When I started the COOK90 challenge in 2016, I did it because I believed that cooking is "economical, healthier than eating out, and even therapeutic." Five years, one book, and hundreds of thousands of COOK90 believers later, I know that all of those things are true. That's why, this year, we're doing it all again.
We're calling it COOK90 2020, not just because that's, you know, what year it is, but because it has a bit of a futuristic tone. And this year, COOK90 looks to the future in a way that it previously has not. COOK90 has historically been a very personal challenge; you do it to improve your own days in your very specific, very personal world. This year, we're adding a spin to the challenge so that we can try to use our cooking to improve the world at large.
The core of the challenge is the same as always: cook three meals a day, every day, for (almost) all of January (the full "rules," as much as they are rules, are below). The spin? This year, we pledge to cook more sustainably.
“Sustainable” means different things to different people, of course. For COOK90 2020, it means cooking with as many vegetables, grains, and legumes as possible. Our all-new COOK90 meal plan is heavy on bright green pesto pastas, thick cabbage “steaks” with crispy chickpeas, and simple bowls of golden, brothy beans. There's a little seafood in there, but no other animal protein; yogurt, cheese, and butter make appearances, but we made an effort to keep those appearances light.
Of course, one central tenet of COOK90 is that you can do it however you like. We make a meal plan for your convenience, but you can make your own meal plan, or use the meal plans in the COOK90 book, or make 90 variations of savory oatmeal. One thing you can't do is keep on ordering all that takeout. Scroll down. This starter guide explains it all.
This year's month-long cooking challenge is heavy on vegetables, big on grains, and features weekend recipes from some of the best food writers in the world.
What is COOK90?
COOK90 is a month-long cooking challenge. People who take the challenge cook everything they eat, all month long—every breakfast, every lunch, and every dinner. (Okay, not every meal—you do get three breaks, which is why the challenge is called COOK90, not COOK93.)
COOK90 started in 2016. In 2019, COOK90 became a book. In 2020, it's a sustainability challenge. In 2021 it's...on the moon!
Why should I do COOK90?
Because COOK90 makes you a healthier, smarter, and happier cook.
When you cook every day, you find the ways that cooking can (and can't) fit into your life. You get into the habit of meal planning, and you learn how to use batch cooking to your benefit. And you try recipes you've never tried before—some of which will become a permanent part of your repertoire.
All of that will make you a better cook. But there are so many other reasons somebody might take the COOK90 challenge. COOK90 can be about health (cooking is undeniably healthier than eating out). COOK90 can be about saving money (Americans spend about half of their food budget on restaurants and take-out, an obvious place to cut if you're feeling short on cash). COOK90 can be about connecting with your family, friends, and/or partner. COOK90 can simply be about practicing the immensely pleasurable but endangered art of cooking (Cooking is dying; COOK90 helps keep it alive.) Or COOK90 can be about lightening your carbon footprint, which is a core value of COOK90 2020.
Why is COOK90 2020 focused on sustainability?
In August 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report on climate change, land use, and food security. The recommendations were clear: the world has to start consuming more grains, legumes, and vegetables, and less cows, chickens, and milk.
It really would have to be a worldwide change. One analysis reported that if everybody in the United States reduced their animal intake, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions would be about 1 percent. Which is significant! But requires the entire country to take part.
So why would we as individuals try to take on a problem as huge as climate change via a month-long cooking challenge? Because while it's true that just one person eating less meat won't save the world, it's also true that just one person who continues to eat meat is contributing to the problem. Pulling back may not solve the problem (in fact, it definitely won't), but it prevents us from personally doing any more harm than we need to.
Besides, when we do COOK90, we cook more publicly than we usually do. We post photos of our food, we tag those photos (#COOK90), we ask our friends to join the challenge with us. On COOK90, our individual actions get broadcast to the larger world, inspiring the people around us to cook—sustainably!—with us. If the whole country is every going to start cooking sustainably, maybe this is the way it will happen.
How does COOK90 work?
All you have to do to take the challenge is follow the rules below. But we think it's better if you also do a few other things.
First, sign up for our COOK90 emails. We'll send you an email or two in December to help you get ready; one of those emails will have our month-long sustainable cooking plan, which you can follow if you want to. Then, in January, you'll get two or three emails a week featuring recipes, tips, and encouragement from me.
Second, grab a copy of the COOK90 book. It has over 100 COOK90-friendly recipes, four weeks of meal plans, and tons of tips for making COOK90 as fun and painless as possible.
What are the COOK90 rules?
1. Cook every meal you eat in a month-long period
If you've transformed raw ingredients with heat, you've cooked. Likewise, if you've taken two or more raw ingredients and combined them to make something greater than the sum of their parts (a salad, a sandwich, etc), you've also cooked. On the flip side, heating a frozen pizza in the oven, or warming a can of soup on the stovetop—these things are not cooking.
What month-long period should you choose? We do the challenge collectively in January, and we think that's a good, quiet month to spend in the kitchen. But you can take the challenge any time you like.
2. Never cook the same thing more than twice...
That's right, you can't make cacio e pepe night after night (though that does sound sort of nice). Forcing yourself to cook new recipes is exactly the thing that will earn you new skills, new favorites to put in your repertoire—and maybe even some new accolades from your family.
3. ...except when it comes to breakfast
Breakfast is its own beast—you can eat the same thing for breakfast for the entire month. As long as you're preparing your own breakfast and not buying it—no egg sandwiches from the corner deli, no McMuffins—you're good.
4. Rely on leftovers, but not too much
COOK90 is all about fitting home-cooked food into a hectic, busy life. Leftovers—and nextovers (more on that here)—are key to the strategy. After all, half the point of making a killer chicken parm is so you can eat it again for lunch the next day. But COOK90 is also about branching out and really flexing those cooking muscles. So eat leftovers once. Eat them twice if you need to. But after that, it's time to move on.
5. Take 3 breaks
You get three passes on COOK90—three meals that you can eat at a restaurant, order in, or just have somebody else cook for you. You don't have to use these, of course, but COOK90 will probably be easier if you do.
Share your food, sure, but what we really mean here is to share your COOK90 progress on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (use the hashtag #COOK90). There are thousands of people doing COOK90 with you, and by sharing your meals you'll be joining that community. Being public about the challenge is also a great motivator to, you know, not drop out. Because your aunt will definitely call you out on that. She notices everything.
What are COOK90 Clubs?
A COOK90 Club is simply a group of people—friends, coworkers, family—who embark on COOK90 together. They can take many forms: some COOK90 Clubs cook together, some meal plan together, some meet in their office cafeteria every day and eat lunch together. And some COOK90 Clubs are virtual—they take the form of a group text message, or a Facebook Group. The Clubs are there to motivate you, keep you accountable, and just generally make COOK90 more fun. They're not required (and in fact most people do COOK90 without a club). But they are recommended!
If you're looking for a low-commitment COOK90 club, check out our COOK90 message board, where you can ask questions, swap recipes, and post a photo of that sourdough you're super-proud of.
Anything I should have on hand to get started?
Totally. If you've signed up for the COOK90 emails, you'll get a grocery list emailed to you a few days before COOK90 begins. But before that, consider stocking your pantry with a few basics:
For instance, you'll definitely need cooking oil—a neutral oil such as vegetable oil, as well as a big bottle of olive oil. You'll also want some vinegars on hand, such as apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, and a nice balsamic. And of course you'll need salt and pepper. It sounds a little snobby, but Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt really will make you a better cook.
In your pantry, I recommend a bunch of cans: white beans, black beans, and whole tomatoes, and tins of oil-packed tuna and anchovies. (Sardines, too, if you can stomach them.) Grains like bulgur, rice, and farro will come in really handy, and so will pasta—one short (like gemelli), one long (like spaghetti).
Next, beef up your spice rack. At the very least you'll want cumin and cinnamon on hand; extra points for fennel seed, coriander, and smoked paprika. And if you think you'll be able to fit some baking in, make sure you have baking powder and baking soda. Finally, stock up on good bars of chocolate. Even if you don't bake with them, they're nice to have around when you really need them. Snapping off a piece or two doesn't really count as cooking, but on this particular point COOK90 is pretty lenient.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious