Lately, I’ve fallen into a bit of a dinner rut.
It’s not that I don’t love to cook—I find it infinitely cathartic, in the right circumstances—but life can get busy. After a long day, it’s tough to resist the siren call of Foodler, the American Dream realized in piping hot containers of pad thai delivered straight to my door. If I have after-work plans, I’m prone to tossing a few frozen chicken tenders in the toaster oven and calling it a meal.
And okay, I’ll admit it: sometimes I just eat cereal. (Sorry, Mom!)
But out of deep ruts come deep desires to break a vicious cycle of quick and junky meals. So I challenged myself to cook dinner every night for an entire week.
What happened? What did I learn? Reader, read on. This is my journey.
It’s Monday and I’m fried by the time I get out of work, so I opt for my laziest of meals. I boil a pot of water, toss in some pasta, and pull out a bag of frozen green beans. I’m planning on cooking them in a bit of oil, but I have a guilty moment of eye contact with the pot of water before I give up my pride and tip the green beans right into the pot with the pasta.
When everything’s done, I add some jarred pesto and grate fresh romano over the top. I decide this counts as cooking—but barely.
At work, my editor and I discuss what constitutes cooking.
“Reheating leftovers?” I ask hopefully. He shakes his head.
“Grating cheese over pasta?” Another head shake. I think about explaining how busy I am, but I am the one who agreed to this assignment after all.
“Fiiine,” I sigh, drawing out the “i” sound until it could conceivably be described as a whine. “I’ll make something real.”
I stop by the grocery store on my way home. It’s after 8 pm, but I surprise myself by giving in to a sudden craving for turkey meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
Back home, I mix together my ingredients. I anxiously Google “ground turkey grey” for a few minutes, then shrug, finish mixing, and throw it in the oven. It’s probably fine, right? Potatoes go in water on the stovetop.
Dinner isn’t ready until after 10 pm. I’m ravenous. I’ll start cooking earlier tomorrow.
Before I dig in, I confirm the meatloaf is done by sticking it with my trusty ThermoPop instant read thermometer. It’s hot and delicious. My roommate insists she doesn’t like meatloaf, but tries a bite and then goes back for seconds.
Leftovers are glorious come dinnertime, but I can’t rely on them this week—I’ve promised to cook new food every night. But I’m not a big believer in cooking small quantities. If I take the time to make a nice meal, I’m going to aim for leftovers.
I made an entire turkey meatloaf last night; I definitely have leftovers.
When I get home from work, I don’t mind the concept of cooking, but I want to eat last night’s dinner again. It was tasty! Still, I have to cook something new, otherwise the experiment has failed.
I compromise by crumbling up the meatloaf and mixing it with jarred tomato sauce. I eat it over pasta from Day One, along with a mess of greens I saute in olive oil. It’s not fancy cooking, but working leftovers into new dishes is a specialty of mine.
Tonight I decide to cook something a tad fancier than my standard weekday fare. My coworker recommends a recipe that sounds like a solid jumping-off point.
I roast salmon fillets with lemon and thyme. Parsnips go in a pot of boiling water, which I drain when they’re soft. Or rather, I try to drain them, accidentally drop the pot, and send all the parsnips tumbling into the dirty sink.
It’s important to note that even the best cooks mess up. Sometimes I think quality cooking is more about how well you can handle unexpected problems than how good your technique is. I eye the sink full of parsnips in frustration, noting all the bits of old food that also populate the sink’s surface, then set about salvaging dinner.
I save about half of the parsnips and rinse them thoroughly. Then I boil them again, just to be safe.
It’s not ideal. But when I mash the parsnips with lemon zest, fresh thyme, and sauteed leeks, the result is pretty spectacular. I serve the salmon on top.
There are no leftovers this time, although I wish there were. I eat every bite.
It’s Friday. Usually that means I grab a quick bite and head out for the night, but it’s Day Five of my cook-every-night experiment and I don’t want to phone it in.
Plus, I can’t stop thinking about how good last night’s parsnip mash was. I decide to make it again, with pork chops instead of salmon.
This time, I don’t spill the parsnips in the sink so there’s plenty of mash. I sear the pork with lemon and thyme, and make a quick sauce from the browned bits left at the bottom of the pan. I serve the pork on top of the parsnips and drizzle the whole mess with sauce.
It’s amazing. I’m amazing. If I ever want to impress anyone, I’ll cook them this exact meal.
On Saturday night, I fall back on one of my favorite comfort foods. It’s a whatever-I-have-on-hand take on shakshuka, the Middle Eastern dish of spiced tomato sauce with poached eggs.
My version is simple: I fill a saucepan with canned fire-roasted tomatoes, cumin, paprika, parsley, and a dab of my favorite smoky chipotles in adobo sauce. Throw a couple eggs on top, toss a lid on the pan, and let it bubble away until the yolks have just set. That’s it.
It’s good, but then, it’s pretty hard to screw up tomatoes and eggs.
It’s the last day of my experiment! I want to go out with a bang, but frankly, I’m tired. I have so many leftovers in my fridge and freezer that it seems silly to cook. Uninspired, I look my pantry up and down.
Something draws my eye: a box of pancake mix. Perfect.
I fry up a batch, slather ‘em in syrup, and eat ‘em hot while standing at the counter. Victory! I consider putting my hands up in the air like a gymnast who’s just stuck a landing, but instead I shove some more pancake into my mouth.
What I learned
Unsurprisingly, cooking dinner every night is not realistic. It’s hard to make the time to buy groceries and cook, or to resist the sheer convenience of my local pho joint.
That said, I saved money on lunches this week by bringing leftovers to work. On nights when I was stressed but not terribly busy, it was soothing to fill my home with the smell of good eats, and I liked knowing exactly which ingredients I’d used to fuel my body. Cooking every night gave my evening some nice structure—and also something to put on Instagram.
A surprise star this week was my ThermoPop instant read thermometer, which I love because it gives me the confidence to cook meat without the unpleasant weight of my anxieties about undercooking. It’s easier to relax and enjoy a meal when I don’t have to obsessively check my pork chop for the telltale pink of undercooked meat. It’s one of my favorite kitchen gadgets.
Now that the experiment’s over, I don’t plan to cook dinner every single night. However, I do plan to cook more often, and to experiment with new recipes rather than sticking to my usual roster of lazy dishes. Cereal may be quick and easy, but you know what? I’d rather spend half an hour preparing meatloaf.