Cooking Up Advantages Out of Disadvantages

Back during the early days of my former Wall Street career, I literally had no time to cook. None. Not only was I stuck at the office for a zillion hours every week thinking up investment ideas in a delusional stock market, I spent what little time I had outside of work enjoying things like my hour and a half (each way) commute.

Oh man, thank heaven those days are over.

But that wasn't even the worst of it. The worst part of this era of my life was how unhealthily we ate--and how we blamed it on not having enough time. We were eating too many prepared and processed foods, ordering takeout too regularly, and generally spending much more money on our food than we really wanted to.

Quite frankly, after a long day and a suckishly long commute, I just couldn't bring myself to cook. Hell, I'd rather gouge my eyes out. And I can't describe how depressing it was to arrive at home and then realize that I'd have my first bite of dinner about an hour after I needed to be in bed.

But here's the irony, and it's a rich one: During this period of my life, when I was too busy gouging my eyes out to have time to cook, I actually figured out most of my solutions and techniques for cooking healthy meals quickly and efficiently.

We took the serious disadvantage of having insufficient time, and we turned it into an armload of advantages. And we did it by applying a small number of relatively simple ideas:

1) We began doing all of our cooking on weekends, making two or three large meals, and then alternating leftovers of those meals over the following week. Result: we never got sick of the leftovers, and we had plenty of food for days and days of lunches and dinners.

2) We focused our weekend cooking efforts on a smallish collection of 6-8 favorite, easy, scalable and laughably cheap recipes. With practice, we became extremely efficient at making these meals, which made our weekend cooking projects a breeze. Before long, weekend cooking became something we actually looked forward to rather than dreaded.

3) We took advantage of economies of scale and began making these favorite recipes in double or triple batches. With the right kinds of scalable recipes, you can make two, three or even four times the food with minimal incremental work.

4) We emphasized one-pot soups and stews that involve minimal cleanup and are easy to reheat, store and divide into leftovers.

5) We began using energy-efficient and low-labor cooking items like crockpots and rice cookers to create meals that didn't require us to stand there and monitor things. This enabled us to cook still more food with still less of a time commitment.

6) We looked for ways to save time and money by shopping more efficiently. We bought bulk volumes of simple whole ingredients for our double- and triple-batch meals. We biased our purchases away from higher-cost prepared and processed foods. We'd go to the store once a week instead of several times, which helped us cut back on snack buying and impulse purchases.

There. Six general principles and processes, created from a position of disadvantage, which collectively produced powerful results: Soon, we were eating healthier, we enjoyed cooking more, and most shockingly of all, we spent far less time and money on food.

And yet, many people cling to an instinctive belief that there can only be zero-sum tradeoffs between cost, time and health. Eating healthier has to cost more! Cooking at home is time-consuming! After all, there's no such thing as a free lunch, right? Right?

Wrong. Too often people cling to seemingly rigorous concepts--like the idea that healthy food has to be expensive, or that there has to be a zero-sum tradeoff between time and cooking at home--and they then miss opportunities to think creatively about a problem. Our experimentation with cooking habits and practices actually yielded positive-sum tradeoffs, allowing us to optimize time, money and the quality of our food. Sometimes there actually are free lunches. (A totally unrelated side note: my favorite "seemingly rigorous" concept from Wall Street is markets are efficient. Bwahahahahahaha!!! Oh, mercy me.)

The point is, don't let a general concept that seems rigorous and logical cause you to ignore opportunities and solutions. That isn't rigor--that's intellectual laziness.

A final point: I didn't write this post to brag about how brilliant and creative I was to figure out how to save time cooking. By now, most CK readers have probably figured that I'm just an average guy of (lamentably) average intelligence. The thing is, my average-ness is exactly the point. I'm nobody special, and you don't have to be either to try out a few new ideas with an open mind. Anybody can do this.

Experiment a little bit and add some new processes and practices to your life. Adopt the most effective ones as permanent habits, and maintain those habits while you try out still other ideas. Let necessity be the mother of invention, and your disadvantages will become advantages too.

Readers! In your lives, what kinds of disadvantages have you turned into advantages? Share your thoughts!

Related Posts:
A Recession-Proof Guide to Saving Money on Food
Stacked Costs and Second-Order Foods: A New Way to Think About Food Costs
How to Use Leftover Ingredients
Why Spices Are a Complete Rip-Off and What You Can Do About It

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Joanne said...

I love this Daniel! Everyone always asks me how I have time to cook while being in med school and the answer is that I really don't. But I make time for it on the weekends, cook big batches of things, and eat it all during the week! Good stuff.

chacha1 said...

Dan, my man, I'm gonna have to link you again. :-) People apply the same lock-step thinking to fitness that they do to nutrition.

My personal experience with the food/time continuum is that when I bit the bullet and started cooking, it took no more time than waiting for takeout. Added next to no time to food shopping, because I was already at the grocery store every week getting [milk, ice cream, wine] anyway!

AND DH and I started saving $400-$600 a month - A MONTH.

I wish people would put half the energy into thinking of solutions that they put into thinking up excuses.

bashtree said...

I started learning to cook when I was working a soul-sucking job. I worked around 50hrs a week and had a very short (5-10 minute) commute, but the mental and emotional drain of my job was so great that I couldn't bear the thought of standing at a stove or using brain power. I started with broth-based soups and light pasta dishes, with a good amount of double- and weekend cooking thrown in. I didn't have the money to do takeout very often. I already was in the habit of 'cooking' most nights before i took any interest in the skills - or really, the food. Once I was able to leave that job, I actually started enjoying my evenings in the kitchen. It's interesting how necessity (or disadvantage, as you put it) can set you on an enjoyable, beneficial course.

Daniel said...

I like these insights so far.

One other issue that I touched on in the post (but avoided discussing in depth) is how easy it can be for others to hear a discussion of overcoming a challenge--and perceive it as boasting. It's not a common reaction among solution-minded people, but it is common among those whose initial instinct is to make excuses or start up a yes, but conversation cycle.

Joanne, I'll admit, I still am amazed at what you do.

Chacha, agreed, the return on your time and effort is so significant that it merely takes a few days to see the benefits of cooking at home. And yes, I see the same thing with people and fitness too.

Bashtree: I suppose you and I are proof that there actually can be advantages to a soul sucking job. I guess. :)


Marcia said...

Ah, great post! I didn't even learn to cook until 8 years ago (as part of a weight loss effort). I still have friends who can't believe how much cooking I do.

But I've adjusted as things change. When my 30 hr a week job morphed (over two years) into a 45 hr a week cooking changed. I no longer cook 2-4 nights a week. More and more, I spend a few hours on the weekend and cook LARGE batches of things. And freeze.

I always have something in the freezer for Friday nights. I never cook up anything less than a pound of beans. I always wash a full head of lettuce.

And I'm not afraid of leftovers. Boy, some of my coworkers are afraid of leftovers.

That said, yesterday (a SATURDAY) I was beat, had to spend an hour working when I should have been cooking. With all the errands, I must fess up we stopped at a deli for lunch and ordered pizza for dinner.

But I've also cooked up eggplant, chickpeas and potatoes for dinners for the week.

María Machón said...

Hi Daniel!
It was so great to meet you last week! And I have the feeling that we connect on the cooking side too! :)

My cooking story matches this post perfectly: in fact I have learned to cook thank my mother's illness. This is what happened: I have always cooked more or less, but only simple things and I didn't dare to try anything, which seemed complicated. Last year, when I started as a freelancer I realized that one of the side effects would be that I wouldn't have the eating facilities I had at work, so I would have to face the food issue sooner or later... and I love good food!

And then came the diagnose: my mother went to hospital with a quite severe crisis, and I flew back home to take care of her. When we went back home from the hospital she had protein anemia and she couldn't walk, but luckily she could speak. And that is how I started really cooking: I decided she would get the same food as in the hospital, but home-made with love. She told me what I had to do and I just did it. I learned to love the pressure cooker-freezer-microwave combo, which allowed me to provide her with two warm, high protein, two course meals a day without spending the whole day in the kitchen.

When I came back home again (with my mother recovered, phew!) I just kept the system and expanded it discovering new recipes, calling mom every now and then for advice and licking my fingers after every meal.

Enjoy cooking!

Daniel said...

Maria and Marcia, you are echoing my thoughts exactly. Anybody can do this. Thanks to you both for sharing your thoughts.

And Maria, same here! Thank you for stopping by. :)


Brittany said...

Love it. I current work stupid, life-sapping hours, and the damn-I-have-to-cook-dinner-even-though-it's-bedtime problem is a familiar one. (However, I work for a non-profit, which differs from your situation in that the work isn't soul sucking and I don't have enough money to eat out or get takeout more than once a month.) I'm a big fan of the crockpot, as well as the cook all day on Sunday and have food for the week (the problem is those damn 7 day workweeks... the only plan there is to have enough in the freezer and hope there aren't ever 2 in a row). In addition to all the benefits mentioned, I find cooking all day, especially while hanging out with good friends, to be a very refreshing way to spend a Sunday.

Nearly all of my current favorite/regular rotation huge cook-eat-all-week-and-freeze meals come from your 25 laughably cheap recipe series linked on here. In fact, it's my favorite collection of recipes I've ever come across. Any hope of an update/extension?

Daniel said...

Brittany, thank you for giving me one of the best compliments I've ever received here at CK.

I haven't been doing quite as many recipe posts lately, but I've got a few new ones coming up in the next few weeks. And you can rest assured that they'll be laughably cheap too. :)

Thank you. This is why I blog.


Brittany said...

Excellent! I look forward to them!

looloolooweez said...

Everything you've written here is so, so true.

Been doing a lot of cheap bulk cooking here, since my husband is unemployed and I'm doing full-time hours on minimum wage pay. Last week it was veggie stew, red beans & rice, and chicken stir-fry. Thank the heavens that we got a slow cooker as a gift last year! The only problem is that the husband has some kind of aversion to leftovers. He'd rather eat a packet of ramen than leftover soup-- and not because he didn't like it the first time around; he just can't get past the fact that it's "leftovers" for dinner tonight. Weird and a bit annoying.

Anyway, another thing one can do for a cheap meal outside of the home is canned goods (assuming access to a microwave). I keep cans of soup, beans, veggies, and fruits in my cabinet up at work for those (all-too-frequent) days when I forget to pack lunch.

Branded Tarpaulins said...

This article made me stop and think. It's important to have discussions like these to broaden our understanding and challenge our beliefs.
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