January Cooking Challenge Summary

As mentioned in my previous post, recently I’ve been rediscovering the joy of cooking. It was a slow journey throughout the last few months of 2019, but in January I kicked things into full gear by challenging myself to cook every meal at home. I’m not one to set New Year resolutions, but I wanted to do something different to break in a new routine. I’m a competitive person so I figured I would be more motivated if I treated it as a challenge to overcome.

Technically the challenge didn’t last the whole month. I went out for brunch with friends on New Year’s Day, and I intended that to be my last meal out until my trip to New York on the 30th. However, this plan went out the window when I unexpectedly had to travel during the last week of the month. The challenge officially ended on January 25th, so I made it just under a month. Looking back now, I would say that overall it was a success. I “cheated” once; one night I made last-minute happy hour plans and didn’t have a chance to eat beforehand so I had a small meal at the bar. I also went out for coffee once with a coworker, though my original plan didn’t include cutting out lattes so this was technically allowed. Beyond these two instances, every meal was prepared in my kitchen (and in one case my boyfriend’s).

When I told friends and coworkers about the challenge many people wondered if I was trying a keto or plant-based or other specific diet. Though I understand why someone might think that, dieting (and any related weight loss) was never my motivation. I did this primarily for budgetary reasons, and I figured that I would enjoy any extra benefits that occurred as a result. Between the holiday season, a bachelorette weekend, and two upcoming weddings (all of these involving cross-country flights) my 2020 budget was significantly weakened. Add in my desire to travel out of the country for my 30th birthday this year and I needed to find a way to save some extra money. Dining out seemed like an easy target, and so the challenge began.

The first ten days were the hardest for me, and then after that everything seemed easy. I felt some initial cravings for food that I would typically order out (mainly chicken wings), but the most important and difficult part of that first week was learning which moods and situations prompted me to want to go out to eat. On days when I started work before 7:00am or had a back-to-back meeting schedule, I came home and didn’t want to deal with cooking and cleaning up. I learned that the times when I felt stressed, tired, or a combination of both were the moments when I most wanted to order takeout or go out to eat. I came up with strategies to make it easier for myself; I made sure I had a few frozen pizzas or quick box meals on hand for those nights when I wanted to put in minimal effort. I also tried to cook a few large meals on nights when I knew I had the time so I would have readily available leftovers to eat for lunch or dinner throughout the week.

Meal planning was a huge part of my success. I forced myself to make a meal, recipe, and grocery plan every week. I included planned events like climbing nights or dates so that I knew ahead of time to cook the night before. If I planned to cook a large meal, I would plug in the extra servings for lunch or dinner throughout the week, so I knew how many groceries I needed to buy. If a meal required ingredients that I would have a surplus of I researched other recipes that would use the extra amount. Looking up recipes turned out to be one of the most fun parts of the whole challenge. I ended up with a long list of meals that I wanted to cook; all I needed to do was plan when to make them.

One of my favorite new recipes that I discovered was for oven-roasted chicken shawarma with sweet potato fries and asparagus. This was the recipe I used, but I modified it slightly; I used rice instead of couscous because that’s what I had on hand. Overall the sweet potato fries and the asparagus were good, but the marinade for the chicken shawarma is what made the whole meal delicious. At first, I debated skipping the marinade part (I was hungry and didn’t want to wait), but I’m so happy that I took the time and included that step. Those flavors are what really set this meal apart from other dishes that I’ve cooked lately. I also loved that this recipe was designed for meal prep; it was perfect to eat fresh from the oven, but it also upped my lunch game quite a bit. This is definitely something that I plan on including more often in my meal rotation.

Another recipe that I tried was from my old simple recipe cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen. When I first ventured into cooking years ago this was my go-to for meal ideas, but it’s been a while since I cracked it open. The meals in this cookbook are designed to be ready in under 30 minutes, making them perfect for busy weeknights. The “new” recipe I discovered while flipping through the pages was for a lemon chicken and artichoke pasta. This was something I would never have tried back when I was using this cookbook regularly; as embarrassing as it is to admit, I never really liked (read: tried) artichokes up until a few years ago. Now that my tastes have matured I found this meal delicious. For a pasta, it felt light and refreshing because it wasn’t a rich or heavy sauce. I think it would be interesting to try with zucchini noodles, so that might be my next attempt at this meal.

Now that my cooking challenge is over, I think it’s kind of silly that I was expecting it to be so difficult. I didn’t make any major lifestyle changes; I just did a better job of managing my time and not giving in to my tired moments. It wasn’t fun when I had to decline friends’ offers to go out for dinner, but in all honesty the restaurants where they made plans weren’t my favorite or weren’t high on my list to try. In the past I would have agreed just to be social, but my January experience proved to me that I didn’t have to go out to eat all the time just to hang out with friends. Going forward I plan on keeping up a less strict version of the challenge where I only go out for lunch or dinner once a week and allow exceptions for birthdays and other special occasions. That way I’ll still feel like I’m saving on my food budget but I’m allowing myself room to have fun and go out. Now it’s the end of February and I feel like this is going well so far. I’m still excited about my growing recipe list & I’m having so much fun cooking; this rediscovered joy tops any other benefits that I’ve experienced as result of the challenge.

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