Does your pantry spark joy? What about the condiments in your fridge, or the triple-wrapped ground beef stashed away in your freezer?
Marie Kondo, author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” has inspired millions of readers with her philosophy of thoughtful minimalism, where you keep only what you really need and what brings joy to your life.
I thought about this mystical spark during my cooking at home challenge last month. Martha Pincoffs, a local food entrepreneur I’ve come to know over the past few years, issued the challenge to anyone who shares her tendency to drift into the too-busy-to-cook space.
After four weeks of eating only home-cooked meals — with an exception for Whataburger en route to my hunting adventure, a birthday dinner with my boyfriend, Dave, and two pre-booked, work-related lunches — I can say that the challenge helped me rediscover that joy, even if it meant that I had to make a few sacrifices.
I passed up happy hours with friends and lunch outings with co-workers. I spent way more time in front of my sink doing dishes than I would prefer, but any sense of missing out was replaced with other feelings.
At first, it was simply a sense of contentment that I could resist the urge to stop by Torchy’s Tacos on the way home and instead make my own meal — enchiladas. But those small triumphs started to build into a general cooking confidence, not in knowing that I could cook a decent meal — I am a food writer, after all — but that I could overcome the mental hurdles of feeding myself and my kids day after day, even if they were fussy or I was tired and stressed.
Martha and her wife, Jo, experienced a similar shift in perspective. Over lunch the day after the challenge ended — at a restaurant, no less — they said they saved hundreds of dollars over the month, and Jo, a runner, said she felt lighter without the rich, heavy foods she tends to eat from restaurants.
With a few extra dollars to spend at the grocery store, shopping became more of an adventure. I found myself selecting ingredients I wouldn’t normally buy just because I knew they’d keep the fridge from looking like it always does.
With young kids at home, both Martha and I had fallen into a habit of having frozen meals or snacks on hand for “emergencies,” but through this challenge, we saw how quick we were to deem a situation an emergency. These shortcuts are the path of least resistance to a meal, which isn’t necessarily bad but can quickly become the default.
I found out that my homemade macaroni and cheese is still a little flour-y but that two of the three members of my family will eat it anyway. Good thing that old adage that you’ll turn into what you eat isn’t true, or else my 5-year-old would transform into a corndog soon. As with so many challenges in parenting, this, too, shall pass.
It was interesting to hear that Martha had also cooked through much of the reserves in her pantry and fridge, including those emergency helper foods. We both felt the emotional cleansing that happens when you go through your physical things — in this case, food — to either use them or get rid of them.
Everyone was eating more leftovers than usual, especially for lunch. I started looking at my glass container full of last night’s buttery shrimp pasta or roasted vegetables and mashed potatoes and didn’t just see a fulfilling, enjoyable meal. I saw a $10 bill.
One of the more random tips I learned: I feel more like cooking if I do so as soon as I get home from work. If I change into cozy clothing or even take off my shoes, I start to lose the desire to stand on my feet and move from working on a computer to working on a cutting board.
Our Year of Baking project played an interesting role in this challenge. Baking more than usual helped increase the cooking momentum. After I put a chicken in the oven to roast, I could start a batch of no-knead bread or chop up extra vegetables to roast while the oven was hot. A friend gifted me a bag of Meyer lemons, which didn’t seem as tedious to cut up and process after I’d already been in the kitchen for 30 minutes working on other projects.
The constant rotation of projects — and, by extension, the dishes in my sink — became a good sign: It meant that I was using my kitchen to its fullest capacity.
Without the option to go to restaurants, Dave and I would have dinner dates at home. Thankfully, he’s easygoing when it comes to food, so I didn’t feel pressure to have to duplicate what we’d be eating at a nice place downtown. Some nights, I cooked something specifically for us; other nights, we’d have something I whipped up with leftovers, like turkey pot pie or chili on mashed potatoes.
On the night of the Iowa caucus, which was technically after my challenge was over, we decided to skip greasy takeout and instead, for fun, make two Iowa specialties: pork tenderloin and Maid Rite sandwiches.
It required a stop at the grocery store on the way home, but I recognized that it felt like a pleasure, not an obligation, to pick up three things I needed dinner and a few other staples — like eggs and milk — to recharge the fridge.
While he fiddled with the live stream on the computer, I got to work on the food, pounding out the pork chops and making the loose meat sandwich filling. We chatted about our day, where I’d found the recipe and the political spectacle we were excited to watch. Before we knew it, it was time to eat delicious, playful food that didn’t feel quotidian, as home-cooked food sometimes can.
In fact, it sparked joy.
Kondo admits that she doesn’t cook much. She advises readers to clear their counters of every single item, even down to the dish sponge and soap. People who cook a lot know that’s not practical. If you’re trying to cook more, I’d advocate keeping the cutting board on the counter and pulling out the items from the pantry that you know you need to either use or lose. Every once in a while, do the same with your fridge and freezer. I promise you don’t need as many salad dressings as you have in your fridge right this second.
I learned quite a lot during the month of January, but now I’m facing the challenge of maintaining this spark while also relishing the food that comes from restaurants — and the fact that I do want to take breaks from my kitchen now and then. Until I can settle on what that balance feels like, I’ll just keep cooking when I can and even when I think I can’t.