There are times in your life when you realize something’s got to change.
I had such an epiphany on New Year’s Eve. My family and I were returning home from service at our church. We were hungry and wanted something fast. We stopped at McDonald’s at about 10:30 p.m. The restaurant was short-staffed, so it took an hour to get our food. We then had to rush so we could get home in time to watch the broadcasts of the celebration at Times Square.
I sat there at home waiting for midnight with my burger and fries and thought: enough. I’m done. In the time it took to get my food, I could have cooked something much better and more healthful.
I’ve decided that in 2015, restaurant fast food is going to be a rarity in my diet.
I had already been reading a book that I thought would save me money and help me prepare delicious meals. I want to share it with you. My first Color of Money Book Club selection for 2015 is “How to Cook Everything Fast: A Better Way to Cook Great Food” by New York Times food writer Mark Bittman.
This isn’t a cheap book, with a listed retail price of $35. It’s huge in both weight and length (more than 1,000 pages, including a hefty index). You’ll have to be careful not to drop it or you might hurt your foot or a small dog. But don’t let its size intimidate you. It’s worth the time to wade through it.
Like many of you, on most days, I need my food to be fast. My husband and I are very involved at our church and in our community. I have two teens at home who have various activities and are on their respective high school swimming teams, and that means a dash into the house after school, homework and off to the pool. There’s not a lot of time to eat, let alone cook. So lately we’ve been eating out a lot. Even though the takeout portions are often huge and I’m the queen of leftovers, a lot of fast food just doesn’t keep.
Consider this from the Environmental Protection Agency. “Food waste is the second-largest category of municipal solid waste sent to landfills in the United States, accounting for approximately 18 percent of the waste stream.”
The EPA says about 35 million tons of food waste was generated in 2012. Nearly all of that food — 96 percent — was dumped into landfills or incinerators. In addition to the environmental concerns about rotting food, think of all the money wasted — about $165 billion annually, according to some estimates.
Americans spend a lot of money on food away from home. And much of it is not healthy. In 1970, about 26 percent of all food spending was on dining out, according to the Department of Agriculture. By 2012, it was 43 percent.
“In the last 50 years, the way we feed ourselves has changed, and with reason,” Bittman writes. But he adds that we have to stop telling ourselves we don’t have time to make our own meals.
“You do have time to cook,” he says. “You just need better recipes. Imagine a road map that captures the rhythm of the kitchen, where preparation and cooking happen seamlessly. Soup begins to simmer while you prepare more vegetables for the pot; oil shimmers in a skillet as you chop an onion, broiled meat rests while rice steams. This is naturally fast cooking, the kind experienced cooks do intuitively. Fast cooking involves strategy, not compromise.”
With Bittman’s help, I’m making time to cook. I’m rearranging my kitchen per his instructions. I’ve become more efficient in preparing fresh ingredients. Right now, I’m fasting from meats, but there are plenty of vegetarian dishes throughout the book. I’m a Southern woman at heart, so I love the recipe for honey-cheddar grits with sage.
I’m just so inspired. Most importantly, Bittman makes you comfortable with trying his recipes, which aren’t complicated. He provides many tips for shortcuts to save time. And he offers suggestions for you to do your own thing to alter his recipes.
“The fastest way to cook is to improvise,” he writes. “Or at least be flexible.”
Make room in your kitchen for this book. If you prepare more nutritious meals, you’ll waste less food and money. And remember, your health is connected to your wealth.
I’ll be hosting a live online discussion about “How to Cook Everything Fast” at noon Eastern on Jan. 29 at washingtonpost.com/discussions. Bittman will be joining me and taking your questions. You can send questions in advance of the chat to email@example.com. Please put “Cooking Fast” in the subject line.
Write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read more, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.