It may be a new year and a new decade, but people still have busy lives, pressure-filled jobs and financial worries. Luckily, a tasty meal with friends and family can do a lot to alleviate that stress. Following are ideas for making mealtimes the most relaxing and enjoyable parts of your day.
1. Cook more
The simplest way to save money on food is to prepare it yourself. Plus, that’s the only way to make a dish exactly how you want it. The creativity involved in making a meal and the pleasure in serving it to friends and family is the perfect antidote to a stressful day at the office.
2. Be adventuresome
When you do go out, make it count. Try a new restaurant or a new cuisine. Stop ordering your old standby menu items and pick the most interesting thing on the menu – something you definitely couldn’t or wouldn’t make at home.
The same goes for your own kitchen. Seek out new ingredients and try new recipes. Make something that seems hard or intimidating, like homemade bread, pie or pasta.
Pushing culinary boundaries is the only way for cooks to improve, from novices to Michelin-starred chefs. And if your attempt fails miserably, laugh it off and order a pizza.
3. Eat less meat, more veggies
No need to go totally vegetarian if you’re a committed carnivore, but cutting meat out of your diet once or twice a week can boost your health, help you lose weight and save you money on groceries.
Occasionally restricting yourself to vegetables, legumes and grains can also inspire creativity in the kitchen, and possibly introduce you to new ingredients and combinations you didn’t know you’d like.
Meatless Mondays, a non-profit that works with the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, has information, articles and recipes at its Web site, meatlessmondays.com.
4. Eat locally and seasonally
Food politics aside, eating locally and seasonally makes sense from both an economic and a gastronomic standpoint. Produce tastes best when it is fresh, not when it is shipped across the country. Tomatoes you can buy in stores now can’t compare to ripe peak-season tomatoes, so why bother? Focus on delicious winter squash, green leafy vegetables and juicy citrus, and save the tomato recipes for July.
If you want to eat really locally, think about planting a small garden this spring, or just tending a few types of herbs on your kitchen windowsill. Everything tastes better when you grow it yourself.
5. Cook with other people
We all get stuck in a cooking rut sometimes. Cooking with others can help get us excited about spending time in the kitchen. Gather family or neighbors and cook a big meal together, head over to a friend’s house to tackle an intimidating cooking project or sign up for a cooking class at Foothill College or Whole Foods Market in Los Altos. Cooking together is a great way to pick up new techniques and share your knowledge with others.
6. Gather inspiration
Uninspired cooking is not much fun. Instead of making the same five recipes every week, pick up a new cookbook or two. From recent releases like Thomas Keller’s “Ad Hoc at Home” (Artisan, 2009) to classics like “The Silver Palate Cookbook” (Workman Publishing, 1982), it’s easy to find books laden with mouthwatering photographs and straightforward recipes.
Or head online, where thousands of food blogs beckon. Check out the gorgeous photography at smittenkitchen.com, the no-fuss entries at simplyrecipes.com and a slew of enticing vegetarian and whole-grain options at 101cookbooks.com.
If you like your recipes Town Crier-style, fellow food writer Eve Hill-Agnus and I have each recently started our own food blogs. Visit us at rootsoftaste.wordpress.com and viaviands.blogspot.com, respectively.
7. Make a list
Once a recipe has caught your eye, mark it. Whether it’s as simple as sticky-notes sticking out of cookbooks or as high-tech as a shared online document with links to specific Web sites, make sure you can find it later. Then, when you’re tempted to order takeout, flip through your list and see if you can make something more inspiring for dinner.
8. Equip your kitchen
You don’t need to spend money on fancy kitchen gadgets, but stress-free cooking does require some good-quality basics. Well-balanced knives (and sharpening tools), a thick wood cutting board, a heavy cast-iron skillet and some sturdy baking sheets will get you farther than you might think.
9. Snack well
Most people need more than three meals a day to keep them feeling full. So if you’re going to have a snack, why not make sure it’s something delicious? Rather than ripping open a prepackaged granola bar, spend a few hours on a Saturday afternoon making a big batch of your own and freezing them for snacks in the coming weeks. Or indulge mid-afternoon cravings with a slice of homemade zucchini bread or a blueberry muffin.
If your snacks are as tasty as your meals, you’ll be less likely to overeat at lunch or dinner in hopes of staving off hunger pangs – plus, homemade snacks are cheaper than their store-bought counterparts. And, most importantly, we all deserve a little deliciousness throughout the day.
10. Savor your food
No matter what, where, when or with whom you’re eating, take time to taste what you eat instead of just scarfing meals down so you can get back to work. Eating well is a luxury, so allow yourself some time to enjoy the food you make and share with family and friends this year.