The marvelous Elayne Boosler once joked that she planned to open a restaurant designed for single folks. Rather than have tables and chairs, she'd set up a series of kitchen sinks over which her customers would stand and eat.
Nine nights out of 10, I eat regular meals at my dining table, from a plate or bowl rather than right out of the pan. I use cloth napkins, too; at six for a quarter from a rummage sale, they're both cheap and eco-friendly.
But check out my meal the next night and it will look familiar. That's because I'm a devotee of the one-pot-glop theory of cooking: chili, stew, soup, casseroles, pasta, curry.
Make that the big-pot-glop theory: I cook a large batch of whatever-it-is and eat it for days, then cook something else.
April Dykman recently wrote about a way to cut the grocery bill: Eat like a peasant. I'll go her one better: Eat like a lazy peasant and you'll save not just money, but time.
I'm risking pissing off a whole bunch of people, but here goes: I think we spend way too much time focusing on what we should eat.
This isn't intended as a slam against adventurous cooks or people for whom a varied menu is important. Nor am I unaware of the many world cuisines that are fairly easy to prepare. But that doesn't mean I need to learn to cook them all, or even more than a few of them.
So if you, like me, don't want to spend much time dithering about food, consider this radical dietary approach:
- Look for healthy, tasty, easy-to-prepare recipes.
- Cook them in big pots.
- Eat them until they're gone.
- Make another big pot of something.
Polenta and pitiful rice
Or take a day or two off from those big pots. If I don't feel like soaking beans or chopping vegetables I sometimes just “pick,” i.e., I cobble collations together from whatever's at hand. Canned black beans with a bit of salsa and cheese wrapped in a flour tortilla from the bread outlet. A green salad topped with sliced hard-boiled eggs, slivers of cheese (if I have any) and drained tuna. Crackers and cheese and sliced tomatoes. Pancakes and homemade yogurt with fruit.
Sometimes all I eat for supper is a bowl of hot grains: cornmeal mush (which you can call “polenta” if that makes you feel more worldly), oatmeal with dried fruit and flaxseed, or even rice and hot milk with cinnamon and a little sugar (a great way to use up leftover rice).
If I don't want to eat the rice with milk, there's always a stir-fry: whatever veggies and/or meat are in the fridge or freezer, with a splash of soy and a little rice vinegar. Sometimes that ends up being what I call “pitiful rice,” based mostly on a grated carrot (the only vegetable I always have on hand) cooked in a bit of bacon fat with onions and garlic (if I've got them) and sauced as noted above. Not the most nutritious stir-fry ever, but the rice turns a pretty color from the carrot juice.
As long as I don't skip too many real meals, and as long as “picking” doesn't translate to “a bag of Doritos and a Diet Coke,” I won't perish.
All leftovers are wanted and needed
Right now you might be wailing about how boring this all sounds. If so, I have a simple solution: Don't follow my advice. Keep doing what you do if it works for you.
But some of us just aren't interested enough to make variety a priority. Myself, I love knowing there's a big bowl of something-or-other in the fridge that I can just heat and eat. Usually I add a side salad from the bowl of washed greens I keep in the fridge.
I see two advantages to this system:
- Cook once, eat multiple times. So easy.
- No waste. Food never goes bad in my fridge because I won't let it. All leftovers are wanted and needed.
As for disadvantages, I can't see any — unless it's the sameness. If you're the kind of person who must have variety, then eating the same thing even twice in a week might repulse you.
But that's why freezers were invented. Make the big pot of food, eat some, freeze the rest in small containers. Make another big pot the next night, eat some, etc.
Soon you'll have lather-rinse-repeated yourself into a full freezer and can take a couple weeks off from cooking at all.
An essential human need
This is a country of food abundance, yet our comestible blessings don't seem to mean much. We must constantly tempt our jaded palates with a new potato-chip flavor, a rediscovered heirloom vegetable, beef from a massaged and hand-fed steer, coffee beans grown under organic shade cloth (or, worse, shat out by a civet cat). Any day now I expect to see an entire Food Network program devoted to free-range pickles.
Think about that for a moment: an entire cable channel set up to riff on an essential human need, a need which far too many people have trouble obtaining even in its most basic form. That kid in line at a refugee camp won't wrinkle his nose at a bowl of corn-and-soy gruel and ask for fusion cookery.
Whereas we have slow food, raw food, Paleo, gluten-free, locally sourced, vegan — a cuisine for every cause. Heck, we even have “comfort food,” an entire category of grub that we eat in order to change our moods.
Understand: I know that some people can or choose to eat only certain kinds of foods. After my daughter's bout with Guillain-Barre syndrome, she can no longer stomach beef; she wants to eat it but it makes her physically sick. My sister has been a vegetarian for a couple of decades. My grandmother had celiac, which she insisted on pronouncing as “Celica,” like the old Toyota model. (I miss her.)
People can eat whatever they like. But they shouldn't feel compelled to produce a brand-new meal every night unless that's the sort of thing they really like to do.
I'm not a picky eater. I work a lot of hours. Generally, I just want a plate or bowl of something hot and brown.
Or red: Some weeks I'll eat chili for six or seven nights straight. I cook the pinto beans myself (sooo cheap), buy the no-salt tomatoes, and use a very small amount of beef or chicken. It's frugal. It's healthy. It's tasty. More to the point, it's here, and all I need to do is heat it up.
Hurrah for the peanut-butter spoon
Again, I'm not saying that you have to live on the same three carbs for the rest of your days, or that you shouldn't cook a different world cuisine every night. What I'm saying is that no-fuss meals can add up to decent savings of time as well as money.
My time is valuable to me. Do I want to spend it chiffonading cabbage or hand-dicing a platter of steak tartare? Or would I be just as happily fed with a tasty bowl of homemade chicken-vegetable soup and a little salad?
Nope, and yep.
I used to think that I needed to make a full (and different!) meal every night of my life. But I really don't. And neither do you, unless you want to.
So if you're pressed from time due to a big project — doctoral thesis, community theater, childbirth — give one-pot-glopping a try. Make a big batch of something you really like and eat it three times in five or six days. Then take the time you would have spent chopping, slicing and dicing and spend it in some other way. Like, say, on yourself.
Even if you cook most of the time, admit it: Some nights you just don't feel like it/just aren't that hungry. On these occasions, why not give yourself permission to have a bowl of Cheerios or to enjoy an apple with the famous peanut-butter spoon?
You'll probably do just fine nutritionally, especially if you're not eating pitiful rice too often. Or making supper out of a bag of Doritos and a Diet Coke.
Author: Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman is an award-winning journalist who writes the Frugal Cool daily blog for MSN Money and blogs at DonnaFreedman.com .
Donna has lived the frugal life. She has been a college dropout, a single mom, a newspaper reporter in Chicago and Alaska, and a late-in-life university student. She has also picked tomatoes, worked on a chicken farm, managed an apartment building, inspected and packed bottles in a glass factory, babysat, cleaned houses, mystery-shopped, set type, and sold doughnuts, movie tickets, fresh Jersey produce and, when things got bad, her own blood.
While getting divorced she went back to school and helped to support a disabled adult daughter by working a handful of part-time jobs.
Donna has freelanced for numerous magazines and newspapers. Her work has won awards from organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists, the Women's Sports Foundation, the Association for Women in Communications and the Society of American Travel Writers. A resident of Seattle, she is the mother of
one daughter, Abigail Perry â€“ whoâ€™s also a writer. Go figure.