2018 was the year I avoided exercise at all costs, got drinks with friends after work (like, a lot), and ate out multiple times a week (breakfast, lunch, and dinner). Not that I don't believe we should be partaking in such pleasures — we absolutely should. But everything in moderation and all that, right?
It took staying in my high school bedroom over the holidays, sifting through yearbooks and looking at old photographs of myself, for me to realize that my adult life had been missing the kind of discipline I used to have when I was younger: Younger me was Homecoming King and principal flutist in the county orchestra; younger me ate green things like avocados and ran track; younger me cooked for himself almost every. single day. And it wasn't even his job.
This might sound ironic considering I'm a food editor now and write about how much comfort and pleasure cooking gives me. And of course it does, and I do a lot of it. But I certainly don't do it every day, for every meal — do you? When it comes down to it, I usually just boil an egg in the morning (if I'm not jamming my feet into my Converses, bolting out the door) and I almost always buy my lunch, or compose an elaborate meal out of snacks I've foraged opportunistically from the test kitchen. Sure, dinner leaves more room for the kind of slow, measured cooking and eating that bleeds into the night and gives me peace before bed, but even in that arena I could still use a bit more work. So, in an effort to take better care of myself, I've decided to do a couple of things: join a yoga studio, and cook more food.
First up? Agreeing to cook every single meal for seven whole days. For this, I drew inspiration from David Tamarkin's Cook90 plan, where you cook yourself breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day for 30 days with the idea in mind "that you cannot cook for 30 days straight and not come out a better, faster, healthier cook." I was most encouraged by the "better," and the notion that this kind of cooking would make me more skilled in the kitchen. But ... 30 days is a lot. So I decided to try seven days first.
Here's how it went:
Day one: Monday
I feel way on top of it because, according to Tamarkin, nearly 200,000 people start the Cook90 challenge at the beginning of the year. So I'm in good company. When I wake up in the morning, I usually can't stomach a full breakfast, so I always have a single six-minute boiled egg with magic spice and a cup of coffee, which is what I do today. For lunch, Mom and I make kimchi fried rice together. For dinner, I invite my cousins over for an evening of appetizers: nori deviled eggs, shrimp cocktail, and cheesy breakfast sausage pinwheels.
Favorite meal of the day: The kimchi fried rice (duh).
How'd I do?: A+. Wow, the sausage pinwheels were incredible.
Day two: Tuesday
I feel encouraged by yesterday's success — this is going to be a walk in the park. Of course, I have another boiled egg this morning and go about my day. Mom, Dad, and my brother Kevin are all super busy tonight, so we decide to meet back at the house for lunch. Guess who's cooking? I make a simple rigatoni alla vodka with some leftover sausage from last night — it's so creamy and comforting. My mom says it's the best pasta she's ever had. (She always says this about anything new I cook her.) To go with, a huge composed Italian-style salad with a homemade garlicky, oregano-scented vinaigrette, plus Texas toast. Dinner is just me, so I make the cover recipe from Cook90: sweet potatoes with chorizo, mushrooms, and lime cream. (It's so good.)
Favorite meal of the day: The sweet potatoes.
How'd I do?: A. I feel kind of guilty about my lazy breakfasts; does boiling an egg really count?
Day three: Wednesday
My mom just bought an army of raw, fresh crabs for one of my favorite Korean dishes ever: gaejang (or soy sauce–marinated crabs). I help her make the marinade, which is just water, soy, sugar, jalapeños, and onions that we bring to a boil, cool slightly, then pour over the crabs. We can't eat these until tomorrow (but I think this counts as cooking). Lunch is leftover kimchi fried rice with a bunch of banchan from the fridge (this doesn't count as cooking). I have to rush out to pick up my boyfriend Scott from the airport. Tamarkin says you're allowed to cheat for three of the 90 meals, so we decide to get ramen for dinner at Ton Ton in Ponce City Market (the tonkotsu is my favorite bowl of noodles in America, so I only feel a little guilty).
Favorite meal of the day: The ramen! It fed my soul!
How'd I do?: C-. The only thing I cooked today was an egg in the morning and the crabs, which wasn't one of my three meals.
Day four: Thursday
A little discouraged from yesterday — but hey, life happens. I skip breakfast because I sleep in, but wake up at noon to my uncle's loud, booming voice downstairs: He's brought us some wagyu steaks from Costco. I cook one in a skillet, carve it, and have it with white rice. It's so fatty, almost too fatty, so I take the steak pieces back to the pan to render more of their fat. Much better. It melts in my mouth. Oh! And the crabs are ready. Their sweet-salty flesh is like ceviche, only softer in taste and texture, and the soy flavor tastes incredible with the rice. Utterly addictive (my friend Irene says her grandmother calls gaejang "rice killer" because it makes you want to keep eating more and more rice). For dinner, I drive over to Scott's and we make Instant Pot butter chicken.
Favorite meal of the day: Gaejang.
How'd I do?: B+. I missed a meal, but cooked two other times; plus, reaped the fruits of our crab labor yesterday.
Day five: Friday
Breakfast is white rice with fried eggs, soy sauce, and sesame oil. For lunch, I want to show my mom how to use the new Instant Pot I bought her for Christmas, so we attempt my beef stroganoff recipe (originally intended for a slow cooker), stupidly don't change a thing, and end up with a mess. The beef and mushrooms produce way too much liquid for the pot, so beefy soup spews out of the pressure release valve and ruins the kitchen. It tastes fine, but we feel dumb. For dinner, I go over to Scott's again and we reheat a frozen pizza from Publix; dessert is an Asian pear galette that I eat happily (but didn't help make).
Favorite meal of the day: Our Publix dinner.
How'd I do?: B-. Reheating a pizza, according to Tamarkin, doesn't count as cooking, and I didn't make the gorgeous galette.
Day six: Saturday
It's my last day in Atlanta. I decide that going to one of my favorite lunch places on Buford Highway with my parents is worth it. I want to treat my family for dinner, so I cook them a Sunday roast with warm eggplant and mint salad, and clementine chocolate lava cakes. My brother is in charge of the dessert and he forgets the olive oil, so they come out more lava than cake. My parents appreciate all the vegetables, because they love vegetables. Am I really related to these people?
Favorite meal of the day: The last supper.
How'd I do?: C+. I may have only cooked once, but I cooked a lot.
Day seven: Sunday
Today I'm on the road with my dog for 13 hours, driving from Atlanta back to New York. I didn't cook anything in advance or pack myself breakfast or lunch, so I eat a few clementines when I stop for gas and later scarf down a drive-through chicken sandwich with French fries. (Have I failed the challenge?) Even though I should be exhausted, I come home to my Manhattan apartment and feel inspired to cook again — finally, in my own kitchen for a change. I take a giant sheet pan, roast a whole chopped head of cauliflower, plus Italian sausage, red onion, and fennel seed, and toss this with some cooked fusilli and a huge smattering of freshly grated Parmesan. It really hits the spot, as does a glass of the single-malt Scotch that Scott gave me for Christmas. And, belly full and seven days of cooking under my belt, I lay me down to sleep.
Favorite meal of the day: The Scotch.
How'd I do?: C. I didn't totally fail today ... right?
Cooking every meal, every day was a lot harder than I thought it'd be. I figured, "Hey, as long as I do this after the holidays, after all the family reunions and parties, then it should be fine." But I found myself needing breaks and wanting to just go out for a meal instead of cooking it from scratch. And don't even get me started on breakfast! As I was technically on vacation, I had to force myself to wake up early enough to have breakfast at all. Still, I appreciated the exercise and caught myself occasionally noticing the act of my cooking that much more: Every stir of the pot, every cracked egg, every little movement in the kitchen fed my soul and gave me peace. I even caught myself thinking, "I forgot how much I love this."
In this way, like Tamarkin said, I do believe the seven days of mindfulness actually made me a better cook — or at least a more thoughtful one. But the thing I loved most was that, at the end of the day, this kind of cooking wasn't about anything other than feeding my family and myself, a challenge primarily for sustenance.
As Nigella Lawson writes in Simply Nigella, "If cooking isn't hinged on necessity, it loses its context, and purpose. I cook to give pleasure, to myself and others, but first it is about sustaining life, and only then about forging a life." So, I've started to make good on at least one of my goals for this year — and just as soon as I can find an inspiring Nigella quote about joining a yoga studio, then I'll be on my way with the next.
This story was originally published on Food52.com: Why I cooked every single meal for 7 days (well, almost).