Recently I shared my thoughts on how making dinner doesn’t need to be as hard as we make it over at The Huffington Post. If you’ve clicked over from there, welcome! If you haven’t read that piece yet, I’d love if you do.
Just a few short years ago, I could barely boil an egg.
Although my mother put “dinner on the table” almost every night, I didn’t grow up cooking. A divorced mother of four, Mom ran a daycare out of our home; she was working from 6 in the morning until 6 or later at night. Once in a while I was allowed to add water to instant potatoes or whisk the (also instant) gravy, but more often, my job was to help keep an eye on the daycare kids while she ran into the kitchen and threw something in the oven.
So when I got married at 19 and had my first baby at 20, my culinary skills were extremely limited. While, by that time, I’d picked up a few skills – how to scramble an egg, toss a pancake on the griddle, or make almost any boxed or bagged noodle meal – I was far from feeling comfortable in the kitchen.
The only kinds of meat I ever bought were boneless, skinless chicken breasts and occasionally – and which I would only add to jarred spaghetti sauce – ground beef. I read and re-read my copy of The Joy of Cooking, but didn’t understand many of the terms and was so intimidated by the instructions that the only thing I ever made out of it was banana bread.
Slowly, through my 20s, I added new recipes and ingredients to my repertoire, and we began to cook a lot more for parties or big weekend meals. But as a working mom of many, I still had myself convinced that I was “too busy” to cook during the week.
I don’t even like to cook, I told myself. It’s not fair that I have to do it every single day! Aren’t there better ways to use my limited time? While I could force myself to throw together a weeknight dinner of tacos or spaghetti, our nightly meal was just as likely to be takeout pizza or sub sandwiches.
Here’s the weird thing about those “busy” weeknights, though: at the end of all that hurrying, the rush-rush-rush to get some kind of dinner on the table – which was often gobbled up by the time I even sat down – and the clearing away and dish-washing, and the driving kids around and homework shuffle, I felt like we hadn’t actually done anything. Most nights felt boring and unsatisfying, even in spite of the time I’d “saved” by not really cooking.
Because I perceived the nightly shuffle as boring, burdensome, and an all-around drag, I’d fallen into a pattern: I’d avoid the kitchen until the last minute, and then try to ‘whip something together’, feeling frazzled the whole time. If the kids didn’t love whatever dish I’d put almost no thought into, I’d feel put-out and grumpy. We were all in such a hurry we barely spoke during weeknight meals.
But all that hurrying didn’t seem to actually open up any time for important things. The kids were often still finishing their homework at 8:30 or 9:00. The kitchen rarely felt clean. I wasn’t any more productive in my work. By the time everyone went to bed, I just wanted to hole up alone with my computer and zone out, rather than spend time with my husband.
A couple of years ago, the solution came to me: maybe what I needed was to set aside more time, not less, in the kitchen – even if it meant limiting our evening activities, or having dinner later than we were used to.
What if, instead of squeezing the dinner process into the smallest possible amount of time, I gave myself a reason to enjoy the process of getting dinner on the table?
What if I shut down the laptop, ignored my email, fired up a great podcast or some of my favorite music, and turned that “witching hour” into a fun, productive time that I could use not just for cooking dinner, but also for tidying up, meal planning, helping the kids with their homework, dealing with permission slips and fundraiser forms, and just in general, being available to and engaged with my family and home?
So I started something that I eventually started to call ”the Kitchen Hour.”
And the effects were amazing.
After I set aside a block of time every day to focus – really focus – on the intersection of home and family, the entire household ambiance seemed to shift. The kitchen stayed cleaner. We ate better meals. The evenings felt less chaotic. I kept up better with meal planning and the family calendar. The kids lingered over their homework longer (at the dining-room table) and asked more questions. When the boys “interrupted” me, it didn’t feel like an interruption. It just felt like…life, and warmer and cozier and less fractured than before.
And surprise: I went from having zero confidence in the kitchen to being a pretty decent home cook. And with that improvement and confidence came another, bigger, surprise: I somehow found myself starting to, well, actually enjoy cooking.
Rather than going for the same easy ingredients at the grocery store, I found myself enjoying the challenge of trying new cuts of meat, new flavorings, new veggies, new cooking techniques. The more time I spent in the kitchen, the more confident a cook I became. And the more confidence I found, the more joy I found in preparing the nightly meal.
I still love quick meals, and yes, there are definitely hectic nights when I rely on frozen foods and boxes to feed my family. But I came to realize that dinner time is no fun for anyone (least of all me) if I treat it like an unpleasant but necessary evil. It’s not just about the food, but about setting aside time for family and, yes, fun.
Of course, it’s required some sacrifices. We can’t fit everything into every evening; we’ve had to cut back socializing during the week, and have had to become more organized and disciplined about homework, chores, and our own work schedules.
But it’s been totally worth it. Whenever I try a new recipe and it gets the thumbs-up; whenever I go to bed with a shiny sink and clean cupboards, whenever I feel relaxed at 8:30 instead of frazzled, I can tie it directly to my decision to embrace, not resent, the nightly meal.
Now that I have two teenagers, I recognize just how precious and fleeting this time together as a family is. Family meals are a wonderful opportunity to sit face-to-face with the people you love the most. Preparing that meal is only a burden if we make it one.
I believe food matters. But it’s not just about cooking, is it? It’s about carving out space, about saying “this is important to me and I will protect it.” It’s about sharing a glass of wine and conversation with my husband as I whip up a sauce (that five years ago I never would have been able to “find the time” to try) and being available to help my son study for his spelling test while the chicken cooks.
Some nights it’s about a roast and all the fixings, some nights I just put a nice tablecloth out for a quickie meal of pasta and jarred sauce. Eating good food is one important goal, but what really counts is that we all show up in the same place together.
Whether you’re a seasoned cook or can’t even boil water, I believe anyone can benefit from setting aside time to be in the kitchen and then seeing what happens.
Why not give it a shot? Try a new recipe. Just read a new recipe. Take inventory of your pantry. Make cookies with your child. Clean out the mystery meat at the back of the fridge. Talk to your spouse. Set the table with the fancy dishes, even if dinner came out of a box.
See if you can’t convince yourself to love – or at least, not loathe – your time in the kitchen, too.
It’s worth a try, right?