How to ignore conventional cooking advice and buy ready-made food instead

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We knew the danger but we did it anyway. After 16 hours of flying, broken up with a stopover in LAX and questioning at U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s secondary inspection, we landed at Denver airport a few minutes early. After retrieving our bags, we hopped on the plush AB1 bus, while shushing our growling stomachs. After arriving at the Boulder bus terminal, Alex ordered a ride, so he could bring the car to take us home and avoid hauling our big-enough-to-fit-the-toddler suitcases on the local bus.

I bundled the Little King’s arms and shoulders into his down bunting suit. My breath expelled foggy wisps into the air as my numb knuckles struggled with the zipper. My scratchy throat reminded me hours had passed since I drank due to fear of having to find a bathroom.

2 glasses of lemon honey tea on a white plate with lemon peel garnishesPin
I wish I had this hot mānuka honey and lemon potion as I waded through slush

The plan

While waiting for Alex, I concocted our dinner plans. On a Tuesday night, around 9 p.m., most restaurants had already closed. Eyes struggling to stay open, I knew I lacked the mental energy to navigate to a restaurant pick up. Taking a chance on food delivery arriving by the time we made it home seemed risky. We took a long-haul, red-eye flight where I slept sideways on top of Alex’s bony knees while the Little King napped on my chest in our row of economy seats. Before leaving on our month-long trip, I emptied the fridge and pantry to avoid coming home to rotten cabbage, slimy lettuce, and brown-dimpled apples. Even if I had the enthusiasm to cook, I lacked the ingredients. Only one solution remained: pre-made meals from the grocery store. This guaranteed tasty food, easy preparation, and minimal clean up. Pleased with my plan, I focused on preventing hypothermia.

A tall, glass-paneled building, which I’ve passed by dozens of times but never entered, shone and beckoned me. I tip-toed around the shiny reflections on the pavement, black ice that mirrored the warm glow from the building’s windows. When the Little King and I entered, we discovered a food hall. Every surface held puffy jackets, half-eaten morsels of dinner, and jean-clad butts. The rowdy atmosphere, smiling faces, and booming emcee’s voice clued me in that it was Trivia Night. The line of food vendors and overflowing plates of thick-cut fries promised me I could enjoy a hot dinner and say bye-bye to my grumbling belly right then. I almost bought food…if I’d been able to find a seat. Seeing social people making the most of a weeknight during the biting winter reminded me how much I missed Boulder while on my travels back to my other home. Waiting around gave me free time to overthink and indulge in indecision, reconsidering my dinner plans.

What about the waste?

Before moving to Colorado, Alex and I—childfree and working full-time jobs with side gigs on nights and weekends—hit store-bought foods hard, especially as we shopped at Costco, the land of indestructible packaging.

TIP: Costco resealable plastic bags offer your frozen meals heavy-duty protection from freezer burn.

Since moving to Boulder, I became conscious of waste. Influenced by friends and neighbors who virtue signal chit-chat about their recycling, composting, and gardening habits (yep, I do it too), I often felt guilty on trash pick up day when watching my garbage can spew multi-colored sacks that previously enveloped fried mozzarella sticks, plump Thai fried rice, or frozen berries, pineapples, and mango chunks.

Sure, we survived on frozen pizzas, frozen burger patties, and nitrogen-flushed machine-made ravioli the size of my palm with jarred sauce during the newborn phase. But we’ve significantly cut down on ready-made foods and made a Herculean effort to cook from scratch in the past year. I request Alex buy fresh produce from Safeway, Hmart, and Whole Foods, instead of Trader Joe’s and Costco, because the former group of retailers don’t package every sliver of green onions in its own plastic bag.

An illustration of a trash can with countless colored packages overlapping around itPin
What’s hiding in my trash

There I stood, flip-flopping back and forth between cooking a wholesome meal, full of fresh greens, and smug self-satisfaction versus optimizing for speed and convenience so I could stuff my face quickly and go to sleep. I recalled reading the self-help book, How to Keep House While Drowning, by KC Davis, which offers compassionate and radical advice to people who struggle with the Sisyphean task of household chores. She writes about recycling: “You are not responsible for saving the world if you are struggling to save yourself. If you must use paper plates for meals or throw away recycling in order to gain better functioning you should do so.” This might not sound radical to you. But I used to bring a knife and fork to the Costco deli to cut down on disposables. (Alex has zero qualms about using disposable anything. He must feel so burdenless and light…because he’s not carrying utensils everywhere.)

When I used to work in San Francisco, pre-pandemic, a guy talked to me about his girlfriend’s discipline in separating out recycling. “She removes the plastic spout and cap from the milk carton and puts those in the recycling. Then she puts the carton in the compost because it’s made from waxed cardboard,” he told me. Recently, our composting service stopped accepting food-soiled cardboard in the compost, waxed or not. That I know this acceptance criteria tells you the compulsion runs deep.

Now that my toddler invades my brain space, I spend my remaining mental energy on remembering to restock the diaper bag, stopping the Little King from sprinting onto the street every time I open the front door, and checking I didn’t accidentally dip the tapered ends of my Linuschka owls woven wrap into the toilet bowl. Yet, I couldn’t help myself.

SIDE NOTE: I love my Patagonia backpack, a birthday gift from my mother-in-law. I use it as my diaper bag because it has so many pockets, feels super light, and doubles as my laptop bag.

Much conventional wisdom on how to make parenting and life easier—make checklists, meal plan, implement a sticker chart—sounds like more work than help. I too was guilty of dispensing this advice before I experienced early parenthood. Meal prepping overwhelms many mothers of young kids I’ve interviewed. I don’t want to dedicate every Saturday afternoon to writing a 5-day plan, grocery shopping, and chopping a mountain of vegetables. I’ll find any excuse—spritzing orchids, checking my email, looking at mid-century modern furniture on Pinterest—to avoid crafting the plan because the task drains me, mentally. It demands knowing what we want to eat, foretelling our schedules, and anticipating our energy levels. Talk about decision fatigue!

I meal plan once a quarter when I have amnesia about the last time I tried it, and because so many voices constantly tell me how great meal planning is, and how organization will supposedly make my life easier. This prevalent spirit embodying the “joys” of planning somehow embedded its voice into my head.

How to buck convention

Years ago, I told my dad someone upset me by saying something critical. I don’t remember the trivial comment, just that it bothered me. “Does this advice giver deserve your trust and respect? Do they know what they’re talking about?” he asked me. “Is this advice common sense and do you agree with it? Do you accept it?” He told me to visualize a one-way rubbish bin, a receptacle that eats garbage, makes it disappear, like a blackhole or a reverse Pandora’s box. “Throw that advice in your mental trashcan. You can throw anybody’s advice in the trash. Never think about it again. Pretend it went in one ear and out the other.” I’ve applied this advice multiple times ever since, especially—as a dutiful daughter—to his advice. But the hardest words to toss are those echoing in my head because they sound like me. Except, these words usually came from other people—parents, friends, a stranger on a random podcast I’ve forgotten—jumbled through different mouths until they merged into my voice.

By the time Alex drove to downtown Boulder, I made up my mind. Knowing that Alex planned to show up at his office in less than 10 hours, we needed sleep more than I needed perfection. We headed to Trader Joe’s on our way home and bought premade clam chowder, pre-washed bagged lettuce, frozen palak paneer, frozen garlic naan, and a dark chocolate bar. Once home, it took seven minutes to reheat the food in the microwave. Alex ate standing in front of the kitchen sink, spooning the soup into his mouth. Begging him to please sit down at the dining table to set a good example (because I gotta keep some standards), I set out knives, forks, and chopsticks with extra pats of butter. We finished dinner in about the same amount of time it took to reheat it.

Cleaning up happened even faster: we pushed the single-use bags and dirty tray into the trash (I recycled the cardboard box and put the plastic container and lid into the dishwasher for future use because habits die hard). As I fell asleep that night, I heard the voices in my head yakking about the importance of healthy cooking from scratch and the waste of packaged foods.

I tossed those Judgy McJudgepants’s words into my mental trash can.

Recipes using store-bought foods

Check out these ideas on how to make dinner quick and easy with store-bought foods to kickstart your cooking:

5-Minute Rice Noodle Rolls with Green Onion
This easy vegan recipe using rice noodle rolls is a quick-to-make appetizer. You'll love the silky texture. Enjoy it as a snack or add vegetables and protein to make it into a full meal.
Get the Recipe
Prosciutto and brie baguette sandwich, ideal for picnics
This simple 4-ingredient sandwich is great for lunch, picnics, snacks, and dinner on the go. Make an open-faced sandwich for a lower-carb meal with a beautiful presentation. Or make a closed sandwich for easy holding. Serve with a green salad or fruit and vegetable mix-ins.
Get the Recipe
5-Minute Homemade Vegan Miso Soup With Silken Tofu and Seaweed
You'll love this belly-warming miso soup during cold wintery nights. It only takes 5 minutes and you can add any garnishes to tailor it to your tastebuds. Add a dash of sesame oil for extra indulgent miso soup.
Get the Recipe

READ NEXT: Why you shouldn’t believe me

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

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