The Surprising Upsides of Socially Distanced Cooking
I’m an optimist, the kind of person who looks for breaks of sun on a cloudy day. The same mindset applies during social distancing. Even after weeks of hunkering down at home with my three can’t-stop-squabbling teens and on-edge husband—who is now bearded and dangerously close to sporting a mullet—I like to think there’s always good to be found.
As a recipe developer and nutritionist, I’ve often found the good in my kitchen. Now is no exception. This “new normal” has shifted how my family and I cook, eat, and think about food—and given me a break in ways I didn’t know I needed. Call it JOMO: the joy of missing out. Here are some aspects of the old normal I'm not missing at all.
Rising at the crack of dawn to prep my kids’ meals
With distance learning in effect, my kids are way less crunched for time in the morning. Nobody needs to hop in the shower. Nobody is running the 100-yard dash to catch the school bus. My kids are Zooming to math class in their PJs, sometimes without leaving bed.
That means they can make their own breakfast—and lunch, too. They have no excuse not to! You could say that compelling my children to cook for themselves is part of my master plan to provide them with an incredible, hands-on culinary education. Or you could just state the truth: That I am delighting in doing a little less these days.
Apparently, this mild neglect is paying off. The other day one of my children stunned me by making ricotta gnocchi with creamy tomato sauce and garlicky spinach, similar to this semi-homemade dish that uses frozen pasta. They grow up so fast!
Running to the grocery store for that *one* ingredient
Back in pre-quarantine times, I was a bit of a stickler about following recipes to the letter. If I found myself missing an ingredient, I’d often plan a special trip to the supermarket. "I’ll be driving the kids around town anyway!" I'd rationalize to myself. "I’ll just duck into the store real quick!"
Of course, in grocery shopping, there are no quick trips. Parking, walking, hunting down that one random item in aisle 17—that all takes time. So, now that health officials are telling the public to curb nonessential errands, I’ve been forced to relax the reins on my cooking—and I’m actually loving it.
A few times, I’ve left out missing ingredients and was relieved to discover that meals were just as delicious. Other times, I’ve nailed a resourceful swap, like using mashed chickpeas as a burger binder when my breadcrumb supply ran out. It’s been a good reminder that most recipes are flexible and can be made to suit different circumstances.
Hosting elaborate parties
Admittedly, this “hardship” was truly one of my own making. Over time, my husband and I have become known among our friends for going all-out when entertaining, with multi-course menus meticulously planned to excite and delight the palate. Problem is, each dinner party creates pressure on the next to be just as spectacular. It’s a lot of work, and the cleanup is brutal.
With social gatherings temporarily off-limits, it’s been nice to remember that simple themed meals can feel just as special. The other night my family and I threw together Chipotle-style dinner bowls with turkey taco filling, homemade creamy black beans, brown rice, shredded romaine, mashed avocado with sea salt and lime, crushed-up tortilla chips, and some other fun toppings. For a change of pace, we sat in the dining room instead of the kitchen. We enjoyed meaningful conversation. It was great.
If my husband and I are fortunate enough to host our annual Argentinian asado this summer, apologies in advance to our guests for serving store-bought empanadas. Actually, we’re not sorry at all.
Being the family meal planner
OK, I get it: I’m a food professional. It’s understandable that family meal planning would fall to me. Unfortunately, my expertise doesn’t make my finicky household any easier to please. For example, my husband happily eats salsa and tomato sauce, but not raw tomatoes. (Apparently it’s “a texture thing.” OK.) Four of us prefer chicken breasts; one only likes legs. I can’t cook with bananas or fish because my older daughter gags at the odor. And let’s not forget my 18-year-old son: No matter how well I think I’ve planned and how much food I’ve made, there’s never enough. He’s a human vacuum cleaner.
Now that everyone is home so much, we’re sharing the eternal burden of figuring out what to eat. We’ve started taking turns searching for new recipes, or selecting dishes from an arsenal of faves, for all five of us to enjoy. The other night, someone (not me) selected slow cooker lasagna with frozen garlic bread and two sheet pans of roasted broccoli (frozen spears on parchment, tossed with a little olive oil, seasoned with salt, and cooked at 400°F for 20 minutes or so). Consensus is the magic ingredient.
Booking dinner between activities
In theory, family meals are a great way to connect, but good luck finding time for a sit-down dinner with three overscheduled teenagers in the house.
Now, though, with sports and after-school clubs on hiatus, social distancing has allowed us all to slow down a bit—and actually eat together when we’re hungry instead of when we’re “available.” Depending on the day, we’ll sometimes sit down to dinner at 5 p.m.; sometimes it’s closer to 9 p.m. On hold are the days of gobbling pizza slices in the car between school activities.
The other night, we enjoyed leisurely appetizers at 7 p.m. (a board of thinly sliced cheese, salami, apples, and cucumber, with nuts, jam, and assorted crackers), then segued to portions of a quadruple-batch citrusy endive salad I prepped after miraculously scoring a grocery delivery slot. We take it day by day, and that in itself is a gift.
Leslie Fink, MS, RD, has worked on the WW editorial team for more than 21 years. She plays a key role in food, recipe, and program content, as well as product partnerships and experiences.
This article was reviewed for accuracy in June 2021 by Christi Smith, MS, CSCS, associate manager for science translation at WW. The WW Science Team is a dedicated group of experts who ensure all our solutions are rooted in the best possible research.