Healthy Cooking

Why the Kitchen Is One of the Few Spaces Where My Family Has Found Levity—And Normalcy—During COVID-19

Colleen Rothman

Colleen RothmanSeptember 16, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images / Alexsandar Nakic
Earlier this year our homes went from being the places where we'd catch a few winks and spend nights bingeing 'Queer Eye' to our gym, office, school, restaurant, etc. Here, a collection of stories that celebrate our homes and the integration of wellness under one roof. See More

Back in March, I suspected the novel coronavirus—and the measures we’d all take to contain it—would change how our family ate. I wandered the aisles of a grocery store that was already out of toilet paper and panic-bought beans, canned goods, and rice. The day my son’s preschool closed, I purchased a kids’ cookbook on a whim, seeking entertainment for what I assumed would be one long month at home.

Months later, we don’t yet inhabit a world that feels safe or normal. But when I’m standing in my kitchen, preparing food, it’s possible to set aside that fact for a moment. During a time of unforeseen crises in food and housing insecurity, this privilege alone deserves my deepest gratitude. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, cooking with my family has been one of the few activities that have felt anything close to normal.

These moments of normalcy are rooted in the physical act of meal preparation. I’ve found solace in the same small actions I’ve taken over years of making food for myself and others: squeezing lemons on a citrus reamer; peeling potatoes and later mashing them into comfort food; smashing garlic cloves with the side of a freshly sharpened chef’s knife; pouring glugs of olive oil into a pan without having to measure by tablespoon.

Moving my hands in these familiar ways surfaces memories of doing so before. When I’m dicing onions for what feels like the millionth time, I can see the years’-worth of grooves in my favorite cutting board, the one bought with the student discount from my knife skills class. It reminds me that there was a time when a pandemic didn’t rule our lives, and that will be the case again someday (hopefully) soon.

When I slow down to focus on each step of a recipe with my son, I’m fully present as we scoop and level, sift and stir, whisk and scrape the sides of the bowl.

Like other home cooks, I’ve also had to get creative with what’s on hand—which has been a surprisingly helpful mental outlet. When I prepare the eggplant, bacon & tomato fusilli recipe from Mr. & Mrs. Wilkinson’s How It Is at Home, I have to time cubing the eggplant while the onion softens in the pan, and possibly forage for a substitute for the bacon I’ve forgotten to buy. When I’m pulling it all together, my multi-tasking brain is too busy to dwell on anything happening outside the kitchen.

Cooking with my four-year-old requires even closer attention. As we’ve worked our way through the desserts in the cookbook I bought (My First Cookbook, from America’s Test Kitchen), I’ve learned I can’t look away for more than a few seconds if I don’t want him to add an extra ingredient or sneak a taste with his fingers. When I slow down to focus on each step of a recipe with him, I’m fully present as we scoop and level, sift and stir, whisk and scrape the sides of the bowl.

It doesn’t hurt that I’ve also gone back to meal planning to keep things feeling stable. In pre-pandemic times, eating with a picky toddler—and juggling both of our busy schedules—had made meal prep difficult. But quarantine seemed like the perfect time to start incorporating some kind of regularity to our eating. In the earliest weeks of lockdown, my dinner schedules, from which I’d build our grocery lists, were the only plans I could make without fear of cancellation.

It’s impossible to predict what next week, month, or year will look like, but I hope to preserve my gratitude for this room that’s become the heart of our home.

My pandemic cooking hasn’t been all about normalcy—in some ways, it’s forced me to try new things I wouldn’t have considered. Before COVID, for example, I never enjoyed baking; I used to pick up store-bought treats for every celebration rather than waste time attempting any recipe that required precision. But suddenly I had nothing but time, and the kid-sized yields in My First Cookbook lowered the risk of trying something new, requiring only small amounts of ingredients like butter and flour that had grown difficult to find at the grocery store. While I’m no Star Baker, unlocking new culinary accomplishments has provided a form of entertainment for me and my son that doesn’t require staring at screens.

I’ve found myself seeking similar novelty from my dinner recipes. While the routines we developed early on made every day feel the same, trying something new guaranteed at least one bright spot that felt distinct from those that preceded it. Budget Bytes has been particularly helpful for discovering new dishes that rely on budget-friendly staples, with recipes like Baked Zucchini Fries, Sriracha Chickpea Salad Wraps, and BBQ Tofu Sliders that have joined our regular rotation.

But novelty can be found even in the familiar. Sometimes it’s as simple as pulling out the waffle iron or coaxing homemade dough through a pasta machine to make fettuccine by hand, something I’d never have done on a weeknight before.

It’s impossible to predict what next week, month, or year will look like, but I hope to preserve my gratitude for this room that’s become the heart of our home. Someday I plan to spend more meals dining out and less time in my kitchen, but until then, it’s keeping me sane.

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