Too Busy to Cook?

There are always questions in my mind about various things and sometimes I find others have the same questions too. Recently I watched a talk show and the topic was something like this – whether in a typical south Indian household where the kitchen has become modern with its gadgets and with abundant food options available outside the household, has cooking and the food evolved at all. I think it is quite an interesting topic and I found it all the more intriguing to hear a lady say it is after all food why bother so much, make something and get on with it. Indeed it is a thought that would occur quite naturally to many people who are juggling multiple things from full time job, school runs, kids activities etc. There are times when I think I should cook less and spend more time with my child. Honestly, for me it is not the cooking that takes time, it is the cleaning that bothers me. Have you wondered if you are actually wasting time in the kitchen cooking everyday and you may have progressed in life better and faster had you not spent that time there? In this article, I wish to discuss about whether at this day and age it is still relevant to cook homemade food and bring hot food to the table.

Not that long ago, women usually stayed at home running the giant machine called the household. I say so because, regardless of whether you were in a developed country or developing one, the extent of work involved in doing the chores and taking care of the children at home was more than a full time job. When they were not washing up or cooking, they were normally doing something related to food. Pickling, making preserves, drying some seasonal vegetables so they are available out of season, preparing dough/flour, de-husking grains etc. were some of the activities I can think of that kept women of those days busy. So, in some way or form, food played a central part in keeping them engaged. As they were pretty much confined at home, especially kitchen (let’s not get into whether that is good/bad or right/wrong), they were associated with food and one of the primary tasks for them was to ensure food was available to eat at appropriate times. There was also another aspect of food that women of those days focussed on – healing properties of food. For someone with fever and no appetite, there was a ‘kick’ inducing gruel made so that would trigger the appetite; for one with a cold there was concoctions; for one with constipation, there was a dish made with some castor oil and so on. Also, there was another important aspect – variety. Be it in the name of fasting or whatever, there was always a reason to include a variety of ingredients and also to avoid excessive intake of certain ingredients (eg. Rice is avoided on some days and other cereals are consumed instead). Often, as the menu was in some ways rota based, for instance once in a month castor oil will be used for cooking etc. to a large degree food not only turned out to be healing but also preventing illness. With so much attention to food, it remained something that one could relate to in years to come. Most of us have nice memories of having yummy food prepared by mom and we associate home with the food.

From there, you come to today’s world where the women still gets up early and needs to rush to work after sending her kids off to school and her husband off to his work, ofcourse all with packed lunch. She has a number of gadgets in the kitchen as she does not have all afternoon to do much of the preparation. To a large degree, many ingredients are also made available in usable form (like cut spinach, ground rice flour etc.). You can get a number of gadgets to do a variety of things but you need someone to bring it all together, to make a meal. Gone are those days when we could rope in help in a joint family and in the silos that we have built around us, there is limited help and this is probably the biggest challenge that puts off the thought of making freshly cooked food. With a number of outlets to buy food from that too with a variety of cuisines to choose from, would it be wiser to just buy what you fancy eating? The other option is to hire someone to cook so we can stay out of the kitchen and just give them the menu. As always, options are plenty but what would be the best?

One of the fears I have about eating out on a regular basis is that one starts eating to satiate the taste buds and more than fill up the stomach and loses focus on what the body needs. I am not an advocate of bland food, on the contrary I think food must be delicious and inviting as it triggers the digestive juices and helps digestion process. However, the focus should not solely be on what my tastebud wants but what my body needs. For instance there was a period of time when I was feeling tired almost all the time and I just looked back at what has changed in my diet and figured I was not getting enough protein then. I increased my protein intake and soon I was feeling more energetic. A number of convenience food are available cheaply and easily and many marketed as ‘healthy’, however we must bear in mind that the food industry is not obliged to display every ingredient and there is so much politics around this that what you eat is not always what it says on the pack. So whether you go down the take away road or a ready meal to stick in the oven, it will come at a price called nutrition. As a food blogger, I have cooked and written up a number of recipes and I can quite confidently say that if taste alone was the cook’s focus, let’s not kid ourselves saying it is healthy too.

As a mother, just like how I am expected to provide a good ambience and stimulant for my child, it is also my responsibility to give the kid the right nutrition according to the growing needs. Inadequate nourishment can affect both physical development and mental development. It has been shown how artificially coloured food can cause behavioural problems in children. Even adults respond to what they eat or drink. For instance a sugar rush from a slice of cake or candy is shown to lead to further sugar craving. There has been a lot of research that seems to re-enforce the point that you are what you eat. If you take the first advise you get from a doctor for almost any ailment, be it a common cold or a cancer, is to change your lifestyle. Broadly there are just two aspects of lifestyle – food and exercise. A sedentary lifestyle could be detrimental and it is important to ensure one balances the intake and consumption. In the part of the world where I live, I have noticed that many people exercise very vigorously, go hill walking, some cycle up and downhills yet you always hear about how young folks get cancer or heart attack. In my mind, in addition to genetic the other factor is what you eat. Although you may burn most of what you eat by exercising, nevertheless your body has to go through the process of breaking down and assimilating all the junk we feed it. For instance, the trans fat in the food will just be stored in the body no matter how much exercise one does. There have been many people who have had dramatic changes in the types of food they eat and seen some chronic illness like arthritis and even cancer subside. The body has the ability to heal and the food we feed it enables it to heal to a large degree. Being such an important part of well being and longevity, I struggle to understand why it should not be focussed on for a few minutes in a day.

If you take any marriage or other functions, the first thing the host worries about is food. As long as the food served is good, they will be happy to compromise elsewhere. Such is the kind of society that I grew up in and it is a bit sad to realise that slowly food is losing its place. Why one would rather take pills to ‘cure’ than have good food to prevent? It is my belief that women usually fare better at multi tasking because for years together they have been used to doing it. Cooking, especially within a limited time involves quite abit of mental planning and preparation; it involves a lot of hand eye co-ordination, guesstimation and I guess that is why if we do not focus on it, the food is no good. While the rice cooks, one has to get the vegetables ready while cooking a dal or whatever. It has to go on in parallel otherwise we can have only one meal a day.

Coming to the idea of outsourcing the food preparation by hiring someone; I think it is a reasonable way forward if one can afford. However, the more one distances themselves from the ingredients, the less we are aware of it. Over time we have already lost a number of home remedies and traditional dishes that had medicinal values. Outsourcing this would only lead to further loss of wealth of information and in some ways loss of our cultural identity. I do not take pride in calling burger or pizza as my staple food and would rather say a millet gruel is my staple. Food also has emotional strings attached to it. Whenever my mom visits me or I visit her, she would make it a point to prepare all dishes that I like and even my husband likes. It is a way of expressing her love and care for us. Anyone can buy gifts from the shop as long as they have a credit card to swipe but not everyone can take great care and put love in what they are serving. They say how the food that a mother feeds her child is the tastiest because in her mind all she wants is all the food goes down that tiny tummy and be absorbed well.

For all those who argue that time in the kitchen is time wasted, can I ask what would you rather do in that time? Let’s face it; most of us may just sit on the couch watching more programmes on the tele or some may choose to work longer hours and some may say they might as well spend time with their family. So just how can we strike a balance between not having enough time in a day and staying healthy? What I usually enjoy doing is cooking as a family, everyone in the family gets involved in the cooking and cleaning so that way it is a great time to have conversation and catch up on how the day has been, more help means quicker turn around. Another benefit of this way of dealing with the problem is children can learn about what goes into their food and I think that helps build healthy eating habits which is a key part of well being. Cooking is a life skill and I think everyone should be able to cook for their survival. Taking shortcuts will always come with a heavy price tag. According to Hinduism, god resides in every one of us and that is one of the reasons why we should care for our body. But if you do not believe so, atleast you may want to live life to the fullest which means you need to be healthy until the last breath. It is said that upto one third of cancers can be prevented by eating well. Health and food go hand in hand. So while we embrace the fast paced world, let us tweak our schedule and attitude a bit and not lose focus on a very essential part of life.