Sunday, January 25, 2009

Dinner Renaissance: How Relish! Changed Our Lives

At our house the phrase "home cooking" has long been a punch line. While we cooked in the early days of our marriage (potatoes, lots of potatoes), we quickly transitioned to eating out, take out, and heat and serve as soon as our budget allowed.

Over a decade later, we still enjoyed the ease of take out, but were completely bored with the restaurant options. We were paying a premium in money and family time for meals we had long ceased to enjoy. Ranger always looked a little lost in his play kitchen. He'd usually pop a couple things in the microwave and then carry them into the living room.

Shortly before the Raptor was born (late in '08), I became intrigued with a menu planning service featured by Cool Mom Picks. Relish! (at features a composite shopping list and meals that take around 30 minutes to prepare and cost about $95 a week (4 people, 5 meals).

We signed up for a 3 month subscription ($21). There were options that cost less than $7 a month, but they required longer subscription terms. A voice in my head (or maybe the collective voice of my unused kitchen gear) grounded my expectations: "A unused 3 month subscription ultimately costs less than an unused 12 month subscription."

When I chose our first week's menu (5 out of 15 options), Jim (buoyed by the prospect of delicious sounding dishes) offered to go to the store. Awesome! In the past I've gone to the store because I especially hate trying to make a shopping list. Then I hate being at the store because I cannot think of thing to make. I used to end up coming home with a random assortment of things that couldn't be assembled to make any actual meals. Shopping really bummed me out.

Now I just keep a post-it note of additional groceries to attach to the Relish! shopping list. Jim and Ranger go or I go when the kids are with other adults. The grocery store has lost its sting. The list itself gets plenty of attention at the grocery store. Strangers track us down to say things like "Wow, you must be organized" (which I love to hear even if it's totally inaccurate) or "Where did you get that list?"

And our fridge is no longer a place where food goes to expire... Before kids, our fridge was the condiment and take-out box museum indicative of workaholics. After Ranger, I bought food out of guilt and good intentions, but usually didn't muster the courage to assemble it while it was edible. On the rare occasions I tried to make something, we were inevitably out of an essential ingredient so some meals were abandoned midstream.

The wasted food hit an all-time high early last summer after we joined a CSA project. After a few weeks our fridge threatened to become an organic compost heap, so we started distributing all of our share among friends. Jim was driving an extra 30 minutes each week to get food that just made me feel wasteful.

Now we buy what we eat, and we eat what we buy. It's a clean feeling to throw out empty packages rather than expired food.

Our life is more ordered too. We sit down for meals together and clean up together. In the last week, we've had guests for four meals. It's easy to invite people over, even at the last minute, when you know something good is in the works.

Jim and I clean up together most nights, and it gives life a nice rhythm. Ranger seems to like sitting at the table with us and is eating at a less glacial pace. The Raptor has a bouncer in the kitchen were she keeps me company while I cook.

There are so many ways Relish! has changed our quality of life. We have more conversational time, more money, less guilt, and more happiness. And that is before we even broach the meals themselves.

Last night my mom summed it up with "You eat like kings!" We do, maybe better depending upon the kingdom and the era.

We've cooked dishes and ingredients I never would have tried, and we've had great results with everything (which is notable when you look at our storied history of cooking failures). Shiny, unused kitchen implements have become instruments of weekly, if not daily, use.

Our menu for the last week was:
  • Italian sausage heroes with apple coleslaw
  • Nutty cucumber sandwiches with homemade baked potato chips
  • Pumpkin-bean soup with cranberry & feta salad
  • Mexian scrambled eggs with pomegranate & pear salad
  • Gourmet chicken chili with jack quesadillas
The meals are so suitable for each season. The winter has been full of sumptuously warm meals that contrast the spare weather and atmosphere outdoors. After some chicken and dumplings, Jim and I marvelled over the rich flavor contributed by well cooked carrots. Carrots. The orange kind.

Relish also offers a freezer cooking menu once a month and special menus for holidays, lunches, deserts, and events like the Superbowl and themed movie nights. Around the holidays, the freezer menu included a number of make-ahead appetizers and hors d'ouevres to simplify the season.

I am proud to report that we just renewed our subscription after 3 months. This time I signed up for a full year... a delightful, delicious year.

Relish! founders Karen Hutcherson and Anne Bender have generously offered a one year subscription ($58.80 value) to one lucky Baby Toolkit reader.

To enter the contest please tell us (in a few sentences) why you think a year of Relish! would be a good fit for you and your family. We'll randomly select a winner. Email your entries to babytoolkitcontests[at] by 11:59 PM CST, February 1, 2009. We'll announce the winner on Groundhog's Day. One entry per household please.