PRACTICE: The Food Sabbath

5 min Article Healthy Eating, Learning & Wisdom
Feeling stressed and stretched too thin? You just might find an antidote to the anxiety by bringing your loved ones together for the weekly ritual of a food sabbath
PRACTICE: The Food Sabbath

As life seems only to accelerate, time becomes our most precious commodity. Increases in productivity bring greater expectations, and more stress, and tougher challenges separating work from home — especially when more of us than ever work from home. These steepening curves call out for a counterweight, something to help us slow down and settle into a healthier, more durable rhythm: a pace that feels like living, not just surviving.

Ironically for a time when food’s pop-cultural importance has never been higher, packed schedules mean many people struggle to get decent meals on the table every evening. The ubiquity of packaged and processed foods and the effortlessness of microwaving them for dinner makes it all too easy to postpone real cooking to the weekends, if at all. Restaurant food is expensive and often no healthier. As a result, even those of us who enjoy cooking find it hard to prepare healthy, wholesome meals regularly.

Confronted with the tension between the speed of life and the importance of slow food, I propose a solution: a food Sabbath. A weekly, secular ritual of dedication to your culinary practice wherein you make components for nourishing weeknight meals ahead of time, turning those dinners from chores into quick, easy, “some assembly required” situations. If you can take a few hours of one weekend day and spend it in the kitchen solo or with your family making the food you need for the week, you will experience a profound elevation of your quality of life.

You’ll connect with the people you want to nourish — especially yourself — and the time you invest will pay dividends all week long with first-rate, handmade meals that keep you healthy. And that nutrition, flavor, and time together will provide a grounding influence that will ripple outwards into your larger life, from your health to your curiosity to your very sense of self. Food is powerful, and we harness that power to our immense benefit.

Make a big pot of stock with the previous week’s scraps, peels, trimmings, and more; keep it in the fridge and use it in soups, stews, sauces, risottos, almost anything — having a deeply flavored stock on hand means you’re halfway done with dinner before you start. A big pot of beans (soaked overnight and slow-cooked with aromatics) can appear in various roles throughout the week, from soups to purées to burritos or chili. And beans cooked this way are a world away from canned in both flavor and nutrition. Making a pile of fresh pasta (in whatever shape or configuration you like), drying it, and freezing it sets you up for nearly instant meals of the highest quality.

Fermentation is another powerful way to front-load your culinary labor. As I get deeper into various artisanal culinary techniques, I realize that more and more of them involve banking flavor equity and earning interest on it. It takes several hours to make a good loaf of bread, but if one bakes two or three at a time it only needs to be a weekly event. Pickles take just a few minutes to set up, and then ferment into delicacies over the course of a few weeks unattended. Vinegar makes itself, though it needs months. Yogurt and cheese require a few minutes of work spread across a couple of hours, then hours or weeks of simply waiting for astonishing versions of the things you pay dearly for at the store. All these processes involve the use of benevolent microbes of one sort or another, and that’s a part of why they’re so healthy: once they’ve taken hold it doesn’t take much to keep them happy. And when they’re happy, we’re happy. It’s food at its best.

Another wonderful aspect of this practice is how family-friendly it can be. Bread, pickles, and pasta are great fun for kids, and educational, and even a decent workout in the case of doughs that need kneading. If you come from a family with culinary traditions, it’s a beautiful feeling to pass them on to the next generation. If you don’t, it feels every bit as good to create your own traditions with your kids. These experiences will be formative for them, and they will learn what from-scratch cooking feels and tastes like. That sense memory will be indelible.

A corollary: television and cooking are antithetical. Most culinary programming is idiotic, and it’s all underwritten by corporate producers of awful industrial food. I used to tell people that canceling your cable was the easiest way to add extra hours to your day. In the age of streaming, cord-cutting is less radical, but at the very least you could audit your consumption and find areas to cut back (televised sports are a major time suck). Moderation of screen time is an important first step toward culinary freedom. And maybe scale back the social media while you’re cooking — or abstain altogether. When you’re thinking of your audience and their reactions, you’re not focusing on the present moment: beautiful ingredients, the engaging task at hand, and anyone you’re sharing space and food with.

People often tell me, “I could never cook the way you do; I just don’t have the time.” And that may be true, but I think that in a lot of cases it isn’t. So much of succeeding at life involves managing time well, being proactive, and leaning into opportunities by taking initiative. The same is true in the kitchen, where a little planning and the judicious use of a few hours a week can result in huge benefits. Set aside some time once each week to focus, prep, cook, and bond with loved ones. Make it into a little holiday, wherein you celebrate the pleasures of cooking, and set your future self up for a week of easy, nutritious meals that improve your health, lower your stress, and make your life a far more pleasant place to be.

PRACTICE is an ongoing series of columns about home cooking as an expression of wellbeing. 

About the Teacher

Peter Barrett

Peter Barrett

I like to help people connect with their food in a deeper, more joyous, and more delicious way.
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