As I end the Ina In A Year project this week, 963 recipes later, I am here today to propose a scandalous truth for you to consider.
The hardest part of cooking isn’t cooking.
Have you ever watched a cooking show? Or perhaps you’ve seen a 45-second cooking segment on a morning show? Or one of those fast-motion 10-second meal prep videos on social media? Whatever the format, the idea is the same. Someone walks up to the stove and starts cooking. It looks so easy. And fast! “I can cook!” you think. (And, by the way, you absolutely can cook!)
I believe that anyone can cook. Cooking requires you to follow directions and to perform a certain series of tasks in a particular order while looking for visual cues before you move on to the next step. If you have a well-written recipe, if you know the visual cues to look for, and if you can follow instructions, then voila! you can make pancakes, or pot roast, or peanut butter cookies. Cooking isn’t the hard part. Cooking is the fun part.
What no one tells you, what no one shows you on camera, what no one addresses or teaches or explains for all the world to see is the mountain of work you have to do before you step up to the stove and begin to actually cook.
In my opinion, the hardest part of cooking is not the cooking.
The hardest part of cooking is the planning and the preparation.
By the end of this week, I will have cooked 963 recipes in 365 days. Yes, this much cooking was a lot of work from a sheer volume stand point, but the cooking wasn’t the truly difficult part. That part was fun!
The difficulty of the Ina In A Year project came in the planning and the prep work. I had a team of four other people (each with different roles) to help share the massive work load related to cooking 963 recipes in 365 days, and not one of those four people did a single minute of cooking.
The same is true at home, but on a much smaller scale. When I go to cook dinner for my family, the actual cooking is easy when compared to the process of planning and preparing.
Let me give you an example.
Let’s say you decide to cook dinner for your family. Here is a brief run through of everything that has to happen for you to cook a meal at home.
Step one. Choose a menu.
What are you going to cook?
What do you want to eat?
What will your kids enjoy eating?
What sounds good for a weeknight that isn’t also too much trouble?
What can you cook in less than an hour while also tending to your children?
What was that dish your coworker was talking about last week?
Where was that instagram post about something you thought your family would like?
You run through all the questions, and let’s say you settle on Chicken Thighs with Potatoes, Parmesan Roasted Broccoli, and Roasted Carrots.
Step two. Find the recipes.
Was it on Pinterest?
Was it on a blog?
Was it in a cookbook?
Was it printed out at home?
Where did you put it last time you made it?
Maybe you can recall it from memory?
If you google it can you find it again?
Is this the right one or was it a different one?
Tracking down the recipe can be a scavenger hunt. And if you’ve never made the dish before, it’s also a gamble. Maybe it’s a well-written recipe, maybe it isn’t.
Step three. Make a grocery list.
You have a menu. You found the recipes. Now, it’s time to figure out what you need from the store. So you make a grocery list, hopefully not forgetting any vital ingredients.
Step four. Get the groceries.
Whether you shop in person or order on line or utilize a curbside pickup service (like the one at Central Market), it takes time to get the ingredients you need. Once you have them in your possession, then you put them away.
Step five. Prep the ingredients.
This is where the real slog of kitchen work comes in. Most recipes require you to do something to the ingredients before you use them. Chop the onion. Grate the cheese. Mince the garlic. Beat the eggs. Cube the bread. Peel the apples. Marinate the chicken. And on and on and on.
Step six. Cook.
Only now, six steps in, do you come to the point in the process where you actually get to cook. Are you worn out yet? Over it? Wondering why you wanted to do this in the first place? I hear you. It takes a long time to get to this point where the cooking begins. So you cook. Mix, saute, bake. Done. Yes, there is skill and nuance, but nothing you can’t handle.
Step seven. Enjoy.
You eat the dinner. Hopefully it was worth it.
Step eight. Dishes.
As I tell my children, cleaning is part of cooking. If you don’t want to clean, don’t cook.
Most cooking shows or morning show segments or high-speed videos begin at step six. See the problem? Steps one through five get delegated out to a staff of people, hidden in post-production, never spoken of, and definitely never acknowledged as a necessary skill. Why aren’t there shows on Food Network about how to make a grocery list or organize recipes or the best way to prep food before you cook?
Hear me say, I love cooking. I love all of it, step one through step eight. But the hard work of cooking is all the steps that come before you begin to actually cook. These steps take time, thought, and energy. I am convinced that most people who say they don’t enjoy cooking actually don’t enjoy the steps leading up to cooking. Or, they are so overwhelmed by these steps that they give up and walk away.
Why am I writing about this? Because I want you to know I get the challenges we face as home cooks. I want to acknowledge how much the work of cooking can be a hurdle to cooking. I believe there are ways to make the work less overwhelming, and I am working on ideas to make this process something we can talk about together going forward.
I want you to know I am in this with you! I believe in you! In the mean time, take heart, home cook. Planning and prepping a meal is an achievable goal. Whether it’s twenty recipes a week or one recipe a month, the end result is always worth the effort.