Let’s Take Guilt Off the Menu

Life today is full of new stresses — figuring out what’s for dinner shouldn’t be one of them

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When COVID-19 lockdown fell on us like an unwelcome weighted blanket almost six(!) months(!) ago(!), like everyone else, I teetered between disbelief, despair, and a feeling of total helplessness. Without warning, it felt like the shape of our days had been yanked away, and in its place was…nothing. No plans, no fall back, no real purpose. Then, like pretty much everyone else, I threw myself into creating new ways to fill the days between snack time and bath time. Sourdough baking? Check. Fledgling clueless gardening? Check. Elaborate kids crafts? Sigh…check.

In the midst of it all, I was cooking more and more involved meals for my family. I’ve always loved to cook, but suddenly, it seemed like I’d found my calling for the moment…orchestrating breakfast, lunch and dinner on the daily for three hungry gents of various sizes. Why not make it interesting and take on a few challenging new food projects, right? I whipped out a brand new notebook to log my ambitious daily menus. How cool would it be to look back once life was back to normal in a month or two (don’t even bother laughing at my naïveté), and see how I’d flexed my kitchen muscle when I had some extra time to spare?

And so began the movable feast-style meal parade. Here’s an early sample of the Mani family’s daily consumption:

April 9

Breakfast — Sourdough pancakes with strawberries

Lunch — South Indian onion sambhar with roasted baby potatoes, cabbage kootu, spinach saute

Afternoon snack — buckwheat chocolate chunk cookies (baking with the kids)

Dinner — Roasted beet salad, saffron tagliatelle with asparagus, peas, and spiced butter

Feeling hungry? Here’s another day’s list of menus, this time from a couple months later:

June 17

Breakfast — Avocado, ricotta, and cherry tomato toasts

Lunch — Japanese fried rice with sunny side up eggs and chili oil

Afternoon — Fresh cherry toasted almond ice cream with straciatella ribbon

Dinner — Roti, black eyed peas dal with coconut, cauliflower saute

Looks good, right? Now, here’s a final sample, this one from a couple weeks ago:

Aug 11

Lunch — Pasta with Rao’s marinara + broccoli and olives, arugula salad

Dinner — Tofu lettuce wraps (made with chermoula-spiced tofu from Costco)

Ahem. Notice anything?

Look, I’m not attempting false advertising here. I’ve made an amazing array of new foods over the past several months. Many have been added to the permanent repertoire of dishes I will definitely be making again. I still really love to cook. Just not all the time. There are definitely days where I’m fussing over lasagna roll ups or busting out multi-course menus. But those have become equal-opportunity with the days where dinner means thawing a few Trader Joe’s quinoa burgers, topping it with channa masala — also from TJ’s frozen aisle — and dressing it up with some chopped onion, cilantro and yogurt. (For Indians or others in the know: yup, I just created the fastest hack version of samosa chole chaat. Boom! You’re welcome.) Just typing those last few sentences should have been cringeworthy. There was a time when using pre-packaged shortcuts would have made me break out in hives. Store-bought marinara would have brought on a full-fledged identity crisis.

What our August menu plans really demonstrate is this: I’ve embraced the concept of simplicity in the kitchen. And I think so many of us can relate. The fatigue of being an endless short-order cook is very real, and something’s gotta give. In our family’s case, the first thing to give was breakfast. Sometime in June, I completely relinquished control of the morning meal to Vivek. My husband is not someone who willingly spends much time in the kitchen. But breakfast? That, he can do. The kids ate a lot of cereal, scrambled eggs, and avocado toast in the first month after he took over. But I honestly did not care. This meal wasn’t my problem anymore, and it felt SO good. Now and then, I’d make a special AM guest appearance to slide some waffles onto everyone’s plates, but slowly, Vivek started expanding his own rotation. Cheesy omelettes (now with zhoug, thanks to his cousin’s genius spin that we discovered while traveling together) and creative smoothies snuck into the mix. Banana pancakes got more interesting, jazzed up with cinnamon, chocolate chips and peanut butter. It’s gotten to the point where I think he may actually do breakfast better than me. Hallelujah. Bonus points for the fact that I’ve somehow facilitated a special daily time for Vivek to spend with the boys before he locks himself into a bedroom to work.

The other thing that’s happened is our family has come to appreciate the words “take out” like never before. I’ll admit to being a take out snob in the years BC (Before-Covid, obviously). Ordering in often felt like cheating, and there were only a few spots that met my standards — I would sometimes feel like I could have just made the meal better myself, and yes, I’m aware that makes me sound like an asshole. Would it help if I promise I’m (mostly) not? Anyway, all those notions are out the window these days. It’s not about whether or not I can make it better. It’s the bone-deep relief that comes from not having to stand in front of the fridge and figure out what we’re eating ONE. MORE. TIME. And if that means sacrificing a little on taste, I’m on board. Actually, let’s be real. The fact that I didn’t cook it makes the food taste even better! Plus, if one of my kids (cough, the younger one) happens to whine and push his plate away for the hundredth time, it stings so much less when the only effort I put into a meal was opening the Doordash app.

It’s not about whether or not I can make it better. It’s the bone-deep relief that comes from not having to stand in front of the fridge and figure out what we’re eating ONE. MORE. TIME.

Vivek and I have also started ranking our take out options. There’s “regular take out”, there’s “weekend take out”, and then there’s that upper echelon — “really good take out”. Very few restaurants make the cut for this final category. You’ll usually know when we’ve eaten really good take out, because we have an extra spring in our step and all wear slightly more smug expressions during our walk around the neighborhood that evening.

Before COVID hit, if you had suggested I stop making breakfast for my family, or take more shortcuts in my cooking, or just relax and order in more, I’d have put all those actions into one judgmental basket called “kitchen laziness”. And guess what? I still call it that, but now, I mean those words as a genuine compliment. Why not be lazy and take shortcuts? Why not use canned beans instead of soaking your own? Why slave away for hours, when something you throw together quickly is just as capable of nourishing the ones you love? Why not admit you’re just not feeling it that day and give yourself a pat on the back, NOT for powering through, but for throwing in the towel? If anything, life in quarantine has shown us that we’re all resilient individuals, capable of adapting to challenging circumstances. So why are we still trying to prove ourselves? What’s left to prove anymore anyway, and to whom?

If anything, I’m reclaiming my time these days, and I feel less obligated to justify exactly what I’m doing with that time. It’s funny, when we had packed daily and social calendars, I somehow felt guilty for squeezing in little slices of time for myself, just to do nothing. Surprisingly, now that I’ve been released from most of these commitments, instead of feeling like I should make every moment count, I’m learning to treat myself with a little more grace. I still spend the majority of my days with my children. But just like I’ve become more relaxed in the kitchen, I find myself relaxing more around the kids, too. The need to entertain them or fill their days with activity has taken a cliffside nosedive. If I want to read, write, jog, stare into space, or nap, I simply do it. Guilt, apologies, second-guessing? Those are not on the menu anymore.

The most eye-opening part of making these changes, in the kitchen or otherwise, is that none of them seem to make an iota of difference in how I am perceived. If anything, the kids have become more independent and less demanding. My husband doesn’t care what I do as long as I’m happy — lucky me. As for me, I believe I’m a better cook now. I can pull a pretty kickass meal together in fifteen minutes flat. I could do that before quarantine, too, but I value it more now. I’m also in pursuit of flavor instead of perfection. My list of pantry powerhouse condiments is growing. (I’m looking at you, Trader Joe’s Chile Onion Crunch.) The shift in my priorities has other benefits, too. I still make a good (socially distanced) dinner guest. If it’s been a leisurely day, I’ll likely show up with dessert still warm from the oven. Baking remains a meditative release for me. But text me to ask if I’d like to join a potluck in a few hours? I’ll be right over, freshly showered, bearing a bottle of wine and something in a bag that I’m proud to say I didn’t cook myself.

In the midst of furiously typing up this piece yesterday, we received the latest issue of Bon Appetit in the mail. The magazine is going through a reckoning of its own these past few months (if you’re interested, just Google the words “Adam Rapoport” and prepare for a dumpster fire of massive proportions), and it’s been fascinating to watch the editors decide what the future of Bon Appetit will look like. Imagine my emotions when I laid eyes on their cover story this month: “Lessons from Our Quarantine Kitchens — Enough with all the chopping, Take a night off, and Stop soaking your beans!!!” I mean….come on now! A group of professional chefs and food writers just walked into my house and validated my life choices. I believe this is where my mic drops.

Written by

Often reading, writing, or teaching. Always cooking, baking, and eating. Words in Human Parts, Curious, Modern Parent. Connect on Twitter @purnima_mani

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