
Most of us enjoy trying out different restaurants, take out places, bars etc. I would not suggest that anyone should avoid going out for a meal. Instead a mindset change is needed where we think more carefully about why we want to go out.
Firstly, consider eating out more sparingly to enjoy the contrast from home food (or usual diet). Since I seldom ate out when growing up, those occasions I did ended up going out being a real treat. This is in contrast to the period where I was having take out meals so often that I stopped enjoying the taste, didn’t feel well and was wasting a lot of money.
Secondly, look at eating out as a way to socialise in a different setting. Eating out can also become a way to to experience unique cuisines and the ambiance of a location. This will not always be possible (e.g. after a very late night at work) but where possible we can strive for a greater experience when eating out.
Start the home cooking journey
Turning cooking at home into a habit, may appear to be a daunting task. I don’t have enough time. I don’t like to wash dishes. Cooking is difficult. I can find cheap takeout meals. These and other excuses may derail our intentions unless we take a few aspects into consideration. The most important thing to do is to create a mindset that wants to cook more at home. Consider the values that are important to you as a person. Forgetting any impediments, think about why you would want to cook at home. What are the benefits? How it would it make you a happier person? Its important to establish a basic level of motivation and drive before doing anything else.
Secondly, consider how you are going to acquire or supplement your existing cooking skills. These days we can find numerous articles, books, blogs, YouTube videos and cooking shows that can help us enhance our cooking skills. When I started cooking on my own, my first source for help was a phone call to my mother. Often my wife and I play around with ideas on what to cook and how to improve recipes we have got a basic grasp on. So there are both external references and usually a social circle we can draw on to improve our cooking skills.
Thirdly, cooking is considered both an art and science by many people. What helped someone like me was applying the science part more. When designing software system requirements at work, I have to provide detailed instructions to a group of developers on what I want a piece of software or code to do. Often I’ve applied the same principles to cooking. I use a tool like Google Keep to keep recipes for dishes that I have learned more about. These recipes give me the exact steps to follow even when I am cooking something I’m not as familiar with. Another thing my wife and I do is keep a two week plan of what we want to make every evening. This creates more certainty around what we are going to eat everyday, helps us with our grocery shopping plan and gives us a better idea of whether we are eating the right kinds of food.
Lastly, don’t feel overwhelmed at the beginning of your journey. Most of us are not required to cook up a Michelin starred restaurant meal. The meals we prepare should taste good, be reasonably healthy and filling. Start with a simple foundation and build up from there. Coming from an Indian background, I found that a lot of dishes had similar cooking steps. These included sauteing onions well at the start and using the right combinations of certain spices and other ingredients. When I switched between different recipes (e.g from rajma to paneer), I found that I could reuse certain steps and techniques I was already familiar with. I imagine the same might be true for other types of cuisines. There are also some dishes which are much easier to make and a good starting point. Typical examples include pasta, omelette, pan fried chicken breasts etc. A basic Google search will bring up numerous other options. As your expertise and perhaps interest increases, experiment more and strive to produce different and better meals.
Hamm, T. (2014, July). Don’t Eat Out as Often (188/365)
Kobylarz, A. (2015, July). Why We Should Cook and Eat at Home More Often
McFarland, A. (2010, Nov). What’s the True Cost of Eating Out?
Routledge, C (2014, Nov). Finding Meaning in a Meal
Scotti, D (2015, Jul). People Who Cook For Themselves Are Richer, Happier And More Independent
Sinicki, A (2016, Jan). 10 Reasons to Stop Eating Out
Spinks, D. (2014, Mar). How Anyone (Yes, Even You) Can Learn to Cook
Thomson, J. (2014, Nov). 15 Reasons You Need To Learn How To Cook, Seriously
Wilson, J. (2013, Mar). 4 reasons you should really learn to cook