Monthly Archives: January 2013

holding hands

Six steps to more home-cooked meals (Part 2)

In the first part of this series, I listed the 6 steps to making successful resolutions and talked about the first two steps: setting realistic goals and identifying specific behaviors that you have to change or things you have to do to meet those goals. Since we are Cozy Foodies (or aspiring Cozy Foodies), this series is about how to make home-cooking more of a priority in your daily life. But now that you’ve gotten started, how do you stay on track?

Thomas Edison famously said, “genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” Staying motivated to make more home-cooked meals is 99% of the work! You can be pretty certain that your breathless excitement and shiny idealism will help you float through the first week or two. But after that, it can be hard to keep up the momentum as life’s demands and dramas wrestle for your attention. Or after investing a meal with your time, energy, and love only to have it scarfed down in between the end of Girls and the next TV show.  Here are two ideas to help you along those rocky roads. Hmm, ice cream…. Oh. What was I talking about? Motivation and staying on track. Right. Like I said, it’s not easy, so:

3. Enlist a buddy

Share your resolution with a friend who gives you permission to call her to kvetch, commiserate, or kick you off the couch! As a matter of fact, your buddy should call you regularly to gently check in on whether you are staying on track. Knowing that there is someone out there invested in your success, and that she is going to be calling you about it, can really help keep your resolution as a top priority. In return, cook her a home-cooked meal once in a while, or return the favor by supporting her in her quest, whatever that may be. I have a few friends who I know I can call on for a new idea, to remind me why I love cooking, or to give me permission to slack off for a night.

And I’ve enlisted my very best friend to help, literally! The D.H. is 100% on board with the idea of having home-cooked meals, even if sometimes he thinks I’m more of a Crazy Foodie than a Cozy Foodie. But in addition, he cleans up my messes! That is, he’s in charge of doing the dishes. And lastly, I ask the D.H., very sweetly please, to cook one dinner per week on a weekend night. Since he will just make steaks, Caesar salad, and rice if left to his own devices, I plan what we’ll have for dinner the night he’s cooking (be sure to see tip #1, setting realistic goals!), have the recipes ready to go, and all the ingredients on hand. He’s developed his own “specialties” over time, like homemade pasta with marinara sauce, pizza, tacos, and burgers.

My kids aren’t exactly “buddies,” but they have to help out, too: setting and clearing the table, stirring a pot, fetching an ingredient, and expressing their gratitude for the meal and the work of whoever cooked it  (this, by the way, is definitely not a little thing for me). When they have time, I grab them to wash dishes and do prep work. And I ask them for ideas for meals (though I ignore them when they say steak, pizza, and tacos) or feedback on a new dish. In short, they are at least “buddies” in training, and hopefully, aspiring Cozy Foodies themselves!

4. Track your progress

A story I read, “What’s Been for Dinner? She Could Look It Up,” by Susan Dominus in The New York Times  (July 12, 2010) made a huge impression on me. The story featured Jenny Rosenstrach, who had kept a dinner diary since 1998. She said:

Sometimes as a mother, you can spend a whole day running around dealing with these little things that are intangible, and you feel like you have nothing to show for it. Dinner is something tangible. So I focus on that.

This struck me as a bone-deep truth, whether as a mother or just another Jane Doe trying to make a positive contribution to society. I was inspired to start a dinner diary of my own and have kept it up ever since. I didn’t want my dinner diary to become a burden, so I just write down what I made or had, with an additional note if it’s a new dish and the main ingredient. I can look things up and jog my memory about what I’ve done in the past. It’s become one more tool that I turn to when I’m planning my menu for the week. And as the entries have multiplied over the years, I feel the accomplishment of what I’ve achieved. It’s a great feeling! So find a way to track your progress, whether it’s keeping a paper-and-pen diary, a blog, or putting stickers or check marks on a calendar; you, too, will feel that sense of success! By the way, since I first read that article, Jenny Rosenstrach started a popular blog and published a book based on her blog, Dinner A Love Story.

There’s another side to tracking your progress. Being able to easily keep track of recipes that work for you and your family is vital to low-fuss planning. My dinner diary is not the only way for me to recall what recipes I’ve used and loved. I also keep a file of tried-and-true recipes that I turn to every week when I’m making my menu plan. Full disclosure: my “file” is a… how should I put this?… it’s a work in progress. I’ve got indexes of recipes on four different spreadsheets, an online recipe box, and never mind all the recipes that I’ve tried from different websites and shelves of cookbooks! I could be more efficient if I spent my life organizing everything, but this hodge-podge system gets the job done. And to be honest, for me, getting all my recipes completely organized is like doing the laundry or making the beds: I know that I’m just going to have to do it all over again, so it never quite gets completely done.

And when life periodically goes into hyper-mega-nuclear-I-am-so-over-this-drive, I have a short list of family favorites to fall back on. These are dinners that I know everyone in my family loves, and more importantly, I can plan them and make them while juggling seventeen deadlines, falling over from a 1,000° fever, and still have enough mental space to sulk about how unfair life is.

Finally, despite all the resolving, planning, prioritizing, and best intentions that you’ve done using tips #1-4, life has a way of happening. That’s when you need tip #5, recognizing that a stumble is not a fall. That’s as important as tip #6, remembering to give yourself rewards along the way. I’ll talk more about these last two steps to making home-cooking a higher priority, in part 3 of this series.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your ideas for tracking your progress!


How do you do the chicken?

If you’ve read my book Twice As Nice, then you know that I grill or roast six chicken breasts at a time, slice and freeze most of them, to be used over a period of a few weeks. This is how I used my last set of six chicken breast halves, which I roasted in the oven:

  • Vietnamese cabbage and chicken salad for four. We wanted something fast and light for lunch before going out to see The Hobbit.
  • Veracruz-style chicken chili for four.
  • Thai-style red curry with chicken for four. This is a new recipe I’m developing, inspired by a more traditional Thai red curry with duck.
  • Caesar salad with chicken for four.
  • 3 ounces, torn, for jook (Chinese rice porridge). I added a little chopped scallion, some roasted peanuts, and a few grinds of black pepper. It’s the ultimate Chinese comfort food!
  • Chicken salad sandwiches for two on the way to a lecture about Johannes Vermeer.
  • Chicken, chickpea, and tomato stew for four.

Our schedules and alarm clocks were buried at the bottom of the laundry basket for the week after Christmas. Oh, those lazy, wonderful stay-cation days! We went to see The Hobbit, played our new board game, Shadows Over Camelot, made cookies, and slept in late. Chicken in the freezer buffered us from the shock of getting back to the regular routine…. Not! OK, A little bit, and not just because the Cozy Foodie has to say that. I got the death glare from D.D. because there’s no more chicken for chicken salad sandwiches until the next grocery day!

How did you use your last set of chicken breasts?

Six steps to more home-cooked meals (Part 1)

Resolutions are easy to make, but hard to keep, whether you make them at New Year’s or some other time of year! We Cozy Foodies want everyone to make a resolution to do more home cooking. Making more home-cooked meals is a great resolution to make because it affects so many other important parts of our lives. Home-cooked meals help us get healthier and lose weight, save money, and bring us closer to our families, friends, and loved ones. You’ll have a whiter, brighter smile! Be funnier, smarter, and make a million dollars! Sing like Aretha Franklin! …Er, you get the idea.

Here are six steps to help you keep a resolution to make more home-cooked meals. In this post, I’ll go into detail about the first two, setting a realistic goal and identifying specific behaviors that you have to change or things you have to do in order to meet those goals. In later posts, I’ll talk more about the other points. These six steps can be applied to any resolution you set, but I’ll talk about it from a Cozy Foodie point of view:

  1. Set a realistic goal
  2. Target specific behaviors to change
  3. Enlist a buddy
  4. Track your progress
  5. Recognize that a stumble is not a failure
  6. Give yourself rewards along the way

1. Set a realistic goal

I make almost every meal that my family eats. I’m really lucky that I get to do this, and, of course, I love cooking. I should say: I usually love cooking, that is, except when… Oh. I’m not talking about that right now, am I? Anyway, there are extenuating circumstances that make this work for me, but everyone can resolve to at least increase the number of home-cooked meals they eat in a week.

So, how to keep it real? It is unrealistic to make a resolution to go from making very few or no home-cooked meals to cooking every single one of your own meals! Also, you are more likely to succeed at keeping a resolution if you make one at a time. A realistic goal might be to make your own lunch twice a week, if right now, you always buy lunch. Or make three home-cooked dinners per week, if right now, you find yourself defaulting to take-out or frozen prepared meals more than you like. Keep reading to learn strategies to help you succeed.

My menu plan and shopping list for this week.

My menu plan and shopping list for this week.

2. Target specific behaviors to change

Now that you’ve set a realistic goal, the second step is to identify specific behaviors that you have to change or things you have to do in order to meet those goals. When it comes to getting home-cooked meals on the table more frequently, here are some of the things that work for me:

  • Make a meal plan for the week, or for the length of time in between your shopping trips. Also schedule a regular day and time to go grocery shopping.
  • Decide what will be in each meal you plan to have on every day that you will cook.
  • Try only one or two new dishes a week. Rely on your file of tried-and-true recipes for the other meals.
  • Check your calendar for potential “traffic jams.” On busy days, make something quick and easy or that you can prep ahead. For me, at least once a month, both kids participate in swim meets. Meets typically are two-day affairs. Swimmers are expected to show up at 7:30AM and finish at around 3:00PM. Meets that are held in venues 30 minutes away are considered close by; they can be 45 minutes to more than an hour away. And swimmers eat a lot! I have learned to plan and prep ahead so that I can pack healthy breakfasts, lunches, snacks, still have a home-cooked dinner, and stay sane.
  • Make a list of ingredients that you will need, including the amount of each ingredient. My friends roll their eyes, but my shopping list is organized according to the aisle where each ingredient is so that I go to each aisle only once.
  • Make only one meal a day that requires more preparation. I keep breakfasts and lunches, especially on the weekdays, pretty straight forward. For breakfast: toast or bagels, yogurt, fruit, tea or milk. For lunch: left overs from the night before, sandwiches, macaroni and cheese (from a box!), pasta with sauce.
  • Prep ahead! The night before or even a couple of days ahead of time, in the morning before going to work, or in any odd pockets of time that you have.
  • Review your recipes the night before. How many times have I had to change my plans because I didn’t marinate the meat overnight, or didn’t start the recipe early enough in the day? Let’s just say that if I had a dollar for every time….
  • Keep it fun! Pour yourself a glass of something nice and put on some good music while you cook.

I’m basically a lazy person. I need habits and routines to help me make 3 meals a day, for 4 people, 7 days a week. The fewer decisions I have to make when it actually comes time to cook, the more likely I am to do it, and the easier it is to overcome inertia and that seductive little voice in my head that still murmurs, “Hmmm… pizza delivery!”

Ultimately, being able to share home-cooked meals with my family and friends makes me feel great about myself: it grounds me in my life in a mindful and meaningful way, and more than pays me back for the time and energy that I invest in doing it! I hope that you will join me.

In my next posts, I will talk about strategies to keep you on track and motivated to make home-cooking a priority in your life.

What strategies help you get dinner ready with less stress and on time?