The year 2020 was a voyage of culinary discovery for me and Christmas Day represented the final destination; it was the day I cooked my 292nd different evening meal that year. It marked the end of a challenge I'd set myself to add variety to our dinner table. Why 292? It represented 80% of the year with the remaining 73 days allowing for eating leftovers, travelling with work, visiting restaurants and sharing meals with friends and family. It was inconceivable at the time of planning this challenge, that 3 out of the 4 reasons I allowed myself some leeway would come to be impossible due to a global pandemic.
Parkinson's law suggests that work expands to fill the time available to complete it, and while the realisation pains me, I could easily have exceed my goal by 25th December and, of course, kept on cooking until 31st December. Except that the constant requirement to think of something different to cook eventually became mentally exhausting. The thinking, the cooking and then the documenting at times shadowed the joy of cooking something new.
For this reason there are a small number of posts that are still waiting to be finished and which I will complete when it becomes 'fun' to do so again.
When I set out on my journey I hoped to decrease the amount of meat we were eating to half our meals with the remaining 50% split between fish dishes and vegetarian options. Pressure from my family to ease up on the veggie meals, left me sure I would be shy of my target of a quarter, but I was surprised to find that during 2020 27% of our evening meals were vegetarian. Fish was where I fell short, representing only 16% of all meals, meaning meat reigned supreme featuring in 57% of the dishes I served. Despite not hitting 50%, the process of introducing more vegetarian and fish based meals certainly enhanced the variety on our table.
Cooking 292 different meals during 2020 encouraged me to develop some valuable habits.
The first was meal planning. This is a gift you can give to yourself that will allow you to buy time to do other things. Mapping out what you are going to cook for the week ahead and creating opportunities to cook meals in advance not only frees up time, it provides a level of clarity and intentionality that puts you in control. Trying to decide what to cook each day not only takes up mental capacity it is also a recipe for ending up cooking multiple meals to suit different family members. It also introduces that bone of contention that goes something along the lines of "well why ask me what I'd like for dinner if you're not going to / can't cook it?"
Introducing new meals is a great way to test family members' likes and dislikes, challenge assumptions about what tastes good and what doesn't and encourage a more adventurous attitude to food and drink. However, it was always a source of disappointment when something tasted delicious and someone said "wow that was amazing; it's a shame we're going to have to wait another x number of months before we can have it again!"
The second habit I developed was meal prepping. I didn't batch cook per se as this would have eroded my goal to increase variety, but I did do a lot of cooking ahead, usually over the weekend to deliver breathing space during the week. Working full time, this really helped to relieve stress and save time.
Thirdly, and probably inevitability, I cooked most things from whole foods avoiding industrialised and processed products. There's an assumption that cooking from scratch takes too much time or is too expensive. Both of these statements can of course be true, but they aren't necessarily true all of the time. It is possible to prepare great tasting meals with whole foods that are budget friendly. While I definitely used to subscribed to the "why waste time making your own pastry when you can buy it" brigade, during 2020 I pushed myself to make my own and it was something of a revelation to find it wasn't as laborious as I'd imagined. Most importantly, making your own pastry means you know exactly what is in it.
Having documented one year of 292 different evening meals, I started to reflect on what is next for this blog. I've had a range of food ideas, but in the true spirit of Virtues of Variety, for 2021 I've started a completely different project; on 11 January 2021 my husband and I started to build our own home. Over the past ten weeks this has diverted my spare time away from this blog, but in an unexpected way it has helped focus my thinking. I have started to reflect more on the how the kitchen functions as a living space and how food plays an important role in our lives beyond simply providing sustenance.
Having begun a voyage of discovery into food variety back in January 2020, 15 months on, it has become a habit that's hard to break, so variety will no doubt continue to be a theme running through my posts, although who knows where else my ramblings will take me.