I live in New York City, a weird town for cooking. You have amazing chefs and restaurants at every price point, along with specialty markets and grocery stores for every type of food. It’s tempting to eat out for most meals, which I have done and still do when my schedule gets crammed. When you do cook, it’s for special, one-off occasions where you go to said markets and grocery stores and blow your budget on amazing, expensive ingredients.
At the same time, 2012 has seen the rise of artisanal everything. So many great techniques are being revived by mustachioed Brooklynites, like pickling, beer brewing, ice cream making and baking all manner of goods. I’ll buy a jar of strawberry-rhubarb jam from the very normal-looking person who jammed it, wondering how hard can it be to try out some of those things myself. What’s stopping me from becoming the next big thing in small batch savory scones or fusion kimchi?
It sets a high standard, especially when the most complicated thing I’ve cooked in the last month is scrambled eggs.
(Seriously, the best scrambled eggs ever.)
For the average urbanite, shopping, cooking and meal-planning are old-school homemaking skills, as esoteric as using a Walkman or a rotary phone. So before we learn to run (our own artisanal hand-churned butter stand), we must learn to walk. And for the next few weeks, I’ll be using this space to walk us through some foundational skills to becoming as obnoxious a foodie as anyone in North Brooklyn.
The least glamorous of these skills, perhaps, is meal-planning. All respect to the moms (or dads) out there who absolutely must do this for their families, meal after meal, week after week. But for the childless city-dweller, meal-planning is still valuable for making sure you’re maximizing your time, money and flexibility while taking advantage of the great things the city’s restaurants offer.
A few key tips to get started:
- Do think realistically about your schedule. Are you out with friends every weeknight? Spend 90 minutes at yoga after work and get home after 9? That’s fine! Pick a time when you’re less busy, maybe a Saturday lunch or a Sunday supper, and start there.
- Don’t start off planning not to eat out. Last minute invites come up. Even if you decide to stay in, keeping on top of new restaurants, new cuisines and new dishes keeps you fresh and gives you ideas. And as we learn from those studies on self-control, feeling restricted can actually make us less likely to follow through on our plans
- Do get ready for leftovers. This is a key strategy for money-saving and avoiding waste. If you absolutely loathe leftovers, spend a few minutes thinking about why. Is it boring? Do you worry the food will go bad? Do you forget about them? That’s fine! We’ll learn to be creative with leftover food. Worst comes to worst, you’ll have more opportunities to have friends over to help you eat the great meals you make. And learning to make huge batches will help ensure you don’t run out of curried kale chips at your local version of Smorgasburg.
- Don’t start with the most esoteric recipes or the strangest vegetable you find at the supermarket. It’s fun to challenge ourselves, but you want to start by building good habits of cooking what you buy and eating what you cook. This is less likely to happen when your hand-ground purslane pesto doesn’t turn out when you’d hoped. (And it is absolutely the case that I can get better pizza two blocks from my apartment than I could ever make at home, at least until I build my own brick oven a la Gwyneth Paltrow.)
- Do accept that the freezer is your friend. If you’re just cooking for one or two, you’re going to have leftovers, sometimes more than you can reasonably eat in a few days. Plus, eating the same thing every day for lunch gets boring! So invest in a few single-portion sized freezer-safe plastic containers and spend five minutes tossing out the half-empty dumpling bags, freezer burned ice cream pints and two-year-old mango chunks that currently live in your freezer.
Now you’ve completed the necessary mental preparation for adding some cooking into your lifestyle. All you need to do is figure out what to cook! Next week: tune in for some vintage advice from 19th century upstate New York!