I used to listen to a podcast that was centered around travel to Disney World. For those not already aware, the food options there are diverse in terms of cuisine and price point, although the quality ranges from amazing to mediocre. One of the team members, Kevin, frequently did “dining reviews” of the various eateries. Often he would praise the meals he ate, though occasionally listeners would hear his lament at being disappointed by an experience; often with intense comic effect. One favorite phrase of his, which still sticks out in my mind to this day: “It takes about the same time and effort to produce terrible food as it does to make a good meal, so why not do it right?”
In fairness, I realize the statement by itself is an oversimplification in some ways… there are certainly some preparations which require culinary techniques that take practice to master, or multi-tasked timings of different components that require a level of attention and focus that is not always realistic. On the other hand, it doesn’t take much effort to find recipes that require only a crockpot, or using a single skillet, for instance… There are options for every skill level and time commitment.
I also realize that I am speaking from a position where, for me, cooking is an end unto itself. Not everyone feels the same. For me, this love and appreciation started in my youth. For all the amazing things I can say about my parents, their attention and desire for gourmet cooking was not their strongest skill. I don’t hold that against them. Instead, I learned to do better for myself.
Even the word “gourmet” can be misleading. We might instinctively associate the word to mean holding several Michelin stars, although it can simply mean to be “well prepared”. Regardless, whether or not a meal is “gourmet” is not always a good proxy for taste, satisfaction or overall enjoyment. I will happily enjoy a good chili, baked beans, pot roast, pulled pork, or any of several other meals that comes out of a crock pot with almost zero interactive effort required during the cooking.
We might also fall into a trap of thinking that high quality food necessitates expensive high-end ingredients. I’ll borrow some thoughts from Kevin again, as he notes that the overall experience relies not simply on luxury, but on value. A meal with a high price tag has a lot more to live up to, and relatively speaking, chicken nuggets from the McDonald’s drive-thru can be quite enjoyable.
One final example I often hear in various forms is a lack of time to focus on food prep. I can appreciate this, as not everyone is in a practical position to spend an hour in the kitchen, and plenty of others have no desire to do so. I urge caution, though, before leaning on this excuse as a crutch.
In one particularly egregious example, someone suggested their plans to me about “putting the food on the grill, then running their errands they needed to do, so that when they came back the food would be done.” Even ignoring any safety issues about a propane barbecue grill, the cooking technique is worse than questionable… as of course one would have burgers that were burned on the bottom and nearly raw on top. Overcooking is not just for the grill… the oven can turn beef into shoe leather, the stove-top turns shrimp to pencil erasers, and a deep fryer makes potatoes into cardboard critters. Again, this makes a strong case for the crock pot. Not only does it involve little more than throwing things in and turning it on.. It’s also very forgiving against the risk of over-cooking. Some meals–chili and baked beans come to mind– actually only get better with more time.
Furthermore, when one has one of those experiences of burning the dinner due to inattentiveness, what happens? You’re left to prepare something else, which takes more time, or else start dialing to order a pizza… all that time savings of rushing through the meal prep? Yeah… the piper still gets paid.
So, what’s the upshot here? Select meals and preparations that are on par with the appropriate skill level and time commitment. Learn to love the crock pot. Choose ingredients that are forgiving on cook times. After a while, it truly will take just as much effort to produce a good meal, as to produce a terrible one. I promise, you’ll like the good meal a lot better.