I used to consider myself a fairly good cook back when we lived in the States. I made dinner almost every night, even if it was nothing more than putting something in the crock-pot before heading to work. Nevertheless, moving to New Zealand made me realize that, in fact, I wasn’t a good cook. I was good at following recipes, good at putting a meal together, but most of what I made relied, in some way, shape, or form, on pre-packaged, convenience foods:
Minute rice that was microwavable.
Stir-fry mixes from the freezer.
Low-fat, low-calorie microwavable lunch options.Cakes and brownies from box mixes.
Frozen bread dough.
Refrigerated crescent rolls.
And oh yes, frozen pizza.
None of these foods or ingredients are awful, but the fact was that they were such a part of my cooking and baking repertoire that I no longer saw them as convenience foods was a bit telling. I’d forgotten, or perhaps never even knew, what it was like to bake a cake from scratch. To have real whipped cream. To bake my own bread. And to figure out the best recipe for homemade pizza.
We lived in a hotel-style apartment for the first 3 weeks that we were in Auckland. It came with a small kitchen and I figured that it would be relatively easy to find economical “fast food” options that I could make in our small living space.
That first month in New Zealand saw a fourfold increase in our regular grocery budget. Forget exchange rates – that was nuts! And what had the bulk of that budget gone towards? Convenience foods: frozen meal add-ins, pre-shredded cheeses, and other quick-meal options or ingredients that were designed to save on prep time.
I thought that our budget would shrink once we moved into our apartment, but I was surprised to realize how much I’d relied on those store-bought meals and meal helpers. I had to do a major re-think of our weekly menus. Meat was more expensive than what I was used to, so I began to explore vegetarian options. I discovered lentils and realized that they’re quite versatile (and delicious). I figured out how to prepare dried beans. I made my own broths.
All of this naturally led toward some experimentation and making do with whatever was on special or in season. I got creative in the kitchen. I learned new recipes, created some of my own, and started using ingredients that had never before graced my kitchen countertop. I learned to love homemade food. Real homemade food. What’s more, I learned to truly love making it.
Entertaining was another means of improving my cooking. Moving to New Zealand opened up our social circle. The natural response to meeting people was to invite them over for meals (because everyone going out to eat on a regular basis was too expensive). Sharing food with someone is, in my experience, one of the best ways to get to know them. We’ve had carry-ins and pot lucks. We’ve hosted entire dinners on our own or brought a dish to a friend’s house. All of this has meant that I’ve spent more time cooking and at greater quantities than what I was used to. I’ve gotten (somewhat) better at time management in the kitchen and figuring out what foods go best with what wines and when to serve what. It’s been a good challenge for me, and I’ve been surprised at how much I enjoy it.
Yet another unexpected benefit of moving overseas! I now make an estimated 98% of our meals from scratch without any freezer options. There are still some canned things that I rely on: diced tomatoes, black beans, canned chickpeas, and the occasional condensed soup. I’m looking forward to a time when I have more kitchen, pantry, and garden space so that I can make these things for myself rather than buying them at the store. Nonetheless, I know that I’ll take the skills that I’ve learned in New Zealand with us when we move back to the States next year.
Jenny is an American from Indiana living abroad in Auckland, New Zealand. An ER nurse, she spends her spare time with her husband and infant son and enjoys photography, travel, and writing about her experiences as an expat. You can read more of her thoughts and opinions at www.practicallyperfectblog.com