Q. Dear Umbra,
I’m trying to cook more at home this year, because I — sort of — understand that that’s better for my health and for the environment. But how do I keep up the habit? I’m terrible at resolutions.
— Can’t Have Empty Fridge
A. Dear CHEF,
Oh, pal, I totally get it. You’re so far from alone! I have the worst willpower of anyone you’ve ever met. I’m fortunate that I really love cooking, because I find it meditative and soothing and I’m always happier when I do it. The things runners say about running — which, for the record, I don’t believe them — that’s how I feel about cooking.
But a lot of people feel about cooking the same way I feel about running! In other words, that it’s an alleged requisite of a so-called “healthy lifestyle,” but it also feels absolutely impossible to fit into daily life. So like any shiny new January healthy habit that you adopt intensively for a few weeks, it’s very easy for it to fall by the wayside as soon as spring comes around. Or earlier.
To help answer your question, I called up David Tamarkin, site director of Epicurious and the guy who came up with the COOK90 Challenge back in 2016. COOK90 is an annual New Year’s challenge to cook every meal at home for 30 days — three meals a day x 30 days = 90, get it? — with the goal of laying the foundation for a solid home-cooking habit for the rest of the year. This year, the challenge encouraged participants to cook more sustainably by prioritizing plant-based ingredients. I talked to Tamarkin about the joy, torment, and — surprise! — climate awareness that come out of committing to cooking at home. Here’s an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
To start super-simple, tell me why cooking is appealing to you, personally.
I wrote something for Healthyish last year about the mental health side of this. I was having some anxiety attacks and felt like cooking at home more would help. Because it affects all your health: financial, physical, mental, environmental. I think of cooking as a fundamentally healthy behavior. I really find it to be a meditative practice for me, and I think it is for a lot of people.
Regarding the environmental health part, this was the first year that the COOK90 Challenge incorporated an element of climate or ecological consciousness. How did that go?
This year is the most engagement we’ve ever seen, and I think that’s largely due to the sustainability aspect. The suggested recipes have very little animal protein, they’re focusing on vegetables. I think that gives a new dimension to the challenge — that was not born from it, but rather the other way around.
So you’re saying that maybe the fact that there’s this bigger purpose associated with this simple behavior change — doing your little part to make a more climate-friendly system! — is making it more successful? Like maybe some grander purpose serves as a solid motivation to keep a habit going?
I had not thought about that, but I think that’s a smart observation. Young people, especially, think more deeply about their behaviors and everything they do. I’m Gen X, I’m cynical — or my generation is cynical — and these young people are just so motivated by climate.
So what was your big environmental motivator, personally? Because there are so many in the food world, and they’re all kind of complicated.
It’s really about waste. When you’re at a restaurant, it’s so easy to not see the waste. But when you are cooking at home every day, or even just frequently, or even just once — you physically are putting wasted food in the trash, or compost, and you are really coming face to face with the food you’re wasting. I hate wasted food, from both a money and sustainability perspective. I think it’s so tacky to waste food! I think of deforestation and emissions that the food will emit in the landfill; I know we’re cutting down forests to grow more food that we will then throw away. It drives me fucking crazy, I can’t stand it. I just think it’s rude, on a really major scale!
I’m 100 percent with you. I’m obsessed with waste, in the sense that I’m obsessed with eliminating it.
Right — and when you’re cooking so much at home, you aren’t using so many single-use plastics, etc. And hopefully you’re not wasting food. The money I save and the plastic clamshells I’ve saved by not eating out for lunch every day, it’s endorphin-spiking for me. I feel like a little high, and I just want that to keep going.
I also get that endorphin spike! But I’m a little deranged. If you’re not deranged like we both are, apparently, what’s the best argument that you’ve found to get people to see cooking as enjoyable, and not a chore?
People talk a lot about time when they talk about cooking: How long is it going to take, I want something fast, I don’t want to spend all the time. The question I want them to think about instead is: Can you think about cooking as a way to spend your time? Think about what you’ll do that night; go home, watch an episode of Succession, and that’s just how you mentally organized your night. What if, instead, what you’re doing tonight is just cooking dinner? That’s how I’m spending my time! I’ll listen to music or a podcast or have this time to myself.
Oh, same, absolutely. My favorite thing is making pasta and singing the entirety of an Ariana Grande album.
We’ve gotten into this habit of thinking of cooking as something you have to do to get to the next thing. If you have kids or other family obligations, it definitely changes the math — I’d never tell a parent, like, “Oh just relax and cook! Don’t worry about it!” But for people who don’t, I think there’s a way to change the way you think about cooking: It’s a beneficial use of time; it’s your Monday night! I think that mind shift can be very helpful.
Beyond the big mental shift and principled aspects, what are some very practical bits of advice you have on maintaining a cooking-at-home habit?
Meal planning. One of my biggest takeaways was just that I needed to have a meal plan, a week’s grocery list. I had sort of ignored that. And it was horrible to be at work at 6 p.m. ready to go, and thinking, “I don’t have any idea what I’m going to eat. I have to cook, and I don’t know what it’ll be or what I’ll make it with!” It put me in a bad mood and a bad place. But just sitting down and being like: What will I eat? That cuts out so much stress, thinking, mental energy.
Right. And also just knowing what you’re supposed to have in your pantry, in your fridge, in your freezer, is huge. I remember the first time my ex-boyfriend and I went to Trader Joe’s to go grocery shopping for our first post-college, adult apartment. It was like we had simultaneous blackouts and could not remember what we liked to eat; the prospect of filling a kitchen from scratch seemed suddenly so baffling.
If you’re starting from scratch, there is a slight danger that you might buy a bunch of stuff and not use it up before it goes bad. I would focus on building a freezer pantry, because you have stuff that won’t perish: grains, frozen vegetables, bread. If you’re a smoothie person, you can put in blueberries and fruit.
I really think that you need to have onions and alliums because I really believe that nothing tastes good without onions. Some sort of fat, olive oil or butter, and some sort of acid, which could be lemon or sherry vinegar. In the fridge I’d always have strained yogurt or Greek yogurt. You also need canned beans, canned tomatoes, and I think you need chocolate.
Sell me on the chocolate. I mean, I’m already on board, but sell me on it.
Because chocolate — just a bar of dark but not too dark chocolate — will come in handy in so many ways. Make brownies, or just eat it straight, just for dessert. Or melt it — like I have this recipe in the book for a grilled chocolate sandwich. You’re just putting chocolate and any kind of jam. It’s a dessert or a snack or a lunch, in an emergency.