Home Cooking Can Be Stress-Free and Part of a Sustainable Food System | How to Make Home Cooking Less Stressful and More Sustainable

Home Cooking Can Be Stress-Free and Part of a Sustainable Food System

Chef, author, and food writer Kim O’Donnel explains that home cooking is serious business, but we don’t have to take it so seriously.

a home cook chopping vegetables on a cutting board for a salad or other healthy meal

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In a popular 2013 Civil Eats essay, chef, writer, and instructor Kim O’Donnel explained her philosophy of cooking as the cornerstone of a sustainable food system.

“The thing is, home cooking is serious business. It is a conscious decision to turn raw ingredients into a meal to nourish ourselves and the people we love,” she wrote. “The food system is more than crops and livestock; it’s what we humans do with them.”

Kim O'Donnel. (Photo credit: Charity Burggraaf)

Kim O’Donnel. (Photo credit: Charity Burggraaf)

More than a decade later, O’Donnel believes the connections between farms, our kitchens, and sharing food around a table are even more important. In the era of DoorDash, Instacart, and QR-code menus, when eating has become increasingly digital and passive, cooking can be a revolutionary act, she said, providing an avenue for active, sensory engagement with our own nourishment.

But that doesn’t mean the kitchen needs to be a realm of lofty pursuits. In fact, O’Donnel kept coming back to the opposite idea in a recent interview. To get more people cooking, she said, we need to “lower our expectations.” Instead of mastering a technique, learn basic knife skills. Instead of obsessing over a certain diet, give yourself permission to change things up.

We spoke to O’Donnel about these ideas, and she shared tips and tricks to turn cooking into a simple, rewarding, lifelong practice.

How do you describe your approach to cooking?

I am one of those people who can open up the refrigerator and figure out what we’re going to have for dinner. My husband always marvels at that. I actually get great satisfaction from scrounging and coming up with something that tastes really good. I think about what I have on hand and how I can incorporate something that might be new. And what time of year is it? I do a lot of preserving, and so I have enough crushed tomatoes in jars that I can have at least one quart a month. So, recently, I yanked one of those, and I had some beans that I had cooked a few days before. I did a sort of a riff on a minestrone, but no pasta.

“I think of cooking as a practice in many ways, like any other practice that’s good for your body.”

I don’t think about fancy. I think about something that’s simple but feels really good in the body. I think of cooking as a practice in many ways, like any other practice that’s good for your body. I’ve been practicing yoga for more than 20 years. And of course cooking is about the fuel for your body, but there’s also something spiritually and emotionally nurturing. One could even say that when you cook for yourself and for others, you are parenting yourself or parenting somebody.

I cook the same way, but I think a lot of people find it intimidating and feel like they need to start with a recipe. Has that been your experience with students? Is it more challenging, or does it take more practice?

Good question. I’m thinking right now about this guy named Edward Espe Brown. He is a monk, but he also wrote cookbooks. Many years ago, I interviewed him. He kept talking about this idea of letting your hands be hands. In the age of handheld devices . . . can you just be in your five physical senses? I know that may sound very woo-woo, but he was pointing to this performance anxiety that our culture has around cooking.

There’s this whole notion of “think like a chef” or “mastering the art of . . .” There’s this yearning to make it more meaningful or to feel like, “Wow, that’s a really big win, making that dish.” But you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself to recreate this thing on a weeknight when you might have worked. You might have had to pick up a kid. You might have had a really shitty day. Cookbooks are wonderful because they give us ideas and they inspire us. But are we being realistic?

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What if we stopped and thought, “Is there something wrong with having an omelet for dinner? An omelet that takes five minutes?” And, “Oh, I have some spinach, I might have spinach in it.” You don’t even have to have spinach in the refrigerator. You could have spinach in the freezer.

We get into these routines, and I would say, “Can we get another kind of routine into our week?” That is one of the reasons I loved the whole idea of Meatless Monday—it’s about that incremental approach to the way you navigate your daily life. If someone says, “I’ve been really wanting to cook, but I don’t know where to start,” they often think that they have to go from zero to 200 overnight. Why not just try one night cooking at home, something simple, and you have leftovers for lunch? And then maybe a couple of weeks later, you’re doing two [nights].

“There’s no one-size-fits-all diet. Part of the values piece is that you make some decisions, and then you check in with yourself regularly.”

You were one of the first Meatless Monday bloggers and have written multiple vegetarian cookbooks. Why vegetarianism?

My own story is a family history of heart disease, and I’m considering the environmental impact of livestock production on the planet. But I think that we need to and can figure out the things that are important to us and also have permission to change it up as we need to. There’s no one-size-fits-all diet.

When I go out and teach, people think, “I have to do this. I’m gonna be a vegan now.” You could. Maybe being vegan is great for you. Or maybe you’re gonna decide that you’re missing out on some nutrients. I feel like part of the values piece is that you make some decisions, and then you also should check in with yourself regularly.

I’m not a vegetarian, and yet I cook without meat more than half the time, anywhere from 50 to 90 percent. It depends on the season. When there are all kinds of produce that I can get where I live or from my garden, then there’s much less of a chance that we’re eating meat. Part of the value system is connecting with the seasons wherever you live as much and as best as you can. If you love apples and live near a source of apples, then eat an apple every day for as long as you can. You’re going to get so many benefits, and that’s not even cooking—that’s just taking care of yourself.

Is that what you mean when you say cooking is the cornerstone of a sustainable food system, or is there more to it?

I do feel like the more we cook with a degree of regularity—whether it’s once a week or five times a week—we become more connected with the food system. When we are being cooked for . . . in a restaurant or at home, it is a very passive experience. It’s like the baby bird syndrome, right? We have our mouths wide open, just shoving it down as fast as we can. But when we cook for ourselves, we are active and using our five physical senses, and we are engaged in this process from start to finish. Then, I feel like there’s no way that we don’t become more attuned to how food is grown. What’s a good strawberry versus not so good, for example, and it tunes you in to where you’re living.

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You don’t have to be as sensory and passionate as I am. But there is something that happens. Even the simplest thing. You make a vinaigrette in a jelly jar and shake it up and you have your arugula from the clamshell. You’re still doing something. And when you cook something and you invite somebody to your house or maybe you’re taking some soups to somebody who’s not feeling well, there’s a ripple effect.

What’s a dish you come back to that exemplifies that approach?

There is a Paula Wolfert recipe in the book Unforgettable. It’s a bulgur dish with any greens; it could be spinach, chard, kale, collards. There’s a little bit of onion, olive oil, some smashed garlic, and some harissa. You massage it, a paper towel goes on top, and you put it on the stove for 30 minutes. It’s that dish that you can have with salmon or just feta, or you eat it cold the next day with a fried egg. I make that a lot.

One of the other things that has become a go-to is just getting red cabbage or green cabbage and massaging it and squeezing some lime, salt, maybe oregano. It’s like magic.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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