Staying Home: The Best Cooking Tips For Singles, Couples, & Families
Some recipes for culinary success during troubled times.
What seems to happen on a nearly universal scale when a crisis strikes? We gravitate to food collectively. Cooking it. Eating it. Sharing it. Even just talking about it. There’s a reason for this, of course: Regardless of what the latest fitness guru is telling you, food represents comfort. Gathering ingredients, preparing them and feeding ourselves and others empowers us and provides a tiny island of order in an otherwise vast sea of uncertainty.
And it should. Turning to cooking when we must be home, whether due to a pandemic, a recovery, a sabbatical, a hurricane or some other reason, can offer an opportunity to slow down and process. It’s the culinary manifestation of the five stages of grief.
When we find ourselves suddenly homebound, we often jump into a flurry of activity. We bake crusty loaves of bread or decadent sweets, denying that every calorie-laden bite might have implications. These things will make everything okay, we reason, as we package up a plate of cookies for our neighbors, while eating two straight from the sheet pan. Soon the reality of our circumstances sets in and we turn to comfort foods—cozy soups and roasts, cheesy bakes and pastas, the creation an attempt to assuage the inevitable anger.
At some point, at least in terms of recent events, we tire of the modern hunting and gathering ways, perhaps after our fourth attempt to find eggs and chicken breasts, and order takeout. Eventually though, the whole idea of expending the energy to eat again becomes just plain exhausting. What day is it? What time is it? Should I eat Cheetos dipped in peanut butter for lunch? Seems reasonable.
At long last (or maybe it’s only been three days), we settle into a routine and we start cooking sensibly, balancing homemade meals with takeout sprinkled in here and there to keep the family cooks sane and support our local restaurants. We acknowledge we cannot control much of anything around us. But we can control our response to it. We’ve arrived at acceptance—and that’s when it starts to get really interesting.
During this homebound season, there are ways to make cooking at home enjoyable and to grow through the process. Let’s take a closer look at a few of our favorite strategies for embracing meal preparation during extended time at home.
Cooking for Comfort and Order (For: families, couples, singles)
One of the best aspects of cooking is that, besides being a terrific way to pass time, it actually results in something useful: nourishment. Whether you’re cooking for one, for a couple, or for a family, a prolonged period at home is the perfect opportunity to put a little more effort into dishes. Go for that vaca frita that begs to be prepared. Craft the perfect bone broth. Take the time to grow a sourdough starter, and then come up with interesting ways to use it.
Not a fan of cooking? Then meal planning might, ironically, be a great skill to master right now. Even if you aren’t going to the office, planning and making dishes ahead in one marathon cooking day may ultimately save you time throughout the week. In addition, having meals that are ready to go leaves more time for learning new skills, like working from home or prioritizing a new fitness routine.
If you’re new to meal planning, don’t let the concept intimidate you. The term refers to cooking for an extended period all at once. Weekend days are an excellent time for meal prep. To get started, simply create your menu, and go to work preparing the dishes. For mornings, quiche, a breakfast casserole or frittata make excellent plan-ahead dishes, ensuring a healthy option before launching into online learning or that team video call. Lunches are also an excellent opportunity for meal prep. Prepare a batch of turkey taco meat and bake a few small sweet potatoes, or prepare salad greens. Add salsa, sour cream and a sprinkle of cheese, and you’ve just halted the daily lunchtime fridge forage.
With enough freezer space, even dinners can be made ahead. Consider adding your family’s favorite casserole to the weekly lineup, but make two batches instead of one, and pop the second one in the freezer. It will come in handy when the thought of cooking one more meal has you stressed to the max.
Why reach for junk food when a nourishing meal is ready and waiting in your pantry, fridge or freezer? If you’re looking for ideas, the recipes in this section may help, as well as those included in the cookbooks or on the sites listed in the accompanying story.
Cooking With the Kids (For: families)
Extended time at home offers a great chance to involve children in the kitchen. Including kids in the planning and preparation of meals imparts skills that will benefit them for a lifetime. From tots to teens, there are ways to incorporate the whole family in cooking.
Small children enjoy simple tasks. Patting out pizza dough will feel more like a game than a chore. Allowing tykes to use a butter knife to cut soft foods such as bananas (with the help of Mom or Dad, of course), and letting them make their own open-faced peanut butter sandwiches is craft time with edible benefits.
Asking kids of all ages to weigh in on the weekly menu builds interest and excitement in meal preparation, and listening to their suggestions and taking them seriously can help grow relationships. Sure, you may get tired of pizza, spaghetti and meatballs or tacos, but the meal they plan will engage them. And you can always challenge them to come up with new ways to approach an old favorite. Make pizza night vegetarian, for instance, or turn plain pizza into calzones. Or try fish tacos in place of the classic version.
Another way to get children out of the gaming chair and into the kitchen is to buy them their own cookbooks or equipment. Williams Sonoma offers a wonderful series of Junior Chef cookbooks, with easy-to-follow (but impressive) recipes that appeal to the palates of youngsters. While you’re at it, buy them an apron as well, a handy item for any serious cook.
Creating a family cookbook can be a fun and rewarding task. Begin by asking your kids to research recipes that they would like to include. Take it a step further by reaching out to friends and relatives to weigh in, and the project may just result in a volume worthy of gift-giving.
Finally, look for opportunities to make mealtimes special. Create rituals: Enjoy family tea times. Use the good china on Sundays. Plan picnics in the yard or in the living room floor, and let everyone contribute a finger food dish. Introduce kids to dishes that you loved as a child that may have fallen out of your family’s dinnertime circulation. The memories that you make during this time will stay with them forever.
One more tip, and this one benefits the parents: Expect kids to step up and help with the cleanup. Teach that it’s best to clean as you go, and if Mom and Dad are cooking, the kids should be doing the dishes. After all, many hands make light work.
Cooking as Social Connection (For: singles, couples, families)
Time restricted to home can seem isolating, but feelings of loneliness need not be inevitable. Thanks to technological advances, you are only alone if you want to be.
If you crave social interaction through food, there are many fun ways to connect. On social media, consider sharing a dish each day and telling your friends what makes it special. Tag them to encourage dialogue. It may provide inspiration for someone who can’t think of a dish for dinner. Or join a Facebook group devoted to cooking ideas. The “Cooking From Your Pantry” Facebook group, created in late March, amassed nearly 2,000 members in less than a week.
Virtual dinner parties, as well as happy hours and coffee dates, have quickly become all the rage during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hosting can be as simple as choosing a time and a platform. Zoom has recently gained traction, but Skype, FaceTime and Google Hangouts are also options for hosting multiple callers and are easy to master.
For coffee and happy hours, show up on the video call with beverage in hand. For a dinner party, put a little more time and effort into it by planning the meal ahead together, decorating the space, and even engaging in an after-dinner game or activity. To begin the party, just set up your laptop on your table with the camera facing you and the place settings, launch your app of choice, add your dish and enjoy.
Alternatively, consider engaging in something entirely new and out of the box, like swapping a traditional happy hour cocktail for a French-style “apero hour”—complete with French wine, aperitifs, snacks and delightful conversation. And don’t forget to include different generations. Gathering around a virtual table with grandparents offers a wonderful opportunity to swap stories and hand down generational wisdom.
Embracing home meal preparation doesn’t need to be drudgery. The simple, nourishing task of gathering the ingredients and creating something from them is noble, and an opportunity to slow down and savor a task well done. Do remember to take a night off now and again—or a breakfast or lunch—and order takeout from a neighborhood eatery. They deserve the support, and you deserve a break.
Read on in our feature Staying Home: Recipes for some of the recipes written about in this article and more.
Great Resources for Meal Planning
Looking for inspiration? Here are a few of my favorite go-to blogs and other cooking resources.
Blogs and Websites
ThePioneerWoman.com Long before she started her cooking show, Ree Drummond gained a massive following on her food blog. There are tips here for everything from making “16-minute meals” to meal prep. Some of our favorite recipes include Spicy Lemon Garlic Shrimp and Braised Short Ribs.
Epicurious.com The online presence of Bon Appétit has been a tried-and-true go-to in our household for years. Sign up for their free newsletter for weekly suggestions that run the gamut from practical to challenging dishes and drinks.
@Whole30Recipes Updated daily, this Instagram feed offers a constantly revolving lineup of the best and brightest from the Whole30 community. Each photo or video includes a complete recipe.
@VeganBowls Get your vegan inspiration from this IG, curated by Coconut Bowls, makers of eco-friendly products.
Jamie Oliver’s 5 Ingredients: Quick & Easy Food The high-energy British chef brings us another tome, and this one is focused on creating quick and simple dishes that use just five ingredients each (plus pantry staples). The companion television show is available on Hulu.
Williams Sonoma: The Junior Baker Cookbook A great gift for kids who love to cook, this compact cookbook challenges the notion of kid-friendly recipes with some surprisingly delicious offerings. Their recipe for Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies has quickly become a family favorite in our household.