We’ve become so accustomed to drive through food that we think in order to be “fast”, a meal must include a wait in the car and a sandwich of some sort. To think of preparing a home cooked meal without using processed food sounds overwhelming or like an activity to be saved for that special occasion. For many of us, this becomes reason enough not to consider a gluten-free lifestyle or to haphazardly adhere to its restrictions. So what is the reality? Does being gluten-free really take too much time?
Last night Ben and one of his friends showed up an hour before we were scheduled to go to a movie. Knowing Ben, I guessed that he had showed up early looking for food, so instead of waiting for them to ask, I offered chicken soup. A couple of embarrassed shrugs later they had piping hot bowls of Eight Days a Week Rosemary Chicken Soup topped with shredded parmesan cheese, some Killer Beans, and dried apricots. Without any effort greater than looking for clean bowls and spoons, these young men were consuming a tasty, healthy, satisfying meal. Including the 4 minutes of microwave warming, it didn’t take any longer than driving through one of the 6 fast food restaurants they had passed on the way to my house.
Both of these young men are gluten eaters and both of them are familiar with my household, so they knew I might not have a loaf of bread or box of crackers handy. They could have easily grabbed a quick sandwich on the way instead of opting for a gluten-free meal. And yet they didn’t. The second I wondered why, I was transported back in time to my grandmother’s house.
My parents owned a business across one street and a large yard from my grandmother’s house. Through her 60s and 70s, my grandmother walked to work every day. I worked for my parents periodically and would sometimes follow my grandmother home at the end of the day. Without fail, when I walked through the door she would offer me food. It might be chili with some cottage cheese and pears, or a slice of ham with English peas and sliced tomatoes, or if I was really lucky some beef and noodles with a carrot and raisin salad. The fare was always simple, ready in a few minutes, and always delicious. My sister and I both loved to stop by.
No matter how much I may like some fast food french fries, they are never as delicious as the simple homemade dishes my grandmother had handy in the refrigerator. For us those foods were “fast”, but what about for my grandmother?
My grandmother taught me how to make chili so let’s start with that. I can make a big batch from start to finish in 30-40 minutes. All the ingredients are readily available from my pantry with the exception of ground beef or ground turkey. 30-40 minutes for 8 servings is no more than 5 minutes per serving. As an added bonus, the cost savings is huge!
Now let’s look at a dish I haven’t yet mastered. My grandmother cooked beef cubes for beef and noodles in a pressure cooker. I don’t have one of those because I fear I’ll blow up the kitchen, but I’ve read that it takes 10-15 minutes at high pressure to cook beef cubes. The noodles can be cooked while the beef is being pressured. That means this dish probably takes 45 minutes including prep time and it is a family favorite. She always made enough for at least 12 servings so that’s less than 4 minutes per serving.
Of course these entrees don’t tell the whole time story, but being a great planner my grandmother would reheat an entree she had cooked for Sunday dinner and serve it with freshly cooked vegetables on Wednesday making the whole process look effortless and feel inviting. All of us can easily do that.
Yes, I recognize that times have changed. Everything moves faster. We work more. We have more scheduled activities. I have a 60+ hour per week job and I know how it feels to juggle work, family, and a social life. Given our current lifestyles, does gluten-free really take too much time or do we just assume that it will?
Let’s go back to the meal I served Ben last night as an example: I cooked the chicken soup in three steps on different days. Step one was brining and took 5 minutes of prep. Step 2 was cooking the chicken. It also took 5 minutes of prep plus 1 1/2 hours of cooking, so I did that last Saturday when I had a block of time at home. Step 3 included prepping vegetables. On the day I made the soup, I had already cleaned and prepped carrots, squash, and onion by chopping additional amounts when I was oven-roasting vegetables earlier in the week, then storing them in the fridge until the weekend. I had prepped the sugar snap peas (I like to trim off the ends) the night before while watching TV. With all that done, Step 3 took less 30 minutes including cooking time.
While I was brining the chicken, I was also soaking beans for the Killer Beans as well as for the soup. While I was cooking the chicken, I also cooked the beans. My prep time for 20 servings of food totaled less than an hour. In my household these servings were consumed in 8 meals. Adding in reheating time, the time consumed prepping, and each serving averaged 2 1/2 minutes of time in the kitchen. Only 2 1/2 minutes. That includes the initial cooking and prep time and it’s still less than the time I would have spent in 8 stops at a fast food restaurant and much less time than eating 8 meals in a sit-down-to-order restaurant.
Am I saying that I’m as consistently prepared as my grandmother, or that I don’t sometimes feel overwhelmed? No. But I recognize that many times when I feel overwhelmed by the idea of fixing dinner more than one night per week, all I have to do is shift my thinking away from the current cultural trends and remember how rewarding it was to eat at my grandmother’s table. I immediately feel renewed energy and excitement for getting into the kitchen to immerse myself in the tastes, colors, textures, and smells of cooking. The added bonus of eating a tasty meal at my kitchen table without worrying about dripping food on my blouse seals the deal for me. Get me out of this car & into the kitchen!
The next time you’re tempted to abandon the idea of strict adherence to a gluten-free diet because it takes too much time, take a moment to think about your mother’s chicken and dumplings, some piping hot cornbread, or the smell of cookies fresh out of the oven. Remember how you felt walking into a house that smelled like warm cinnamon. Go ahead, smile, relax and realize that you can easily have those feelings in your own home tomorrow by making a tiny shift in how you spend your time. The time you would have spent waiting in restaurants or your car can be spent at home.
Caring for myself and my family by providing a beautiful, delicious, healthy, gluten-free meal is absolutely worth whatever time it takes in the kitchen. And as we have seen, that time is less than the time I would spend waiting for food at a restaurant or drive through!
Be brave. Do your own time tests. The worst thing that can happen is you’ll make some great memories for your kids.
*Eight Days a Week Rosemary Chicken Soup and Killer Beans are original Cooking2Thrive® recipes.