This all came about because I was watching a few episodes of an old PBS show called, "Frontier House," where they took these modern families and transported them back in time for 3 months to the frontier times in America where settlers really had to use their own grit and spit to quite literally build a life for themselves in this country, and how every single decision they made could basically be a life or death one. A portion of the reality show was the life and times of women and what their crucial roles were, which of course included being in charge of making sure the family was fed morning, noon, and night.
So, I had this little thought in my head like how hard is it to really "do that?" Granted I knew that what was forming into a challenge in my head was not going to be Frontier style because I would of course be using modern equipment and not battling the elements, but I thought cooking for an entire month couldn't be that hard, could it?
I have been cooking since I was about eleven years old and I grew over the years to really love it. Christmas is what I consider to the the Olympics of cooking. I start prepping for "the event" nearly three weeks in advance preparing doughs, and soups, and desserts, and anything I can make ahead of time so that I can freeze them and use them on the day to cut down on prep time. I just spend the day in that kitchen all day long with the smells, and sites, and tastes, of so many family traditions brewing under my watchful eye. I love it. I love the idea of nourishing family and friends, and almost creating these edible pieces of art. I figured, now that I'd mentally agreed to this challenge, that I would use the month two fold. I wanted to really get into food photography and I wanted to discover new ways of cooking and be able to commit some new and exciting recipes to my already full arsenal.
The rules I'd established were this: No fast food or restaurant food. No frozen food except for the use of frozen fruit or vegetables in their natural form. No artificial food--everything must be created by nature or through my own hands. In the interest of not wasting food, eating leftovers from say lunch to dinner or dinner to lunch were acceptable as opposed to cooking just for the sake of cooking. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner all had to be prepared each day with the exception of eating previous leftovers.
Having spent a few weeks prior researching food photography and ways to make your food look as good as it tastes, I decided that I would commit to cooking in the month of February because I had no work obligations to attend events and the one friend with a February birthday had celebrated in late January, so socially I wouldn't have to avoid any functions in order to fufill the challenge. Plus, I knew February was the shortest month. I mean at the time I was working 10 hour days, 6 days a week, so even though I thought I could handle it all, it was going to be a lot.
Let's just say what we all know about starting something new. You have a lot of pep and energy and you're super committed, and I was. I learned to make biscuits from scratch, my lunches were not sandwiches and apple slices, but actual hot delicious meals of roasted meats, and homemade soups, and bread I made myself in a bread maker I hadn't used in years. I was super focused on making these beautiful presentations of my dinners too which is what most of my food photography was focused on. I was all in.
Week two hit, and work ramped up about 70% from the previous week. I mean, making biscuits from scratch or artfully composing a roulade on a plate didn't seem all that appealing when you're just run down and tired. Ten hour days felt like 90, and being in the kitchen making myself cook or worse, cook, and then have to wait to arrange the food in order to photograph it, just left a sour taste in my mouth. I knew I couldn't get through the week cooking 21 meals with my sanity without improvising.
Bring out the slow cooker and institute meal prep. Dump a bunch of food into a heating device and let it do the work, I thought. Great. And so that began. I thought maybe in my head this wouldn't fufill the challenge, but then I thought, it's no different if I'd put the food in an oven and let the oven finish cooking it, so what is the difference. The slow cooker allowed me to cook in bulk, and so for that week, my dinners were all cooked all at once on that Sunday, and I focused on just managing to make like some pancakes, or oatmeal, or breakfast bars from scratch for breakfast, and simple pasta or rice based dishes for my lunches. Honestly, I wanted to quit midway into the second week. It's all good when you have time to do this stuff, but when you don't, it's just such an energy drain.
This week work was still insane, but I really dug deep and thought about women in my life like my mother and grandmother and definitely the generations before who were the cooks of the family and did have to cook often. My grandmother ran a family restaurant all the way up until she was 83 years old. Before she taught her girls to cook for themselves, she would have to cook for her 8 children and then go and cook all day long for everyone else, and then come back home and make sure her own kids were fed.
My mom worked long hours like I did when she was my age, and got fresh hot food on the table every night. The generations before with so much less technology and more challenges in their lives, did the same, so Mrs. "this is going to be easy," I re-committed to trying to in earnest cook as many of the 21 meals as I could in real time (save for the lunches because I was at work and had to prepare them the night before).
I researched more 30 minutes or less recipes than anything that week, and that was what I made. I still definitely wasn't enjoying "having to" cook as opposed to wanting to cook, but the results of having fresh natural food were having the side benefit of making me feel more energized and healthy and there was something so awesome about anticipating a hot lunch, for lunch, as opposed to some old frozen thing or something you have to spend a lot on in a cafe or junk from fast food places. It was really eye opening to me what I had been putting into my body and how bad those things were for me vs. what I was cooking where I knew every ingredient.
When the last day of this challenge came up, I was so excited. I hated cooking breakfast the most because I had to coordinate limbs and have thoughts in order to execute a meal when I was still tired from the night before, and I was sooooooo looking forward to just not having to do that anymore. The last week was like that last rally where you push to just do it and get it done, and I did. I themed the week to learning how to cook a new dish from a different country every night for dinner, and the results were admittedly a mixed bag, but I did at least enjoy that bit of challenge. With the photography I'd taken to just using the same tired set up for all the meals rather than think creatively or try to find dishes and things that coordinated with the food or the theme as I'd one in the first couple of weeks.
And then, it was over!!!! When the last day of February came, I was ready to throw every single dish and plate and baking sheet into the trash. All hail my fore mothers who did this every day, all year long, for decades of their lives, because that scant 28 days coupled with having to work long hours was a lot. The recovery from said month took me like a full 30 more days. I just could not be bothered to fire anything up. It was restaurant food and boxed cereals, and cafe food all day every day.
I did however give up a lot of bad habits that year stemming from the experience of just having and eating fresh food all the time. After the recovery month, I did really start to focus more on what I was eating as opposed to just eating anything to satisfy my hunger. Would I do it again? Yes, and I did. I've actually done it every year for the past 3 years. It hasn't been as hard as it was the first year because now I have more time to do it as I don't have such an insane work schedule anymore, and I have found that I have really enjoyed subsequent years and learning new skills, picking up some new gadgets, and learning new recipes.