I am perfectly capable of making lentils, but I never make lentils. Instead, I buy Trader Joe’s steamed lentils, which are more expensive than dry lentils, and feel oddly guilty about it. This guilt, of course, is silly. Though the pre-cooked lentils are twice as much as the dry guys, they are still only three whole dollars. But the point isn’t the price, the point is that — unlike dry lentils — I will end up eating these lentils.
Pre-chopped, pre-cooked, and pre-packaged foods have a reputation for being for the lazy, kitchen incompetent, and rich, but convenience is a vastly underrated kitchen tool. There’s a reason subscription meal kits are as popular as they are, and it’s not because home cooks are bad and shiftless.
January is the month for getting your house in order, and no aspect of one's life gets quite so revamped as the culinary. Meal planning is often seen as the key to it all, but the plan won't accomplish anything if it's not implemented.
There is no one, correct way to feed yourself. This is true in terms of diet, and this is true in terms of cooking. Any strategy that results in you nourishing your body in a somewhat cost-effective matter is a valid strategy, and if that involves buying a tub of pre-diced onions, that’s completely fine.
The reasons for wanting to buy a pre-chopped onion are many and varied. No matter how many onion-chopping YouTube videos some people watch, they still may find it perplexing. Plus, onions physically hurt you! Chopping an onion is a painful task, and you should not feel bad about outsourcing that labour. The same goes for any other vegetable, fruit, or animal. Like, have you ever peeled an chopped a butternut squash? It’s terrible.
Sure, there are things you can do to make it easier, but it’s still not as easy as buying pre-peeled, chopped squash. If indulging in the hedonistic luxury of prepared vegetable will get you to eat a vegetable—instead of, as is the case with me, McDonald’s — then that bit of extra money is money well spent, comrade.
In addition to real money dollars, there is time, and if living in a capitalist society has taught me anything, it’s that “time is money,” and that my time is best spent making money for other people. Another cool thing is that, for a lot of us, personal worth gets tied up in how productive we are. Even though humans have to eat in order to be productive, taking the time to peel and cook a healthful meal feels indulgent, and feeling indulgent can lead to feeling guilty. Even something as simple as feeding yourself to stay alive can get complicated, is what I’m saying.
Then there is the matter of personal pride. In this world of endlessly photographed food, making dinner can feel like a beauty competition, but it’s not. I love food porn, but it helps to remember that the purpose of food is not to one-up a mutual, but to fuel you, and (ideally) bring you joy in an increasingly unstable world. Aesthetics can help usher in joy, but there’s no need to get stressed over them—no matter how perfect the plating, you’re just going to poop it out later.
At the end of the work day, how you choose to make dinner, and the shortcuts you take along the way are nobody’s business but your own. It is not a reflection of your skill. It is not an indication of indolence. It is not tied to your value as a person or home cook in any way. It doesn’t matter why you don’t want to peel a pineapple, steam some baby beats, or make your own tomato sauce. I don’t know why I don’t like cooking lentils, I just know that I would rather not. But I like eating lentils, and I also know that having pre-cooked lentils and pre-washed and chopped romaine in my fridge means I will eat lentil salads for lunch, rather than ham and cheddar cheese sandwiches (which honestly rock but are not the best from a nutritional stand point).
Eating at home is almost always the more healthful and usually less expensive choice, even if you aren’t buying the cheapest possible iteration of every ingredient. So buy the bag of slaw, the bottled salad dressing, and the frozen fries. They may be shortcuts, but they are shortcuts to happiness.