There’s a certain personality type out there that gravitates toward goal-setting and self improvement, and I admit that I have it. They (by which I mean, me) make New Year’s resolutions. They track how many books they finish in a year on Goodreads. They set productivity goals for quarantine that go beyond doggedly drinking their way through their liquor cabinet. I’ve somehow resisted the siren song of the bullet journal, but many others like me have not.
Not everyone naturally ascribes to these Type A tendencies — and honestly, that’s a good thing — but if there’s one place we should all consider being a bit more goal-oriented, I’d argue it’s cooking. Feeding ourselves is a thing we all have to do at least a few times a day, and especially in a year when so many of us have cooked ourselves into a rut, a little motivational challenge might just be your way out.
I, personally, have been taking this approach for the last seven or eight years, and it’s led to a range of adventures in the kitchen. There was the year I made a vow to cook at least one recipe out of every one of my 70-some cookbooks. Or the time I tried to recreate every meal I remember having for dinner during my childhood, from city chicken to spaghetti with frozen meatballs to Swiss steak. I was baking my own bread months before the pandemic made it trendy, thanks to my decision to christen 2020 the Year of Bread. Often, I get fixated around the idea of making one recipe of a certain type each week, which means I’ve made at least 52 versions of meatballs, Japanese dishes, and Soups of the World (this year, the vibe is #tacos2021, with plans to make homemade tortillas also in the mix).
Each of these challenges came with its own little rewards along the way — aside from a no-brainer plan for dinner at least one night a week. The year of Frederick Family Foods meant that I got to have a lot of probing, nostalgic conversations with family members about the time we spent around the dinner table, and I now have a record of all those family recipes for posterity (though I won’t be holding onto the one for grilled cubed steak with ketchup too tightly). Forcing yourself to use each cookbook you’ve accumulated at least once means that you’re in a more informed position to Kondo that bookshelf by year’s end. (Joke’s on me; several years later, I’m back up to 80-some cookbooks.) And I now know how to roll an omelet for tamagoyaki, make a cute(ish) bento, and pickle vegetables in the Japanese tradition, further expanding my cooking repertoire.
Plus, since I tend to unnecessarily share these kitchen chronicles on social media, my friends like to get in on the action by sending over their own recipes and ideas. One year I ended up making my friend Rachel’s family recipe for Greek New Year’s bread (poorly, it turns out), and the previous year, discovered the tortilla soup recipe my coworker Amy swears by. And in non-COVID times, my friends can literally share in the festivities, as I often will find a way to incorporate the year’s cooking challenge into my annual holiday potluck (giant meatballs and big pots of gumbo have proven crowd-pleasers).
I find that having the structure of a cooking goal takes away some of the mental load of meal planning — at least I know when I sit down to write the grocery list, I’m making, say, at least one taco each week (and since, you know, Type A, I already have a spreadsheet of brainstormed taco-related ideas to draw from). It also forces me to get creative — once you’ve worked your way through turkey meatballs, Swedish meatballs, etc., it’s time to start brainstorming ideas like French onion soup meatballs or Chicken Cordon Bleu Balls (name courtesy of my husband; yes, he is 12).
Of course, cooking goals don’t have to be as dramatic as making 52 versions of something over the course of one year. If you enjoy cooking even a little bit, there’s probably some sort of challenge you’ve always wanted to tackle in the kitchen. Maybe it’s making pasta from scratch. Or finally dusting off that tagine you got as a wedding present. Maybe it’s cooking with rabbit. Perhaps it’s adding more meatless meals to the rotation.
Whatever you choose, odds are that having a goal this year will make the inevitable time you spend in the kitchen a little more satisfying, a little more adventurous, and a little less of a chore. And if it means you finally get Mom to write down that lasagna recipe she’s been dangling over your head for years in the process, all the better.