September 12th, 2011

The Reluctant Cook

FN_Healthy-Eats_bro#2578AF6We’re teaming up with Food Network’s Healthy Eats and fellow food bloggers to host a Brown-Bag Challenge, a month-long initiative to eat consciously and save money by packing a lunch each weekday through the month of September instead of eating out. Join us here and share what you’re eating on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #brownbag.

nancy-80x80Full disclosure: I’m not a “food blogger” and I’m definitely not a foodie. But as a blogger for Organic Gardening magazine, I am concerned about food—where it comes from, what’s in it, who is producing it, and how it’s produced. So I was glad for the opportunity to help promote the Brown-Bag Challenge along with Healthy Eats.

I found out about the challenge on the last day of August, but since I had already done my grocery shopping for the week, I decided to start the challenge the following week. Not that there’s a shortage of healthy food here at Rodale: Our Organic Gardening Test Garden has supplied an abundance of tomatoes, onions, peppers, and zucchini. And as my colleague Eric Hurlock pointed out in his blog, our in-house café spoils us rotten. It serves healthy options made from sustainably produced ingredients, many of them local and organic. The downside is that it also offers all-too-convenient temptation—particularly in the form of deserts (which I seldom eat at home). I need to break this workday desert routine or face not being able to wear any of my clothes.

I had no illusions that this was going to be easy. I live alone, and though I enjoy cooking for others, I think everyday cooking just for myself is a serious drag. So on weekdays, I’ve grown accustomed to eating my main meal of the day in the Rodale Cafe (good) and microwaving a store-bought frozen meal for supper (bad, for me and the planet). On nights when I work late, I sometimes skip supper altogether—a habit that encourages unhealthy snacking before bedtime. For this challenge, I knew I would need to replace not only my lunches but my suppers with homemade meals.

I also know myself well enough to know that cooking during the week is just not going to happen. I sing in two different choirs (which means rehearsals every Monday and Thursday evening), serve on two church committees (two more weeknights per month spent at meetings), and belong to several community groups (more weeknights accounted for). On many evenings, I need to squeeze supper between work and another commitment.

I began this challenge with an ambitious plan: Prepare four different recipes on Saturday and Sunday that make at least 4 servings apiece, which would allow me to coast through the following week on reheatable leftovers for lunch and supper.

Well, that plan didn’t last long. I was in a mood that matched the foul, dark weather we’ve been enduring lately in Pennsylvania. I procrastinated all of Saturday and Sunday and half of Monday (which was the Labor Day holiday). I did take an hour or so to plan my menu for the week, but I didn’t get to the grocery store until 1:30 p.m. on Labor Day. When I emerged about an hour later, I was more than $130 poorer. This is much more than I usually spend on groceries in a week; we’ll see if I actually save any money during this challenge once I total my grocery bills for the month and compare the difference with what I normally spend in the company café.

At 4:30 p.m. on Labor Day, I began to labor. I spent the next 5 1/2 hours peeling, chopping, and mixing and came out with four completed recipes:

• Zucchini Cheese Squares, from The Garden-Fresh Vegetable Cookbook, by Andrea Chesman (recipe claims it serves 6-8; I claim 4—they’re just too delicious)
• Black Bean and Goat Cheese Burritos, from Fresh Choices, by David Joachim and Rochelle Davis (8 burritos or 4 servings)
• Fresh Salsa, from The Garden-Fresh Vegetable Cookbook, by Andrea Chesman (2 cups)
Lemon Basil and Pistachio Nut Snaps, by Renee Shepherd at Renee’s Garden (recipe estimates 5 dozen; mine made half that)

Other recipes I wanted to make but never got around to:

• Chili-Lime Chicken with Broccoli
• Chicken Mozzarella
• Roasted Beets and Sautéed Beet Greens
• Gazpacho al Chile Poblano
• Homemade soft preztels

Here’s the good news, fellow procrastinators: Though I blew my plan (only 8 servings of main dishes instead of 16!) and my menu was repetitious, I still got through the work week without buying lunch from the Rodale Café. My menu:

Tuesday, September 6

Lunch:
2 Black Bean and Goat Cheese Burritos with Fresh Salsa
2 Lemon Basil and Pistachio Nut Snaps

BeanBurritos

Supper:
Zucchini Cheese Square
2 Lemon Basil and Pistachio Nut Snaps

Wednesday, September 7

Lunch:
Zucchini Cheese Square
2 Lemon Basil and Pistachio Nut Snaps

ZucchiniCheeseSquare

Supper:
Zucchini Cheese Square
2 Lemon Basil and Pistachio Nut Snaps

Thursday, September 8

Lunch:
2 Black Bean and Goat Cheese Burritos with Fresh Salsa
2 Lemon Basil and Pistachio Nut Snaps

Supper:
Skipped meal to perform in concert at retirement community. Bought 3 peanut-butter cookies from kindly senior citizen at fund-raising bake sale instead. (Can’t resist kindly seniors. Sigh.)

Friday, September 9

Lunch:
2 Black Bean and Goat Cheese Burritos with Fresh Salsa
2 Lemon Basil and Pistachio Nut Snaps

Supper:
Zucchini Cheese Square
2 Lemon Basil and Pistachio Nut Snaps

Those of you playing at home may have noticed two things: I didn’t eat any meat, and I didn’t use up all of my recipes. Both are true. My week’s protein came from dairy and legumes, and I still have 2 burritos in the freezer. Plus I had enough cookies for snacking on the weekend.

One week down and three to go!

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