How to Motivate Yourself to Cook

As I gear up for another semester teaching and writing simultaneously, I thought it seemed timely to tackle this question, from my friend Ariane via Facebook:

As an academic, how do you motivate yourself to cook and not make something quick? I’m always buying food and then not using it or forgetting it and it goes bad – tips? Good sources of recipes?

In my first year of graduate school, I lost 12 pounds. And though I had been trying to lose that weight for awhile, and was glad I did, it wasn’t in a good way. I dropped that much weight that quickly because I had all but stopped eating. Often, I would rush out of the house without breakfast, or with just a granola bar in hand, and would spend the entire day at my school office, not eating again until I returned home at night. The only thing that saved me was that I lived with a boyfriend at the time, and we cooked together, so I ate at least one meal a day.

I understand how easy it is to give in to the demands of a schedule and forget about cooking–or even eating. And in fact, I think this demand applies to people who work 9 to 5s as well as those of us in academia (which is, in fact, a full-time job, even if you see your professors go home for lunch). We all have at least eight to ten hours or work to do in a day, and often feel so mentally exhausted by the time we return home at the end of the day (many of us with work still to do) that we’d rather watch TV than do anything — especially cook.

Here are some of the things I’ve found that work for me to eat well, to cook whole foods, and not to completely destroy my health in the face of a demanding schedule.

Shop for Less — More Frequently

I’ve heard so many of my friend extol the virtues of shopping for specific recipes, both for being more budget-conscious and for making best use of the food you have. If you keep staples like grains, frozen goods, nuts, oils, and other condiments around on a regular basis, and then do your produce, dairy, and meat shopping once a week or so, you can buy for specific meals. This will also likely have the added benefit of encouraging you to shop at the market, rather than the grocery store. So you’ll also be buying more locally and seasonally.

Plan Ahead

This shopping style also allows you to plan your meals when you have the time to think — on the weekends. When you shop for specific meals, there’s less mental energy to spend on figuring out what’s for dinner tonight. Planning ahead also helps you break the habit of thinking of your food only when you’re hungry, at the end of the day.

My idea of planning ahead is usually as simple as deciding in the morning what I will make for dinner that night–but just picking the protein. Will I use that pork chop? Chicken breast? Or go vegetarian? Once that call is made, I can spend the day brainstorming what I’ll do with the chicken breast and the other ingredients I know I have — and then making that meal is less effort than thinking of something else to do when I’m hungry.

Cook in Big Batches

As I said, we all have more time on the weekend — so take advantage of it! I have to admit I have a weird aversion to leftovers. But when you make a big batch of something to eat over the course of the week, it’s not technically a leftover — you haven’t eaten it at all yet.

This is a good mental trick for me. I usually spend my Sundays cooking a few things that will help me get through the week without having to cook too much, but won’t leave me with the microwave every night either. I bake loaves of bread. I make fresh pesto or other sauces. I make big batches of snacks like homemade cheez-its or granola bars  or soups and stews. I can draw on this cooking all week without feeling like I’m just eating one meal for dinner every night.

Expend Your Energy Once a Day

This goes hand-in-hand with the last piece of advice. As I said, I prefer to cook in big batches things that I can use to create meals, rather than whole meals themselves. The truth is, this works for me because I tend to use those foods during the day. One week, I might make a loaf of Spinach-Cheddar bread and homemade cranberry sauce, so I could have easy and super-delicious brie and cranberry sandwiches all next week. Knowing that lunch is taken care of gives me more energy to cook at the end of the day. And since I prefer fresh food for dinner, this is a great way to combine cooking ahead of time with new meals every night.

Save the Feasts for the Weekend

In order to really make cooking during the work-week work, you also have to be honest about your time constraints. This semester, for example, I will be teaching a yoga class one night a week until 6:20pm. Which means I’ll get home, hungry, around quarter to seven. I won’t want to make a 45-minute feast — nor should I try. That means dinner dangerously close to “too late” (a subjective standard of mine where eight is the cutoff), and it sets me up for failure. If I know I have a cook-fest waiting for me at home on those nights, nine times out of ten, I will stop at Jimmy John’s on the way home rather than cook a big meal.

So when you’re planning your weeknight meals, take the schedule into account. Which nights will you have the time to start cooking around five? Which nights do you have to bring work home to complete after dinner? There are plenty of amazing meals you can make in less than twenty minutes with whole foods: orzo, barley or couscous salads, skillet pork chops, stir fries, etc. You can even go back to the planning ahead advice and use the slow cooker to get something like BBQ pork sandwiches ready in the morning. Make sure your cooking time will be realistic.

Learn to Love Cooking

You knew you were going to get some abstract “change your paradigm” advice here, too. The truth is, in order to really eat more healthy, whole foods, you have to cook more. Not everyone likes to cook, however. So the best advice I can give is to figure out what it will take for you to enjoy cooking.

Honestly, I used to think I hated cooking. I was really bad at it for most of my life because I’m a flighty, spastic kind of person and I couldn’t stay focused on cooking for the amount of time it takes to not burn water. When I got older, and I decided to eat this way, I had to become a cook. And I discovered that all that personality that made me a bad cook when I was younger was exactly why cooking was so good for me! It forces me to focus on one thing at a time. I have to slow my breathing and concentrate. Cooking for me is really meditative, and so even on the days I don’t feel like cooking, I push through, knowing that once I have, I will feel better. Like exercising, cooking has a way of recharging my battery.

I know it might not work this way for everyone, but I guarantee there is some way that everyone can create a positive mental space for cooking. For some, it might be finding a few things you can make that are so good that you want to keep cooking them. For some, the challenge of a new ingredient might be mentally stimulating at the end of an office day. For others (and I’m in this group as well) cooking for other people can be really wonderful. If inviting a friend over for dinner is what it takes to get yourself to cook and eat better — well, bonus.

How do you motivate yourself to cook?  Have a secret we should all try, or a recipe source that helps you along? Leave a comment and share your idea!

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