Cooking Is a Necessity

September 18, 2009

As the weeks of my ex-pat experience dwindle down I’ve been doing a lot of thought and reflection. When it comes to food I have changed immensely in the past two years. Not all positive, mind you. Adopting a new culture often means adopting practices you may have once deemed unhealthy, but as far as world travel goes, this isn’t always a bad thing. Regardless of that, today I want to focus on the positive changes.

These changes have only partly been due to where I’m physically located. I obviously have access to more produce at less expensive prices. However, other things are simply due to the fact that I found myself with some time to learn and focus on what being healthy truly means for me.

A few of the positives…

Sodas are not part of my diet anymore and neither are artificial sweeteners.
My body has been exposed to all kinds of additional vitamins and antioxidants through once exotic foods like acerola and açaí.

Very few packaged foods are still part of my diet.

I’m cooking much more from scratch despite my half-sized oven, sweltering days and a kitchen that is functional, but not my favorite.

I’ve had cooking on my mind a lot lately. Obviously, I love it. In many ways I view it as a source of stress relief. Funny since on occasion a failed dish may result in even more stress, but overall it’s a good thing.

I often think about all the people I’ve come across in my life who claim to either hate cooking or be horrible at it. I find this view both interesting and thought provoking.

For some reason, perhaps because we have so many options to turn to that require little or no actual cooking, we have classified it as an art, a luxury and a hobby. For those who dislike it, it’s a chore and one they choose not to do.

Because we don’t necessarily have to do it anymore as a means for food source and for survival, we separate ourselves from the act which gives us permission to term ourselves a good or bad cook or regard the action as one we either love or hate.

At what point did we start to view cooking in this manner? Was it due to busyness, lack of motivation, availability of packaged foods? Likely a combination of them all.

Cooking always seems to be the one thing to go when it comes to a busy lifestyle. I struggle with it too.

I had a lot of free time when we first moved abroad, but then I started working towards my freelance writing career and the free time was soon gone. Many days I feel I am busier than I was working outside the home in an office job. Time for cooking from scratch dwindled. Now I’m at the point where I wonder how strong the temptation will be to overlook it when I move back to the U.S. I cooked a lot before we moved in order to save spending on eating out, but I also used a lot of convenience foods that I no longer want to return to.

There was an article this week in the Washington Post about a mom who took on the challenge to recreate some of the fast foods her teenagers were spending their money on, proving that eating at home is both cheaper and better. While these types of articles just reiterate what I know in my heart to be true, they are such a great form of motivation for me and a reality check for those who are skeptical.

So of all the ways that this experience has changed me it has shown me that cooking is a necessity. There is no debate. Sure, eat out and enjoy the masterpieces of others on occasion, but if you want health you must cook and you must cook using real foods. It’s not a matter of being good or bad at it, it’s just something you have to do.

I will continue to cook from scratch when we return to the U.S. despite a busy lifestyle, which regarding my work, I hope gets even busier. This is how I intend to do it.

View it as a challenge. We set fitness goals, financial goal and productivity goals yet goals in the kitchen don’t seem to be so popular for the general public. That should change.

Rely on one-pot meals, especially those I can cook ahead. I have a feeling my crock pot will be getting lots of use. I’ve really missed not having one here now that I’ve learned a lot about the natural foods I can cook in it.

Plan ahead, way ahead. I’ve always been a list maker and planned meals for the week, but now I want to carve out blocks of time to make pastas, stocks, breads and crackers to eat throughout the week.

Utilize the skills of my past. I know deep down inside me that all those hours spent watching my mom can and preserve produce from the garden taught me those skills. Now I just need to practice it.

Reevaluate the budget. We’ve always had a monthly budget for groceries and I would go twice a month. I now want to adjust things so that I buy more things upfront that will last longer. For example, grains in bulk and large amounts of grass-fed beef to freeze for a couple months. If a house comes about next year there will be a garden otherwise we’ll join a CSA and take better advantage of my father’s garden when possible.

Is cooking important to you? How do you manage it amidst your long to-do list?

Photo is a sampling of bamboo cooking utensils made by a gentleman at the local farmer’s market.
This post is being submitted as part of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday.

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  • kat September 19, 2009 at 6:07 am

    Cooking is very important to us & like you we try to use very few pre-processed foods & make things from scratch. When we lived in SF & I worked out of the house time was also tighter & that thing that kept me going was a weekly menu plan. Without that we would have resorted to fast food or eating out much more often.

  • Andrea (Off Her Cork) September 19, 2009 at 6:34 am

    I loved this post Lori! I agree with you 100%! I honestly feel that people who say they “can’t cook” honestly haven’t tried very much. Or they just think it’s hard and therefore do not attempt it. Why heat up a frozen pasta dish that has been packaged for who knows how long, when you can make pasta very quickly and easily.

    I love the bamboo utensils you sent me! They are heaven and so much sturdier than all the others. 🙂

  • cathy September 19, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    I love to cook! I think that I’m a pretty darn good cook now, but it’s only because of practice and lots of trial and error. I’m a stay-at-home-mom now, which gives me the time I need to cook, but I cooked even when I was a workaholic research engineer. It’s one of those things that has always been important to me – because it’s cost effective, because it’s better for you, and because it’s a way for me to let off some steam.

  • Alison September 20, 2009 at 9:54 am

    I cook for healthy foods but mostly because I get a lot of enjoyment out of it. It’s a lot of fun. But it’s also great to know exactly what I’m eating – which is why I rarely cook with processed ingredients.

    Do people in Brazil not drink much soda? Or did you just stop drinking it?

  • Lori September 21, 2009 at 5:03 am

    Thanks for your responses. I was hoping to get more feedback, but it looks like the topic only struck a cord with us. 🙂

    kat – I definitely agree that a weekly menu is essential. You have to know what you are planning to cook so you budget your time and your food.

    Andrea – Thanks! I often feel the same way. There seems to be this pressure that it needs to be fancy or gourmet. Glad you liked the utensils. I just picked up some more for myself for the move back.

    cathy – It’s always been a part of the deal for me too for the reasons you mentioned. It does take practice. I am a much better cook now than I was five years ago.

    Alison – The way soda is consumed and availability are different here. A lot is consumed, but groups tend to buy 2 L and share it around the table. Cans are really only purchased at street food stands or at restaurants. The only place I’ve ever seen a fountain machine of any of the places I’ve traveled in Brazil is at McDonalds and it is not free refills. The consumption is high, you see it everywhere, but with no cheap prices on 12 packs of cans or free refills it is much less available. I posted a little bit about how that has affected my drinking it here –

  • 5 Star Foodie September 21, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    We almost never go out to eat other than on vacation or special restaurant destination getaways. On very busy or “no cooking” days, we do easy meals, such as pastas, but otherwise usually most of my dinners don’t take more than 30 minutes to make and I almost always cook at the last minute, a lot of times I won’t know what I’m cooking until I’m in a middle of making it (which drives my husband crazy as he needs to know the flavors to pick the proper wine 🙂 ).

  • Emily September 22, 2009 at 9:07 am

    We do go out to eat frequently (twice a week on average) because it’s something we both enjoy, but when we’re not specifically having a meal out either as a date or with friends, we usually cook. I go back and forth between enjoying cooking when I have the time and seeing it as just another chore when I don’t, but I feel like as I get older and have more experience, I’m enjoying it more and finding it easier to throw together more complete meals without too much effort. I also have found that making a meal plan for the week really keeps me on track…that way I have the ingredients for what I want to cook, and I don’t get home at the end of the long day with no creativity to decide on what we’re going to eat. My fiance’s also a good cook, so we share duties pretty evenly.

    Living in Chile has definitely reduced my reliance on packaged foods. I remember in college, for example, my roommates were amazed that I always made pasta sauce instead of buying it in a jar…because I’d just spent 2 months living with Rodolfo, and sauce in a jar was way more expensive than plan tomato sauce + ground beef and onions! There are generally fewer convenience foods available here, so it’s not even a question of choice. Sometimes it would be nice to just have a Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods where I could buy reasonably healthy prepared things, but overall it’s probably good that we’re getting into the habit of making our own foods now rather than having the break bad habits later.

  • Lori September 23, 2009 at 8:39 am

    Thanks so much for your added input on the topic!

    5 Star – We are the same way. It’s saved for travel and special occasions. How spontaneous you are with your cooking! I should be more like that. And how great your husband can pair up your foods so well! 🙂

    Emily – I find it so amazing what living in another country can do for us when it comes to cooking. It is so great to get away from those convenience things that are often viewed as a necessity. I think you really learn that they aren’t necessary at all, or healthy for that matter.

    I hear ya about the TJs or WF. I find health foods like grains are much less available here. You have to really dig and go to nutritional/pharmacy stores to get them.

  • Mindy September 24, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Now that I’m back and in the swing of my full-time job again, I’m finding it harder and harder to cook (and then blog about it!), but one way I’m working on making sure my food is homemade is to double foods when I can and freeze the second batch. I use those on the nights that I just don’t feel like cooking or when I would have ordered a pizza or popped a frozen dinner into the oven (before living abroad).

    The one unfortunate thing about cooking at home that I’ve noticed since returning is that food prices have skyrocketed in the last year. 🙁