Whenever a young adult first sets out on their own, to college or to a first apartment or any situation where all of a sudden there’s no one to feed them and they have to figure it out on their own, it’s a struggle. I struggled. Fast food. Frozen meals. Lots of money down the drain.
I tried to do better. Results: huge amounts of leftovers. Forgotten produce, rotten. Forgotten meat, rancid. Frustration and disappointment abounding.
I knew how to cook already. Hell, I had been working in food service most of my professional life at that time. But there is a vast chasm of knowledge between cooking technique and running a home kitchen.
It’s weird, right? There’s a lot of stuff we have to figure out on our own when we become adults, but the acquisition and preparation of FOOD, something we require multiple times every single day, is something that is somehow missed in all of the ‘growing up’ manuals. We have driver’s ed; where’s eater’s ed?
When I’ve seen folks voice this issue before, with a sense of desperation, not even knowing where to begin, what they get is: recipes. Easy recipes! Quick recipes! Try these super-awesome fast chicken fingers with peanut dipping sauce and a side of sautéed broccoli! So they go out and buy the broccoli and chicken breasts and flour and panko bread crumbs and eggs and garlic powder and paprika and olive oil and natural peanut butter and soy sauce and fish sauce and hot sauce and the oil is smoking in the pan and they have these three dishes getting flour and panko and eggs everywhere and they try to cook the broccoli in the same pan because they only have the one pan and the broccoli steams into mush and the chicken burns on the outside and is raw on the inside and they end up just ordering a pizza in frustration, with the remaining broccoli slowly festering in the crisper.
We don’t need recipes. We need concepts. We need Cooking Theory, like music or art theory, a collection of conceptual building blocks that allow us to create meals rather than slavishly follow instructions dictated by a person working in a completely different kitchen than our own. Kitchens are different. Stoves, ovens, grocery stores are different. ‘Low Heat’ is not always low heat. ‘4 minutes or until golden brown’ is a paralyzing choice for a beginner.
To that end, here is a week-long eating plan dedicated to a single meal template, the easiest of meals: the foil packet. This plan is not so much about learning as it is doing, making things simple and fast enough that one can start cooking regularly without a huge up-front investment of time or money. The bar is low enough in this plan that it can be used as a pure confidence-builder, a revelation of ‘Hey! I made this!’ instead of ‘OH MY GOD I HATE THE WORLD AND I’M NEVER TRYING TO COOK AGAIN.’
The plan is for three suppers, because that’s how often we cook at my house. It seems like a low enough number for us to do it without it taking up every evening, but it makes enough food that we are able to do leftovers the rest of the nights in the week.
Three suppers. One week. If you’re out on your own and sick to death of ramen and frozen pizza, this is a good place to start. Each night you cook, you make four servings, so it’s good for eating with a significant other or roommate, or just on your own if you are okay with having leftovers more often.
- aluminum foil
- 4 bone-in chicken thighs (about 1 1/2 lbs)
- 1 lb kielbasa or smoked sausage
- 1 lb ground beef
- Worcestershire sauce
- BBQ sauce
- bag of frozen bell peppers
- bag of frozen broccoli
- bag of frozen green beans
Pick three days in the week you want to cook. Each cook night, preheat the oven to 350°F, take four big squares of aluminum foil, and divide the ingredients evenly between them. Once the oven is FULLY PREHEATED, put the bags in the oven (SEAM SIDE UP, so they don’t drip 1) and leave ’em be for 45 minutes. Then turn off the oven, open it and let everything cool off for fifteen minutes, dump a packet on a plate, and eat up.
On Night 1, use the smoked sausage, half of the bag of bell peppers, and half of the bag of broccoli.
On Night 3, use the chicken, the rest of the bell peppers, the rest of the green beans, and a bit 4 of the BBQ sauce.
That’s it! You cooked!
A foil packet is one meal template. Try different combinations of meat, vegetables, spices, and sauce. You can have good variety with this simple meal for a long time. Then you can start branching out. Get comfortable with one thing at a time. Build your confidence. Figure out how to do one technique, like searing, braising, sautéing, or roasting, really well before trying something new out.
This isn’t the answer to the problem. This is just a beginning. Because we are going to be slaves to the industrial food establishment until we start taking the matter into our own hands. And if beginners start out trying to make something that is too much for them, they are never going to get into a cooking habit. We’re building the revolution, with habit and confidence as the foundation.
-Josh is listening to Spoon