Yes, cooking requires time. But I’m not advocating a five-course meal every night. Dinner can be very simple: rice and beans with a side salad; a quick stir-fry; revamped leftovers. I don’t cook anything very elaborate. I simply try to eat a healthy diet—one devoid of processed food.
Other contenders for this post title include:
- “The Case for Eating Home-Cooked Food” because it doesn’t really matter who cooks it. Typically, mom cooks dinner but dad or the kids or, if you have one, a personal chef could cook it.
- “The Case for Real Food” because the gist of this post comes down to this: Cut out processed food.
- “The Case Against Processed Food” but I try to avoid negative titles and besides, there are so many good things to say about cooking your own food, such as:
1. You save money
I can cook a vat of chana masala—enough for at least two meals for three of us—made with organic ingredients of the best quality, for about $12. At my favorite Indian restaurant, one serving of chana masala costs $13.95. (I’m usually very modest but I think mine tastes just as good.) The tomatoes I use cost the most of all the ingredients in this dish. I buy organic dry farmed Early Girl tomatoes, roast them and use them in place of store-bought canned tomatoes. They taste so so good. I could save more money by buying less expensive tomatoes but I figure compared to the average Western diet of processed food, my diet saves money overall, without compromising flavor. If you include possible future health care costs associated with a bad diet, I could stand to save even more cash.
2. You waste less food
You may have produce on hand that has seen better days, or you may have picky eaters who turn their noses up at leftovers. If you learn some basic skills, you’ll know how to use up all these odds and ends. Here are just some ideas:
- Soup. You can toss just about anything into soup—leftover vegetables, pasta, rice, proteins, that spinach in the fridge that needs using up asap.
- Stir-fry. This is one of my daughter’s favorite meals. It’s like soup without the broth—just toss it all in there. All you need is a pile of vegetables, garlic, ginger (if you have it), soy sauce, some oil and some rice to go with your stir-fry if you so desire.
- Pizza. All sorts of toppings can go onto pizza. My boyfriend adds shredded carrots into his homemade pizza sauce to add sweetness—and vitamins and fiber. Have some leftover beans in the refrigerator? You could make hummus to spread on the pizza dough, top it with cheese and bake. (I think I should make this tonight…)
- Frittata. Don’t know what to do with that quarter onion you have? Or the single stalk of broccoli. Chop it all up for frittata.
- Oeufs en restes. The name of this French dish translates to “eggs in leftovers.” In a pan, heat up leftover vegetables, meat, grains, whatever, in a little broth if the food is dry, crack an egg in the middle, add salt and pepper and cook covered over medium-low heat until the egg is cooked.
3. You reduce your packaging waste
Occasionally someone on Facebook or Instagram will ask me “How can you possibly cook without producing waste?” It’s a lot easier than a lot of people realize. For example:
- I eat more fresh fruits and vegetables than I did before I went plastic-free. I can easily buy these package-free where I live.
- I cut out all snack foods—they all come in shiny plastic packages. That doesn’t mean I deprive myself of goodies. Last night during the debate, I made a couple of batches of delicious zero-waste popcorn for us all to snack on. It tastes so so good and lacks the nasty chemical-laced packaging of the microwave stuff. (Unfortunately I didn’t have any alcoholic ginger beer on hand last night…)
- I live near stores with great bulk bins and filling up my jars and bags greatly reduces my packaging waste. Yes, the food comes to the store in packaging but that packaging amounts to much less than it would if all of us bulk shoppers bought our small amounts individually packaged.
4. Your kids learn how to cook
I didn’t exactly teach my kids to cook. They just know how to cook because they’ve watched me do it over the years and have helped. My older daughter, away at college, eats pretty well (she sends me pics). Some of her friends think she’s a god because she can cook a simple stir-fry, curry, loaf of bread, pie…pretty much anything really.
5. You may eat more ethically
As Dan Barber says, the most ethical food tastes the most delicious. Take my eggs for example. They come from pastured hens. The hens run around outside. The farmers raise them with love. Because these hens eat what hens are supposed to eat—bugs and seeds they peck at in the ground—they produce delicious eggs with rich orange yolks. Compare that to the horrors of industrial egg farms with hens crammed into battery cages, unable to move; lights on 24/7 to induce more frequent laying; male chicks ground alive. Is it any wonder my pastured eggs taste better? If you take the time to cook, you’ll likely seek out better tasting ingredients, and thus more ethical ingredients.
6. You eat healthier food
This is self-explanatory. Cook food yourself and you control what does—and what doesn’t—go into it. Seventy-seven percent of foods on American supermarket shelves contain added sugar, not to mention multi-syllable non-food ingredients you would never put in your pantry.
7. Home-cooked food doesn’t have a profit motive attached to it
I doubt any of you charge your family for dinner. How can food made for a healthy bottom line compare to a healthy home-cooked meal? Big Food doesn’t love you. It doesn’t have your best interests in mind. Shocking, I know. Food made with love tastes best.
8. You support powerful corporations less
Yes, corporations still get some of my money because I am alive and I live in the US—a developed, capitalist, industrial country. I sometimes shop at Whole Foods, I use electricity and I still have a car (but I don’t drive much). However, when I shop at farmer’s markets (which I do religiously) and independent grocers (which I do often), small businesses get my cash and more of that cash stays in my community.
9. You become more self-sufficient
What a bizarre point in history we have reached. Most of us can barely feed ourselves. Many of us don’t cook or don’t know how to cook, we outsource just about everything and we don’t grow our own food. But there’s good news. According to this article in the New York Times, more and more people have been cooking their meals at home, learning basic skills and as a result, taking a bite out of fast food chains’ profits.
10. People will love you
I can’t tell you how many people have either asked me to adopt them or have announced they are moving in with me after the zombie apocalypse. A lot. I should really start a waiting list.
11. Your gut will love you
I recently attended The Real Food Fun Event in Palo Alto, put on by the Institute for Responsible Nutrition, where I heard Dr. Robert Lustig, Gary Taubes and Dr. Janet Wojcicki discuss the health impacts of sugar. New York Times writer Anahad O’Connor, who writes about health, fitness and nutrition, moderated.
At one point, Dr. Lustig summed up the problem with processed food like this: it’s low in fiber and high in sugar. Real food (vegetables, fruit, whole grains) on the other hand, is high in fiber and low in sugar. To feed our gut bacteria, Lustig said we need to consume about 50 grams of fiber a day.
Our gut plays a huge roll in our health, our weight, even our mood. Read more about gut health here.
12. Surly teenagers may talk to you
I feel like an inadequate parent pretty much all the time. But I have done at least one thing right over the years—I’ve eaten dinner at the table with my kids. MK has gone off to college but I still have a teenager at home (she prefers I refrain from using her name in my posts). We almost always eat dinner together. Sometimes we watch a show on Netflix while we eat but at least we sit together and talk.
13. You bring your family together
Cooking and eating with your family helps you bond—and you share the work. My boyfriend and I cook together often. We chop, saute, wash, chat and sometimes drink a glass of ginger beer while we’re at it.
And if you want to draw people out of their rooms or away from the Internet, the aromas wafting from a pot of minestrone simmering on top of the stove or a loaf of bread baking in the oven ought to do it.
14. You’ll start a revolution in your kitchen
As Bill Buford wrote in his book Heat, “Food made by hand is an act of defiance and runs contrary to everything in modernity.” If you want to rebel, you don’t have to partake in risky behaviors (although some of those might be fun). Just bake a loaf of bread or cook a pot of chili. Reclaim your independence.
I’ve only scratched the surface in this short blog post. For further reading, please check out:
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan.
Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss. Next Wednesday, October 26th, 12pm Eastern, Food Tank will host a webinar with Moss “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.” You can register here.