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In my life as it is right now, there is tremendous pressure on my time. Working full time, commuting 1.5 hours a day, sadly being the sort of person who needs 8 hours of sleep a night, and taking care of two active curious boys is really time consuming, even when you have a great partner to do it all with. As things I enjoy have slipped away, it’s been enlightening to me what has stayed, and what I still make time for.

I had no idea food was so important to me.

I’m not a “foodie”. I don’t read recipe books for fun, like my sister. I don’t watch cooking shows or read cooking blogs. I don’t delight in new and exotic ingredients. In my perception of myself, I’m a pretty decent utilitarian cook who does enough to provide healthy tasty food for her family with a few heritage recipes thrown in for fun. Heck, when I married my husband I joked that I was doing so because I don’t know how to cook.

But when I look at the TIME I spend in the kitchen making food, it totally belies that perception. This weekend I spent several hours canning. I cooked chili and cornbread for dinner Saturday night (1 hour). I made Crock Posole and Arepas on Monday night. Then I stayed up after I got the boys in bed to prepare smothered pork chops for the gamers on Tuesday. Last night we served: Pork chops with onions, au jus, bacon gravy, bacon, baked potatoes with fresh chives and sour cream, bruschetta with fresh basil and tomatoes on homemade bread fresh out of the oven (my husband made the bread) and corn. Fresh strawberries and blueberries made up dessert. This was a little more overboard than usual, but not wildly so. Certainly, it wasn’t the longest prep I’ve ever had for a game night dinner.

We make roughly 3 “real” dinners (dinners with 45 minutes or more preparation) a week, and several little dinners (boxed mac and cheese, tuna fish casserole, IKEA meatballs, etc.) a week. If it only takes half an hour, I think it’s a moderate prep.

Basically, I spend way more of my negotiable time on food preparation than pretty much anything else.

We COULD do more takeout, although I don’t really understand how that works logistically. We could eat out more, although that’s not great on the budget. (To be fair, my grocery bill is pretty monumental. I’m increasingly coming to understand the impact that quality ingredients have on how a meal tastes and buying accordingly. Mmmmmmm blade steak….. But as a result, I’m not sure that cooking at home saves much money at all.) But frankly, my cooking is better than most food I can buy, up until the $25/entree price point. So I could pay to eat food that doesn’t taste as good as the stuff I cook.

I’m not really sure how I feel about this discovered value. On the one hand, there are many ways these tasty family dinners are considered virtuous. They tend to be healthier than purchased food (although knowing how much butter/bacon I use, I’m not entirely convinced of that). They are definitely tastier than the kind of food we could afford to eat out every night. We eat together as a family almost every single dinner. Studies show that children who eat dinner with their parents at a common table do better in some metrics, like test exams. Theoretically cooking your own food costs less than eating out. And my husband and I eat entirely (delicious) leftovers for lunch during the week, and always have. Finally, I imagine that my children will be grateful (in retrospect) for my great cooking (their Freshman year in the dorms).

On the other hand, the time I spend in the kitchen is time I’m not spending building block towers on the floor. I don’t have time to go for a walk with the kids before bed. I can’t make finger paintings with Grey because I have deadly chicken juice on my hands. Thane roams the kitchen floor, sweeping up old Cheerios and sampling tasty cat food while I work. This is some of the rare, precious time I have with my family and I spend it making bechamel and chopping onions. (Seriously, why don’t grocery stores sell 10 lb bags of onions?) And then there are the dishes. You have no idea how many dishes I can make.

Once a friend of mine came to visit, and exclaimed in astonishment at how there was no takeout boxes in our fridge. I actually hadn’t realized, to that point, that what I was doing was optional — that there was any other way to feed your family. On the other hand, I know it’s possible to be even more into it than I am. Many of my friends are far more adventurous in their cooking and eating than we are.

You can usually find out what’s important to people by looking at where they spend their optional time. We spend ours at church, playing games, cooking and outdoors. I am explicitly ok with the church, games and outdoors. I am surprised by this cooking thing, and not sure if I meant to make it such a big part of my life.

What do you think? Where do you find yourself spending a lot of your time, possibly to your surprise? What do you eat for dinner every night? Do you think the time spent in the kitchen is worth it? If you were my children, would you be glad for the effort at meals, or would you wish I’d spent more time with you than cooking for you?

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