I always used to know when it was time to get the kids from school, even without looking at my watch. I’d be focused on my computer screen, trying to get something finished, and then finally look up just in time to frantically pull on a jacket and race to the bus stop. My internal clock was shaped by school drop-offs and pickups, baseball games and piano lessons. My own stuff, like work or the gym or meeting a friend for coffee, squeezed in around their schedules.
WELL, THAT’S ALL CHANGED NOW, HASN’T IT?
Whether your family is doing remote schooling all year or playing a delightfully fun game in which your kids sometimes go to school but also might be sent home at any given time, none of the usual daily rhythms apply. Instead, the hours and days morph together without any parties or events to punctuate our weeks and months. All we can do is muddle through endless zooms and homework and housework and watch the news for any sign of a true and real end to all of this.
And, oh yeah, we cook.
There’s a whole other essay to be written about the phases our love for cooking has collectively gone through. Early in the pandemic, the romance was young and fresh, so we blocked off huge chunks of time and didn’t mind getting a little spendy with ingredients. We wanted to make a good impression. People were braising freaking short ribs for hours on end, fermenting their own kombucha, baking batches upon batches of cinnamon rolls. Then everyone suddenly got really into sourdough bread for a solid six months. Finally, as with any romance, we started to get a little annoyed with the cooking. Didn’t you just cook yesterday? Doesn’t it know you still have other things you like to do? And why so messy, cooking?!? Why you got to be that way?
And right there at that moment, when my love affair with my kitchen was at a breaking point, I was finally able to push through that awkward doubting part of the relationship and really commit. Sure, fine. We may have taken a break for a bit too. I flirted with takeout and frozen dinners and ordered meal kit services for my husband to cook, but they left me feeling flat in the end. I finally went crawling back to my own cooking, hat in hand, and promised to really try to make it work this time. I would be patient. I wouldn’t have unreasonable expectations. I would try to be truly present.
And, my goodness, has it been wonderful.
It was there all along, in the utter relentlessness of having to feed a family multiple times a day. The sheer necessity of it all has forced a new daily rhythm upon me. I found myself enjoying, even looking forward to, the simple act of preparing lunch and dinner for my family. (They’re on their own for breakfast. I’m not a saint.)
The first key to making it work was to have a plan. Some weeks I’ll plan out four or five days worth of meals and then shop for all the ingredients at once. (I use a meal planning service called Cook Smarts to help me. There are several out there.) Some weeks I’ll walk over to the local store every afternoon to pick up just what I need for dinner and lunch the next day. There’s room to prepare something on a whim, some recipe that caught my eye or an old family favourite, but there’s also a plan for when I’m flush out of ideas. Taking the hand-wringing and guesswork out of cooking makes it twice as easy. And we definitely still get take out!
I know grocery shopping has been fraught this year. We have faced empty shelves and long lines and a constant fear of infection. Even for those of us who love shopping for groceries, it’s been stressful. Many others have vowed never to set foot in a supermarket again. I have started getting pantry staples delivered so I can duck in and out of stores just to grab fresh ingredients. I often shop after dinner, just before the store closes, when it is nearly empty. And during the growing season, I subscribe to a local farm box that keeps us in seasonal produce.
Ultimately, I’ve found comfort in wrapping up work and stepping into my small kitchen.
I pull the swinging door shut behind me and put on a podcast. I turn on the oven to preheat or start a pot of water on the stove and begin my dance. I’m often emptying the dishwasher and washing up from lunch at the same time as I’m making dinner. Chopping and stirring, rinsing and loading, tasting and tidying, completely engaged in a productive physical activity that gets me out of my head. It’s an escape from my swirling thoughts. It provides an end to the workday that could otherwise drag on in the absence of practices and lessons to get to. It’s a freaking respite, is what it is.
I never expected cooking for my family to feel like anything but a chore. But the meals we’ve enjoyed together mark the passing of time when there’s precious little else going on. It has given me permission to claim that space and time for myself alone. And after it took so long to finally succumb to this simple daily ritual, I find myself looking ahead to busier times, already nostalgic for what I have now.