Electric stoves are the worst, and other lessons from a year-long cooking challenge


On April 27, 2014, I turned 29 years old. Like in years past, I took my birthday as an opportunity to a. freak out about what I’m doing with my life, and b. challenge myself with a goal to complete within the year (in hopes that completing said goal would make me feel better about what I’m doing with my life).

I needed to challenge myself to something significant — I was in the last year of my 20s, after all. So I decided to tackle something I’m no good at, something which most successful adults seem to be capable of: I was going to learn how to cook.

My final creation: Chocolate mousse.

I am decidedly not the chef in our household. My husband Jamie not only enjoys cooking, but he’s really good at it. Me? Not so much. Cooking was the last thing I wanted to do when I got home from work. Simply the thought of making a meal would stress me out.

But that was a 20-something attitude. I figured cooking was something I could teach myself to love. And so, #30mealsbefore30 was born. I challenged myself to cook and document 30 unique homemade meals before my 30th birthday.

I ended the challenge on April 26, 2015 — one day before I became an official Adult — with a nutritionally unbalanced but delicious final meal.

Here’s what I learned along the way:

You can never plan for the future, no matter how much you try.

Meal 19: Caesar salad.

When I set out to do the 30 meals challenge, I determined I’d have to cook one meal every other week or so to stay on track for the year.

For the first 15 meals, I was right on schedule. I even cooked a Thanksgiving turkey! (Verdict: A very involved and gross process; would probably not do again.)

And then, life changed. On somewhat of a whim, I applied for and — after several rounds of interviews — landed a new job that required moving from Atlanta to St. Petersburg, Florida (more on that here). Between weeks of packing up our Atlanta house, spending more than a month in a hotel room with a tiny kitchenette, and eventually moving into our St. Pete house, the 30 meals project was thrown way off track.

If I’d known that I would leave my job and move to a new state before turning 30, I never would have committed to a year-long cooking project. But alas. Once we moved into our new place, I finally restarted the project, far behind schedule.

Giving up only feels good in the short term.

Meal 29: Baked macaroni and cheese.

Here’s a not-so-big secret: I threatened to quit the project many times, especially once I was faced with cramming in a bunch of meals at the end. I was becoming more confident in the kitchen, but didn’t enjoy the process of cooking more as a result.

There were many moments of weakness. I didn’t see the downside of quitting. Who would care if I didn’t complete the project? I had bigger things to deal with, like getting settled in our new house, acquainted with my new job, and discovering our new city. Why fill my time with a pointless self-imposed challenge?

But then my champion of a husband would talk me off the ledge and remind me how good it would feel to reach my goal. Each meal got me closer to the finish line, and towards the end of the challenge, I used the meals as an opportunity to cook for new friends or prep for a party in our new house.

Of course, now that I’ve actually completed the entire thing, the relief of it being over feels fantastic.

Sometimes there’s a reason you fall into certain roles.

Meal 3: Fish tacos.

Jamie is good at cooking (among other things). I’m good at planning (among other things). There are plenty of things we’re equally ambivalent about — does anyone enjoy laundry?— but when it comes to the things we’re good at, it makes sense for us to own them. We can do those tasks more quickly and efficiently than the other person, and our marriage is happier as a result.

I figured that the 30 meals challenge would ultimately even out our responsibilities in the kitchen, but we were both more than happy to return to our natural roles once it ended. Jamie was back cooking the following day, I took care of the dishes afterward, and all was right in the world.

Instagram lies.

Meal 25: Poached eggs on toast.

You can make almost anything pretty with the right angles, cropping and filters.

Throughout the challenge, there were tears (after getting burned by grits), arguments (while trying to cram scallops into a busy day), and plenty of days when my heart wasn’t in it (hello, yet another pasta dish), but none of that came through on Instagram.

It’s weird to look back at the meals over time. As my feed filled with food photos, it appeared like I not only enjoyed cooking but was really smitten with it. Eh. I like eating delicious food as much as the next person, but my photos painted a not-so-accurate portrait of how I really felt about the challenge.

I was constantly reminded to take others’ Instagram feeds with a grain of salt (how have I avoided cooking puns until this point?!) whenever I felt FOMO over how photogenic someone else’s life appeared to be. I also quickly discovered that taking photos of food is tough — some of my best-tasting dishes looked pretty unappetizing, and vice-versa.

Electric stoves are the worst.

Jamie knows what’s up.

Seriously.

Our Atlanta house had a gas stove, similar to what I grew up with. Our St. Pete house, while awesome, is unfortunately equipped with an electric stove. Once-easy tasks, like cooking rice or pasta, became unnecessarily difficult. The water would ALWAYS boil over no matter how low I turned the heat. (This, unsurprisingly, did not help me discover a joy for cooking.)

Is there anyone out there who prefers electric stoves? Do tell.


Meal 22: Shrimp skewers.

I’m now 30 and relishing the return to normalcy as Jamie takes over the kitchen again.

In the end, I’m glad I completed all 30 meals. I’m much more confident in my cooking abilities and feel more independent as a result. I know how to properly mince an onion, make a béchamel sauce, and shove butter under a turkey’s skin (yuck).

In the spirit of not knowing what life will throw your way, those are all good skills to have. Emergency béchamel situation? I’m on it.

I haven’t signed myself for another crazy challenge … yet. Maybe navigating a new life in Florida is challenging enough?

I’m okay with that for now.

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