Articles / What if Recipes Were Written for Everyone?


What if Recipes Were Written for Everyone?

Published April 18, 2024

We give it a try, in partnership with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project

One-Pot Pasta with Tomatoes and Eggs. Photo: Kerri Conan

Our partner in this story, the ​Economic Hardship Reporting Project, supports independent journalists as they forward fresh narratives about inequality. EHRP‘s high-quality journalism is then co-published with mainstream media outlets, to help readers understand and address systemic hardship. This piece also appears on Mother Jones.

Cooking and food shopping are very different in America than they used to be.

It’s difficult to shop with the earth and animal welfare in mind when many of us are already on tight budgets.

For one thing, there’s an often overwhelming “time tax” on many workers, leaving us with mere minutes for cooking — the average American has only about ​39 minutes to devote to food​ preparation and clean up per day, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2022. (It’s still mostly mothers doing that cooking — ​80 percent as of 2019​ — and the shopping as well.) And if it isn’t time, it’s money: Groceries cost 25 percent more than they did four years ago; that’s considerably above the rate of inflation. And when we shop for vegetables, we sometimes have to “forget” that the regular kind are often grown with loads of chemicals: organic vegetables are simply too expensive — or not even available — at our local supermarkets. Recent layoffs across several important sectors have accelerated the growing income precarity of the people doing the cooking. Finally, it’s difficult to shop with the earth and animal welfare in mind when many of us are already on tight budgets.

Yet little of this has much impact on the way most recipes are written, and that needs to change.

We — this is a joint effort of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The Bittman Project — wanted to try to address all of these issues through some recipes that try to get at the complexity, cost, and conscience involved in making our meals. And we wanted to do that while avoiding the pitfalls of condescending cooking initiatives ​like the “Blue Apron-style” SNAP proposal of the Trump administration.

Recipes that take into consideration things like time, class, income, and sustainability may be few and far between. But they are, we believe, representative of how recipes should start to look.

We believe the following recipes accomplish this well. We’re using fish and meat as condiments, or centering vegetables; these two strategies make dishes both cheaper and more conscientious. We’re also including links that explain the political, health, and animal justice context of certain ingredients. We’re offering substitutions for tricky, costly, or recherche ingredients. (While selecting the right fish may seem fraught with complexity, we demystify the process by offering a range of possibilities there, as well.) We’re also showing you the total cost of ingredients for each recipe, and suggesting uses for leftovers, so that nothing is wasted.

Recipes that take into consideration things like time, class, income, and sustainability may be few and far between. But they are, we believe, representative of how recipes should start to look.

How to shop for good ingredients in tough times

Grocery Receipts. Photo: Kerri Conan

Getting a meal on the table is an act of love and beauty. Grocery shopping — maybe not so much. Here are six ideas for making the most efficient, economical, and sustainable choices while you dash through the supermarket.

1. Prioritize your purchases. Whether you make a list or not, consider what is most important to you — be it fresh vegetables, beans, pasta, meat, or ice cream — and start at that part of the store.

Beware the hidden cost of sale prices. Photo: Kerri Conan

2. Beware the hidden cost of sale prices. Five pounds of boneless chicken at half price with a sell-by date of today only works if you have room in your freezer and time to bust the package up into usable portions, or a plan to cook and eat it right away. Better to look — and maybe wait — for value in something you’ve identified as a priority.

Pay attention to shelf tags. Photo: Kerri Conan

3. Pay attention to shelf tags. This means reading some fine print. But details like price per pound can help you decide if a bulk purchase is worth the extra storage space or whether the brand name might actually be a better choice than the store label. Some supermarkets even tag WIC-eligible items on the shelf, and of course sales are always flagged, though not always prominently.

Be open to seasonal substitutions. Photo: Kerri Conan

4. Be open to substitutions. Maybe the recipe calls for asparagus, but the green beans look much better. Knowing how to adjust cooking times for substitute ingredients (as these recipes do) helps you take advantage of what’s in season, what’s on sale, and what you and those you cook for like best.

5. Beware of garnishes. Pretty fresh herbs look great on social media. They’re just not always practical, given the cost, time it takes to prepare them, and potential for waste. A few good-quality dried herbs and spices are almost always a better value. (Unless you have a kitchen garden.) Here again, knowing how and when to make swaps helps. That and caring more about how something tastes than how it looks.

6. Consider sustainable choices whenever you can. How and where our food is raised is crucial for the health of humans and our environment. But knowing how and when to buy organic and sorting through confusing labeling adds another layer to the work of cooking. Here are two tools to help you search ingredients while you’re shopping. For produce, the ​Environmental Working Group “Dirty Dozen” List​ includes “The Clean Fifteen” and all the fruits and vegetables in between. And for fish and shellfish, ​Seafood Watch​ is both helpful and comprehensive. Sorting through the terms of meat, poultry, and egg labels is a deeper dive. ​This site from the US Department of Agriculture​ is a good place to start.

One-Pot Pasta with Tomatoes and Eggs

Photo: Kerri Conan

Cost: $20 (not including salad or side vegetable and using previously purchased soy sauce; but with extra ingredients for the fridge and pantry)

Leftovers: Add the sauced pasta to beaten eggs and scramble or bake into a frittata. Or reheat in a hot skillet, stirring occasionally, until the noodles sizzle and crisp in places.

A sort of magic happens when you cook pasta and sauce together at the same time in a big pot, season it robustly, and toss in modest portions of economical proteins. The sauce forms right before your eyes, coating the noodles perfectly. It’s almost as fast as packaged mac-and-cheese, and we’d like to think way better in every way, except perhaps the nostalgia factor. Whole wheat pasta adds more fiber and nutrients than noodles made from durum wheat, and we like the way it tastes. Though of course we eat traditional pasta sometimes, too. This recipe makes a lot of food, but you’ll probably still want some simply cooked vegetables on the side, or maybe a salad.

Warm Spring Vegetable Salad with Drumsticks and Crisp Croutons

Photo: Kerri Conan

Cost: $11.50 (not including olive oil or mustard)

Leftovers: Pull extra chicken from the bone and chop the cold vegetables; stir in some mayonnaise, if you like, for a sandwich.

The foundation of this one-skillet meal are chicken drumsticks, a flavorful, fast-cooking, and inexpensive cut that’s often on sale. But instead of cooking a lot of them, you use their rich pan drippings to crisp day-old bread into croutons for a warm vegetable salad. This less-meat-more-vegetable approach to eating — which is actually practiced throughout most of the world — treats animal protein as a seasoning. The results are satisfying, nourishing, and economical.

The recipe here also describes how to move ingredients in and out of a single pan as you prepare the components, so you’re busy but not frantic, and clean-up is easy. For the spring vegetables, choose your favorites from whatever looks best at the supermarket: asparagus, spinach, radishes (they’re delicious lightly cooked!), snap or sugar peas, or chard or romaine lettuce. Cook them just long enough to become crisp-tender — or keep going if you like your vegetables soft — toss in lemony-mustard dressing, nestle in a drumstick or two, and top with those delicious croutons.

Rice-and-Lentil “Paella” in a Cake Pan

Photo: Kerri Conan

Cost: $20 (with extra olive oil, brown rice, lentils, and spice for the pantry)

Leftovers: Reheat servings of paella in a covered dish in the microwave. Or chop the carrots and toss them with the rice and lentils; add lemon juice or a spoonful of any vinegar for a quick, hearty salad to serve over greens.

You don’t need a paella pan — or even a broad, ovenproof skillet — to make this vegan spin on the national dish of Spain. The bulk of the action happens efficiently with a big pot on the stove and moves to an oblong cake pan in the oven. Then you walk away and do something else for a while. And instead of saffron, you get some everyday seasoning choices in the ingredient list below. Be sure to check out the meatless variations and list of seasonal vegetable ideas that follow. The lentils become creamy and form a bit of a sauce, but feel free to serve with a dollop of non-dairy (or dairy) yogurt, a squeeze from a wedge of fresh orange, or a splash of hot sauce or salsa. In other words, this recipe is easy to customize.