Busy people can still cook real food

May 2, 2008

Contemplating the perennial question of what to make for dinner, I pulled Pierre Franey’s book The New York Times 60-Minute Gourmet off the shelf. Flipping through its pages, I had to laugh at the distance we’ve traveled since 1979, when the book was first published. By today’s standards, “60 minutes” might be called an eternity, or slow death in the kitchen. Who has 60 minutes to make dinner?

To judge from the popular media, the average American has maybe 15 minutes to make a meal. And given other options — prepared food, frozen entrées, fast food, restaurants — why should anyone dirty their hands in the kitchen?

egg timer
Is 60 minutes a reasonable amount of time to prepare dinner?

Newspaper food sections and most major food magazines run regular features on quick cooking: limited ingredients, cooking with prepared items, and meals made, supposedly, in the wink of an eye.

Gourmet’s department “In Short Order” has morphed into “Quick Kitchen,” featuring “Ten-Minute Mains.” Search for “quick and easy cooking” on Amazon, and more than 1,200 titles surface, including Busy People's Super Simple 30-Minute Menus: 137 Complete Meals Timed for Success.

Say that three times fast.

Chicken or egg, I wonder. Are we in the food media responding to what people want, or feeding the fire? Forty years ago, the New York Times ran Franey’s column on streamlining “gourmet,” and now the paper publishes Mark Bittman, the minimalist. It’s the same idea: an expert translates his kitchen knowledge for the home cook. Only back then it was 60 minutes, and now it’s 30 or less. French is out; minimalism is in.

I, too, am a sponge for suggestions to make my life in the kitchen easier. In our family of four, there are three soccer schedules, violin lessons, rowing (at least temporarily), school, volunteering, and work. I can use all the help I can get.

That said, I hate gimmicks. Nancy Silverton’s book A Twist of the Wrist promises quick meals made from “jars, cans, bags, and boxes.” Cooking from the pantry is a great idea, and I love Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s Friday-Night Spaghetti with Tuna and Black Olives, which uses canned tuna, anchovies, and capers. But when Silverton recommends draining the lentils from lentil soup and using canned potatoes for a quick meal, I have to wonder: How much longer does it really take to cook lentils or boil potatoes?

At the store the other day, I flipped through Meals Made Easy, from the editors of Real Simple magazine. Such pretty pictures! But when I got to French Fry Pie — a recipe that calls for ground beef, a jar of prepared pasta sauce, and frozen French fries — I lost my appetite. If this is cooking, you’re better off not doing it. Slap together a turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread instead and call it a meal.

Not only do I find the gimmicks distasteful, I also dislike the myths they perpetuate. Myth One: All it takes to cook is the right (choose one) cookbook/recipe/equipment. Myth Two: Cooking is onerous, a task best done quickly to get it over with. The message that prevails in a lot of these cookbooks (not to mention food advertising) is, “You work hard. You shouldn’t have to cook, too.”

chicken, farro, asparagus
An easy dinner: chicken, farro, and asparagus.

The truth is, things of value take time, cooking included. People don’t cook, we’re told, because they don’t have time and don’t know how. I don’t discredit either of these, but I think there might be another reason: people are simply choosing to do other things.

Food has become an afterthought.

We live in a time when we can choose whether or not to cook our own food. Our grandparents didn’t hunt, fish, farm, preserve, and cook for the fun of it; they did it to put food on the table. It’s baffling, in an age when domestic tasks have been made easier by appliances (dishwashers, refrigerators, stoves, microwaves) and the incredible convenience of grocery stores, that we have less time than ever to cook. All we have to do is buy food and cook it, but even that can seem like too much.

Part of the problem is that when we fill up our days with other activities, there isn’t sufficient time to cook a meal, too. If cooking becomes the thing that gets squeezed in, it begins to feel like a chore. If adequate time is made to both cook and eat dinner, the potential for pleasure is that much greater.

So here’s where I advocate for choosing fresh food. Choosing cooking. Making dinner a ritual, rather than a pit stop.

Here’s how you might start: At least once a week, make a meal that follows the meat + starch + vegetable formula. If I’m making fish, I place it on a piece of foil, squeeze some lemon juice over it, and sprinkle it with salt, then wrap it up and put it in a 425-degree oven. If it’s chicken, I borrow a trick I’ve learned from working in restaurants: start it on the stove and finish it in the oven. I warm a cast-iron skillet, toss in a knob of butter and a splash of olive oil along with several garlic cloves and a sprig each of rosemary and sage, then brown several greater thighs (legs with the thigh attached). I then put this pan into a 425-degree oven, and turn my attention to the rest of the meal.

To go with it, I’ll either roast or bake potatoes, or put on a pot of rice or farro. While the meat cooks and the grain boils, I’ll prep and steam broccoli, green beans, or asparagus. Prepping this entire meal takes 15, maybe 20 minutes. While dinner cooks, I do the dishes, help with homework, rally the forces to set the table, and pour myself a glass of wine. If I feel like it, I’ll make a simple lemon-butter sauce — melted butter and lemon juice with a spoonful of capers — for the fish.

When you start with fresh, good-tasting ingredients, you don’t have to do a lot to make them taste delicious.

For every night I clock in over an hour to make a soup or pasta sauce — things that yield leftovers — there are as many nights that I simplify, making burritos, sandwiches, or eggs. To make burritos, I spread refried beans on flour tortillas, sprinkle cheese and leftover rice on top, then roll these up in foil and pop them in a 350-degree oven. While they’re warming, I set out the condiments: lettuce, salsa, and sour cream. It doesn’t get much quicker or easier than that.

None of these meals take much time or effort, but it’s time spent at home, combined with other things I like — listening to the radio or music, being with the kids.

Cooking like this allows me to save money and eat food that I like. Furthermore, when I make a meal I control the amount of salt, sugar, and fat, which results in food far healthier than anything prepackaged. And I cook — hear me roar! — because I want my family to eat well, too.

Messages about not having time to cook flood us every day, and it’s not easy staying afloat. But whether it’s 60 minutes or 20 minutes, it’s worth making time for dinner. Because even a simple meal — grilled cheese sandwiches or a salad with bread and cheese — feeds more than just your belly.

Carrie Floyd is Culinate’s food editor.

There are 12 comments on this item
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1. by James Berry on May 2, 2008 at 3:06 PM PDT

@carrie: great column! This is something I’ve been thinking alot about lately, so I’m glad you found the words to put to it.

2. by cafemama on May 3, 2008 at 10:37 PM PDT

hear hear. I agree wholeheartedly that it’s not that we don’t have time, it’s just that we choose other things to do, and often I imagine that the time it takes us to choose & procure food cooked by others is longer than it takes to cook it ourselves. every time I suspect this is true, I end up with a fabulous meal. and what about the time we spend watching TV? I’ll bet if your average American devoted as much time to emulsification as to the subtleties of ‘Lost,’ our nation would have an entirely different (and way better) relationship with food.

3. by valereee on May 4, 2008 at 7:28 AM PDT

I guess I’m weird that I enjoy my cooking time. While I chop etc., I listen to NPR, sip a glass of wine, talk to family members, maybe catch up on a show I’ve TiVoed on the kitchen set. 60 minutes doesn’t seem that unreasonable to me.

4. by greg.turner on May 4, 2008 at 6:00 PM PDT

This is a great column! I love my time in the kitchen, too. I have some speakers rigged up under cabinets, and I plug in my iPod and listen to music while I prep. And I think people would be amazed what can they can get done while chicken braises.

I also think cooking teaches a person to be more mindful of time in general. I wrote a post about it on my blog

5. by Rachel on May 7, 2008 at 11:05 AM PDT

There seems to be a mentality now that says that if you aren’t going to cook a gourmet meal, then you don’t have time to cook. No middle ground seems to exist in people’s minds that you can cook a nutrious meal from scratch, using standard cooking techniques (like measuring) and it won’t take forever.

If every restaurant, deli, fast food place, doughnut shop, and Starbucks disappeared, people, no matter how busy they were, would suddenly be making time to cook. Because we have other choices, we like to think we don’t have time to cook. Most of us would have plenty of time if we stopped making so much time to watch TV, surf the net, or play video games.

I think the Food Network really helps perpatuate this myth that cooking is hard and people only have time for shortcuts. So many viewers are so enamored of the FN personalities that they treat their recipes as gospel.

6. by Meadowlarkgurl on May 7, 2008 at 11:32 AM PDT

I’ve been cooking from scratch (mostly) since January. Combined with exercise, I’ve dropped 30 lbs and feel so much better. My husband’s cholesterol has dropped drastically. I attribute this to eating right, and quite honestly, the only way I can figure to “eat right” is to cook it myself.

I do feel guilty now that I look back and realize I spent a lot of years feeding my (now adult) children processed foods and pizza. :( I can only hope they do a better job than I did.

I figure I can pay now with my TIME, or I can pay later with my HEALTH. I prefer the former.

7. by Loulou on May 7, 2008 at 12:02 PM PDT

This hits the mark!
Cooking should be a delight, not a chore, and it always pains me to hear people think of it as something they “have” to do.
Isn’t sitting down to a fresh, delicious meal with family and friends one of life’s greatest pleasures?

I cook chicken the same way - stovetop first, oven last - and make a chickpea, olive oil, garlic and lemon zest melange to go with it. Fabulous!

8. by marz on May 12, 2008 at 5:21 PM PDT

Great column!! I have many opinions on this subject. Too many for this comment area.

Carrie, your fish packet idea can work for the whole meal. Place a pile of cooked rice under the fish and throw other vegetables in there too. Top with a little sauce of some kind. Wrap it up tighlty and bake it as usual. Sometimes I make these little meal packets in single servings for late family members or for work the next day.

Cooking at home is a vital tool in keeping my weight in check. Along with controlling the fat, salt, and sugar content, I’m convinced that spending time cooking a meal suppresses my appetite.

9. by Carrie Floyd on May 13, 2008 at 8:56 AM PDT

Thanks everyone for the solidarity—it’s nice to know I’m not alone in the kitchen on this one! Marz, I like your idea of getting the whole meal into one packet. I was just flipping through one of Jamie Oliver’s books and earmarked the recipe for leeks, white beans, fresh herbs and chicken wrapped in foil. Loulou, the chickpeas with chicken sound delicious.

10. by anonymous on Oct 30, 2009 at 7:05 PM PDT

Please, more articles. Spicy stuff. SCF.

11. by anonymous on Nov 19, 2009 at 10:28 PM PST

How about some taco recipes Carrie. SCF.

12. by anonymous on Nov 14, 2012 at 12:23 PM PST

Need a little help in the restaurant industry? Try going to to take the weight of staffing and job searching off your shoulders.

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Kitchen Limbo

Carrie Floyd, Culinate’s recipe editor, bends over backward to keep everything balanced in the home kitchen.

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