Every couple has the big-small thing in their relationship that stumps them on a daily basis, right? (Hope it’s not just me.) Laundry. Cleaning the shower drain. Remembering to give the dog their damn fish oil pill. These things are not usually big enough to bring you to therapy, but not quite small enough to ignore, so they just end up being a small daily torture.
For the longest time, that thing for Michael and me was dinner. We met as teenagers and got married super young, so neither of us had done the single-and-figuring-out-adulting thing, nor had we been handed down the skills to figure out weekly meals from our parents. We could follow a recipe and figure out the very, very basics of our stove (though never the oven). But for the most part, our knowledge base was limited to steamed vegetables and Crock-Pot Buffalo wings. And it was slowly eroding our nights. (We bickered about groceries and meal planning and dishes and dinner a lot.)
So a few years ago, I set out on a mission to boss up and fix our cooking game. And several years plus one baby later, I feel like we finally have it under control. So today, in partnership with Anolon, who makes great cookware, bakeware, and cooking tools, I’m sharing what I’ve learned.
Get Tools for the worst version of Yourself, not the best one
When Michael and I got married, I refused to put non-stick cookware anywhere near our registry. I had used cheap non-stick pots and pans all through college, and they had basically disintegrated at my touch, with non-stick coating coming off. Plus, everyone I knew told me to get one of those expensive stainless steel cooking sets if I really cared about cooking. The only problem? All the advice online about what to register for came from people who cook a lot. And inexperienced me could never quite wield the expensive cookware. Even with sufficient lubrication, my food always got stuck and would fall apart like a bad infomercial. Then a few years back, my mom bought us a set of non-stick pans for Christmas very similar to this two-piece set from Anolon (though not quite as pretty). And it turns out, good non-stick cookware is a whole other ballgame. They’ve become my go-to for delicate foods like eggs and fish, and they are my weeknight dinner staple since they are so easy to clean (no hard scrubbing for our resident dish master Michael). Plus, the good non-stick pans have answered a lot of the issues I was having with my cheap versions. Anolon’s Avanced Umber cookware, for example, is safe to use with metal utensils and can go straight into the oven up to 400 degrees for recipes that need to be baked to a finish. And then unlike my other pans (which do make their way into the rotation from time to time), they clean up with a quick swipe of a sponge.
And while it might seem counterintuitive to beginner cooks, I fully advocate adding a full set of pots and pans to your registry if you want to learn your way around the kitchen. It makes life way easier when you have the right tools in your arsenal (don’t be like me and try to cram a whole dinner into your tiny omelet pan just because the fry pan is dirty, is what I’m saying). And pro-tip: look for pieces that save you time and tools. I love that this saucepan has a built in strainer, because even though I have a fully functioning strainer in my house, I would rather burn my hands trying to strain a pot on a wooden spoon than use it.
don’t Bite off More than You Can Chew
When I first started learning how to cook, I went from zero to sixty. I’d research recipes online until I found something that sounded really good, but that called for ten things I didn’t have in my cabinet. So I’d haul off to the grocery store, spend a few hundred bucks impulse shopping every aisle, and then was so tired by the time I got home, I’d vow to bring my recipe to life in a few days (never happened), and eventually my food would go bad and we’d just default to pizza or pasta. Rinse, repeat. In short, I was making every step of the process as complicated as it could be. So we simplified our process in a few ways:
First, I focused on making my kitchen as functional as possible. I pulled all my pots and pans out of the cupboards and hung them on a low profile pot rack in our kitchen (not unlike the one below) and moved all our tools to the drawer right next to the stove. I’ve found that I’m much more likely to use my cooking tools if they are a) pretty and b) not hidden. And I know Anolon’s copper stainless steel pans are super pretty, and I’d probably buy them just to hang them up (even though now I know enough to use them). And the Advanced Umber cookware comes in a cool bronze-on-bronze color if you’re bored of the traditional black non-stick look. I’m going to guess it probably hides wear better too.
Second, Michael and I signed up for a meal kit delivery service. And instead of tackling every shortcoming at once, I just focused on learning about recipes. How long does it take to cook a steak to medium? What seasonings do we like? How do you properly dress a salad? With meal kit deliveries, we’d cook really robust meals three days a week, and then rotate pasta or takeout or the occasional dinner of snacks. (Sometimes we’re too tired to function and can only muster the energy for microwave popcorn. No shame.)
The above routine worked really well for us for a few years. It saved us money, gave us great meals, and I basically only had to grocery shop twice a month. So if you’re just cooking for two and don’t mind sacrificing an hour to your kitchen at night (I’d watch an episode of TV on my tablet and unwind), it’s a great system for busy working couples. But then we had a baby. And suddenly hour-long cook times that utilized several pots and pans were no longer sustainable (though damn if we didn’t try). So I flailed for a few months, but then made a few key changes, and now I finally feel like I have this sh*t under control.
Automate All The Things: If it isn’t obvious yet, I hate meal planning and grocery shopping. So any system that involves spending hours on Sunday prepping for the whole week is not for me (sorry Crock-Pot, you will never be my best friend). Which means some level of automation is necessary in our home. We still get a meal kit delivery service two dinners a week, though we switched to one that takes about twenty minutes from start to finish. We only eat meat a few days a week for dinner, so I use our meal delivery service for days when we’re being carnivores. And then to supplement the days when we don’t use our meal plan, I signed up for a fruit and vegetable box to be delivered to our door each week. I can customize it online before it arrives if I’m not feeling a specific ingredient one week, so I have some measure of control over what we get. Our next goal is to sign up for automatic delivery of other groceries, but I live in a rural area and none of the hip new delivery apps will come to my house… yet.
Stock the pantry: Part of what used to stump me about cooking was that I never had the right ingredients on hand. And I was always buying fresh ingredients at random that I never used. So once I learned what flavors we like, I stocked our pantry with a ton of non-perishables. We have basically every dried seasoning you can imagine (I can’t keep live herbs alive if I try), plus really good olive oil, a jar of Better Than Bouillon, cooking wine, panko breadcrumbs, and a fallout-shelter’s worth of canned tomato products. Goat cheese is my secret weapon for pretty much everything. I also abuse our freezer, because food waste is my worst enemy. I keep things like shredded cheese and pie crusts in there for a rainy day. Also ice cream, because one should reward oneself. And probably the best thing I stocked up on was lowered expectations. Would fresh basil make my dishes taste better? Probably. Have I killed half a dozen basil plants already? You betcha. So until I get one of those auto-watering windowsill planters, I’m cool with lowering my standards a tad.
Reverse the Recipe: Since my food now shows up at my door, I no longer meal plan starting with the Internet. Instead, I meal plan starting with my fridge. Each night, I take stock of what we’ve got lying around, and then search things like, “butternut squash and goat cheese” or “kale and cherry tomatoes with pasta” and let the Internet guide me (because I’m only just starting to develop anything resembling instincts or skill in the kitchen). And I’ve learned to keep it simple. My goal is simply to have produce-forward meals that take roughly half an hour from start to finish (and bonus if I can throw something in the oven and forget about it). In the winter we’ll make whole meals out of root veggies, and when the produce is leafier and lighter, I’ll make pasta but load it up with veggies and leafy greens. And when all else fails, a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and my trusty baking sheet does the trick. So committed am I to the art of roasted vegetables that I got brand-new baking pans for Christmas this year and was all 😍. I’ve also learned my lesson with baking sheets this year, and swapped out flimsy ones for a sturdier set like this. Bonus: Anolon’s baking sheets are all dishwasher safe, which I know Michael appreciates.
Cooking as creative outlet
Something switched in my brain when I started meal planning from a place of “What do I want to make?” to “What do I have on hand?” Maybe it takes less emotional labor? But with a full set of tools and my food picked out for me (mostly), I was able to turn my energy to experimenting. Too many onions in the pantry became the week that I made bacon onion jam. Too many oranges? Fresh squeezed juice for Sunday breakfast with marmalade for dessert. (I still like to get my Grey’s Anatomy cooking hour in there somewhere.)
While much of this might seem basic to those of you who grew up cooking, I’ve spent the last decade trying to add more to my arsenal than mac and cheese. It’s still a bit of a scramble between getting the baby to bed and dinner on the table (our next challenge is figuring out how to have all this done before 8pm). But at least it’s no longer an emotional struggle. In fact, cooking has become one of my favorite creative outlets and a way to unwind after a long day staring my computer. We even inherited a hand-me-down dining table from Meg and David and are considering establishing a family dinner tradition somewhere other than our coffee table. But perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned over the last few years is to not force everything to happen at once. So maybe we’ll just try for civilized family dinner tonight. And we can go from there.
Do you and your partner have a nightly mealtime routine? What are your favorite tools and tips? advice for cooking with older kids?
This post was sponsored by Anolon. Learn more about Anolon’s gourmet cookware in the video below:
Anolon’s Advanced Umber cookware and Advanced Bronze Bakeware is where form meets function. Their non-stick pots and pans are perfect for daily use, can withstand metal utensils, and can be heated in the oven up to 400 degrees. Plus they all come with a lifetime warranty. And Anolon’s bronze-on-bronze design is the solution to your basic black or silver cookware. So if you’re looking for tools that will help you level up your cooking game (without creating more work for yourself) head over here and add one of Anolon’s cooking sets to your registry today.