Cooking While Working from Home Is Harder Than It Sounds. Here’s What Works for Me.

published Mar 30, 2020
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Woman holds bowl above crock pot and pours food into the bowl.
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If you are among the large cohort of people who have started working from home during the Covid-19 crisis, you may have already fallen for one of the biggest fibs of telecommuting: Cooking will be so much easier. I mean, it’s an attractive illusion. Now that you’re parked at the kitchen table like a humming domestic bee, you’ll naturally take on all the ambitious cooking projects you never have time for when your day involves a commute. Ahahaha. Do you hear that? That’s the sound of us all laughing painfully together.

I have worked exclusively from home for over 10 years, and I’m here to validate what you’ve probably discovered by now: No, it’s not easier to cook while WFH. In fact, I find it more difficult, weirdly, to cook well for myself and my family given that I work at home. Those of us working remotely are among the more fortunate of course; we still have jobs and can do them from the relative safety and comfort of our homes. But cooking is not necessarily a task that gets easier when you are telecommuting — especially when you’re also juggling kids out of school or daycare, a partner or spouse also finding a new normal, and stress over how to get groceries.

But even at the best of times it’s tough to cook while working from home. Why is this? Some of it is simply that the day smears into one long unbroken streak of meetings and conversations. There is no clear stopping point, like when the office around you closes up and your coworkers head out for drinks. There isn’t a moment when you step outside, head home, and maybe stroll through a grocery store to pick up ground turkey and gather inspiration.

And also, none of us are as good at multi-tasking and splitting our attention as we think we are. Cooking and domestic tasks lie in a different part of the brain than most of the work that we can do while telecommuting, some of which can be quite emotionally taxing (therapy, education, telemedicine, managing others who are also dealing with this crisis). It’s a challenge to switch modes and grab little snatches of time to start a recipe.

Some advice I’ve seen on working from home and cooking depends on being a very savvy and opportunistic cook, capable of holding a lot in your mind at once: remembering to start a pot of water after a phone call is finished; counting down the minutes to roasting a batch of veggies in between meetings. That kind of mental coordination is just too much for me on many days (and I’m a really well-resourced cook! I write cookbooks for goodness’ sake). But right now I have even less mental energy than normal.

So here are two ways of thinking about cooking while working from home that have helped me over the years. They aren’t incompatible, but I tend to switch back and forth between them, depending on the season of life.

Strategy #1: Pretend you don’t work from home.

Yes, that’s it. Simple, basic, duh. What does this mean? It means cooking the way that you did before, while working out of the home. Don’t rely on yourself to waltz into the kitchen at half past six and start a recipe. Pretend that you’re working late and need to come home to everything already finished. If you just ignore the fact that you work from home, there are a couple of tactics to get your cooking done, and you probably do one or both of these already.

First, the batch-and-stash approach, where you batch a big meal or two over the weekend or late at night, and stash it. Ideally you split your stash, making enough for a couple meals now and then freezing some for later to help lighten your future load (and add variety). Some of my favorite recipes for batch-and-stash are below. Don’t forget easy egg dishes you can eat all week.

The other approach of course is to cook in the morning not at night. This is where your great modern servants, the slow cooker and Instant Pot, come in so handy. Start a quick slow cooker or Instant Pot meal in the morning and it’s warm and ready for you at 6 p.m. Here are some favorite recipes that work well for this strategy. And again, make enough to stash when you can!

Then there is a second major approach that also works for me right now, and may work especially well for those of you with kids, and that is…

Credit: Joe Lingeman
This post and all the rest of our Snapshot Cooking recipe ideas make it so easy to see what's in the recipe, and whether you have it.

Strategy #2: Treat dinnertime like a restaurant’s staff meal.

Many restaurants feed their staff a family or staff meal before dinner service starts. This is usually something relatively simple and homey, and it’s served very early — like 4pm. This treats dinner not as the culmination of a full day, but a stopping point, a fueling point, to get you through a busy evening. This strategy of thinking of my own dinner as staff meal is one for people with particular workflows and workloads, who like to work late (maybe after their kids are in bed) and need to take a breather in the afternoon.

Right now I have been using this approach. I schedule a work break for about an hour around 3pm, come downstairs, and make a fast, easy meal that I have planned and prepped a bit ahead. I set everything up on the counter, food warming on stove or in Instant Pot, and we serve ourselves and eat as we have time. By 5pm when we are all pretty hands-on with the kids, getting them into the bath and bed, we’ve all eaten. When the kids are down I head back in for a couple more hours of work. Instead of dinner as the stopping point of the day, my husband and I often wrap up and have a cocktail or a beer while watching an episode of TV.

The advantage of this approach is it gives me a much-needed break in the middle of the afternoon and also avoids that dreaded “oh wait what will we eat for dinner” when blood sugar and energy are low at 6pm.

Some of my favorite recipes for this strategy right now include sheet pan meals and stir-fries and yes, more Instant Pot ideas.

I hope one of these strategies or recipes works for you too. And I’d love to hear from any of you working from home on how you’re making this whole cooking thing work in the midst of so much change and routine upheaval.